Which is worse? Living in a radioactive airship or inside a giant bio-engineered lizard?


I recently read two very different scifi books, with a similar theme – people living part or all of their lives on the move, inside an unusual, cramped and unpleasant form of transportation. Both stories are set about 250 years in the future on a post-apocalyptic Earth operating under militarized society.

First, let me talk about James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. The book begins with this quote from fictional scientist Dr. David Wong – “History will record that the discovery of alien technology and DNA on asteroid X34-102-401 brought us to a predictable catastrophe. Governments perverted our greatest gift to synthesise vehicles of destruction. Global conflict was inevitable.”

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The story takes place during the mid-23rd century in the midst of a world war involving three major global powers – United Europe (UE), Middle East & Africa (the Mid-Afs or Mafs) and Latin America (the Sambas). All three parties use alien DNA technology for their weapons.

Our hero, Max Halloran is a maverick pilot (think Tom Cruise in Top Gun), fighting on the side of United Europe. Operating under the call sign ‘Hal-X’ he flies with the Inferno squadron. So far, so normal. Except that he flies an artificially grown dragon (called a Drake), synthesized from alien DNA and terrestrial lizard DNA. The drakes have a pouch which the pilot climbs into. It then fills with fluid to protect the pilot from g-forces and also neurally connects him/ her to the drake’s brain so that it can be controlled by thought. The drakes, pilots and a few thousand other military combatants are transported inside the body cavity of a kilometer long giant lizard (called a Behemoth), which lumbers along the devastated battlefield on 30-odd pairs of legs. The Behemoth inside which Max and his crew are based is the eponymous Heart of Granite (or HoG for short). The military also uses other genetically modified lizards as troop carriers (Komodos), ground assault vehicles with missile launchers (Geckos), support carriers (Iguanas) and high speed patrol vehicles (Basilisks), some of which are also transported aboard the giant Behemoths.

Heart of Granite plays out like a standard pulp fiction military thriller. There are spectacular air battles, heartless superior officers, rivalry between hotheaded pilots, plus the usual mix of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But what made the book special for me was the description of life aboard the HoG, which operates like a typical military base. The author goes into tremendous detail about the internal structures of the Behemoth. There’s the main bridge inside the head cavity with its large screen monitors and sophisticated communication equipment; the flight deck from which the drakes are launched – a giant ramp opens out under the Behemoth’s tail from which they take off; the hidden passageways and rooms occupied by black marketeers and drug peddlers; the giant brain of the Behemoth which can be accessed in the case of an emergency to reset the electrical, mechanical and biological systems. Some parts of the Behemoth are particularly smelly or occasionally leak body fluid through cracks in the flesh, which then pool on the floor in a squelchy mess. It’s anything but glamorous, but the men and women aboard the HoG take it all in their stride as they fight for their nation and for glory. There’s also a somewhat convoluted plotline involving a government and military conspiracy, which Max gets sucked into. Eventually, he has to save himself, his friends and the HoG, while evading the higher-ups in the military who are trying to silence him.

 

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The second book I read was Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Hell Divers. About 250 years after World War III turned the surface of the earth into a radioactive wasteland, all that remains of humanity is a population of less than a thousand people, who live aboard two helium airships – the Hive and the Ares.  Once upon a time, there were dozens of such airships, but now only these two survive. The rest fell to the poisoned earth one by one, as their ageing nuclear systems failed or the ships were struck by giant bolts of lightning from the perpetual mega-storms which circle the planet. Generation after generation of airship captains circle the globe, looking in vain for a single spot on the planet which is not radioactive, where they can touch down and start a normal life. Meanwhile, over more than two centuries, they have learned how to survive inside the airship, with plants grown inside farms, systems constantly patched up and repaired, living in cramped quarters with stinking toilets, everything recycled and citizens suffering from cancer due to the leaking radiation from the on-board nuclear reactors.

The protagonist of this book is Xavier Rodriguez, or X for short. X is a Hell Diver, an elite member of the military on board the Hive. They specialize in doing parachute drops into ruined cities, looking for precious spare parts or other pieces of technology which are required to keep the ships functioning and airborne. The author starts off by telling us that the average life expectancy of a Hell Diver is 15 jumps, but X is about to do his 96th. Beating the statistical odds comes with a price – most of X’s Hell Diver friends have perished over the years, his own wife has recently died and X keeps himself going by drowning himself in alcohol.

In this story, the airship Ares attempts a desperate retrieval mission for a large cache of critical nuclear reactor parts. The ship chooses to go to Hades (Chicago of old earth) which was the HQ of the company that built these airships and is rumoured to have a warehouse filled with pristine spare parts. Unfortunately, Hades is racked by the most violent thunderstorms on the planet and no airship’s Hell Diver team has ever returned from a dive there. Not surprisingly, the Ares is badly damaged and sends out an SOS; Captain Ash of the Hive decides to respond, her conscience winning out against the advice of her subordinates. She turns to her most experienced Hell Diver and it’s up to X and his crew to save the day. Most of them survive the jump against all odds, but once on the surface, they discover that Hades is overrun by a host of mutated creatures which are able to survive in the radiation. It becomes a desperate race against time to find the cache of parts, escape the marauding creatures and get back to the ship before it too falls victim to the brutal weather above the ruined city.

There are a couple of subplots which lift the story above standard military scifi fare. One involves the orphaned and traumatized son of X’s deceased colleague who now comes under his care. Just as the boy warms up to X’s attempts to build a rapport, he has to deal with the possibility that X will not return from his dive into Hades. The other subplot involves a group of citizens who are fed up with the squalid conditions on the lower decks of the Hive and decide to start a rebellion at the same time that the ship enters the perilous skies above Hades.

I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I managed to finish each of these books in less than four hours, which is an indication of how quickly-paced both stories are and how easy it is to digest the conversational language of both authors, in spite of lots of technical details thrown in.

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Favourite movie soundtracks – the sounds of the apocalypse


Today’s two soundtracks have a common theme around the apocalypse and time travel, but are very different in terms of instrumentation and influence.

The Terminator released in 1984, made Hollywood sit up and take notice of director James Cameron, and launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action movie career (he already had two Conan movies out by then). Brad Fiedel’s soundtrack is one of the several elements that works in this movie. The pounding nature of the main theme, with that metallic highlight, is grim and relentless, just like the Terminator. The electronica also makes it eerie and bleak, in keeping with the apocalyptic theme. Of course, all this was born out of reality – this was a low budget production and Brad Fiedel was not a big name composer. He was a keyboardist (having played for Hall and Oates at one time) and therefore he composed a simple and serviceable electronic score (I believe it wasn’t even recorded in stereo originally), which was par for the course for so many action thrillers of the time. But somehow, he captured the very essence of the film. The soundtrack he composed for the sequel Terminator 2, was an evolution of this one, but with a bigger budget, he was able to add some depth and sophistication to it. I thought he did a decent job with another James Cameron-Schwarzenegger film, True Lies, but ultimately the soundtrack for The Terminator will remain the defining work of his film career.

The Twelve Monkeys soundtrack by Paul Buckmaster is built upon existing compositions and songs, so it’s not really an OST, I feel. Buckmaster is an English cellist, who also worked as an arranger and sessions musician for David Bowie and Miles Davis. So, scoring for films is not really his primary vocation and the only work that he is known for is the soundtrack for Twelve Monkeys (1995). I have always liked the main title theme with its unusual use of strings and what sounds like an accordion; it very much echoes what Bruce Willis’ character is going through as he tries to navigate this pre-apocalyptic world he keeps getting sent to. It was only while writing this piece that I discovered that the credit for the theme goes to Argentine composer Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, as it is a derivation of his Suite Punta del Este. The piece sounds like it was specifically written for the film, but actually it’s a Tango Nuevo composition written back in 1982. I learnt that the accordion sound comes from an instrument called the bandoneon, popular in South America as part of a Tango ensemble. Piazzolla’s music continues to appear in documentaries and short films, well after his death in 1992. Buckmaster on the other hand, hasn’t composed any music for films since 1997.

Which book to read? – Kim Stanley Robinson to the rescue!


I recently finished Hugh Howey’s Wool Omnibus, which combines his 5 self-published short stories into a single book. The first (and shortest) story is probably the best, as it sets up an intriguing premise and ends by making it even more intriguing! The success of that story led to a longer sequel, which led to an even longer one and so forth. Mr. Howey clearly felt the obligation to flesh out his characters and add increasing levels of story detail in each successive story. A lot of that additional detail is welcome, but sometimes I felt that I just wanted him to get on with it. In a sense, that is a positive commentary on how engaging the story was and how desperately I wanted to find out how our world had come to this post-apocalyptic state of affairs.

Anyway, after I finished Wool, I decided to start on Howey’s follow-up trilogy called the Shift series. This is part of the “Wooliverse” and all the stories (including the upcoming book titled Dust – which apparently will tie up all the loose ends) are referred to as the ‘Silo series’. Well, the first of these Shift novels, called First Shift-Legacy tells us how the apocalypse happened. The story is structured in 2 streams – one taking place in the lead-up to the apocalypse and the other stream taking place several decades into the apocalypse, showing life in one of the Silos. I was looking forward to a continuation of the story in Second Shift, but I was disappointed to see that there were a new set of characters and I was not really in the mood to invest into that, so I have opted out of reading it for the time being.

I then spent a day desperately trying to start off on a new book, but unable to figure out what sub-genre I wanted to get into. My choices included Hugh Howey’s own young adult scifi novel called Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest scifi epic 2312, C.J. Cherryh’s award winning scifi novel Downbelow Station (named by Locus magazine in 1987 as one of the 50 best scifi novels of all time) or S.M. Stirling’s post-apocalyptic novel Dies the Fire which describes a world in which electricity and gunpowder cease to exist (the ongoing J.J. Abrams TV series Revolution is a poor rip-off of the concept).

I sampled each of these books, trying out the first couple of pages to get a feel for the writing style and the tone of the story. Ultimately, none of them seemed to appeal to me. Just as I was at a loss, I realized I had another book by Kim Stanley Robinson with me, the very highly acclaimed The Years of Rice and Salt; I knew this book had something to do with the Dark Ages and the Black Death, so I didn’t think it would satisfy my ‘scifi craving’. Nevertheless a quick scan through a wiki entry revealed that it is in fact an alternate history novel, chronicling a period of several centuries right up to our current time. It builds on a scenario wherein the Black Death killed off 99% of Europe’s population thereby shifting the balance of global power to Asia over the next 700 years.

Suddenly this seemed both interesting and relevant to me, so I’ve started off on the book earlier today and raced through the first 20 pages (700+ to go). It certainly has me hooked and I can now rest at ease, knowing my reading needs are taken care of for the next few weeks! It will be my 6th K.S Robinson book after the excellent (and politically dense) Mars Trilogy and the less memorable Icehenge and Memory of Whiteness. It’s a busy month at work, so there’s no telling how long I’m going to take to finish it. I hope I’ll have the energy to write about it once I’m done.

Oblivion – 70’s scifi revisited


While watching Oblivion yesterday, I was struck by how Joseph Kosinski chose the look of his post-apocalyptic world, both the landscape of Earth as well as the interiors of Tower 49 where the two drone supervisors – played by Tom Cruise (Jack Harper) and Andrea Riseborough (Victoria) – work .

Let’s start with Earth; this is a world which has supposedly been rendered unlivable after a period of conflict between the armies of Earth and alien attackers (called Scavengers or ‘scavs’). The scavs broke up the Moon (which is still visible in the night sky in the years-long process of breaking up and distributing itself into an orbital ring), which resulted in out-of-control tidal waves, earthquakes and other mayhem. The remaining population of Earth has apparently been moved to Saturn’s moon, Titan and all that remains is a collection of giant automated machines (controlled by an orbiting station called the Tet) spread across the planet to extract whatever resources are still usable, including water. But for all that, Earth appears beautiful, even pristine, and only occasionally do we see remnants of buildings, much of them conveniently underground so as to not spoil the look of the film!

Then we come to Tower #49, where Jack and Victoria live and which provides communications and navigation support to Jack as he flies around in his cool Bubbleship, locating and repairing the automated drones which fly around mopping up scav resistance. The interiors of Tower #49 would not be out of place in the catalogs of European minimalist designers (Kosinski is after all an architecture graduate). Vika’s communications center is straight out of those ‘houses of the future’ videos from Living Tomorrow and Corning doing the rounds on Youtube. So, instead of the grungy ‘used future’ look made popular Star Wars and Blade Runner, the interiors have a clean antiseptic look…the film that came to my mind was Logan’s Run (1976), although Mr. Kosinski himself refers specifically to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running as his influences. The other link with ‘70s scifi films that he mentions is the ‘lonely man’ theme, which was very apparent in films like Silent Running, Solaris, and Omega Man. I can imagine that this look in the ‘70s was necessitated by budgetary constraints – scifi films were never big money makers in the days before Star Wars – and the studios would have tried to avoid having to cast hundreds of extras. But for a modern day scifi film like Oblivion, it is a very deliberate decision to adopt that look.

And I think Joseph Kosinski has used this ‘filmic anachronism’ to plant the thought of “this doesn’t feel right” in the mind of the viewer. After the first ten minutes, one starts wondering how it is that in this age of logical storytelling where novelists and filmmakers meticulously research the science behind their stories, a film maker could design a post-apocalyptic world that looks so beautiful. And sure enough, in due course, we find out that all is not as it appears with the big reveal in the last one-third of the movie.

Overall, Oblivion is an aggregated homage to a number of influential scifi films of the ‘70s. This doesn’t diminish the quality of the movie in my opinion; in fact, this is the fun part of having more than a century of cinema behind us – being able to spot influences and styles in a filmmakers work. When I watched Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy in early 2011, I had titled my blog post as “Tron: Legacy – A Neon Star Wars?”. This was particularly evident during the dogfight sequence involving Light Jets and the shuttle. I got the same sense of déjà vu watching Oblivion during the canyon dogfight involving 3 drones and Jack’s Bubbleship. One could almost imagine that we were watching Darth Vader and his two wingmen closing in on Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as he flew through the metal canyons of Death Star.

Coming back to Oblivion – the acting, special effects and production design are all top notch. The story has genuine depth – it could have been called “the tragedy of Jack and Julia”, no matter that the movie itself ends on a positive note. I found myself genuinely curious to know more about this world. What happened between 2017 and 2077? What about the other technicians #1-48, 50, 51 and beyond 53? What actually lies in the radiation zone? What happened to Jack Harper? Mr. Kosinski has indicated that he may revisit this world, after all it is his original creation, based on his unpublished graphic novel. Meanwhile, he is waiting for 2 scripts to be completed at his home studio Disney – a remake of the 1979 scifi film The Black Hole and another sequel to Tron – to decide what will be his follow-up film. Whatever it is, I assume there will be a dogfight sequence in it!

After Earth trailer


What a coincidence. A few hours after my write-up about the 3 post-apocalyptic movies coming out next year, we have the release of the first trailer for M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth. I have to say, the trailer is better than the one for Oblivion, especially the opening few seconds.

Here’s the report on the trailer from darkhorizons.com.

The guys working on Elysium must be under pressure to get their trailer out quickly now…

 

And more apocalypses coming in 2013


Further to my post on Nov 13th about apocalypses of all forms being the current flavor of popular fiction and a follow-up post on Nov 15th, I can’t help but call attention to another variety of apocalypse hitting the big screens in 2013.

In these posts, I referred to apocalypses caused by plagues (resulting in zombie and vampire swarms), robots, aliens and gendercide. Besides these exotic apocalypses, we also have the garden variety of apocalypse caused by good old nuclear war and also pollution/ ecological disasters.

I am currently reading just such a book – the classic scifi post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, referred to by many critics as the only true literary masterpiece to have emerged from the scifi genre. The novel was published in 1960 and having reached halfway through the book, I am inclined to agree with the opinions of the critics. I’ll probably write about this book at length once I have finished reading it.

However, the main purpose of this post is talk about the trio of post-apocalyptic films coming up in 2013, all of which feature a largely depopulated Earth ravaged by war or some other form of man-made cataclysm.

  • The first of these films is Oblivion (Universal Pictures), to be released April 19th. The film, which just had its first teaser trailer and poster released last week is directed by Joseph Kosinksi (of Tron: Legacy fame), based on his own graphic novel. The movie features Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays the infamous Jamie Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones). The response to the poster was very positive, although the trailer itself left me feeling a bit underwhelmed…a confused. For some reason, it felt like a mash-up of several other futuristic stories, although I couldn’t specifically pinpoint any one element which I could say was copied from past source material. Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to the film…I don’t expect something award winning, but clearly there will be some strong individual acting performances and great visual effects.
  • Next we have After Earth (Columbia Pictures), to be released June 7th and directed by M. Night Shyamalan – his first film since 2010’s disastrous adaptation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Mr. Shyamalan has certainly lost his way – and his goodwill with the movie-going public – since the great days of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. In this case, there is some hope, as the screenplay is by Stephen Gaghan who won an Oscar for Traffic and was nominated again for Syriana. More importantly – from a box office perspective – the film stars the father-son super-duo of Will Smith and Jaden Smith as General Cypher Raige (yes, really) and his estranged son Kitai Raige. Clearly Will Smith has a clear strategy to build up his son’s box office credentials. Young Smith started off in a supporting role in 2006 (at the age of 8) with his father in The Pursuit of Happyness, then held his own with Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid in 2010 and now will effectively play the lead in After Earth. All 3 films are produced by Will Smith and his producing partner James Lassiter and generally speaking, these guys have yet to pick a stinker as a project. So, there is every possibility that Mr. Shyamalan will once again have a genuine hit on his hands.
  • At the very end of the summer comes Elysium (Sony Pictures Classics/ Columbia-Tristar), to be released Aug 9th, Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to his masterful debut film District 9.  The film features a very buff Matt Damon alongside Jodie Foster and the star of District 9, South African actor Sharlto Copley. The set photos I have seen indicate that we will once again see a gritty action picture with socio-political overtones like District 9, but I am also looking forward to seeing Elysium, the pristine space habitat built using the Stanford Torus design concept (essentially a hollow, doughnut shaped construct with the populace living inside). Based on the concept art featured here, Blomkamp will use the space habitat setting to accentuate the stark difference between the ‘Haves’ living there and the ‘Have Nots’ living on the surface of a ruined Earth.

As a scifi fan, I will be rooting for all 3 films. I expect Elysium to have the highest critical acclaim, followed by After Earth – provided the critics can get over their hatred of Shyamalan. Oblivion looks a bit generic right now, but will probably benefit by being the first off the blocks at the start of summer and therefore may actually end up earning the highest box office revenue among the 3.

I am pretty sure that by now I have covered every possible post-apocalyptic scenario that can be featured in scifi books, graphic novels and movies. But if I come across a new spin on this sub-genre, I’ll be sure to write about it!

 

And one more Apocalypse


In relation to my earlier post about the different types of apocalypses popping up in comics, novels, TV shows and movies these days, I just thought of one more. This one is an apocalypse caused by the disappearance of all electrical power and the resultant collapse of society.

I first came across this concept when reading reviews of S.M. Stirling’s 2005 alternate history novel Dies The Fire. In this book, a mysterious event – referred to as “The Change” – occurs which alters the laws of physics in such a way that electricity and gunpowder no longer work. Naturally, civilization collapses and much of the global population is wiped out. The book chronicles the lives of the survivors, some of whom revert to farming, while others become militaristic. As you can see, it starts to look very much like the Middle Ages. The book was so successful, that it has spawned 2 sequels and another 6 spin-off novels.

Then some months ago, J.J. Abrams announced a new TV show with an almost identical premise (without even having the good grace to acknowledge S.M. Stirling’s existing concept), although in this case, only electricity has stopped, but gunpowder still works. The series Revolution, premiered on NBC in September with the pilot episode directed by none other than Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau. It was among the best reviewed and most watched shows premiering in the Fall season.

The only worry with this one is that J.J. Abrams is good at setting up intriguing concepts, but tends to allow the plots and sub-plots to get too complex as the series progresses…and doesn’t always know how to bring it all to close at the end of the show’s run.