Transformers

July 21, 2009

This being the Summer of Robots, I went to see the new Transformers movie last night.

I haven’t seen the first movie, however this didn’t spoil my appreciation of the story because, so far as I could see, there wasn’t one.

But this isn’t necessarily a criticism.

Let me explain… There were many things I liked about the film. The special effects were superb, the pace was tremendous (there didn’t seem to be a spare scene or word of dialog that didn’t advance the action onto the next scene). Okay, the fight scenes went on too long, the pseudo sex scenes were tedious and the comedy grated, but there was something about the finished package that that hints at the future of the high concept science fiction movie genre. It was obvious that a lot of talented people had done their bit on this movie. It wasn’t their fault that their hard work was mangled by committee led film production.   If only the same amount of thought that went into the computer animation had been applied to making sure that the actual story made sense when the film hit the screen.

It didn’t even have to make that much sense. I’ve got nothing against watching a film where robots turn into cars and motorbikes as they fight evil robots. It doesn’t make any sense that robots should do this, but I don’t care. I’m happy to accept an Energon source from the distant past as a reason, far happier than having to listen to some pseudo scientific rationale. (Actually, I was more interested in why the bad robots were called Decepticons. Surely the good robots were also deceiving people? Is this just a case of your enemies being terrorists and your allies being freedom fighters?  But I digress.)

I’ve said it before: computer FX are incredible nowadays, and set to get even better. Some of the scenes in the film were breathtaking. This is almost a new artform, or at least it will be when they sort out how to apply it properly to the script, or vice versa.  I get the sense we’re at the same place that, say, comics were at fifty years ago.  Something new is happening in the medium, but it is being hampered by slavish attempts to copy what’s already there, not to take advantage of the new opportunities presented.


Entering the Mainstream?

July 8, 2009

Two SF writers have been in the news recently.

The first, Alastair Reynolds, for securing a million pound publishing deal for his next 10 books…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/23/alastair-reynolds-1m-contract-science-fiction

The second, Chris Beckett, for winning the Edge Hill prize for short fiction…

http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/news/2009/07/the-turing-test-wins-the-2009-edge-hill-short-story-prize

At times like this, its tempting to say that SF is finally coming of age, that it is finally being accepted by the mainstream.

Of course we’ve all been here before.   Every so often the media takes note of SF, it picks up on a new writer or trend, but the fuss soon dies down and SF is left back where it belongs, if not in the gutter, then beneath mainstream notice.

Should we care?

Well, yes and no.  It’s nice to see two writers get the recognition they deserve.  Actually, nice is not strong enough a word.  I think most of us in the community are very proud of what they have done.  But let’s face it, we don’t need the media to tell us that House of Suns or the Turing Test is worth reading, we knew that already.

It would be nice if there were a few more million pound contracts out there, it would be nice if there were more literary prizes being won within the genre, but the truth is Reynolds and Beckett were good writers without these things, I’m sure they will continue to be so afterwards.

The rest of us will continue to enjoy their work, and that of other writers within the field who have so far escaped mainstream attention.

And if the mainstream doesn’t know about those other writers, then that’s the mainstream’s loss, not ours.


Primeval and Schismatrix

June 10, 2009

I watched the last episode of Primeval last night. Although I’m not a huge fan, I’ve nothing against it. I find it does what it sets out to do- entertaining families on a Saturday evening.

But is it Science Fiction? Well, I would say yes. It features time travel and exciting gadgetry, and I’m sure that an eight year old would find the idea of someone going back in time to wipe out the first human beings quite a mind blowing concept. (I remember being similarly awe struck when I first read Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder). But to us SF fans the idea is an old one.

Does that matter? There are always writers who do an excellent job of putting a new spin on old ideas, they present well structured and excitingly told stories, seasoned with just a hint of their own philosophy. (Eric Brown’s Helix and Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star are good examples of these excellent but oddly old fashioned tales). I like to call these Level 1 stories.

The point is, though, that SF has moved on from the level of Primeval and other TV shows like it. There are a lot of Level 2 stories out there, waiting to filter through to the mainstream. New ideas that are built on the foundations of the Science Fiction that has gone before us. Read Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, for example. Written more than 20 years ago, and, by today’s standards, oddly pre-singularity  (and if you don’t know what I mean by pre-singularity you’re not reading modern SF), but it’s crammed full of new ideas. The spaceships and spacestations and spacepirates of Level 1 SF are there, but they are in the background, barely seen, the platform from which a mind blowing array of new concepts are launched. I often wonder, though, if level 2 books like Schismatrix would make any sense to someone who hasn’t read their Asimov (or, maybe nowadays, watched their Star Wars).

Anyway, getting back to the beginning, that’s why I support shows like Primeval. It’s not just that they keep families entertained, it’s that they’re grounding kids in the Level 1 concepts they’ll need to read the Level 2 SF of tomorrow.


Hard Times by Charles Dickens

June 1, 2009

Every SF fan should read this book.  Why?  Because it is an anti SF novel.  

Let me explain…

The book begins with what would be a classic (though oddly punctuated) SF line.  

Now what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.

The words are spoken by

Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities.  A man of facts and calculations.

In other words, a sterling SF character of the old school.  The thing that makes this book the opposite of SF, though, is that it sets out to show that Thomas Gradgrind is wrong.  How?  By demonstrating what happens to his children due to their logical upbringing.  Gradgrind realises the error of his belief in a world of facts and logic when he sees his daughter married to the wrong man and his son exposed as a thief, and all because they believe they are doing what he wished.

Now, this entry is not intended to criticise Dickens (that’s not what this Blog is for, after all.)  Hard Times wasn’t written as SF (nor should we expect every book to be), it was written to “Shake some people in a terrible mistake of these days” (Dicken’s own words), and it contains some excellent descriptions of life for the working classes in Coketown.  Anyway, I love Dickens work. 

However, Hard Times does beg the following question:

Does SF have an answer to this depiction of Gradgrind’s supposedly flawed character?    

Of course it does.   A good SF novel finds beauty in facts, it can find emotion and sensitivity in the cold equations of the universe.  That’s one of the many things that makes SF worth reading.

That’s what’s original about the genre.


Truth is Stranger than Science Fiction 1

May 18, 2009

Imagine an SF story set on a world where countries had long been at war.

After years of fighting, culminating in two devastating wars, an understanding is reached and the countries agree to a peace of sorts.  The occasional skirmish may still take place, there are some very nasty incidents of ethnic cleansing, but generally the populations get along. 

Now, instead of fighting, the countries have an annual contest to see who can write and perform the best song, choosing their best writers and performers to represent them.  The few countries who treat the whole thing as a joke are treated with suspicion at best.

You couldn’t write a story like this (or if you did, you would have trouble selling it, I’m sure) but this is what happens every year at the Eurovision Song Contest.  It took place this weekend, and for once, I watched it. Furthermore,  I enjoyed it, I thought the songs weren’t bad, I admired Andrew Lloyd Webber for sticking his head above the parapet, I thought the swimmers in the plastic pools suspended above the audience were truly amazing (and if you haven’t seen them, you should.)

And, not for the first time, I found myself wondering about how SF writers are supposed to think up new ideas when the real world is so much stranger.  It’s only the lack of robots in the competition that give me hope I’ll still be in a job next year.

My favourite entry?  Portugal, of course.  They had an accordionist in their act.


Pat Mills

May 12, 2009

I’ve included this entry in the Interviews category to make up for the fact that I forgot to mention Pat Mills…

Let me explain.  Interviews usually include a question along the lines of “Who are your biggest influences”, but it wasn’t until I was reading this weeks 2000AD I realised I hadn’t been mentioning one of my biggest: Pat Mills.  Now, its not within the scope of this blog to write biographies (its scope is Robots and Accordions, as I’ve mentioned before), so follow the link if you want to know more about him, but I’m including this entry to make up for Mills’s omission from recent interviews.

So why Pat Mills?  Well, his stories Robusters, ABC Warriors and Metalzoic all featured robots and were an undeniable influence on me, but there is more to it than that.

I grew up on three great comics writers, Alan Moore, John Wagner and Pat Mills.  Mills was always my favourite:  for the breadth of his imagination (Nemesis book 4 is surely the birth of Steampunk), his attention to detail (the research that went into Slaine spawned many imitators), but mostly for his depth of character.  Fitting real characters into SF or Fantasy settings can be a challenge, Mills manages it better than the others, to my mind.

I could go on, in fact I think I will  in another entry some time, but for the moment, here are some recommendations:

Marshall Law

Charley’s War

Nemesis Book 1 


My Robot’s Got No Nose

May 6, 2009

As far as I can remember, only one robot in Twisted Metal has a nose, and she uses this to sniff petrol.  Although all the robots on the planet Penrose have the capacity to install a nose, very few of them choose to do so.  The robots of Shull, in particular, live in a place with very few organic compounds, and so have little reason to smell things.  They prefer to use the metal to make something else.

It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever been on a writing course to discover this made writing the book (and the sequel) something of a challenge.  Would be writers are always advised to make use of all five senses when describing things, and this is good counsel.  The sense of smell is particularly evocative (the smell of the sea and sun tan lotion always makes me think of holidays, for example) and to remove this sense from the book was a great wrench.

But I had to do it.  The novel is written from the point of view of robots, and the robots in the book have no need to smell things.  

Did it make a difference to the reader of the book?  Did anyone even notice?  I’d be interested to hear what people think…


Interview: Falcata Times

May 1, 2009

The Falcata times interview me here:  http://falcatatimes.blogspot.com/2009/04/interview-tony-ballantyne_30.html


Interview

April 29, 2009

Mark Chitty, over at Walker of Worlds, has just posted this interview with me, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

http://walkerofworlds.blogspot.com/2009/04/interview-tony-ballantyne.html


Correction

April 22, 2009

I’ll be signing copies of Twisted Metal at Forbidden Planet, London

http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/2132099/

Saturday 2nd May, 2-3pm

Please note the slight change of time.  This will be followed by a panel at Sci-Fi-London, 

Apollo Piccadilly Circus

Saturday 2nd May, 5.15pm

‘Robots and Reality’ discussion with Oisin McGann