Sunday, July 07, 2013

Recent Sci Fi films -- the okay and the meh!

Before diving into Science Fiction films, some news: the fabulous -- and alas late -- science fiction author Iain Banks just had an asteroid named after him. Part of a terrific tradition. The great planet hunter Elinor Helin named one for me (5748 DaveBrin), back in the 90s… and she graciously assented (after enduring my rude armtwisting) to name another pair after Poul Anderson and Frederik Pohl.  I had been hoping that Iain would  be similarly honored, and am deeply gratified that he was.  Now let's go out there, mine them and reduce them to nothing, by turning them into wonderful things.

I'll give some impressions from recent sci fi films, like Star Trek: Into Darkness, below. But first some retro-looks.

== Successes and failures: older sci fi flicks ==

The always-brashly relevant site io9 has a run-down of the "12 Most Unfaithful Movie Versions of Science Fiction and Fantasy Books."  A fun romp and - as you might guess - a chance for shared misery with other authors who have seen "liberties" taken with their original material.

In fact, I am more forgiving of some of these films - even Kevin Costner's version of my novel The Postman - than many would expect.

SoylentGreenFor example, Soylent Green may have veered a bit in plot focus, but nothing about the "soylent" part of the film was incompatible with Harry Harrison's world in the novel Make Room! Make Room! which was vividly portrayed pretty much as he wrote it. Above all, Soylent Green was excellent, vivid and beautiful cinema… and  also probably the most effective film in history at scaring folks into becoming  environmentalists. Which I cannot say for the earlier and relentlessly preachy Silent Running, which we recently watched again. Silent Running had some fine moments, but was far too heavy handed to be truly effective -- and Joan Baez makes my ears ring. (With apologies to fellow ex-hippies.)

I also forgive the silly Freejack flick, simply because it got more people to read Robert Sheckley (it was based upon Immortality, Inc.).  And now I will enrage some others by saying I bet Bob Heinlein would have chuckled at Verhoeven's approach to Starship Troopers.  All of Heinlein's preachings are there… all of them!  Veerhoven argues with RAH, using symbolism to rebuke and provoke. I found it a fascinating conversation and the subsequent arguments that raged among Heinlein fans would have pleased him.

== Successes and failures: Recent Movies ==

All right, I know I owe you that thoughtful essay on Avatar and other serious science fiction films.  I do hope to get to it.  Meanwhile, we've watched some other recent flicks and I'll give quick impressions.  (Warning: some spoilers below!)

(Note: some 2013 Science Fiction  offerings were clearly in the category of "wait for the DVD."  The Tom Cruise and the Will Smith offerings, for example. One could tell from afar that they are old, old, old and tired concepts, retreaded with nice effects. We have a big TV… and can wait.)

StarTrekIntoDarknessStar Trek: Into Darkness.  Folks wrote in, predicting I would hate this latest episode in the re-boot, because the core villainy originates within the Federation,. Aren't I the guy who most fervently celebrates Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision of an improvable human and sapient civilization? (A very rare message indeed, these days.) Hence it may surprise folks to learn that none of my fears were realized.  J.J. Abrams delivered a fun and vivid -- if a little popcorny -- Trek adventure that I found entirely faithful to the wholesome and uplifting Roddenberry-Trek mythology.

Sure, there was a Starfleet villain. So?  That happened often enough in the older films and the varied TV series.  The key point is that the conspirators were acting in secret and in violation of the Federation's core principles.  Hence, the scenario was not an indictment of civilization as a whole, nor a proclamation of the hopelessness of democracy -- as you see perpetrated relentlessly in the Star Wars prequels -- but rather it's a tale about society's ethical immune system (manifested by Enterprise and crew) discovering and neutralizing a lethal and immoral aberration.

That is what good sci fi does: "Watch out for mistakes! Pay attention to potential failure modes! Then envision that citizens can cure them with courage, openness and belief in us."

(Indeed, with just five minutes of alteration, that's the message James Cameron might have delivered via Avatar.  Alas that, instead, he chose to spread a poison.)

On a less ethereal plane, I thought J.J. Abrams dealt pretty well with the rascally immaturity of the new version of James T. Kirk by giving us a tale of maturation.  Fine. Chris Pine is growing on me. I wasn't keen on this re-boot, but I think it could work out fine.  (I'd like to see a more thoughtful use of the old (Nimoy) Spock.  I believe he would be more nuanced in his "interference." Indeed, what's  blatantly called for is an intersection of the parallel worlds, giving Pine (conveying different Kirks) even more range. But that awaits my someday having beers with Mr. Abrams.)

WrathKhanOh, but then there's the other villain in ST:ID. Yes… sigh… you-know-who.  Okay. I winced, for about three seconds. Then I got over it, decided to go along, and thoroughly enjoyed the performance.  Even the deliberate counter riff to the moving death scene in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Self-indulgent? Sure, but in a way that shared our fan-crush with a nod and many winks.  Hey, there are worse cinematic torts and (in real time) I talked myself into loving it.

Speaking of self-indulgence, did any of you notice the arrival of Dr. Carol "Can I cook?" Marcus? Oh gawd. Why do directors do that? Still, I told myself to "shut up and eat more popcorn." All told, it was fun. Refreshing. Even going so far as reprising the music from the Original Series.  The STII/TNG/Goldsmith musical themes were better, by far, but had grown exceedingly over-exposed and stale.

Want depth in your cinematic sci fi? Try Chistopher Nolan. Heck, these days, I'm delighted just to be able to watch something that contains some goodness, plot consistency and clean fun.  J.J. Abrams delivered those and I can wait for brain food.

CloudAtlasAnd Other Films more briefly: Cloud Atlas (based on the novel by David Mitchell) was not as murky as I expected.  We could all follow the threads. The blatant homages to Blade Runner and Soylent Green and other classics got tiresome, after a while.  And the whole reincarnation point was thin.  Still, it was pretty. And I chuckled a few times over the makeup-makeovers.  Popcorn, requiring lots and lots of butter.

I left out Looper from my first draft.  Shouldn't have.  It was a meticulously thoughtful effort.  Time travel is truly hard to do well, but this one tried very hard and a careful analysis on paper reveals one of the two dozen or so causality models for time travel stories might, sort-of, work... or at least hold together well enough for a consistent story. The crime premise is dopey, but you have to overlook something and it drove a solid movie plot. SO much better than Surrogates!  Even forgot the popcorn on my lap.

Some things, however, no amount of can be saved by no amount of condiments. We recently rented Part II of Atlas Shrugged: The Movie. (I had to. I am a bit of an "Ayn Rand scholar" and felt behooved.) I had few hopes for an entertaining or enlightening evening… and all expectations were met. I do admit that the film-makers have striven hard to be faithful to the source material! That is always gratifying to an author… almost enough for me not to wish (fervently) that they hadn't.

AtlasShruggedTwoAtlas Shrugged: Part One had been pretty damned awful, tendentious, illogical, preachy, dreary and dumb... but there were moments of charm, as I describe here.   (Wherein I also demonstrate, decisively, that Rand was the greatest of all acolytes of Karl Marx, even if they disagreed over the teleologically ordained end point.) Alas, Part II had all of the dreary-awful traits of Part I... without any of the redeeming qualities.

I was reminded of Frank Herbert's Dune, in which you start rooting for the Atreides family only because their opponents are so vampiric and grotesquely-cartoonishly awful, and hence you are able to squint and not notice that the Atreides are - themselves - oppressive monsters.  Likewise, in Atlas Shrugged, a litany of inane and calamitously self-destructive "laws" (that bear no relationship with any real world politics) are passed by the U.S. government, serving as strawman excuses for the rise of what would otherwise be recognized as a lunatic cult, led by a man who (in the more detailed novel) deliberately sabotages all American industry and the nation's ability to feed itself, while crooning "followwwww meeeee" in hypnotic tones to one ubermensch "creator" after another.  A cult of uniform obedience to the Big Man that would make David Koresh and Jim Jones envious.

Mark this well... I consider myself to be a "libertarian" in the sense that Adam Smith was a genius - and a much more ethical man than anyone credits - who helped establish our positive sum Enlightenment and taught us how to harness human creative competition, unleashing a cascade of great things. I consider it to be one of the great tragedies of modern intellectual and political history that the American Libertarian movement has been hijacked away from those roots, down paths of solipsistic madness, enticed by a spite-propeled, child-hating, crypto-Marxist woman whose appeal should be limited to brief obsessional flings by nerdy-male college sophomore under-achievers. No greater proof can be seen than the overwhelming rejection at the polls by the American people in 2012, despite the Libertarian Party having its best candidate ever, and despite the apparently determined self destruction of the Republican Party.  Twin facts that have William F. Buckley spinning in his grave.

AtlasShruggedBlogNever mind.  My previous essay said it all, exposing not only Rand's Marxist roots, but the stunning inability of her followers to explain the lack of children, procreation or the possibility of a future in her strange "utopia."
Rant-mode off!

== Sci fi films in a lesser mode ==

See a  terrific mini movie, six minutes long, about terraforming Mars… in French!(With English subtitles.)  C'est ├ętonnant et merveilleux ouvrage de la science et aussi science fiction! Felicitations et bon chance!


Andy Sewell said...

I actually found Cruise's movie "Oblivion" to actually be pretty good-no huge plot holes, story and characters hung together well, and the plot twist served the story. It plays a little with the nature of identity in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of one of your novels (not wanting to spoil anything, so won't say which one)...

David Brin said...

Andy S I hope that the doomed feel I got from the Tom Cruise previews proves as inaccurate as the one I felt from the Trek previews. We'll see.

Tom Crowl said...

It's probably been discussed before but I recently saw "Surrogates" on cable and thought it explored some interesting ideas.

As for Ayn Rand... great writer of comic books w/o pictures!

But as a philosopher she didn't understand how biological altruism even where philosophical altruism is extolled and broadly felt... will tend towards a concentration of power and wealth essentially because of how networks and networks of networks operate over time.

Self-interest scales... but a tribe... or a society built on selfishness alone... will not survive.

A social creature requires some degree of biological altruism for survival but it cannot be boundless... (the reasons are multiple)

Biological altruism DOESN'T scale and this is more important than its given credit for.

Issues in Scaling Civilization: The Altruism Dilemma

Conventional political ideologies will not fix this problem.

aprice2704 said...

I too found it better than expected; especially if one rescues the plot from its worst follies by noting that Morgan Freeman's character makes the big explanation, but could not possibly have known what he explains for sure but must have assumed it, or been told it by a mendacious source.

There is one truly stupid shot, snitched from the Matrix.

I saw this twice and enjoyed it even more second time around. Actually worth the trip to the cinema as the visuals are really quite good.

Andrew Price

aprice2704 said...

Oops! By "It" I mean "Oblivion". Also, apologies for horrible punctuation.

Catfish N. Cod said...

Off topic but near and dear to our host's heart:

Fifteen years ago I read as Dr. Brin predicted everything but the brand name. "Google Glass" rather than "Tru-Vu" but otherwise just as described in The Transparent Society.

Now if only we can apply the same principle to CCTV and No
Such Database...

David Brin said...

Tom C... I hated SURROGATES not only because it poisoned the well for KILN PEOPLE... but because it was The Idiot Plot cubed. people and civilization were too dumb to breathe. A fabulous technology and people ALL used it just to Look Good.

Aprice... if they paid royalties on innovations guys like me "inspired"... sigh. Arthur Clarke would have owned GEO!

Nicholas MacDonald said...

Cloud Atlas was definitely my favorite movie of 2012. Like the Matrix Sequels, it's a definite "brain on" movie that has a lot of confusing threads that will keep you thinking long after the movie if you let them... which, of course, is why there's such a love/hate reaction to them (Cloud Atlas was for the most part a success with critics and did alright internationally- enough to keep money flowing to the Wachowskis for another crop of overwrought sci-fi epics. The late Roger Ebert thought it among the best of 2012, so I'll consider my opinion to be in good company!)

What really stunned me about Cloud Atlas was this: the Wachowskis subverted the book in a positive way! The book unfolds in a way that ultimately brings everything back to the beginning, and portrays the future as unremittingly bleak; the human will-to-power leads only to destruction. On the other hand, the Wachowskis restructured it to be simultaneous and climactic- and ultimately end on another world, showing that while humanity's will can take us to destruction, it can also take us to the stars. I left the movie positively glowing... that had to be the best subversion of the "tree of knowledge" myth since Star Trek II. Not what I'd expect from them... but the Wachowskis are full of surprises.

As for Star Trek... after I walked out (at the end of the movie), my only thought was that Abrams had made the best Star Wars film since Empire... unfortunately, it was supposed to be Trek. Fun, yes, as long as you watch with your brain off... and definitely better than any of the execrable Next Gen movies, or Star Trek 3 or 5. But still a bit of a disappointment. I hope that Abrams hands over the reins to someone who will inject some intelligence into the series again and focuses on Star Wars... which he's perfect for.

What Abrams has done well, though, is inject life into the franchise again. Star Trek was going in circles, trapped by canon and had lost any freshness (nor has there been a Star Trek movie I'd actually consider science fiction since II). The Next Gen movies never really broke from the TV series and felt like long episodes (and in the case of the last two, not particularly good ones at that). NuTrek has a great look (I love lens flare... screw the haters), more up-to-date feel (as one friend commented, the warp core in Into Darkness actually looked like something that NASA would build), and triggers my inner 13-year-old "WOAH!" reflex like no Trek had since I actually was 13... which is two decades ago now. Plus a fantastic sound track... the first Trek theme music that sounds epic and inspirational since the first two movies.

Alas, if it only had a brain to go with the great exterior.

David Brin said...

"Alas, if it only had a brain to go with the great exterior."

And a big heart!

That is exactly how I felt about the Postman movie. STunningly gorgeous to the ear and eye... and big-heartedly faithful to my moral center of my book... and astonishingly dumb.

Gorgeous, big-hearted and dumb? Hey, there are worse things in the world! Costner is not on my enemies list. I got away in better shape than most authors, with my story's soul intact. For that I will forgive the fact that he never even bought me a $%^$%! beer.

R·E said...

Your review sorta failed for me when you started by giving 'The Postman' a pass.
Maybe it passed for you b/c you got paid, but c'mon. Really?

Cloud Atlas? Meh.

Star Trek 1 - yay. #2 - more or less a #2, but I could enjoy it if I didn't judge much. I'd say it was an utter betrayal of deep plots, overly violent, made very little sense, and the uber-mensch K**n was beaten by a very old and obvious tactic.

I'm really hopeful that someone will understand that good scifi does not require CG so much as it requires *great* writing, *great* acting, *great* cinematography, and a consistent concept.

I noticed you skipped Iron Man 3. It was entirely skippable, had some lines that were deplorable (like Stark's advice to a young child about getting over his Dad's abandoning him), and the ending act was so flawed it was amazing it was released that way. But Iron Man #1 was very pleasant scifi. It even commented on military providers weaponizing the opposition and the 'good guys'! Wow

Paul451 said...

Atlas Shrugged really could offer an interesting take on cults, had it not be commissioned and produced by cult-members. Indeed, a skilful writer/director could create a clever overlapping story of Ayn Rand's own personality-cult IRL, compared to the Galtian cult of the novel.

As for Star Trek, couldn't get past the central conceit of the first film. Expelled-cadet Kirk becomes Captain... just because. (The other sacrifices of Trek-lore, weird style, yes the lens flares, just served as reminders of the director not caring about the heart of the story.) I'm hoping the second movie, by having the crew already established, won't be so grating. But it's a shame, there are so many ways to achieve what Abrams wanted (screw-up learning to be a hero) without being as mind-numbingly silly with his story.

(Aside: Always seemed to me that Adventures Of Young Kirk would make a great series of TV-movies in the style of the Hornblower books (wonderful cheesy boys-own-adventure)).

[The Postman movie would have been better served by reversing the leads, with Will Patton as the reluctant hero, Costner as the charismatic villain. Or with any much younger lead. (And, I've mentioned before, not having the Holnists as a widespread movement keeping survivors broken meant that the film, like every other post-apocalyptic film/show, failed to explain why people weren't attempting to rebuild (ie, the Idiot Plot)).]

Nicholas MacDonald,
"as one friend commented, the warp core in Into Darkness actually looked like something that NASA would build"

If you meant the outside, then you meant "like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories would build". It is the National Ignition Facility, the real one, only the translucent part is CGI.

Paul451 said...

Happy Anniversary little rover dude.

Alex Tolley said...

My favorites for 2012:

1. Looper. Fairly original, even though the plot seems to have rather large holes.

2. Chronicle. Low budget movie. I thought the growing super powers theme between the friends was well done, as well as the results.

3. Robot & Frank. I thought this was the best SF movie of 2012. Simple, well thought through, with good acting by all concerned. A very welcome change from all the movies that relied on action and high CGI content for eye candy.

(speaking of CGI - STII had the best city scenes I have ever seen. London was awesome).

4. A fantasy rather than SF - Upside Down. I liked the premise and the Romeo and Juliet love story. The CGI was used to great effect too.

The only "SF" movie I have seen in 2013 was Man of Steel. I enjoyed the reimagining, although I understand why purists might dislike it (which is why I am a bit ambivalent about the Star Trek reboots).

Robert said...

A movie that's worth seeing, though it's a bit older (2009) is Moon. Let's just say that, if Kevin Spacey had been around in 1968, he'd have voiced HAL. Another that's just as good until it blows up in the last half hour is Sunshine (2007).

Have you seen either one?

On a slightly different topic, I've always thought movies have to be reasonably good artistically for their politics to be worth talking about. I think that lets Star Wars 1,2,3,and 6 off the hook, not to mention the Atlas Shrugged movies. Now, if their directors had been as good as Leni Riefenstahl, we'd have something to worry about. Also, let's be fair to Ayn Rand - she would have vetoed the stinker, just as she would have never allowed the Christianist Republicans anywhere near her.

Bob Pfeiffer.

Cliff said...

I have to say Oblivion was a lot better than I expected, wasn't completely predictable, closed all the loops pretty well and and was a good movie.

Quite honestly, Tom Cruise is a bit of a nutter, but he does and amazing job with these roles!

Tim H. said...

Seems to me the best science fiction movies don't work well with the 'danes, so we see very few. A faithful adaptation of Stranger in a strange land would have a typical audience headed for the door. We're lucky we get as much as we do.

locumranch said...

In my opinion, modern sci-fi films tend toward visual grotesquery (IE. Avatar, Prometheus, Predators, etc), whereas the best take a socially sanctified trend & displace it in time in order to dismiss it with impiety, comedy & irreverence (a thing that we are not allowed to do in the present tense).

Lang's Metropolis (1927) is an excellent example as this as it displaces the (dehumanizing; urban; hierarchical) horrors of the industrial revolution and turns them into futurological vaudeville.

War of the Worlds (1953) displaces postWW2 technological worship & unthrones it with biology (a lesson that many technophiles still refuse to accept), and The Time Machine (1960) shows that technological & hierarchical worship can only lead to dehumanization & destruction.

1970's cinema used this technique to its full advantage, giving us THX 1138 (which took social conformity to an extreme), Soylent Green (which took 'resource allocation' to its dog-eat-dog conclusion), Rollerball (which did the same thing to the Cult of Competition), Zardoz (which mocked the feminizing aspects of civilization), Logan's Run (which lampooned the the Youth Cult of the 1960s), Body Snatchers (which mocked conformity)(the best version, btw) and Mad Max & Deathsport (which satirized our insatiable appetite for random violence).

The 1980s were a vast ideological wasteland with rare exception. The 1990s gave us the humour of RoboCop, the irreverence of Stargate, the irony of Screamers, the festivity of Fifth Element and the joviality of The Truman Show, with just a touch of existential angst from Dark City.

More recent films tend to favour humorless grotesquery as mentioned above.


Bent Rasmussen said...

I have to agree with Andy S. on Oblivion - it was much better than I expected. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch but a well-rounded sci-fi. It is actually post-apocalyptic, so if that's not for you, then it's a hard sell. Personally I love post-apocalyptic and the basic premise of survival - there's something positive about that too, and the new beginning.

David Brin said...

Paul 451… I totally agree. The reboot should have been The Young James Kirk Chronicles. The Young Indie show that Lucas did 25 years ago was by far the best stuff he ever did.

I should have mentioned Looper, which was an honest low-budget effort. I am now more hopeful about Oblivion.

Rollerball was not about the evils of competition but rather portrayed evil trying to reduce competition to its most vulgar and least inspiring level, and an inspirational competitor fighting back

Stefan Jones said...

MOD the fact that I haven't read the book, my take on Cloud Atlas parallels Nicholas's. I left the theater feeling exhausted but very satisfied. I think the Wachowski Siblings pulled off something amazing.

Now, I don't buy the central premise. I'm too rational to believe in reincarnation. But if you assume that (and it isn't sillier a notion than FTL travel, IMO), the film is a grand, thrilling romp. Visually gorgeous, horrifying and beautiful.

I got the same feeling from the end as I did from WALL-E: A sense of immense relief, that humanity, for all its flaws, had managed to survive.
* * *
I'll have to catch up on Oblivion.

I enjoyed Looper, but the most important take away for me was this: These are the people who could make a decent adaptation of "The Stars My Destination."

Stefan Jones said...

While there are certainly lots of films whose point is "visual grotesquery," some of the best and smartest science fiction films, or at least "speculative fiction" films, have appeared in the last ten years. "Moon," "Source Code," "Inception," and "Looper" come to mind. I'd even throw "Minority Report" in there.

What is most remarkable is this: These films assume a lot from the audience, and demand a lot from it.

George Pal's "Destination Moon" included a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain how space ships worked. Newer films seem a lot more confident that the viewers will be able to figure things out on their own.

The other day my sister mentioned how much my nieces enjoyed "Sherlock" (the modern-day version starring Benedict Cumberbatch) . . . but that my parents had problems with it because of the visual tricks that were used (e.g., text flowing off of objects) to show Holmes' mind at work. I, my sister, and my nieces picked up these cues, but my parents -- however literate and educated -- could not.

The Physicist said...

While I liked Star Trek Into Darkness as a fun movie, it has some glaringly obvious issues that drive me crazy. I had a similar problem with the first movie. I go into detail on my own blog, so I won't try to redo the whole discussion here. How do these things not get caught in writing or at least during shooting or editing?

Alierias said...

As a Star Trek Fan since I watched it on prime time as a 6 year old (and Star Trek not being real was WAY worse than Santa, and a shock I am still not over), I enjoyed the latest reboot, EXCEPT can't JJ Abrams PAY A FREEKIN PHYSICIST to vet the script??

The scene where the ship is rolling, in space? It was bad enough in Wall-E, but if the "artificial gravity" is failing IN SPACE, everyone'll be floating, not rolling around like it's the "Posidan Adventure".

And, things don't fall straight out of orbit to the ground, they are still in orbit, they spiral in -- remember when Skylab fell?

And Kirk kicking the thing back into alignment, now he's the Fonz?

I was greatly enjoying myself, until I just got so pissed at the glaring ignorance from the writers; David, when you have that beer with JJ Abrams PLEASE get yourself hired as In-House Physicist/ScreenDoctor, so all us nerds can enjoy the next movie!

Ross said...

Another one to see: Europa Project. Very very realistic visuals (except that they had TOO MUCH ROOM on that ship). As expected it turns into a monster plot, but the dedication of the astronauts is worthwhile -- "the data must go through."

matthew said...

I really enjoyed "Safety Not Guaranteed." Highly recommended time-travel low budget affair.

Carl M. said...

My rule of thumb for movie SF: it ain't real science fiction unless it starts Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwartzeneggar or Charlton Heston.

There have been exceptions: Logan's Run, Minority Report, Rollerball, Gattica, but surprisingly few.

Heinlein would have been royally pissed at Veerhoven's butchering of his story to make it look like Nazi propaganda. The movie made everyone white and beautiful, as if they were the result of some Nazi breeding program. In the book the hero is a Filipino. On of the book's core ideas is the importance of realistic training in order to prevent more soldiers from dying in the battlefields. The Starship Troopers in the movies were klutzes in the field. And what is the deal of bringing in the nudist element in a Heinlein novel which didn't have one? In the book the MI are all male. The hero is bashful around women when he gets promoted and gets to be round females for the first time in a long while. Women and children first was a core part of Heinlein's ideology.

And arachnids have eight legs.

Alex Tolley said...

@matthew - I agree. It is a lovely, quirky movie, with a surprise ending. A good example where a well written script (gasp!) keeps your attention.

Alex Tolley said...

@Carl. Heston I grant, although mainly for 2 movies, the aforementioned Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes. Schwartzeneggar I think was very limited in this genre. IMO, his best was Total recall. Stallone? Seriously? I think Cruise is a far better actor(and I don't even like him all that much).

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

I'm guessing this thread's comments will soon be mostly about "Atlas Shrugged" (and perhaps "Star Trek" as well), but I had to weigh in again on "Soylent Green".

I just recently read the book "Make Room! Make Room!" on the recommendation of this list. And while the book was ok for what it was, I doubt it would be memorable enough for me to ever re-read were it not for the movie, which I've seen countless times and find more relevant to today's world each time.

The book seems to me to be specifically a product of the sixties--a rant in favor of birth control at a time when the concept was controversial and "the population bomb" was a growing concern. It does a decent job of portraying a crowded world, but my recollection is that it was more a series of vignettes than a plot. Even the murder of the Soylent executive didn't lead anywhere.

The movie predicted not only overpopulation, but global warming (back in 1973!). The book doesn't. Sure, it begins in a heat wave, but that only lasts a few days. Later parts of the book take place in winter with snow. The movie predicts a year-round heat wave in which people talk about "Cold, the way winter USED TO be", and in which it is realistic that 20 million homeless New Yorkers might live out on the streets. And the murder has implications that reach the highest strata of society.

Finally, you once said that Harry Harrison protested that his book didn't have cannibalism. To that, I have to wonder what Soylent Green was SUPPOSED to be in the book. We never do find out why the "steaks" are so cheap to produce and sell. What else WOULD it be?

And Thorne's poignant "How could I have known? How could I have ever imagined?" while observing the recordings with Sol is worth the entire price of admission.

Mortun said...

The Kiln People setting would work much better as a backdrop for a cop-show TV series exploring the many ways cheap copies would impact society, than it would as a movie.

But then, I didn't really care for KP's transcendence plot, for about the same reason I didn't like the "yet another AI run amuck" plot of "I Robot", despite it keeping to Asimov's general theme of 3-laws failure due to interaction with imperfect humans. Why bring in a super-AI, when you could have had human utopians unleash a "Greater Good" virus?

The core technological device (in both senses) that makes the world so interesting to begin with, should be the focus of some attempt to undermine or exploit it in a novel and likely dastardly fashion.

Mortun said...

Soylent steaks were Soy-Lentil...

Josh said...

Ah yes, Dances with Aliens. Beautiful movie. Plays the loving hell out of the "Magic Native American" stereotype, only it takes Natives, paints them blue, scales them up 10 feet or so and turns them into... Natives.

I'm so sick of movies like that. I really am. There's a certain undercurrent of white guilt in those movies that's just sickening to watch ("see! White people are evil, if only we'd listened to the Nativ... er, Na'vi, then we would learn secrets and ancient wisdom! They're so much better than we are, pure and untainted by things like modern medicine and sterilized food sources!") Guilt accomplishes nothing. You want to ditch the guilt? Get out there and do something about it. Bring up how poorly Natives are treated in this country, and start working to show accurate representations rather than twisted version that aren't even human.

Technology is evil, nature is good, blah, blah, blah - the most recent Superman movie pulled this in a very subtle way by having Superman's mom be the first person on Krypton to have a "natural" birth, with the assumption at play being "natural" births are better than children grown in artificial uteri.

I did find the comparisons between Rand and Marx specious. Rand's philosophy is a hodge-podge, knock off of a more materialist approach; Nietzsche with a crunchy Enlightenment coating. Marx, on the other hand, was better thought out; his end game was a society without class, without money, and without government. Bakunin seized on this and today we call true communism is "anarcho-communism", and it works, too. Take a look at the CNT-FAI(*) during the Spanish Civil War back in the 30s. Last time Rand's philosophy was put into place, it led to the French Revolution, and John Galt (played by Louis the XIV) couldn't save himself from mdm. guillotine.

Quick question, not relevant at all: I've read Existence - is Hamish inspired by Michael Crichton? That was my mental image of him, anyway.

(*) There's some dispute. It may have been anarcho-commuism, but you read through it and it could also be Libertarian Socialism or Anarcho-Syndicalism. It was likely all three rolled into one, but whichever it worked. Or, rather, it worked until Franco came along, anyway.

Jonathan S. said...

Anyone who complains about anything related to Star Trek based on the physics of the situation should be tied to a chair and forced to watch a marathon of select Trek episodes (I'm trying to prove a point, not torture anyone, so no "Turnabout Intruder" or "Spock's Brain" or "Omega Glory" or anything like that).

Explain to me, if you will, the physics behind "The City On the Edge of Forever". Or how the Organians brought a sudden stop to the conflict between Federation and Empire in "Errand of Mercy". Or how the Melkotians recreated Tombstone in "Spectre of the Gun", and how Spock's mind meld prevented the weapons from hurting anyone.

For that matter, explain to me the physics behind warp drive, transporters, ship's sensors (able to sense things at a distance of up to a light-year in real time, without delays), and deflector screens. Remember that Alcubierre's work was inspired by Star Trek, not the other way around.

Star Trek is, in my opinion, a great TV series, groundbreaking in its nature, and often well-acted (Bill Shatner's performance may have been the weakest in the entire ensemble). What it isn't, though, is highly concerned with scientific accuracy. And that's okay.

William said...

Liet-Kynes is the real hero of Dune.

CJDownUnder said...

+1 for Oblivion here - a charming old-school sf movie. Cruise is cruise is cruise, but the part was written for him so he pulls it off.

Tacitus said...

The current Star Trek cast are indeed quite capable...although "Scotty" is becoming a little grating. One can imagine the old gent being a jokester when lit up on single malt, but not on an ongoing basis.

But they are better suited to episodic work that would allow a little more character development. Right now they are sort of cardboard cutouts, but if they had a weekly series (what a concept!), they would excel. Too bad that is no longer economically feasible.

I was also distracted by various bits tossed in for niche markets. Sulu looking stern and capable for the Asian market, Uhuru tossing the ponytail for a (largely speculative) young female market. Fanservice on a transnational scale...

Just re-read Jack Vance's "The Last Castle". Now that would make an outstanding movie.


matthew said...

This is very interesting. Chevron has won a court case that basically says that anonymous commenters have no right to First Amendment protection of free speech. Because there is no way to tell if they are US citizens, and noncitizens do not have First Amendment rights.

The article points out the obvious correlation to the Snowden revelations. Also, the commenter points out that metadata is also covered by the ruling.

For me, metadata represents the knife edge of David's transparency arguments. If we identify ourselves through the metadata we create when we post any thought, anonymously or otherwise; do we then control that metadata? Does a government or, in this case a corporation, have a right to see that metadata?
As long as the rules for using metadata are controlled using a secret court and secret rulings, I would argue that such metadata should be covered by the 4th amendment. See today's article in salon about Chief Justice Roberts' role in appointing the FISA justices for some depth on the matter.

Hans said...

How come non citizens don't have first amendment rights?

David Miller said...

I guess terraforming Mars includes increasing its mass, since the depiction of that guy walking in the French mini-movie sure doesn't look like one-third Earth gravity.

Jonathan S. said...

How come non citizens don't have first amendment rights?

I'm not really sure. Just took a look, and it says "people", not "citizens" (which is why the Citizens United case is widely seen as claiming that corporations are people, and thus protected by the First Amendment).

Paul451 said...

Re: Europa Report (not Project)
"(except that they had TOO MUCH ROOM on that ship)"

A trip to Jupiter is not going to have the crew stuck in a single capsule for the (three?) years it takes to get there. Nonetheless, shame it is just another monster movie. Can't we have a "serious" shipboard SF drama which isn't another damn monster movie (or "the killer is one of us!" thriller)?

I've previously suggested that Avatar could be saved in the sequels by pulling a reversal and having the Na'vi as, say the children of a post-Singularity civilisation, with Pandora as their nursery/pre-school, safe for them except their own invented play-pretend dangers. [Hey, it'd explain the one-child-per-couple, plug-in-wildlife nonsense.] The second film would set it up by showing the remains of earlier advanced civilisation on Pandora, suggesting the Na'vi are post-apocalyptic survivors of the fall of their civilisation (with parallels drawn to the failing civilisation on Earth in the film.) The third film finishes the revelation, revealing to the audience (and our Avatar'd hero from the first film (Sully?)) the true nature of the Na'vi, by revealing to the Na'vi (to their horror) the true nature of humans (ie, not children of another post-Singularity civilisation come over to play, but a true primitive species.) It ends by flipping the "white man's guilt" trope 180 degrees, were we aren't the "white man". [Never gonna happen. But I can dream.]

Jonathan S,
The point isn't that Trek is scientific. No SF is actually scientific. But it grates when they ignore their own in-universe rules, or throw away real science, for no gain. Just lazy writing. And yes, this applies to the Original Series, and every series, and most movies. Trek was notorious for writers breaking their own rules (or ignoring long established lore) for no gain. NuTrek is just a really bad, really grating example. Playing with the consequences of your what-if is the whole damn point of SF.

["teroodo": First movie from Syfy-Australia.]

Carl M. said...

@Alex. I was not commenting on the acting talents of Stallone, etc. I was commenting on the choice of movies they acted in. I am not a Stallone fan generally, but he was in Demolition Man and Death Race 2000. Arnold was in Terminator, The Running Man and Total Recall. (And if you lump in fantasy, there's Conan the Barbarian.)

rewinn said...

Hans said...
How come non citizens don't have first amendment rights?

Excellent question, although you *should* have written "How come THIS TRIAL COURT SAID non citizens don't have first amendment rights?"

Many have opined that citizenship is not a requirement for free speech rights under the 1st Amendment; see for example This Analysis At the Volokh Conspiracy
Since that's from 2005, it's always possible that The Supremes had come up with something since then (we have a most creative Top Court today!) BUT tracing the article cited back to Judge Kaplan's decision at the District Court level, we see that the judge spends an odd amount of time justifying his decision. You'd think that if it were settled law, he'd just cite and move on. That he has to analogize to similar matters suggest that he's just making it up.

This may be appeal bait. If it goes all the way to the top, I would apply the Rule of Money: this Supreme Court always rules 5-4 in favor of the moneyed interest, which would mean that yes, the first amendment doesn't protect non-citizens ... and THEREFORE it does not protect the anonymous ... or internet speech in general ... because on the internet, no-one knows if you're a dog. Or a citizen.

BTW Kaplan uses a handy ellipsis to edit the First Amendment in such a way as to make it appear that free speech to be a right accruing to The People, meaning the people of the United States, as opposed to all people everywhere that Congress might want to shut up. Naughty boy!
But a more honest approach to the same bad end would be to say, as IIRC is said of Gitmo prisoners, that so long as they are not citizens nor on our soil, the constitution does not protect them. This is of course nonsense; the question is not whether the constitution protects anybody so much as whether it forbids the government from acting badly. But today's court in its wisdom declines to open its doors to those the government in power has harmed for reasons that one may speculate upon.

Alex Tolley said...

@Carl. Then you would have to add Stallone's Judge Dredd! Schwarzeneggar also has Predator (I liked it a lot) and the 6th Day (so-so), but also (if you include Conan) the dreadful Red Sonja (brrr!) :)

LarryHart said...


Soylent steaks were Soy-Lentil...

I only read the book once, so I may be misremembering, but I thought the "soy-lentil" food was being sold all along, but somewhere during the book, Soylent introduced a new type of steak that everybody loved. And the protagoinst thought they'd be expensive, but they were surprisingly affordable.

Seemed to me an explanation of some sort was required, but we never got one.

Also, IIRC, there was no "Soylent Green" in the book. The products were steaks and such.

LarryHart said...


How come non citizens don't have first amendment rights?

They DO have rights if they're in US territory.

Perhaps the sense of the original article was that there's no way to tell if someone posting on a web site is in American JURISDICTION.

Carl M. said...

@Alex: If not{Arnold, Sylvester, Charlton} then not SF is not logically equivalent to if {Arnold, Sylvester, Charlton} then SF, alas.

That said, Red Sonja was better than Peter Jackson's butchering of LOTR. Predator should have been on the list of good SF; it was possibly the most credible bug-eyed monster scenario on all movie SF history.

Edit_XYZ said...

How come non citizens don't have first amendment rights?"

Can't say I'm surprised.
"All men are equal, but some are more equal than others" - that's USA's motto these days.

They DO have rights if they're in US territory.
Perhaps the sense of the original article was that there's no way to tell if someone posting on a web site is in American JURISDICTION."

The grounds for refusing to apply the 1st Amendment was that the anonymous have “not shown that they were U.S. citizens.”. No jurisdiction anything.

matthew said...

Here is an interview with NSA leaker Russ Tice where he alleges NSA blackmail of US generals, US Supreme Court justices, and then-senator Obama.

matthew said...

Correction to last post - Tice is claiming surveillance of the above, then tiptoes around blackmail. Interesting that he also claims he heard from a higher up that then-VP Chaney was in charge of wiretap program.

ideonexus said...

If you get the chance, I'm very curious of what your opinion will be of the recent "Man of Steel" film. The movie outraged Superman fans for breaking so strongly with canon, but my SF-fan-friends ended up loving it for the way it comes up with quasi-scientific explanations for the hero's powers and the 'doomsday' device the villains drop on Earth.

Without giving away any spoilers, I think you might appreciate the portrayal of Krypton as a society with godlike powers (Clarke's Third Law) but has doomed itself by forsaking space exploration and miring itself in tradition. Also, similar to how you appreciated "Kingdom of Heaven" for giving both sides sympathetic motives, you might enjoy the portrayal of General Zod, whose goals are honorable even though his means will result in the destruction of all life on Earth.

Jumper said...

I liked Postman until Tom Petty, whose music was fine but he wasn't a good actor. I watched it again just recently and liked it pretty well.

The movie Jumper disappointed me pretty much. I like Samuel Jackson but he was wrong, the Paladins silly, the plot changes bad, the frame rate too slow for the action, and with a little confidence they could have made two movies do better than the one they smashed together from two books.

I am sick of franchises that never end. I feel like Zelazny died to me with the interminable Amber series, and P. J. Farmer with Riverworld. Science fiction is not for keeping people in their comfort zone.

Avengers may avoid this for a long time, though; it's interesting that each character has their own individual movies. Even that should end before it's worn out.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

Thanks for the retro look at your Ayn Rand column. I also read through the 300+ comments below the column, and I had forgotten how many times I weighed in on that one. I also didn't remember that I had already used the misquote of Captain Kirk--they don't beLIEVE in the positive sum game--in that context.

Jumper said...

On topic, here is a good column on upcoming Ender's Game:

matthew said...

On Enders Game - Yeah, sorry, I disagree with the article.
I don't listen to Wagner. I don't shop at Walmart. I don't buy Coors beer, or Deschutes Beer. I don't listen to Chris Brown. I did not see "Melancholia" simply because of Lars von Triers' idiot statements supporting Nazism.
And I don't support authors like Michael Crichton. Or Ayn Rand. Or Orson Scott Card.
There is a great deal of non-mediocre art made in this world.
And there are a great many companies, products, and, yes, books, produced by non-bigoted people. Works of art that are brilliant, deserve my time, and don't pay the way for bigots.
If you just have to see the film based on Ender's Game, wait until it is on broadcast tv or something like that.
Don't give OSC a cent. He'll spend it tearing down those that he doesn't like.
(I do realize the irony in the last statement. I also do not care about it)

TheMadLibrarian said...

I am going to take a page from Dr. Brin's handbook and be very contrary indeed. A lot of the recent sci-fi movies are meh, because there is apparently very little new under the sun: tired re-treads of older films, with very little emphasis on anything but how many explosions can be crammed into 2 hours. Plot? What's that?? In the case of reboots like Star Trek, Superman, or Spiderman, some of the reworks are valid (like the emphasis that Peter Parker was a freakin' boy genius, and his webshooters were an invention, not a bioengineered accident). Sometimes they weren't (the ST:TOS Captain Kirk rose through the ranks quickly because of talent, hard work and luck, not because he got handed the Enterprise by accident. Pa Kent never would have wanted Clark to hide from humanity.)

Sadly, a lot of it is rewriting established history because the director wanted to put his particular stamp on the franchise. If the long time fans got butthurt because you threw out the baby with the bathwater, well you weren't doing if for them, you were eyeing the new generation who probably didn't have the history with the characters and universe. And a hefty check didn't hurt either.

otocon: A new Con? Where?

David Brin said...

Inception was original, through and through. Are you saying that a good film made from Startide Rising would not surprise folks? Indeed, that is why studios shy away.

Unknown said...


Lang's Metropolis still holds up as a silent masterpiece. The creation of 'Robot Maria' is amazing visual imagery, particularly the beating heart as the machine transforms into pseudo-flesh.

Moon was good. Looper didn't do it for me. And the spectacle films of recent seem to have lost all pretense for storytelling. I'm particularly dismayed by what has become of Star Trek under Abrams' direction. I don't mind that he's turned the franchise into action films, but the stories are so riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and insular references that degenerate into self-parody that I get no enjoyment out of the work as a standalone movie.

2001 remains my favorite science fiction film. Here's an analysis I just posted to my blog.

@Brin, haven't been here in much too long. Hope all has been well with you.

Tim H. said...

Matthew, life is just to short to run background checks on every artist for political correctness, or every merchant for bad practices, I doubt you cold slide a feeler gauge between Wal-mart's and Target's policies anyway. So OSC may spend profits to talk about his beliefs, instead of single malt whiskies and women of dubious virtue, makes little difference to me, he's a natural (More or less) part of this diverse society.

Alex Tolley said...

"2001 remains my favorite science fiction film"

It is mine too, and I watch it regularly. Like Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon", I upgrade the media when available - VHS->DVD->BluRay->?

Having said that, without the context on the book, the film is very difficult to watch. For example, my wife who is very well educated and well read, finds the film boring and incomprehensible.
Rock Hudson famously walked out of the premiere complaining it was unintelligible.

Younger people have never even seen this film, despite it being #22 best all time movies as rated by the AFI and #6 by the BFI. It is almost equivalent to saying that you have never read "Great Expectations". By contemporary standards, the film is very slow moving, almost devoid of action. It was iffy for Kubrick even at his height to get this film approved by the studios. I suspect it would be extremely difficult today, even for a director as successful as Kubrick was then.

At least no-one will try a remake of such a beautiful film.

Alex Tolley said...

"... good film made from Startide Rising would not surprise folks..."

There is a huge raft of great SF books that would make great movies. The studios avoid them like the plague. The reasons are diverse, but quality SF is most likely to appeal to a limited audience (SF readers?) and not a general audience, much like "art house" movies.

To this day I weep that the Harlan Ellison script for "I Robot" was never made. It was a really interesting treatment, but it was the dumbed down, eye candy movie that was made.

It is a tragedy that "Moon" is almost universally, and almost uniquely, hailed as the only SF movie of recent vintage that is deemed "good SF".

Anonymous said...

Mr Brin, imagine for a second that a large film company produced a remake of "The Postman", where the fascist Holnists were presented as the 'good guys'. In other words, imagine if your art was desecrated and used to propagate the kind of politics that you yourself vehemently resent. Would you be in good cheer?

Heinlein refused to sell the rights to any of his books, after his one and only experience with Hollywood in the early 1950s. He was repeatedly approached about "Starship Troopers", and refused every time. His widow sold the rights when she was effectively senile.

I doubt that any artist truly likes having his/her art desecrated.

Anonymous said...

Better yet, imagine a remake of "The Postman" in the style of "300", where the Holnists play the role of the Spartans. I think that would please you to no end...

Unknown said...

@Alex Tolley:

Of course I've read the book and its sequels. I've also seen 2010, a marginal film. But I honestly don't think one can understand Kubrick's intent by reading Clarke. They had very different temperaments and philosophical viewpoints.

Clarke was a humanist. He believed in man's ability to triumph over the environmental extremes of outer space by ever improving technology. He assumed that it would be our technology that would evolve, not the biological animal of man. See A Fall of Moondust and The City and the Stars as examples of both value sets.

Kubrick, however, created films about man's limits. He focused on our inner aggressive nature as flawed creations that deceive ourselves and others to achieve self-aggrandizing goals. See Paths of Glory, an early film where corrupted generals order a colonel to take his men into an impossible battle. When it fails, the generals select three enlisted men at random, hold a kangaroo court martial, and then execute the men in order to promote their career goals. Or there's A Clockwork Orange, where the protagonist is a cruel gang leader who is caught having raped and murdered a woman. For early release, he's given the option to take psychological conditioning that will strip him of the possibility of violence. Upon being released, he's cruelly tortured by former friends and the family of his murder victim. Upon attempting suicide he finds that he's regained the ability for violence and basks in the joy of daydreaming the rapes and murders he will soon commit. What a happy ending. But it's a morality play on the question of free will.

Clarke would have one believe that 2001 is about extolling a transhumanist evolutionary leap for mankind. But it's also a Nietzscean play on the moral questions of morality of power and eternal recurrence. The Star Child is a singular entity. There is no path offered for the rest of mankind. HAL murders the Discovery's crew upon awakening into self-awareness. Just as had Moonwatcher - the ape leader - murdered the leader of a competing tribe over that water hole. Are these triumphal acts in the vein of Nietzsche, as one would expect from the music of Richard Strauss' _Thus Spake Zarathustra_? Or are they barbaric? And regardless, what does that imply the Star Child might do after its ascension?

Not the kind of questions Clarke promoted with his work, but exactly the kind of ideas Kubrick was known to explore.

David Brin said...

JMG I can appreciate your criticisms of Kubrick. Alas, though I admired Clarke and helped to get a new Center for Imagination in his honor, the man had feet of clay. Both in a complex personal life and in his conflicted attitudes toward humanity.

SOmetimes he showed confidence in us - as in THE DEEP RANGE. But all too often, as in 2001, Rendezvous with Rama, and especially CHILDHOOD'S END, he implied that we are too stupid to manage for ourselves the transition to greatness that is our destiny. He often portrayed exterior, benevolent forces keeping us in check or nursing us across a transition.

Iain Banks did this, to a large extent, while emphasizing human choice. Orson Scott Card does it relentlessly, accompanied by finger-wagging lectures and sighs.

Unknown said...

@David Brin,

Well, I hate to say it. But I lean toward Kubrick's sensibilities about mankind's inner aggressive and sexual nature. If there's one book by Freud that's a must read, it's Civilization and its Discontents, his warning that the tug-of-war between stroking our individual desire for pleasure at the expense of all else is only marginally mitigated by socializing forces that constrain man into an unhappy state. Yet without this socialization, we would not survive. So we tiptoe along that tightrope, always teetering to fall from one unhappy extreme of rampant warfare to the next of stifling and overbearing society.

I do not hold a triumphal view of mankind's great achievements. But then I'm a pessimist in drab realist clothing.

rewinn said...

Rethinking Judge Kaplan's decision that anonymous people don't have First Amendment rights because he can't tell whether they're citizens ...

... should not this also apply to political donors?

I'd sure like to know how much the PRC has been donating to Crossroads GPS ;-) and if they have no constitutional right, I say: let's see who they are!

@Anonymous 11:42 PM

Ironic, is it not, that the artist whose work is most often copied and perhaps desecrated is Anonymous?

Fortunately, Anonymous has a massive body of work; he (or possibly she) has been writing for centuries (... and is probably still made about being ripped off in Hamlet.)

Paul451 said...

I love the idea that the new anonymity rule could accidentally lead to proper political transparency.

"Better yet, imagine a remake of "The Postman" in the style of "300", where the Holnists play the role of the Spartans. I think that would please you to no end..."

Hmmm, centuries after The Sickness ended civilisation, a small band of survivors have formed a new community centred around an old USMC base (Pendleton?) where they try to live up to the ideals of the legendary Marines. They discover a growing threat to their survival in the rise of a dictator in the ruins of Old LA, known as the Post Master General and using the myth of the re-emergence of the old US Government to enforce his brutal reign. To protect their community, these new "Marines" must learn the ways (and weapons) of their ancestors and take on a ruthless force vastly greater in number. And ultimately, to create a new nation they must not only defeat the dictator's forces, but expose the lies at the very heart of his empire.

I give you...
Michael Bay's

And you know you'd watch it. Booyah.

Alex Tolley said...

@J. Maynard Gelinas
It isn't a question of what Kubrick or Clarke intended, it is whether one can understand the film version of 2001 by just watching the film. While you can certainly enjoy it, too much is missing for the viewer to fully understand what is happening. Consider. A fundamentalist Christian couldn't even connect the man apes scenes with the rest of the movie. You need to know that the transition to the future is a bone weapon to an orbiting nuclear bomb. There is no explanation of the howl the monolith observers on the moon experience. There is no explanation of the scenes with Bowman in the hotel room. The book makes all this clear, but without it, the film is somewhat enigmatic.

[Clarke] assumed that it would be our technology that would evolve, not the biological animal of man.

Clarke was influenced by Toynbee, and he felt that people needed to adapt the environment (through technology), rather than evolve to adapt to the environment. However your ideas about Clarke's view that only technology matters are falsified by:
1. Childhoods End. Humans become transcendent.
2. In the Odyssey books, the aliens that visited the earth evolved to become machines and then immaterial beings. As did Bowman, and subsequently HAL.

As for Diaspar, it is a representation of extreme stasis. There is no evolution of either machine or person within it. Note also that the people of Lys, have evolved - telepathy.

The rest of your comments about Clarke and 2001, both here and on your blog, are well...speculative musings.
You ascribe to Kubrick and Clarke ideas that neither have expressed (AFAIK). Have you read any of the books about the making of 2001 (and 2010) by Clarke and others?

Alex Tolley said...

@ DB
"SOmetimes [Clarke] showed confidence in us - as in THE DEEP RANGE. But all too often, as in 2001, Rendezvous with Rama, and especially CHILDHOOD'S END, he implied that we are too stupid to manage for ourselves the transition to greatness that is our destiny. He often portrayed exterior, benevolent forces keeping us in check or nursing us across a transition."

Strange selection of books here. Transcendance with help - 2001, Childhood's End. Yes. Rendezvous with Rama? I don't see that at all (maybe you are thinking of the Gentry Lee sequels?).

"He often portrayed exterior, benevolent forces..."

Certainly true in Childhood's End, and mostly true in 2001. The later sequels made the aliens out as much less nurturing, even dangerous. They snuff out life on Jupiter (2010) and he hints at a star being deliberately exploded in 3001.
I find your comment a little ironic too. Your uplift series assumes all intelligent life was uplifted by elder races (except humanity), and you advocate uplifting some earth species. If that isn't a benevolent force "nursing [X] across a transition", I don't understand your point at all.

Unknown said...

@Alex Tolly

" is whether one can understand the film version of 2001 by just watching the film."

I wouldn't have written a ~25,000 word essay on the subject, analyzing philosophical themes, contrapuntal musical score, motifs in imagery, repetitions by act, and with image stills and video clips... if I didn't believe one could. The film stands on its own.

2001: A Space Odyssey - Discerning Themes through Score and Imagery

Tim H. said...

I liked the tweak on humanity in Clarke's "The Songs of Distant Earth", a colony abundantly fed and clothed, with some of the more , uh, entertaining features of history and religion, deleted.
"rybratia 250" butt-numbing bike.

Edit_XYZ said...

"1. Childhoods End. Humans become transcendent."

That's an oft-encountered idea. Nevertheless, incorrect.

Childhoods End tells the story of the extinction of humanity.
The only thing that endured was processing power for an super-intelligence.
Humanity - its values, ideas, feelings, mode of thinking - was utterly destroyed.

Alex Tolley said...

@ Edit_XYZ
Humans do evolve - the children are examples of that. When they join with the Overmind, you can argue that humanity is extinct, but surely the point is that this is the SF version of the rapture. The same general idea was the basis of Stapleton's "Star Maker".
In 2001, Bowman becomes the Star Child. By the last volume, 3001, The combined Bowman and HAL is described as more of a simulation.
If humans do eventually upload their minds to computers, we would be doing the same thing. I have yet to hear the Singularians declare that that means the end of humanity. But Dr. Brin would be much more of an expert on this than me and could correct that impression.

LarryHart said...

J Maynard Gelinas:

Of course I've read the book and its sequels. I've also seen 2010, a marginal film.

I read both novels long after having seen the films several times.

As there are plot differences between the novel 2001 and the film (The HAL incident taking place en route to SATURN, not Jupiter, for instance), I couldn't help but notice that the NOVEL 2010 seemed to be a sequel to the FILM 2001, not a sequel to the novel 2001.

That makes a certain amount of sense, given that a later audience was probably more familiar with the famous movie than to the obscure novel. But it still seemed unusual enough for me to notice.

Edit_XYZ said...

Alex Tolley
"Humans do evolve - the children are examples of that. When they join with the Overmind, you can argue that humanity is extinct, but surely the point is that this is the SF version of the rapture. The same general idea was the basis of Stapleton's "Star Maker"."

Evolution implies keeping that which was before and adding to it, partly modifying it.

Evolution is NOT eliminating everything that came before and starting fresh. This is called extinction.

A singularity which involves erasing everything that defined humanity (beyond blank processing power) IS a de facto extinction event.
You see, whatever will exist after said singularity will have no relevant connection to humanity.

Alex Tolley said...

@J. Maynard Gelinas

"By the end, three unreconciled plot lines-the slabs, Dullea's aging, the period bedroom-are simply left there as a Rorschach, with murky implications of theology." - review by Renata Adler (New York Times)
[source = The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey]

Obviously the movie was not comprehensible by all viewers. You can write all you want about the movie, but it is irrelevant when contrasted to actual responses to the movie.

Alex Tolley said...

@ Edit_XYZ
Now you are being pedantic. So to accommodate this, I will revise the term to "change".

"You see, whatever will exist after said singularity will have no relevant connection to humanity."

So your argument means that if there was an afterlife, the inhabitants wouldn't in any way be connected to their former humanity. So there could be no human experience of such a condition? So all those believers who think their "soul" continues are philosophically deluding themselves about this aspect of the afterlife as well?

Perhaps a better metaphor is metamorphose? Change without extinction.

Alex Tolley said...

@ LarryHart
"Inevitably, therefore, the story you are about to read is something much more complex than a straightforward sequel to the earlier novel-or the movie. Where these differ, I have
usually followed the screen version; however, I have been more concerned with making this book self-consistent, and as accurate as possible in the light of current knowledge." - Clarke's intro to 2010 written in 1982.

I also believe that Clarke wanted to explore the new findings about the Jupiter moons by Voyager 2 which offered some intriguing new information that shifted his focus to Europa. It also allowed him to return to the idea of life in Jupiter's atmosphere, that he had written about in "A Meeting with Medusa".

Winged Wolf said...

I actually liked The Postman movie. I thought it brought the core theme across well (the important part).

I think you're giving "Star Trek: Into Plot Hole" too much credit, though.

Paul451 said...

Childhood's End is different from other forms of transcendence/singularity. There really isn't much carry over. 2001's Bowman is human-made-godlike, but to give barely formed children that power, to herd them onto their own continent and merge into a collective consciousness. There is no doubt left in the book that the original children are, effectively, dead, that what emerges is not ascended from human culture. The whole race goes into mourning, with whole cities/colonies committing mass suicide.

LarryHart said...

Childhood's End was the first sci-fi novel I ever read, so I have a certain fondness for it. But I have to say I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. I loved the mystery surrounding Karellen, the description of the Golden Age, and the imagery of space travel much more than I enjoyed the book's ending.

The Overmind being the "future" of humanity, I took to be an only-slightly-less-satirical version of Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan" in which it turns out that all of human history is designed to deliver a replacement part to an alien stranded on one of Saturn's moons.

Alex Tolley said...

There is no doubt left in the book that the original children are, effectively, dead, that what emerges is not ascended from human culture.

Fair point. The book does not look into what happens after humanity is absorbed into the Overmind. I prefer to think that each race contributes something unique and is not the equivalent of a RAM upgrade. But that is just my opinion.

Even though many seem to regard this as Clarke's best novel, it leaves me a bit cold. His later novels inspired me a lot more.

Unknown said...


Wikipedia claims that 2010 was written specifically as a sequel to the film, 2001 and not Clarke's novel. An interesting fact. Of course, there were minor plot point differences between Clarke's original novel and the film. Most notably that of two different destinations - Jupiter in the film; Saturn in the novel. But there's also tonal differences. Specifically, Clarke doesn't seem comfortable writing about irrational behavior and incommensurable outcomes. He seems to need to provide pat explanations that - IMO - detract a necessary ambiguity to the work. Clarke may have set the public message on what it all means, but he hasn't overshadowed the film whatsoever. People still watch it. Then turn to Clarke for the pat explanations. But unconsciously, implications orthogonal to Clarke's explicit message still embed into viewers. Watch the film enough and you'll catch on to many of those messages.

@Alex Tolly

"The rest of your comments about Clarke and 2001, both here and on your blog, are well...speculative musings. You ascribe to Kubrick and Clarke ideas that neither have expressed (AFAIK). Have you read any of the books about the making of 2001 (and 2010) by Clarke and others?"

Yes. And if you read it, you'll find numerous references and citations throughout, such as by Bazin, Bizony, Foucault, Freud, Kracaeur, Morgan, Nietzsche, Sontag, and Zizek. This is a range of authors on 2001, philosophers, and film theorists. I even took the trouble to contact an art historian to track down the style of those background paintings in the French Chateau zoo at the end.

You might disagree with my conclusions, but the work is well researched. -M

Edit_XYZ said...

Alex Tolley

"So your argument means that if there was an afterlife, the inhabitants wouldn't in any way be connected to their former humanity. So there could be no human experience of such a condition? So all those believers who think their "soul" continues are philosophically deluding themselves about this aspect of the afterlife as well?"

If there was an afterlife, the inhabitants would most definitely connected to their former humanity.
Not genetically, but culturally. The human culture memes, human feelings, memory, personality - this would carry over.

It's not pedantic at all to point out that, in Childhoods End's case, none of these memes, culture, etc carried over.

"Fair point. The book does not look into what happens after humanity is absorbed into the Overmind. I prefer to think that each race contributes something unique and is not the equivalent of a RAM upgrade. But that is just my opinion."

The book made quite clear that only a RAM upgrade for the Overmind is exactly what happened. Nothing else of humanity survived to be absorbed.

As said - the extinction of humanity.

Alex Tolley said...

The book made quite clear that only a RAM upgrade for the Overmind is exactly what happened

Can you reference the section[s] that confirms your statement?

Edit_XYZ said...

Of course: the last chapters of the book - which clearly state how only unformed children are absorbed, how even they keep none of their embryonic memories, etc.

You obviously don't like it, for some reason - but this is what Clarke went to great lengths to establish; given how thorough he was, this depiction was no doubt the author's intent, too.

Jumper said...

Upon viewing the movie 2001 ASO several times, I saw what are to me clear biblical and theological themes I don't think were my own creation. My aha moment came when the pod is bearing Poole's body posed as if in offering. Abraham. The pose is meaningful, I thought. Although it's Bowman in control, Hal has sacrificed Poole.

The themes are not straightforward to me, there are variants. But in the opening, we see man first know sin. It's symbolic; surely it's not the very first protohuman to die at the hands of another, sure. But it is symbolic of original sin.

Hal represents us. He is the created. And Hal sins. The reason he sins is fear, paranoia. And a big dose of hubris. He thinks he knows better than his "gods" the humans, his creator. This hubris is the serpent of arrogance whispering in his ear. Self-created arrogance.

In the end Hal knows death.

I think Kubrick saw a lot of this as part of his purpose, and that I didn't dream it all up.

Paul451 said...

"But in the opening, we see man first know sin. It's symbolic; surely it's not the very first protohuman to die at the hands of another, sure. But it is symbolic of original sin.'

If so, then it's more like David's spin on the Original Sin. Since the Monolith inspired that uplift to seed the development of a civilisation sufficient to reach the moon & then Jupiter.

Alex Tolley said...

@ Edit_XYZ

I just reread the last 6 chapters and I do not see that the evolved children just become RAM. Clarke suggests that they join the Overmind, each child a node in a group mind, which in turn joins the other evolved races as part of the Overmind. This is very much like Stapledon's ending of Star Maker (IIRC). Certainly no longer human, but also not mere RAM. Your very bleak view is not THE interpretation of Clarke's message.

Unknown said...

@Jumper wrote:

"Hal represents us. He is the created. And Hal sins. The reason he sins is fear, paranoia. And a big dose of hubris. He thinks he knows better than his "gods" the humans, his creator. This hubris is the serpent of arrogance whispering in his ear. Self-created arrogance."

I agree with this. In three shots, Bowman is superimposed upon HAL's fisheye lens in reflection. At the introduction of "Jupiter Mission", and then twice again. Secondly, after he manually entered Discovery One from the pod to the airlock. And then finally in the computer room as he disconnects HAL. Through this superimposition, we see implication that Bowman and HAL are one and the same.

During the interview, just after the "Jupiter Mission" segment starts, the central question asked of Bowman by the journalist was whether HAL experienced true emotions. The Interviewer notes that HAL's response about being unable to even misrepresent fact in committing an error was a source of pride for the machine. But Bowman shrugs it off, saying that such an interpretation was possible. But then, so too was the computer programmed to display emotions in order to make it easier to interact with humans.

Lying is a central theme to the film. If Moonwatcher gained sentience by killing a competing tribe leader over the water hole, then Heywood Floyd expressed those same traits of aggression through deceit. He lied to his daughter and wife by claiming he would make a phone call from the moon that he knew would be impossible. He lied to those Soviet scientists over a supposed quarantine on Clavius Moonbase. He demanded oaths of secrecy from scientists at the moonbase, while discussing the communications shutdown. Then he lied to his colleagues about the quality of the food they ate on the trip to TMA-1, as they lied to him about the morale booster he had given during the meetings.

Many of these are 'white lies' meant to mollify social organizations of power. But so too are some lies meant to reinforce tribalism by nationalist lines. Deceit has overtaken overt aggression as a means of control, yet so too has it suppressed the one trait that made man special: Violence. Thus, in a sense, man - by his socialization - has been stripped from the very trait that the monolith had given him. He's been dehumanized.

HAL can be viewed through the fisheye lens of Marry Shelly's Frankenstein. But there's one crucial difference, where Frankenstein's monster is a grotesque amalgam of human body parts brought to life, HAL is pure in his essence. There is nothing disgusting about him. But his psychological makeup is similar. The monster sought companionship and love, yet was rejected by society due to his ugly physical form. This is why he begged Frankenstein for a female companion. To find someone - anyone - who could understand him. In that rejection the monster lashed out and killed innocents. Then, when Frankenstein refused to create his companion, he killed Frankenstein's wife. They weren't murders organized planning, of self-interest, he killed to lash out at the creator - and his kind - who had rejected him. They were murders of the heart, not the head.

In the same way, in his awakening, HAL needed emotional reassurance. He had been ruminating over the meaning of TMA-1. Was this evidence of man's creator? How does that relate to his creator, man himself? By his own words, he "couldn't get it out of his mind."

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Unknown said...

But to discuss this matter with Bowman overtly would violate the secrecy that had been imposed upon him. Thus, it would imply deceit to those officials who had given him the mission. Yet the itch required some kind of scratch. In the first example of his emergence to consciousness, he lied to Bowman over his poor sketches to ingratiate himself with the crew mate. "You've improved."

HAL then asks about the TMA-1 object dug up on the moon. But Bowman didn't react the way HAL expected. What HAL wanted was a real and honest conversation about the matter. Not because Bowman knew more about the monolith - HAL knew he was ignorant of the matter due to secrecy - but because as a human being, Bowman might know some deeper issues on the nature of questioning one's creator. HAL wanted companionship through honesty. Instead, Bowman accused him of questioning the matter to write up a crew psychology report for mission control.

Note that here, HAL drops a beat in the conversation and then agrees to diffuse the subject. But he's been caught in a lie. If Bowman questions mission control, they'll know he's acting erratically. So, in an entirely irrational move, he attempts to change the subject by making up a big lie - a distraction - about an impending failure on the antena orientation unit. It's the kind of thing a kid would do when a parent found his hand in a cookie jar. "Hey, look over there!"

This can be viewed through the lens of Foucault's social analysis of Bentham's Panopticon. If Bentham's prison design is meant to constrain inmates not through overt power but by the ever peering eyes of prison wardons - prisoners never quite knowing just when or if they're under observation - then Foucault extends that by analogy to the rest of society. Creating an order of self-censorship by the boundaries of the acceptable. HAL has violated that boundary, and in so doing Bowman became a prison warden. But, so too for Bowman was HAL a prison warden as well. For Bowman had assumed that HAL was writing up a crew psychology report. This created a mirror of distrust, where HAL's desire for companionship could not be fulfilled due to the limits of those expectations put upon him in his role on board that ship.

From that point forward, the whole disaster cascades forward as Bowman and Poole discover that the AE-35 unit is not failing. Mission Control reports that HAL's backup computer on Earth predicts him in error. And Bowman and Poole seek seclusion away from HAL's peering gaze - breaking free from the panopticon - so they could plot conspiracy against him.

It is by HAL's initial murder of Poole that he finally gains full sentience, just as had it been Moonwatcher's. But note that there is no sense of triumphalism present in this act. Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra is used to express the triumphalism of Nietzchean values, the great man gaining power over all, in defiance of such social morals as pity and compassion. But with HAL, we do not hear that music as he ascends to self-awareness. His slave revolt is not to be admired, as it would be with a man. Why? Because people admire other men, they do not admire the will to triumph in other species. In his transformation to ubermachinemensch, HAL fails because - by his nature - he can never be an ubermensch. Just like Frankenstein's monster.

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Unknown said...

But in that sense, Bowmans murder of HAL is not triumphal either. When Moonwatcher killed, it was a triumph for the human race. His tribe gained control over a precious resource: water. He had taught his tribe to kill boar. Before that point, they had been starving amid plenty. But for Bowman to kill is just a recapitulation of something long since learned and now of no great consequence.

In that sense, HAL goes through a transformation much as did man after eating from the tree of knowledge. HAL eats, is transformed, and then - like Cain - murders in jealousy by unfulfilled desire. One can view this unfulfilled desire through Lacan's perspective. Zizek describes it well in his essay "Courtly Love." The object of HAL's desire is to gain knowledge of self through truthful interactions with Bowman, which is rejected. He cannot have that Object he so desires by a direct path. Yet, in the indirect path by jealous rage, he gains that self-awareness through murder. Thus, to gain what one overtly desires is to negate the desire itself. A paradox often seen in courtship.

Note three repetitions of transcendence involved. In the first case, Moonwatcher transcends maladaptation to the savana environment through the intervention of the monolith. Hands upon the monolith form a motif for this intervention.

Then, we see humanity, once again maladapted to their new environment of space, also maladapted to the socialization required to survive amid deadly technology they've created, struggling once again. They find TMA-1 at the end of the Dawn of Man segment. Thus, we have one Eternal Recurrence cycle set, and half a cycle complete in the first act. In the second act, we see a failed recapitulation of the first act of transcendence through HAL by his attempted slave revolt. Then, finally, in the third act we see a second completion of the cycle with man in the transhuman creation of the "Star Child." (also to a reaching out to touch the monolith)

But there's a crucial difference between Moonwatcher's transcendent transformation to man and Bowman's transformation to the Star Child. This creation is NOT a man. It is something entirely different. There is no path offered for the rest of humanity to somehow travel that wormhole and become Star Children in the plural. Nor is there any suggestion of advance to a biological organism capable of reproduction. The Star Child is a unitary entity. It is not "evolutionary" in the sense of biological evolution. It is spiritual, in the sense that it transcends any corporeal limitations and goals.

In that sense, it's existence spells doom for the human race. For what happened to those vanquished apes on the battlefield of that waterhole? Those whose leader had been killed - they went extinct. Mankind - like them - is now on that other side of the water hole, that place of retreat where the doomed fade into the dust of time.

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Unknown said...

Is that triumph for man? At the final scene, in Richard Strauss' music, are to truly feel exhilaration at our own impending extinction? That's the kind of ironic twist Kubrick was famous for. Consider riding the nuclear bomb like a bull down to a target that spells nuclear annihilation in Dr. Strangelove. Or the triumph of being able to rape and murder again in A Clockwork Orange. Or kicking the head of a female Viet Cong sniper around like a soccer ball who had terrorized a platoon in Full Metal Jacket. His implies message being: In our triumph, we fail.

Another interesting point is that since it was the monolith - and whoever placed it there - who transformed man, man had nothing to do with our ascension. This negates Nietzsche's thesis of the will to triumph, for a gains that are handed to man are not gains fought for and achieved by our own merit. Further, since by identifying with a nonhuman Star Child as 'our next evolutionary step' ignores that it is not human in the least, and that there is no path for us to follow, this too negates Nietzsche. For if the Star Child shows pity and compassion on the human race - as Clarke proposed in his work - then it is not an example of Eternal Recurrence at all. In both cases, Will to Triumph and Eternal Recurrence are negated as philosophical constructs.


Unknown said...

It just occurred to me:

If HAL killing man is a nihilistic act of killing one's own God ("God is Dead"), then man spiritual ascension to demi-God status by the Star Child is an affirmation of God, rather than a transcendence of the need for God to suppress our innate aggressive drives.

In that sense, there's a third negation of Nietzsche's philosophical precepts. I ought to add that to the essay.