Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

The Fenris wolf fights The Incredible Hulk!!! In my opinion that alone was worth the price of admission. The new movie Thor: Ragnarok from Marvel Studios is a nice mixture of ancient and modern mythologies.

Back when I was in grade school I much preferred the Marvel Comics to DC, Superman was especially lame and Batman was a joke. Then in high school I got interested in Norse mythology so I guess I was predisposed to like the new Thor movie. The image below is a poster for the movie Thor: Ragnarok.

Poster for Thor: Ragnarok (Credit: Marvel, Disney)

For those who aren’t familiar with the ‘Fate of the Gods’ or ‘Twilight of the Gods’, we’re not quite sure which Ragnarok means, let me give you a little background. In Norse mythology Ragnarok is the final battle between the forces of good and evil. Most mythologies predict some such conflict in the future but unlike the Christian myth of Armageddon where the good guys just win and Satan in cast into the bottomless pit the battle of Ragnarok is a lot bloodier for both sides.

Three winters without a summer herald the attack on Asgard, the home of the Gods by the Giants (Jötnar) of Jötunheimr. The giants are led by Surtr the fire Giant. The Fenris wolf breaks free of his bonds and devours the Sun while Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent rises from the depths of the ocean causing violent storms. Even Loki breaks free of his chains to join the war on the Gods.

The Aesir assemble for battle led by one-eyed Odin (Germanic Woden which is where we get Wednesday), his sons Ty’r (Tuesday) and Thor (Thursday) along with a fertility God named Freye (Friday) and the ever faithful guardian of the bifrost bridge Heimdallr. Below is a woodcut by the artist Otto Spamer of Odin in his full splendor.

Odin by Otto Spamer

In the battle the wolf swallows Odin alive but is killed by Ty’r, Freye and Surtr kill each other. Thor slays Jörmungandr but takes only nine steps before dropping dead from the monster’s poison. In the final act only Heimdallr and Loki remain to face each other, faithful against faithless and die by each others sword. A later Christian addition has a new world being reborn out of the ashes as Odin’s dead son Baldr the beautiful rises from the realm of the Goddess of the Dead Hel (Who gives us the word Hell) and rules a world without evil.

So much for the ancient myths, Marvel studios has now given us a new take on the myth in their current movie Thor: Ragnarok. Unlike the original myth Thor: Ragnarok is a part of the ‘Marvel Universe’ so the good guys have to win without too many losses. Obviously they aren’t going to let Thor die because he has to appear in the next Avengers movie. Nevertheless there is plenty of mayhem on both sides.

Most of the original cast is here. Hel, now called Hela and played by Cate Blanchett, is the chief evildoer but she’s joined by Fenris and Surtr. The images below show Hela the Goddess of Death and the Fenris wolf.

Hel (Cate Blanchett) (Credit: Marvel, Disney)
The Fenris Wolf (Credit: Marvel, Disney)

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is joined by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Heimdallr (Idris Elba). In the movie Loki has his mischievous moments but in the end becomes a good guy probably because Tom Hiddleston has done such a splendid job with the character that Marvel doesn’t want to lose him, or make him into a real bad guy. (Hint to Marvel studios: What about a Loki movie. Of course he’d have to be an anti-hero but how about a Marvel remake of something like a fistful of dollars?)

An addition to the story from elsewhere in the Marvel Universe is The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who gets to fight the Fenris wolf as I mentioned earlier. A five minute long cameo is also provided by Doctor Strange played by Benedict Cumberbatch that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the movie but which introduces Thor to Doctor Strange.

Now I’m not going to give away any of the major plot points, O’k I did mention that the Hulk fights the Fenris wolf, but I will make a few criticisms. I do think that Hela (Hel) could have been more effective if she’d actually had fewer lines. As death personified she should have been something more like a walking plague, killing by simply a thought or glance. Also the section on Jeff Goldbloom’s landfill planet either needed to be explained better, or reduced, and less Jeff Goldbloom is always a good thing to me.

Another thing before I forget, Hela uses Odin’s eternal flame to animate a lot of dead warriors to be her Zombie army but then Thor and the Hulk just knock’em all over like bowling pins. I’ve seen this before, the good guys have to fight their way through a big mass of nobodies before they face the real bad guys. It’s really just padding the film and it’s boring. Try using a little more imagination.

Nevertheless I certainly enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok although you may have noticed that the serpent Jörmungandr didn’t appear. Since he the one who kills Thor in the ancient myth I guess Marvel is saving him until Chris Hemsworth is tired of the role and they start planning on a reboot. Below are a few images of artwork that have been inspired by the myth of Ragnarok.

Thor and the Midgard Serpent by Emil Doepler
Ragnarok by Otto Spamer

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049, the Original was more Original.

Based upon the Philip K. Dick science fiction novel ‘Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?’ the first ‘Blade Runner’ movie was one of those films that under performed at the box office back in 1982. Even at the time however the film had a large number of genuine admirers both for the originality of the novel’s plot and director Ridley Scott’s gritty vision in filming it. Today Blade Runner has achieved much better reviews and a growing number of fans.

Original Blade Runner Poster (Credit: Warner Brothers)

For those who don’t know or remember the original movie, in the post-apocalyptic year 2019 humans are busy developing “the outer worlds” and are using ‘replicants’, human appearing androids as a slave labour force. Some of these replicants have escaped and come to Earth where they are hunted down and eliminated by ‘Blade Runners’ like Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford in both the original and the sequel. The original film ends with Deckard and a replicant named Rachel leaving together as lovers. The entire film, and the novel before it were a comment on what it really means to be human. Blade Runner was just one of those movies some people loved because it was so different, while others just didn’t understand it for the exact same reason.

So it was inevitable that sooner or later someone would get around to making a sequel and we now have Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve with executive producer Ridley Scott. The fact that Ridley Scott had a major role in the sequel ensured that ‘Blade Runner 2049’ has much the same gritty feel as the original.

Blade Runner 2049 Poster (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Without giving too much away the sequel’s plot concerns the hunt for a child that the human Deckard and the replicant Rachel had after the end of the original. It’s the job of the new Blade Runner ‘K’ played by Ryan Gosling, to hunt down this impossible child. By the way ‘K’ is himself a replicant!

That’s one problem I had with “Blade Runner 2049′. In the original film replicants were eliminated just for being on Earth but now there are replicants everywhere, replicants are even hunting other replicants. As an explanation we’re informed that most replicants are a newer, obedient model. I might have accepted that explanation if at the end of the movie we weren’t introduced to a waiting rebel army of ‘obedient’ replicants. In other words the movie changed its own rules in the middle of the story and that’s never a good thing in science fiction.

The bigger problem however is simply a lack of anything really new. If the original Blade Runner was so original that many people couldn’t accept it, the new Blade Runner 2049 certainly doesn’t have that problem. In fact Blade Runner 2049 just a rather obvious take off on the first film.

So much for the bad parts, this film does have a few good things in it as well. As I already mentioned the new Blade Runner maintains much of the same feeling, the same atmosphere as the original but with improved special effects. The effects themselves are very good being a nice mixture of real sets and CGI images. (I think some films just use too much CGI and end up looking like a cartoon.) The two images below allow a comparison of the design of the two films.

Los Angeles in the Original Blade Runner (Credit: Warner Brothers)
Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049 (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

My favourite part of the film however was that of K’s computer generated girlfriend Joi, and not just because the actress playing the role, Ana deArmas was quite pretty. To me the technology of Joi, both hardware and software were the most original part of the film. When we first meet Joi her image is being generated by a projector in K’s apartment. The projector runs along a railing mounted on the ceiling allowing Joi to move around but only inside the apartment.

K brings Joi a present, a handheld projector that enables her to go outside, even with him on his missions. In terms of hardware that made me wonder how a handheld projector could generate a stable image, especially when K kept putting it in his pocket. More interesting however was the idea of a computer program, however sophisticated, developing a truly individual personality, and Joi had as much personality as any character in the film.

What I would have liked to have seen would have been a couple more computer generated people like Joi. Since these image people would all be developed from the same program could they really be individuals, really be different from one another? Exploring that idea could have been original!

On the whole Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t a bad movie, but with all the money and effort that went into it, it could have been better.

 

Book Review “Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH” by Nick Braker and Paul E Hicks

This post is going to be a little bit different from my usual literary critiques because the novel “Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH” (which I will refer to as GSC1E from now on) is a self published work that as far as I know is only available at Amazon or from the authors themselves. As it happens I met Nick Braker in Sweetwater Tennessee when I was there for the eclipse back in August (see post of 24Aug17), bought the novel and finally got around to reading it. The novel’s cover is shown below.

Cover, Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH (Credit: Nick Braker, Paul E Hicks)

Let me start by saying that GSC1E is pretty much written to appeal to the fans of “The X Files” or UFO conspiracies in general. There are three distinct alien species, one good and two bad, men in black along with secret sites around the world where alien technology is being studied. All three alien species abduct humans, the good aliens do so to ‘augment’ four woman and four men, the bad aliens either swap minds with humans in a plot to destroy mankind while the other bad aliens are harvesting our organs!

The heroes of GSC1E are the eight augmented men and women and one man in particular, Asher. Together the eight have to learn to use their enhanced powers to stop bad aliens number one before they can kill us all. We’re not talking about thought provoking Science Fiction here; the plot of GSC1E is actually more like a Wild West shoot’em up. There are in fact plenty of flight scenes, with both fists and guns, along with almost as many chases.

The problem is GSC1E isn’t really very well written. In many places the plot and descriptions border on the juvenal. For example all the women in the novel are absolutely ravishing, every single one of them. Even the head of the World Security Organization the WSO is breathtakingly beautiful. The WSO is the official name of the men in black by the way. On the other hand the men are all filled to the brim with testosterone, so much so that after a while I wanted to yell at them to grow up. Really, people insulting and threatening each other all the time is not a sign of affection, it’s just bad dialog.

At the start of the story bad aliens number one have murdered Asher’s fiancée Beth and he swears revenge. For the rest of the novel we’re reminded every four or five pages of how much Beth meant to him, how no other women will ever take her place and how he will avenge her. Despite these reminders Asher still manages to hit on every, and I do mean every women in the book. It just doesn’t work, not very well anyway.

Then there was one episode, about three quarters of the way through the book where they just lost me completely. The four augmented men are now full fledged members of the WSO and they’re on a mission to France to investigate a series of murders by aliens in that country. A computer analysis of the murders points to a suburb of Paris and so they decide to drive around until they find someone who’s been abducted by aliens. Seriously, they decide to drive around in order to find an alien abductee, and the worst part is two paragraphs later they just find one! Now I know every novel has it’s ‘Oh, Come On’ moments. The moments when something happens that’s a little hard to believe and you say to yourself ‘Oh, Come On’ but for me that moment was just too much to take.

I tried to be generous, after all not everybody has my taste and if I think anyone might like a book I’ll try to point out it’s good parts for them. However ‘Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH’ had a high school plot along with writing that could really have used some serious editing, maybe that’s the penalty for self-publishing. Still, if you think you might be interested in reading ‘Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH’ click on the link below to be taken to the author’s webpage.

https://www.nickbraker.net/

Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu is the most popular science fiction author in China today and his books are finally becoming available in English translations and having just finished ‘The Three Body Problem’ I think that’s a good thing! ‘The Three Body Problem’ was the most intriguing novel I’ve read in quite a while and I’m looking forward to reading more of Mister Cixin’s work. The first installment in a three part series ‘The Three Body Problem’ is being published by Tor books here in the United States along with ‘The Dark Forest’ and ‘Death’s End’. The pictures below show the novel’s front cover for the original Chinese edition by Chongqing Press along with the edition by Tor Books.

Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Chongqing Press)
Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Tor Books)

The novel begins during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, the violent suppression of all opposition that Mao Zedong used to reassert his absolute rule in China. The main character of the novel, Ye Zhetai is an astrophysicist and the daughter of China’s most famous physicist. When her father is beaten to death during one of the ‘struggle sessions’ Madam Ye is sent to a labour camp only to be denounced herself and left to die in a prison cell. She is rescued when her special knowledge is needed for a top secret military program, the ‘Red Coast Project’.

The novel bounces back and forth between China in the 60’s and 70’s and modern times but the changes are handled smoothly. This way we learn some of the consequences of Madam Ye’s before we discover just what exactly it is that she has done.

Now the Three Body Problem of the title is the famous gravitational problem still unsolved from Newton’s time. Using the calculus he developed Sir Isaac was able to find an exact, closed, analytic solution for the motion of two bodies under their mutual gravitational attraction. However, as soon as a third body is added to the problem there is in general no exact solution, only approximate, numerical solutions that require a great deal of arithmetic to solve. (It should be acknowledged however that with modern computers those numerical solutions can yield fantastically accurate results as demonstrated by the recent eclipse across the USA.)

Now the three bodies that make up the problem in the novel are three suns around which an alien planet orbits. The civilization on this planet has progressed through periods of stable orbits, and suffered through periods of chaotic orbits when their planet is either baked or frozen by being pulled too near or too far from one of its suns. Because of the harsh conditions these creatures have endured for millions of years the only creed by which they live is survival, the only goal they possess is to find a new world to inhabit.

I suppose you can guess that the plot of ‘The Three Body Problem’ is the trite old story of aliens from a dying world coming to conquer Earth but Cixin Liu really manages to inject a lot of fresh ideas into his version. One of the most interesting ideas is a virtual reality game developed here on Earth that simulates human cultures trying to survive on the alien’s world.

Now ‘The Three Body Problem’ is only the first part of the trilogy, I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the story. Before I leave however I think I’m going to go out on a limb a little bit. At the front of the book there’s a list of characters; one of whom is Yang Dong, the daughter of Ye Zhetai and a string theorist! The problem is that Yang Dong has committed suicide before the modern day part of the story begins and although she is mentioned several times, and appears as a baby in the past sections, she never says a word! What is it that makes me think she’s not quite dead yet!

I’ll let you know if I’m right after I read ‘The Dark Forest’.

 

 

 

Book Review: Death Wave by Ben Bova

Anyone familiar with Science Fiction knows that Ben Bova is SF royalty. Author of over hundred fiction and non-fiction books Ben Bova has received six Hugo awards, been the editor of both Analog and Omni science fiction magazines as well as a being a former President of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I need to take a breath after all that.

Death Wave is Bova’s latest title; actually he’s so prolific I may already be wrong about that. Death wave is a sequel to his earlier novel New Earth so I’ll have to catch you up on what happened in that story.

Death Wave by Ben Bova (Credit Tor Books)

Jorden Kell is the leader of humanity’s first expedition into interstellar space. The expedition finds the dead remains of alien civilizations, their planets sterilized by a wave of gamma radiation that has erupted out of the black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

Only a race of machine intelligences has managed to survive and they warn Jorden Kell and his crew that the Death Wave will reach Earth in 2000 years. The machine intelligences also give Kell the necessary knowledge to produce a force field type technology that can protect us from the Death Wave. In exchange for this assistance humanity is to send space missions to six nearby intelligent but pre-industrial alien species in order to protect them.

All that is back story to “Death Wave” which begins when Jorden Kell and several other members of his expedition have returned to Earth and try to convince the governments of the World of the danger to Earth and the nearby civilizations. But 200 years have passed since the astronauts departed on their mission and the World is not the one they left.

In particular Anita Halleck, the Chairwoman of the World Council is too busy trying to bring all of the Solar System’s bureaucracies under her control to concern herself with a threat to humanity 2000 years in the future, or any threat to alien civilizations at all. What does concern Halleck is her suspicions that Jorden Kell is trying to use his notoriety to supplant her, something she will prevent at any cost.

Add in terrorists who believe Jorden Kell is actually paving the way for an alien invasion, security personnel who do the Chairwoman’s very dirty work and a trip to an orbiting habitat for 200,000 humans and you get a pretty wild escape story. The problem is that most of the science fiction is actually left over from the first novel leaving “Death Wave” with little more than political machinations and a good chase sequence.

I don’t want to give away too much but I think that even Ben Bova felt that way because the ending comes as a bit of a letdown. The bad guys get the drop on the good guys then good guys turn the tables and it’s over!

I’m not saying “Death Wave” wasn’t good. In fact it was quite exciting. It just wasn’t as interesting as “New Earth”. There is a third novel coming in the series, “Apes and Angels” which may already be available. This third novel is going to follow one of the expeditions to rescue the alien civilizations and I think there will be more SF in it. I’ll be certain to let you know after I read it!

 

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2

I know, I know, Guardians of the Galaxy is really more of a roller coaster ride than a science fiction movie but it does have spaceships and aliens and while it may just be a distraction from the real world it is a well made distraction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 (Credit Marvel Studios)

Guardians of the Galaxy is a part of the “Marvel Universe” produced by Disney and which includes Iron Man, Captain America and etc. and which may very well become the most successful movie franchise in history. Disney / Marvel is building this universe by combining individual superhero movies like “Doctor Strange” with ensemble movies like “The Avengers” and now “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

In vol.1 of Guardians we were introduced to our group of heroes as they were introduced to each other. Peter Quill is a Earthling who was kidnapped by alien “ravagers” as a child, the ravagers are a collection of outlaws / pirates. Quill is joined by Gamora, an alien woman who was raised to be an assassin but to wants to escape that life along with Rocket, a genetically engineered intelligent raccoon and his friend Groot, a semi-intelligent tree-man. Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters. The final member of the Guardians is Drax, a powerful fighter.

For a moment can I just stop to ask why our culture at present seems to connect to the idea of pirates and assassins and bounty hunters as being saviors of galaxies??? Seventy to eighty years ago the heroes were like Superman or the Lone Ranger, so perfectly upstanding and morally virtuous that they were boring!

Then, when I was a kid there were superheroes like Spiderman, a typical teenager who didn’t really want to be a hero. Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four also did not want his superpowers. Nowadays it seems like you had to have been a bad guy before you can become a good guy. This may make for more interesting characters but to my mind it doesn’t make them any more realistic. I’ll stick with the Spiderman type, just a normal person who is a reluctant hero.

Anyway, back to the Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2. In this story Peter Quill meets his mysterious and very powerful father EGO. I don’t want to give away any of the plot but let’s just say that EGO’s desires for his son’s future are not quite paternal.

That’s just the main plot, there are complications aplenty. With a race called the Sovereigns pursuing the Guardians because Rocket stole some of their batteries while Gemora’s sister Nebula is trying to kill her, to say nothing about the mutiny of Yondu the Ravager’s crew there are fights galore. There are several times during the movie when it’s hard to keep track of who’s on who’s side or not but you know that in the end Quill, Gamora, Rocket Groot and Drax will all stick together.

During the fights there are more than a few “Come ‘on” moments, like when Gamora picks up a cannon from a broken spaceship and starts firing it at her sister or when Drax ties a rope around himself and jumps out of the Guardian’s ship to shoot at an enemy.

Despite it’s drawbacks the movie is well made with easy to like characters. Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 isn’t thought provoking science fiction, it’s a roller coaster, but it is a good one.

Book Review” Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

‘Saturn Run’, the novel by the writer John Sandford and photographer Ctein is a well knit combination of Science Fiction and Espionage Thriller all in one. The Science Fiction consists of the voyage of a Earth spaceship traveling to Saturn after an alien spaceship is discovered entering our Solar system and going to the ringed planet. The story therefore fits into two of my six ‘Great Themes of Science Fiction’. Number 3, Alien encounter along with number 1, the Exploration of Space.

Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

The Espionage Thriller part comes from the fact that there are two Earth ships, one American and one Chinese and each side is out to grab some alien technology all for itself. The story takes place in the year 2066 so the science and politics haven’t changed all that much from today.

As far as the Science Fiction is concerned ‘Saturn Run’ tries very hard to be as accurate and up to date as is possible. Everything in the two Earth Ships is based on extrapolations from current technologies and the technical descriptions while brief, this is a novel after all, are still clear enough to give a good idea of what is going on.

The story is certainly exciting and well written with an ensemble cast of well developed characters. The action is also fast paced, it certainly kept my attention.

I do have a criticism however. (Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know too much skip this paragraph and the next) The alien encounter is probably the least interesting part of the story. We never meet any actual aliens, the alien station out in Saturn’s rings is kind of an automated supply depot and it’s computer is programmed not to give out any information about the aliens.

It does give out technology however, everything anybody would want to know about making and using anti-matter. In fact the aliens in ‘Saturn Run’ are pretty much just a plot device. Supplying something valuable that the Americans and Chinese can then fight over.

To me, the idea that the first encounter with another intelligent species would give us more cause to fight amongst ourselves is pretty depressing. Unfortunately, knowing human beings it could very well turn out to be that way.

With that in mind I do recommend ‘Saturn Run’. It’s a fun read and the technology keeps your attention. If you liked ‘The Martian’, and who didn’t, you’ll enjoy it.

 

What is Science Fiction: Part 4, Science Fiction and Fantasy

In my previous installment of ‘What is Science Fiction’ I completed our survey of what I like to call the six ‘Great Themes of Science Fiction’. Now what I’d like to do in this last post is to carry out an examination of the differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Most of the time it’s rather easy to tell one from the other. We know that Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ is Science Fiction because it deals realistically with the conditions both on Mars, the rarefied air and extreme cold, and in outer space, zero gravity. Also, the technology in ‘The Martian’, whether it be the spaceship’s ion engines or the living habitats on Mars are solidly based on the technology we presently have.

Realistic Science Fiction: The Martian

On the other hand, in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J. R. R. Tolkein the way a ring of invisibility or a sword that glows when bad guys are near work is never explained or even discussed, they’re just magic.

Magic just works because it’s magic

To me that’s the cardinal difference: In Science Fiction the assumption is that we, and by we I mean both the reader and the characters in the story, are intelligent enough that with time and effort we can understand whatever mysteries or powerful objects there are in the story. Sometimes this assumption is even emphasized by relating the main character’s education. Remember in the original ‘Star Trek’ series how Kirk went to Star Fleet Academy while Spock went to the Vulcan Science Academy, that’s where they learned how to control their advanced technology. (And remember how Victor Frankenstein learned science at Ingolstadt University)

In Science Fiction characters acquire their powers through education

This expectation of understandability limits the kind of plot twists and deus ex machina that the author can get away with in Science Fiction because everything has to feel natural, understandable.

In Fantasy however, the assumption is on the supernatural element, Gandalf and Sauron have magical powers because they are themselves magical. We never learn where Gandalf learned his magic, he just is magic.

Frodo can never understand how the one ring works simply because he is natural and it is supernatural. This means that in Fantasy the author has fewer restrictions on how to get his characters into and out of danger. Just have a Balrog appear and only later reveal that Gandalf was of course stronger than the Balrog was anyway, it’s all magic after all.

Gandalf and the Balrog

But now let’s a moment and consider ‘Star Wars’ for example. Certainly it has elements that are straight out of Science Fiction, spaceships, robots (O’k they’re called droits, so what?) and laser weapons. However it also has an all pervasive ‘Force’ that gives certain characters power that the others don’t have for no obvious reason and at the same time it seems like every planet has a breathable atmosphere and normal, that is Earth gravity.

Stars Wars. Science Fiction or Fantasy, or both?

This is intentional, when George Lukas first conceived of his epic he wanted a smooth blend of realism and mythology and that has certainly been one of the prime reasons for the saga’s enduring popularity.

It seems obvious therefore that any attempt to draw a hard line between Science Fiction and Fantasy would just be a waste of time. Instead let’s just take pleasure in both genres while promoting the best Science Fiction.

This brings to an end my little seminar on Science Fiction; I hope you all enjoyed it. Let me know what you thought and I look forward to reading your comments.

What is Science Fiction: Part 3, The Great Themes of Science Fiction (Cont.)

This time I intend to complete our discussion of the ‘Great Themes’ of Science Fiction as well as discuss Science Fiction stories that try to avoid using any of the themes, it’s not as easy as you might think.

As a reminder last time I proposed six themes that were central to the genre of Science Fiction:

  1. The exploration of space and/or time
  2. The effects of new technology, invention on human society
  3. Contact with alien life, alien intelligence
  4. The creation of artificial life, artificial intelligence
  5. The long term future, purpose (if there is one) of humanity
  6. The nature and purpose (if there is one) of the Universe itself

In my previous post we talked a bit about the first three themes so with out further ado here’s number four.

The Creation of Artificial Life, Artificial Intelligence and the novel I’ll use as an example will be ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelly which was first published in 1818. Of all the novels I’ve mentioned so far I think undoubtedly ‘Frankenstein’ is the most famous but just in case there’s someone who’s never heard of it here’s the story.

Frankenstein, First Edition Cover

The story concerns a scientist named Victor Frankenstein who as a child read about the old alchemists and their search for the philosopher’s stone and the secret of immortality. As a student at the University of Ingolstadt he gains the knowledge of the then brand new sciences of chemistry and electricity. Using this knowledge he manufactures and brings life to an artificial man constructed from materials he obtained in “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house”.

The very instant the creature is brought to life Frankenstein is horrified by what he has accomplished and flees not only from his creation but from his responsibility to it. This is certainly the first moral of the novel, that scientists must be willing to take responsibility for their discoveries, a moral that rings even stronger today in our world of nuclear weapons, electronic surveillance, gene modification and you know I could go on and on.

The rest of the story continues the morality play with the creature, who is both intelligent and humane, being tormented for it’s ugliness and finally taking a brutal revenge on it’s maker for having abandoned it.

The plot of a scientist creating an intelligent being and then being destroyed by their creation has now become the most overdone cliché in all of Science Fiction. Whether the creature is portrayed as a robot or a trained ape (‘The Planet of the Apes’ has a strong trace of Frankenstein in it) doesn’t matter, Frankenstein’s monster is as alive today as it ever was.

 

Moving on to our next Great Theme ‘The Future and Purpose (if there is one) of Humanity. Finding a novel that only displayed this theme turned out to be quite difficult so in the end I decided to cheat and go with H. G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ published in 1895. Now obviously The Time Machine also includes our first theme of Exploration of Space / Time but because it also demonstrates our present theme so clearly I hope you’ll forgive me.

The Time Machine, first edition cover

In The Time Machine a scientist invents a means of traveling back and forth through time and uses his device to travel forward to the year 802,701 A.D. Arriving in the far future the Time Traveler, his name is never given in the story, finds that the human race has continued to evolve, indeed it had split into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Time Traveler conjectures that the split into two species happened when the rich aristocrats of his own time had forced the labouring poor to live underground (H. G. Wells was a socialist who got the idea from the building of the first London underground subway).

Without any need to struggle the Eloi have become both beautiful and graceful but at the same time they are small, weak and ineffectual. On the other hand the Morlocks are brutish troglodytes, unable to stand the bright light of the daytime. Also, because there are no large animals remaining on Earth (Because of mankind’s destruction of the environment?) the Eloi have become vegetarians while the Morlocks have turned the tables on their former masters and now eat the Eloi!

Not a pretty picture of our future perhaps but certainly one that illustrates our theme of ‘The Future and Purpose of Mankind’. Science Fiction stories that make use of the future of mankind theme do have a tendency to be either bleak or preachy, or both. Sometimes the author’s vision of the way ‘things ought to be’ can get in the way of telling the story but in my mind at least ‘The Time Machine’ avoids this problem.

We now come to our last theme ‘The Nature and Purpose (if there is one) of the Universe Itself’. If you think about it this theme really borders on religion, another way of stating it could be ‘Why did God create the Universe’ or even “Was there a recognizable “GOD” who created the Universe’. In keeping with the otherworldly aspects of this theme the novel I shall use as an example is H. G. Wells’ “Men Like Gods” first published in 1923.

Men Like Gods, first edition cover

Another thing to keep in mind is that in this theme, even more than our previous one, the author can easily find himself telling his readers how he things things ought to be instead of allowing them to imagine how things could be. In ‘Men like Gods’ Wells falls into this trap, making the story more sermon than Science Fiction.

In ‘Men like Gods’ the main character, a Mr. Barnstaple, is involved in a traffic accident that inexplicably transports him to a parallel world called Utopia. The fact that Wells has now resorted to magic when in his earlier stories he would have extrapolated from science is a symptom of how he’s become more interested in describing how the people living in a utopia would behave than in providing a realistic basis for that world.

And Wells’ utopia is based upon ideas originated by the French philosopher Henri Bergson and promoted by Wells’ fellow socialist G. Bernard Shaw. The basic idea of Bergson and Shaw is that the entire Universe is permeated by a ‘Force of Life’. (And if that reminds you of ‘The Force’ in Star Wars, yes that is a variation of the idea). This Life Force is what causes evolution as it experiments with living creatures with the goal of creating more complex, more intelligent life.

The Utopia in ‘Men like Gods’ is simply a world that is further along in this process, about 3000 years in the story and as Mr. Barnstaple returns to our Earth with all its troubles he resolves to dedicate the rest of his life to bringing utopia to our world.

 

Before I finish for today I’d like to take just a brief moment to discuss those Science Fiction stories that don’t actually make any real use of our Great Themes. You may recall a review I wrote in my post of 1Mar17 about the novel ‘Luna: New Moon’ by Ian McDonald. In that review I made the point that even though the story takes place on the Moon, and there’s Hi-Tech wizardry on every page the plot would fit just as well during the time of the emperors of Rome.

So is ‘Luna: New Moon’ a Science Fiction story? Of course each of us will have to decide for ourselves but I’m always willing to be inclusive. The important thing for me is that a Science Fiction story should make me think. I have found that most of the time it will be about one of the six themes I’ve discussed, but thinking is the important thing.

Next time I’d like to finish my discussion of Science Fiction by considering the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, at least as I see it. Till then.

What is Science Fiction – Part 2: The Great Themes of Science Fiction

Today I’d like to begin talking about great themes or big questions that Science Fiction allows us to think about and discuss in clearer, more precise ways than any other form of writing. It is true that some of these themes can be written about in other genres, some were in fact first written about in other literary genres. However I hope to make a case that they are best treated as Science Fiction.

As I mentioned in the first part of this series I intend to examine these themes or questions using the novels and stories of the first two acknowledged masters of Science Fiction, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.

Without any further ado the six themes or questions are:

  1. The exploration of space and/or time
  2. The effects of new technology, invention on human society
  3. Contact with alien life, alien intelligence
  4. The creation of artificial life, artificial intelligence
  5. The long term future, purpose (if there is one) of humanity
  6. The nature and purpose (if there is one) of the Universe itself

Now obviously many, probably most Science Fiction stories combine more than one of these ideas in them. However I’m going to try to find examples that fit only into the single category I’m discussing at that time.

Let’s Start with ‘The Exploration of Space and / or Time and the novel I will use as an example is Jules Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip around it’. The title is pretty much the plot. In 1865, right after the American Civil War union engineers who had developed Ironclad warships, repeating rifles, railroad mounted artillery and etc. are now looking for new challenges to tackle so they decide to build a cannon large enough to fire a projectile at the Moon.

Illustration to ‘From the Earth to The Moon’

When a daring Frenchman volunteers to be a passenger on the projectile two of the American engineers decide to join him and the three-man crew are off on a journey very reminiscent of the voyage of Apollo 8 nearly a hundred years later.

Now Verne’s novel is a pretty simple story, it’s really about nothing more than using science and the technology it provides to travel someplace that no one has ever been. But isn’t that simple idea built into our human DNA. Ever since the first humans left Africa we have always used our knowledge and our tools (science and technology) to journey over that next hill and the hill after that. That makes ‘The Exploration of Space and / or Time’ almost certainly the first of the great themes of Science Fiction.

Our second great theme is “The Effect of new technology or invention on Human Society’ and our example will be ‘The Invisible Man’ written by H. G. Wells in 1897. Once again the title is the plot; a chemist discovers a formula that makes living flesh transparent, invisible. Now there’s an important point to be made here. Wells takes a page or two to discuss how invisibility might actually be possible, just how the optics of transparency works rather than just giving the power of invisibility to a ring or a cloak. This is science fiction taking knowledge we actually have and extrapolating beyond it in a way that is distinctly different a fantasy novel just saying ‘it’s magic’.

Poster for ‘The Invisible Man’

The chemist, Jack Griffin uses the formula on himself and becomes invisible. Now we get the moral of the story, science fiction is a great platform for illustrating morals, just as fables are. Anyway, the power that Griffin now has goes to his head. He can steal anything he wants, spy on anyone he wants, murder anyone he wants and no one can stop him because no one can see him. He becomes mad from the power that his technology has given him, perhaps a valuable warning for our present technology mad society. As with exploration, the concept of technology changing human society is as old as human society is making this another very ancient theme indeed.

Our third great theme is that of Contact with Alien Life, Alien Intelligence and the novel we shall use to illustrate it is H. G. Wells ‘The War of the Worlds’ that was also first published in 1897. In the novel Martians invade Earth in order to conquer it as a new home for themselves and humanity is helpless against their superior technology.

‘The War of the Worlds’

Wells used some of the best science of his time in “The War of the Worlds’ including infrared radiation (the Martians heat ray) the use of poison gas and mechanized devices in warfare (the Martians war machines are basically tanks on legs) so that even after more than a century the story seems very modern.

What Wells was really doing however it criticizing his own country of Britain’s and the rest of Europe’s empires in Africa and Asia in the late 19th century. “How would you like it?” Wells asks, if a technically superior race dropped from the sky and said “This is our land now! You belong to us now!” Again we see how Science Fiction is being used as a platform from which we can observe and criticize human behavior.

I think I’m going to have to stop here for today; this is already the longest post I’ve ever published. Next time we’ll finish our survey of Science Fiction’s great themes and we’ll also discuss whether or not a story can be Science Fiction without using one of our themes. Can a Science Fiction story just be a story? (Hint: Of course it can.)

Till next time.