In 2013, when I heard that Iain M. Banks had passed away at the tragically young age of 59, I was devastated. As I wrote at the time, it’s always hard when a person who inspired you in life dies. But in the years since Banks’ death of terminal cancer, I’ve spent more time reading and re-reading his science fiction works, somehow uncovering new detail and surprises in each chapter. His epic Culture series is as impactful now as it was when he wrote his 1987 novel “Consider Phlebas.”
I’ve also been researching the man himself, learning about his motivations, political opinions and religious beliefs (or lack thereof) to find we share many of the same views about the state of the world. And recently, I came across his final “Raw Spirit” interview with Kirsty Wark of BBC Scotland that he did in the weeks before he died.
The interview is excellent and well worth the watch.
One discussion I found particularly poignant was at around the 35 minute mark when Kirsty asks Iain about his views on life elsewhere in the universe:
There’s so many stars in the galaxy and there are so many galaxies … it seems highly unlikely there’s just us. It’s one of the things that I regret a great deal is that I’m not going to live long enough to see the results come in from the really good telescopes that we’re putting in space, in particular. They’ll actually be able to analyze the composition of exoplanets, their atmospheres, and be able to tell whether they’ve got life in them. You know exactly what the spectrum is of the star, as the star starts to slip behind the planet, the way the spectrum alters … will tell you how much carbon, how much oxygen, carbon dioxide and so on is in the atmosphere of that planet. It’s astounding to think we might know this in 10, 20 years. Yeah. It’s damned annoying! (laughs)
Iain’s views on life elsewhere in the universe are hardly surprising, especially considering all the alien civilizations he’d created through his decades of writing. And his point about detecting chemicals in exoplanetary atmospheres is rooted very firmly in science fact. I can’t begin to imagine his annoyance at knowing we’re only years away from probing alien atmospheres when his life was almost up. (For added poignancy, Iain hints that he has months left to live, but as indicated at the start of the interview, it turned out he was in his final weeks.)
I found Iain’s humor and energy inspiring in life, and despite facing his imminent mortality during this interview, he delivered some thought-provoking ideas and views with grace that will live on well beyond his death.
Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, agrees with what I’ve been saying all along (especially since all that “Institute for Human Continuity” bullshit hit the internet). He said at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory meeting:
“The film makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012. [NASA] is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”
Even though NASA agreed that Bruce Willis’ Armageddon was bad, it couldn’t compete with the scientific atrocities 2012 inflicted on its audience. The killer neutrinos, planetary alignment, crustal shift, geomagnetic reversal and super-duper-massive tsunamis proved too much. 2012 has even toppled The Core as worst sci-fi science movie. Now that is impressive.
But what does it all mean? Apart from us science snobs having a chuckle on our blogs, I doubt it will make the blind bit of difference. Why? This is why:
“On the opening weekend of 2012, the movie pulled in 65 million in U.S. ticket sales and an additional $160 million internationally, easily covering the $200+ million budget.
Movies aren’t about scientific accuracy, and it would seem that the hype behind 2012 can stand alone as the biggest moneymaker of all.
Fear sells, science doesn’t. The subject of doomsday will always be a blockbuster. Unfortunately, through the miscommunication of science, fear is usually the end-product.”
EDIT:An earlier version of this blog post stated that the Science and Entertainment Exchange was involved with NASA’s decision to make 2012 “most scientifically flawed” movie in its list. I have received an email from the Exchange’s director that this is not the case. I have therefore edited any mention of the Exchange from the blog (even though my source, the Adelaide Now, still references the Exchange).
I managed to watch District 9 last night, and it was awesome. I may as well tell you my conclusion up-front, just in case you don’t want to read on, because I’m not going to be able to avoid mentioning some spoilers. So, if you haven’t already done so, get down the theatre now to watch a unique and enthralling sci-fi docu-action-thriller (but beware, there’s lots of exploding heads and alien gore, so go easy on the popcorn and fizzy drinks).
Generally, it looks like District 9 has received good reviews and a robust nod from the science fiction community, and now I’m going to weigh in with a review from Astroengine.com.
First and foremost, I think D9 surpassed pretty much all of my expectations, which is rare for Hollywood produce these days. It was little surprise then, that this movie wasn’t of the Hollywood brand, it came from the genius mind of the South Africa-born director Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson‘s production company Wingnut Films. The whole thing was shot in the gritty South African city of Johannesburg.
Setting the scene
An alien spaceship breaks down on Earth and comes to a stop over Johannesburg. After several weeks of not seeing any sign of life, the authorities decide to cut their way into the ship. They find hundreds of thousands of malnourished insect-like, human-sized aliens inside. Humans do the right thing by setting up a makeshift shelter in Johannesburg, called District 9 (it is of no coincidence that there’s a similarity with the real events in District Six during the 1966 apartheid government rule). So far, so good.
After a couple of decades of living in the D9 shanty town, the local human populous is getting fed up with their alien neighbours (they derogatively call “prawns”). As it turns out, these aliens don’t appear to be very smart and they are certainly not organized. They have no leader and they are thought to be the “workers” of their alien race. They are far from being the sophisticated invasion party one would expect a technologically advanced race to be like.
This is the coolest thing about this movie; the aliens are cast as the unfortunate underdogs that are being forced to stay on Earth by their human captors. Why? Technology, of course.
A military organization called Multinational United (MNU) is put in charge of moving the million-plus alien beings to a new concentration camp housing facility 200 miles away. The whole operation is led by a bumbling MNU field operative called Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley). Wikus is your standard trying-way-too-hard-to-please-and-failing guy with a loving wife (who can somehow see past his many social flaws) and tough father-in-law (who is the head of MNU and responsible for giving Wikus this “big break”). Wikus is almost like a South African hybrid of Steve Carrel, Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg.
There are some fantastic moments when an overly confident Wikus knocks on doors serving eviction notices to the aliens. It is an awkward, yet captivating scenario. The MNU, an organization that obviously has absolute power over the situation, has decided to make the eviction of the aliens seem “legal” by getting them to sign (or “scrawl”) their signature on a small piece of paper. Naturally, the aliens aren’t too happy about all this and Wikus is met with a variety of responses (one where the alien slaps the paper out of his hand and storms off — Wikus triumphantly points out that a tentacle hit the paper, it is therefore signed). Another funny legality is that the aliens have been given human names (such as “Christopher Johnson”) to make their very existence bona fide.
In the first third of the film there are several reminders that the MNU isn’t a tolerant organization. If the armed units are faced with any resistance, they kill on-site. However, they are faced with an impoverished, desparate alien populous that will do anything for a tin of cat food. They are more concerned about chewing on car tires than being shot at. The cat food actually becomes a commodity in District 9, a currency the local Nigerian gangs use to trade for weapons. There is also a hilarious reference to “inter-species prostitution.”
The movie starts off in hand-held documentary style (not in an annoying Blair Witch Project way), following Wikus on his alien eviction adventures, but the atmosphere of the story changes after he accidentally sprays himself in the face with a black fluid in an unidentified cylinder. There is then an altercation with one of “Christopher Johnson’s” friends who tries to distract attention away from the shack that contained Wikus was sprayed in.
Cue alien death, execution style, by the bald-headed bad-ass special unit military guy.
A dodgy stomach and a broken arm later, Wikus is stuck in a situation he can’t get out of. You remember that spray? It turns out that it’s not only a special, highly refined spaceship fuel, it’s also a way to really mess up your day if you breathe it in. Wikus has started to change into an alien.
This is probably one of the weaker parts of the story. How a nasal spray is going to tinker with your genetics in such a way that will turn you into a human-alien hybrid, I don’t know, but District 9 didn’t start with a claim that it was going to be totally scientifically accurate. Somehow Wikus’ left hand also turns into a clawed alien appendage. I’ll turn a blind eye to the fudged human-alien biology lesson.
So we’re locked in a race against time as MNU agents track down and capture Wikus as Wikus becomes more and more prawn-like. From being a flawed MNU officer, he has now become the most valuable human on the planet; he is the only one capable of operating the alien technology (their weapons only react to alien biology).
During the period when Wikus has been captured and is being experimented on, the MNU shows itself for what it really is; a weapon research facility with little regard for human life, let alone alien life. In one particularly tough scene, Wikus has to fire an assortment of alien weaponry at animal carcasses against his will…
[If you told me before watching District 9 that I would feel shocked by the death of a CGI’d alien being, I’d assume I would have been drinking heavily beforehand. But no, I hadn’t had a beer (although the Pepsi was quite syrupy).]
…At this point, a live alien is dragged out with an X painted on its torso. When stood, shivering at the end of the shooting range, Wikus is ordered to shoot the alien. He refuses, crying. You see that Wikus does have a certain degree of respect for the aliens and he is certainly adverse to killing them. Unfortunately, tied in place, and alien weapon pushed in this hand, he’s forced to fire the gun at the frightened “prawn,” who explodes in a bloody mess.
It’s pretty grizzly and also a little upsetting. I think this is the moment in the movie that you know you are dealing with a different kind of sci-fi storyline and Blomkamp does an amazing job to shock, but not to go over the top.
Agony and terror
Also, you realize Sharlto Copley’s acting ability is nothing short of outstanding. Before the weapon testing scene, there’s a fair amount of humour angled at his character, afterwards you can feel his agony and terror.
Needless to say, Wikus escapes and runs to the only place he can find refuge: District 9. Fortunately, we are allowed a little time to recuperate after the MNU experiments as Wikus turns into a convict running through his own city.
After a period of making friends with the smart “Christopher Johnson” and little (and quite cute) pint-sized alien son, Wikus and “Christopher” work out they need each other to find a solution to the problems they are facing. “Christopher” needs to retrieve the mysterious cylinder from the MNU HQ to make the command ship (hidden under District 9) function, and Wikus needs alien technology from the mothership hovering overhead to stop him from going 100% prawn.
And so begins an orgy of human-popping. In the best human-alien buddy pairing since Han Solo and Chewbacca, Wikus and “Christopher” assault the MNU HQ with the best alien guns Wikus could steal from those Nigerian “inter-species prostitution” gangs (with a fetish for drinking alien blood and collecting alien junk they can’t use). Of course, now that Wikus can operate these guns, he can have some fun.
A clip from District 9: Wikus uses an alien weapon for the first time (language NSFW):
Many reviews of District 9 are critical of the amount of action in the rest of the film, but I thought it was pretty cool. Science-lite, but it sure was a tour de force of movie action imagination. My particular favourite was Wikus’ energy-lightning-bolt gun that had no difficulty in snuffing out MNU personnel in a cloud of blood vapour.
A few gun battles later, and we return to District 9, plus fuel cylinder. Quite a lot happens, but to cut a long story short… there were a lot of explosions. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was fairly routine, with a couple of minor plot twists. When I say routine, I don’t mean it was boring, the movie simply went its course without too many surprises. Well, there might have been one or two…
I’ve been writing a science fiction novel about Mars for the best part of a decade. I have always had a fascination with the Red Planet and all the sci-fi possibilities the planet holds for my creative writing. Unfortunately, it’s taken me ten years to put my imagination into words, and it will probably be another ten before it’s completed! No, for now, I’m focusing on factual science writing, hence the forthcoming Astroeconomics book I’m co-authoring with Greg Fish.
This is possibly one of the reasons why I have such a fascination with artists who have a vision and then draw what they see. There’s a faster turn-around than writing, and the results are more vivid. Today, I had the good fortune to have stumbled upon (quite literally) Jason Zuckerman’s “Mars” creation. I have been following Jay’s website (Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day) for a while now with the help of his brother and my online buddy, Adam (a.k.a. madhollywood on SU).
Jay is a very talented and productive artist who constantly surprises me, and “Mars” was certainly a surprise! He posted this piece last year, but I thought I’d share even though I missed it first time around. The image portrays a future Mars astronaut standing in awe of a Martian structure, totally captivating. Although this is science fiction, it certainly drives my imagination, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with that…
I don’t usually post stuff about TV shows, but this is HUGE news.
Besides, Red Dwarf was the best sci-fi sitcom, and it still is the BEST SCI-FI SITCOM to grace the TV in the UK ever since the mining spaceship Red Dwarf‘s crew was wiped out by a radiation leak, 3 million years ago. Lister (played by Craig Charles), the last remaining crew member (who was held in suspended animation for the duration), is joined by Rimmer (a hologram of Lister’s despised crew mate, played by Chris Barrie) and a descendent from Lister’s pregnant cat, called… Cat (Danny John-Jules). As the second series progressed, the trio meet the mechanoid Kryten, played by Robert Llewellyn (who, incidentally, I leant this news from via @bobbyllew).
The first show was aired back in 1988 and it continued (for eight seasons) until 1999, and I was addicted to each and every episode. Red Dwarf taught me many things, including:
1) There is no Silicon Heaven.
2) Toasters should not be allowed to talk.
3) There’s no such thing as “brown alert”.
4) The BSc in “Arnold Rimmer BSc” stands for “Bronze Swimming Certificate”.
5) Kryten has some amazing uses for his groin attachment.
So it looks like there will be a returning Easter special of two episodes, plus another two improvised episodes that will be done in front of a live audience! Alas, I’ll be in the US when it airs on the UKTV Channel Dave in April, but I will be sure to get it recorded!
UPDATE: The Dave Channel Overlord just left a message informing me that Dave will be “revealing an exclusive piece of news from the production set every Wednesday at noon at http://www.joindave.co.uk. Enjoy!” Hopefully this will also be accessible to the continentally-challenged individuals like myself who’ll be missing out on the live airing in the UK… is there any news the new episodes will be online?
Please Dave, polymorph Red Dwarf into joyful smegtastic streaming video… pleeeaase?
On writing the Universe Today article Bad News: Interstellar Travel May Remain in Science Fiction yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel depressed. So far, in all my years of science fiction viewing, I have never thought that travelling to another star would be impossible. Although I knew it would be hard, and something we won’t be able to consider for a century or so, I always assumed it could be possible. Well, in a recent meeting of rocket scientists at the Joint Propulsion Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, they concluded that even the most advanced forms of propulsion would require gargantuan quantities of fuel to carry a starship over the few light years to the nearest star. Suddenly I realised I had been looking at the question of interstellar travel in the wrong light; it’s not that it would take a stupid number of generations to get from A to B, we would require 100 times the total energy output of Earth to make it there. Where’s Captain Kirk when you need him… Continue reading “Travelling to Another Star? Unfortunately Starship Fuel Economy Sucks”