Speculative ficion

10 November 2014: A short review of Interstellar

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Without wanting to push the metaphor too hard, watching Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a bit like going on a first date. There are moments when you wonder if you haven’t made a terrible mistake in going to see the film, and other moments when you are seduced by startling visual beauty or revelatory lines of dialogue. And like many a first date, the whole is a much more fulfilling and enjoyable experience than its parts.

In truth, I wasn’t expecting a lot. I was disappointed with the Dark Knight trilogy and was bored by Inception. But Interstellar impressed me not just as a good film, but possibly a great science fiction film. It touches on two aspects of science fiction – a sense of wonder and a personal human connection with the universe – that contribute to my love of the genre.

Some of the finest scenes in the film are those dealing with the implications of relativity on the passing of time; they carry a heavy emotional weight (and here I intentionally avoid the word ‘gravity’) that while entirely manipulative never succumb to melodrama.

All credit to producer Lynda Obst and physicist Kip Thorne for the original scenario, and Jonathan and Christopher Nolan for the script. All credit to McConaughey, Hathaway and Caine for their performances, and a special credit for the acting of Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn for portraying the three ages of Murphy Cooper. And finally, all credit to Christopher Nolan for delivering a huge movie with huge ideas without ever losing a very human perspective.

03 November 2014: Wowed by Wells

WotWIt was 1968 and I was eleven or twelve years old when I bought my first book with my own money. This is a pic of the cover of the very edition I bought. Not only do I still own it, it’s in pretty good nick for a book that’s 47 years old (this edition was published by Penguin in 1967). I love the cover; it reminds me of the pseudo-Edwardian craze that briefly inhabited British art at the end of the 60s, reflected in everything from men’s fashion to the design of the Wild Woodbine cigarette pack.

I knew of H.G. Wells, but had never read any of his work. I also knew about The War of the Worlds, mainly because I’d seen and loved the 1953 George Pal film on television the year before (tragically, in b&w). I was reading every science fiction book I could lay my hands on, and I was curious to see how it would read. I think it cost me all of 60 cents.

I was sucked in from the moment I read the first paragraph: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own … intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic … ”

Thanks to Spielberg’s 2015 version, whenever I read those words now I hear Morgan Freeman’s baritone in my ears. To be fair, before Freeman it was Richard Burton’s voice I heard in my head, thanks to Jeff Wayne’s 1978 concept album. But whatever voice delivers the words, it is the writing – the phrasing, especially – that makes it ring.

The first section of the book, dealing with the invasion and its immediate aftermath, is still something I reread every year or so. And to this day I have not read or seen anything that imparts the same level of dread at the first appearance of a malevolent alien than the glistening, bear-sized mass that slithers from the Martian cylinder on Horsell Common. The only experience that comes close is the first glimpse of the creature in the Ridley Scott’s Alien, but that monster is clean-limbed and somehow thoroughly modern and mechanical, whereas Wells’ Martians are obscenely chthonic and organic.

The story’s influence on science fiction is probably immeasurable. Every alien invasion story owes something to Wells’ original.

For a long time I’d wanted to write something set in the same universe, or at least the same milieu. I’ve always admired Brian Aldiss’s homage “The Saliva Tree”, actually written to celebrate the centenary of Wells’ birth in 1866, and hankered to do something similar. In the end, my story “The Empire” unmistakably used The War of the Worlds as its spine, even if it mixes in rather a lot from the period, including music hall and Gilbert & Sullivan.

The film I would like to see almost more than any other, would be a version of The War of the Words that places the story in the period Wells himself placed it. Surely such a film would be the perfect vanguard for an effective steampunk invasion of the big screen?

03 November 2014: Article on HSC English Extension added

I’ve added an article I wrote in 2002-03 for the introduction of “Speculative Fiction” as an HSC English Extension subject for Year 12. Some things have changed a great deal since then, especially in the field of fantasy. I think the definitions and the sections on science fiction and Dune still hold up pretty well, however. It can be found here.