Saturday, November 29, 2008

Just when you think the steam punk subgenre of SF has had its last say, along comes a new piece that forces you to reevaluate what's gone before.

There is a sense in which steam punk is a rebellion. It rebels against our modern understanding of the universe, with its relativity, its quantum mechanics, and its literally unknowable nature. It looks for a simpler, cleaner understanding of our world, one where each event can be understood as a consequence of prior actions. Where writers like Benford, Brin, and Rucker revel in the sometimes sublimely ridiculous possibilities of our reality, steam punk yearns for Newton and his clock work universe.

At least that's how it seems, sometimes.

Australian writer Sean McMullen is, it seems, perfectly comfortable with modern physics. Although Souls in the Great Machine takes place in a world 2000 years in the future where electronics are not used, there is a perfectly modern reason for it. Some passages in the story had me giggling to myself (at the thought of taking recalcitrant components of a computer out to shoot them, although in the story itself it was not terribly funny). Mostly the story had me staying up way past my bedtime to read just a few more pages before going to sleep.

There are three or four significant characters around whom the story revolves. It isn't always clear who the good guys are in the story, as there is plenty of moral ambiguity to go around. However, McMullen isn't about to force any of these characters into a set role, and consequently the story has an ultimately satisfying ending.

If the reader notices occasional parallels to current events, it doesn't seem to be intended as some kind of allegory. It's not as if people have changed much in the past 2000 years, and it's unlikely we'll change all that much in the next 2000 years.

Highly recommended.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Disappointment of Cliches

Lots of spoilers ahead, I guess.

This weekend I watched Event Horizon. I'm sorry to report that it's an unremarkable haunted house horror movie. Very disappointing, since I read a bunch of reviews promising much better, up to and including "don't watch this alone." I should have ignored the last word, because that's two hours of my life I could have spent raking leaves or sorting laundry or something else at least a little more interesting.

For SF buffs the movie blows pretty much from the first scene, where the crew starts a 10 minute count-down to ignition of the "ion drive," which is supposed to be able to create enough acceleration to "liquefy your bones." You start a count-down before the entire crew is secured in their "grav tanks"? And what's with the grav tanks, which are basically designed to be spooky, back-lit green, and you stand/float in them in water, breathing through a face mask? How is that supposed to protect you from crushing acceleration?

So the Lewis and Clark is a rescue ship that can undergo amazing acceleration. At 30 gravities acceleration you'd reach the orbit of Neptune in a few hours. But for some reason the Lewis and Clark is under way for more than a month. Apparently just long enough for Dr Weir to have a nightmare of his wife, with empty eye sockets. Wait. Where'd that come from? They aren't even nearly docked with the Event Horizon. I guess the forshadowing has to start early?

Well, most of the story takes place in orbit around Neptune. Another example of execrable SF, as the "Lewis and Clark" hooks up with the derelict "Event Horizon" where it is orbiting in Neptune's ionosphere. I guess no one explained to the writers that nothing orbits in the ionosphere, at least not for long. The Event Horizon's orbit is described as decaying, but that'd take a lot less time than the time the rescuers needed to reach Neptune. Even at 30 gravities.

(You gotta love the names of these ships. Lewis and Clark is what you'd call an exploration vessel. But Event Horizon must have been picked for the cool factor, with Lewis and Clark relegated to the supporting role. Can you imagine the shouting match among the writers and producers while they hammered that out?)

The demands of haunted house type horror movies are such that you need lots of poorly lit corridors to wander around in. Of course that is in direct conflict with good space ship design, but that's the least of the quibbles. When the crew arrive the Event Horizon has no power. It's cold enough on board to have frozen the water. But apparently not cold enough to have frozen the air. Objects, including a frozen crew member are floating around, and when power is restored, everything comes crashing down, and melts instantly. The frozen crewmember falls and smashes into slushy bits. Cute. Either it's liquid nitrogen cold on board, or it's only frozen water cold. You can't have it both ways. Well, I suppose you can, but it's silly.

Wait, they can turn on gravity? What the hell? Then why did they need grav tanks? OK, you know what? Never mind.

The Event Horizon, like a proper haunted house, is designed like a gothic castle. There are arches and columns and air locks reminiscent of portcullises, complete with spikes. The place is huge. Enough atmosphere to last days, but for some reason we're told the CO2 levels will become toxic in less than a day. Scrubbers (devices that clean CO2 from the air) are installed in engineering, near the gravity drive, at the other end of a long, fragile spine connecting the ship's life support area to the drive. The spine is designed so it can be destroyed, in case something goes bad with the gravity drive. The life support section would be a life boat. With the scrubbers left behind in engineering. Yep, that'll work. (It was necessary so we can kill a crew member in a pointless scene near the end. Get with the program, OK?)

There's a rotating tunnel leading to the gravity drive. It looks absurd, and a crewmember asks Dr Weir what the heck it is. Well he might ask. It looks like it belongs in a haunted house in an amusement park. After some techno babble we're supposed to be OK with that rotating tunnel. But for all the effort that went into the silly thing, they could have left it out: it's absurd, and serves no actual purpose in the rest of the movie. In fact, a couple of times characters manage to reach the gravity drive without apparently ever going through the rotating tunnel.

The gravity drive looks like a medieval torture device, complete with the gothic riveted metal look and sharp but pointless spikes sticking out all over the place. When the gravity drive randomly activates to draw a victim in we're treated to a lovely bit of special effects which have no explanation other than having Dr Weir shrug his shoulders. The sequence is necessary to keep the Lewis and Clark stuck to the Event Horizon for a while, I guess. But there have to be better ways to do that, especially since, besides rotating ominously, the gravity drive pretty much doesn't see any action for the rest of the movie, until the very end.

So much for the SF part of the movie. If it's SF it's at best MST3K material, the same caliber as any 1950s atomic monster movie, complete with rubber suit. What about the horror?

For some reason directors of horror seem to think that lots of gratuitous blood is horror. So there's lots of gratuitous blood, including a veritable tidal wave of blood that pretty much comes out of nowhere for no particular reason. Was there a list of cliches that had to be checked off? There are a few mutilation scenes, but besides some shock value there's nothing to them. Some of them are pretty silly, in fact. So you have an orgy of mutilation, and someone is taking pictures?

Just about every crew member experiences hallucinations. For some reason except for Captain Miller none of them seem to be able to resist them, including walking off the edge of a precipice. You have to wonder, if whatever it is that's causing the hallucinations is aware of what it's doing, how about doing something more useful? Why waste that ability on killing a random crew member? Solaris did a much better job of this, and Solaris wasn't even trying to be scary.

And then there's Dr Weir. Ash from Alien was a much better mad scientist, and scarier, too. At least the android from the Ouroboros had a believable motivation, and isn't that the real source of horror? Dr Weir goes from whining that his wife's suicide left him lonely to raging maniac pretty much when Captain Miller tells him he's planning on destroying the Event Horizon. Whatever sense of suspense the movie might have had is pretty much lost at that point. Captain Miller doesn't get it, but the audience knows they're watching a horror movie, so what comes next is pretty much expected. Except first we have to get silly and make our mad scientist into a mad scientist superhuman eyeless zombie from hell. Egad!

And why do you have to have Latin in a horror movie? I guess hell would speak in Latin? Well, in that case they should have at least got it right, I'd think.

Frankly, the horror aspects of Event Horizon are even sillier than the SF.

So in all, don't watch it. Period. Unless you're looking for something very silly, in which case, watch Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy. That's a classic.