Saturday, November 21, 2009

Random Linkage 21/11/09

'Hobbits' Are a New Human Species, According to Statistical Analysis of Fossils
'Researchers from Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York have confirmed that Homo floresiensis is a genuine ancient human species and not a descendant of healthy humans dwarfed by disease. Using statistical analysis on skeletal remains of a well-preserved female specimen, researchers determined the "hobbit" to be a distinct species and not a genetically flawed version of modern humans.'

Fossil hunters unearth galloping, dinosaur-eating crocodiles in Sahara
'Fossil hunters have uncovered the remains of primitive crocodiles that "galloped" on land and patrolled the broad rivers that coursed through north Africa one hundred million years ago.'

Nanotechnology Team Discover How to Capture Tumor Cells in Bloodstream
'A team led by University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) researchers on the cutting edge of nanotechnology has found a way to capture tumor cells in the bloodstream that could dramatically improve earlier cancer diagnosis and prevent deadly metastasis.'

'Vampire Star': Ticking Stellar Time Bomb Identified

'Using ESO's Very Large Telescope and its ability to obtain images as sharp as if taken from space, astronomers have made the first time-lapse movie of a rather unusual shell ejected by a "vampire star," which in November 2000 underwent an outburst after gulping down part of its companion's matter. This enabled astronomers to determine the distance and intrinsic brightness of the outbursting object.'

'Frankenstein' fix lets asteroid mission cheat death

'The beleaguered Hayabusa asteroid probe is back on track to return to Earth after a clever workaround coaxed one of its ion engines back to life.
'The recovery is yet another reversal of fortune for the Japanese spacecraft, which has been plagued with problems since its visit to asteroid Itokawa in 2005.'

Second Extrication Drive Yields Slight Progress
'Spirit successfully completed the first step of its planned two-step motion on Sol 2090 (Nov.19).
'After spinning the wheels for the equivalent of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in the forward direction, the center of the rover moved approximately 12 millimeters (0.5 inch) forward, 7 millimeters (0.3 inch) to the left and about 4 millimeters (0.2 inch) down. The rover tilt changed by about 0.1 degree. Small forward motion was observed with the non-operable right front wheel, and the left front wheel showed indications of climbing, despite the center of the rover moving downward. These motions are too small to establish any trends at this time.'

Give Me More: Augmented Reality from EPFL+ECAL Lab
'Artistic animations float across the pages of a timeless book about the Swiss countryside. Banknotes prove strangely seductive. Your head is suddenly engulfed in clouds and your clothes ooze bubbles. This is the world of Give Me More, an Augmented Reality (AR) exhibit by Switzerland’s EPFL+ECAL Lab, premiering in the U.S. at swissnex San Francisco.'

The Illustrated Man: How LED Tattoos Could Make Your Skin a Screen
'The title character of Ray Bradbury’s book The Illustrated Man is covered with moving, shifting tattoos. If you look at them, they will tell you a story.
'New LED tattoos from the University of Pennsylvania could make the Illustrated Man real (minus the creepy stories, of course). Researchers there are developing silicon-and-silk implantable devices which sit under the skin like a tattoo. Already implanted into mice, these tattoos could carry LEDs, turning your skin into a screen.'

Friday, November 20, 2009

What If Earth Had Rings Like Saturn?

2001: A Who Odyssey

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Secret Histories

A few years ago, Jonathan Lethem published an essay in The Village Voice, ‘Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction’, in which he decried the close-mindedness of the genre and sketched an alternate history in which Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow won the Nebula instead of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama in 1973, leading to a reconciliation between sf and the rest of literature and the mutual enrichment of both. Editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel have an argument with that idea in their anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction, selecting stories by authors on both sides of the divide to illustrate their thesis that the so-called boundary between sf and ‘mainstream’ literature has long been blurred and hard to define: sf authors can turn in well-honed stories that match the best in ‘mainstream’ literature (hate that term, but it’s convenient and everyone knows what it means), while mainstream authors can be as adept at using the tropes of sf and fantasy as genre writers. In short, Lethem’s alternate history is a true history, albeit unrecognised.

All of which is true, and has certainly been true for all kinds of crossover and slipstream works since 1973, if not much earlier. But you can find a different kind of secret history of sf in another book, Sin-a-rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties, which collects together all kinds of lurid covers and essays by publishers and authors, including one by Robert Silverberg in which he describes how he wrote 150 softcore sleaze novels in five years for fun and profit. Harlan Ellison and Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote sleaze novels, too; so did mystery writer Donald Westlake, and a number of other well-known authors. At the time, Silverberg explains, ‘A dozen or so magazines for which I had been writing regularly ceased publication overnight; and as for the tiny market for s-f novels . . . it suddenly became so tight that unless you were one of the first-magnitude stars like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov you were out of luck.’ Silverberg turned to the sleaze trade as a way of earning a living, and discovered that it was also a valuable apprenticeship: ‘It isn’t just that I earned enough by writing them to pay for that big house and my trips to Europe. I developed and honed important professional skills, too, while I was pounding out all those books.’

Sf publishing has always been a chancy, hand-to-mouth affair for most. It imploded again in the early 1980s, and there are signs that it’s about to implode again. And because they can’t hope for sinecure positions in creative writing in universities (although that’s changing, now), sf writers have always been ready to turn their hands and minds to the kind of writing that can be churned out quickly and profitably. In the golden age of the pulps, the 1940s and 1950s, sf authors like James Blish or Frederik Pohl were capable of banging out one story for Amazing in the morning and another for Stirring Sports Stories in the afternoon (and barely made a living at it - see for instance Pohl’s fine memoir The Way the Future Was, or the roman-a-clef opening of Blish’s Jack of Eagles, in which the penniless hero pours tea on his cornflakes because he can’t afford milk). While Silverberg et al were working in the titillation trade in the US, over here in the UK Michael Moorcock was editing New Worlds with one hand and writing Sexton Blake adventures with the other, while many of his contemporaries were writing westerns, biker novels and, yes, sexploitation novels. A little later, Kim Newman and Neil Gaiman worked for the British soft porn magazine Knave. And sf writers today are also working in comics and graphic novels, novels based on role-playing games (Kim Newman and a slew of authors associated with Interzone in the 1990s wrote innovative and highly successful short stories novels for Games Workshop), film tie-ins . . .

These days, of course, there are plenty of sf writers who didn’t come up through pulps, or via sf fandom. But it was in the febrile arena of pulp sf that many tropes and imagery in common sf toolkit was generated and shared and elaborated upon (apart from all those ideas invented by HG Wells and Jules Verne). And while sf can sometimes aspire to the condition of literature, just as literature can sometimes aspire to the condition of sf, and while there are plenty of so-called literary qualities which all writers should aspire to master, and every kind of bad writing in whatever field should be rightly despised, there are values outside of the literary canon that have their own intrinsic worth.

The themes and tropes of sf have become part of pop culture and the happening world. Most of the writers in the sf genre use them as if they were real, most writers outside it use them metaphorically or allegorically. Both can produce works of lasting value, but one is looking forward, and the other is looking back. Think of these two secret histories as poles of a magnet, with sf inhabiting the field lines stretched between them: a continuum in which the only borderlines are those writers choose to draw around themselves.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Road

There's a lot to admire in director John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalypse novel The Road. Two unnamed and unashamedly emblematic figures, father and son, trudge southwards through ruined cities and ashy landscapes where after some undefined but global catastrophe every last thing is dead save for a few human survivors. Hillcoat, production designer Chris Kennedy and Director of Photography Javier Aguirresarobe have conjured a convincingly bleak and monochromatic mis-en-scene that favours the use of real locations ravaged by natural and manmade traumas rather than CGI. Vigo Mortensen is suitably grim and determined as a father oscillating between extremes of love and harrowing dread, widowed by a wife who committed suicide because she believed living was worse than death, and pledged to protecting his young son even if it means killing him. Kodi Smit-McPhee projects a frail and innocent goodness, touchingly trusting and generous, all but overwhelmed by a terrifying world racked by earthquakes and fire storms, and haunted by desperate thieves and gangs of cannibals. Flashbacks to scenes with the man's wife (Charlize Theron) underscore the desperation and near hopelessness of his plight.

Yet the film doesn't quite gel. McCarthy's novel braids the man's Robinson Crusoe-like ingenuity with the bond between father and son whose survival is the survival of hope in a world otherwise bereft. The novel's spare, precise prose is predicated on an intimate knowledge of the workings of the world that informs every page; its deceptively simple story of survival is a grim game of consequences. Early on, the man and boy are almost caught by a gang of roving cannibals and must flee, losing almost all they possess. They forge on, starving and desperate, until the man takes a near fatal risk by breaking into a house which turns out to be the lair of another cannibal gang that keeps a larder of living victims in a cellar. And so on, and so on. But the film, although a reverent interpretation, is more like a series of formal tableaux than a coherent narrative -- stark and beautifully rendered tableaux to be sure, but lacking continuity. The unending search for food and shelter that forms one of the novel's central threads is all but lost - Hillcote relies instead on an intermittent voiceover and a plangent but irritatingly overplayed score to underscore their predicament - and there's little tension or genuine sense of peril in the action scenes. Instead, the focus is kept on the relationship between father and son, which while beautifully and often tenderly depicted, is touched a little too often by naked sentiment. It's by no means a bad film, and there's considerable power in its devastating and unflinchingly bleak portrayal of a world utterly plundered and ruined - a world our own world may contain in embryo - and in the hopefully simplicity of its last image. But it's slighter and less involving than it wants to be, perhaps because - as too often with films like this - it pays so much respectful attention to its prize-winning, critically-acclaimed source that it fails to deliver the kind of vigour and originality that infused another parable of harsh Old Testament morality: Hillcoat's previous film, The Proposition.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (5)

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