Tag Archives: sci-fi

The future is NOW!

Phil: Looking for a photo album a couple of days ago, the book Sci-fi Now fell off the shelf. As soon as it hit me (literally) I remembered how much I enjoyed reading it many years ago.

Published in 1978, the pages are basically a list of films, loosely clumped together in genres and commented on by critic Alan Frank. At the time, the big news was the first Star Wars film, which he reckons to be a masterpiece.  I can’t disagree, but even I felt at the time it was given a disproportionate amount of space in the pages, probably just to sell copies.

What I also found were details of dozens of other films that I’d never heard of. In the pre-VHS, at least in our house, land, there was little or no chance of me seeing these obscure and dated films. I could dream though, that and scan the TV listings in case any ever turned up. Remember, these were only 3 channels in the UK back then, so the chances were slim but sometimes I got lucky. The arrival of the slightly arty Channel 4 helped, but the chances are anything would be on so late that I couldn’t watch and get up for school the next day.

Re-reading some of the reviews, I was reminded of the curse of science fiction films – real life catching up with the film-makers imagination. Punching keys to work a computer? Why, when we can just ask Alexa (or Siri or whatever the thing on my phone is called) now.

Worse, how futuristic and distant the year of 2018 must have seemed back in 1978 when the makers of Rollerball chose to set their dystopian world in it.

The future is great, until it starts to look dated.

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Perry Rhodan and the terrible sci-fi

Phil: I love a bit of sci-fi and many years ago, picked up a Perry Rhodan book. I think it was the second in the series. It followed Perry Rhodan, the first man to land on the moon in 1971, and his battles to unify and pacify the Earth using an alien spaceship he had found. Imagine the unholy product of a union between Dan Dare and Biggles.

At the time, I enjoyed it and since this was a series, decided I would seek out further books second hand and collect the set.

That was until I realised just how many there were. Well over a hundred I discovered from reading the titles. According to Wikipedia, there are 126 plus spin-off novels.

However, the series has German origins and they published 2950 plus 850 spin-off novels!

That’s some series. We are looking at pulp fiction – cheaply produced novels each containing a story that forms part of a much larger story arc. You also get a couple of bonus short stories in each. Think a novel/magazine combination. I don’t think the concept exists in the same way nowadays, but at the time, this sort of publishing was lapped up by readers.

Anyway, I recently spotted number 34 SOS: Spaceship Titan! in a shop and decided to renew my acquaintance with the series.

Initially, it is terrible. If you’re a regular reader then the sci-fi mumbo-jumbo will make a lot more sense, but it’s difficult for the casual reader to penetrate. There’s no time for a preamble, we are straight into the story so if you don’t know the characters then tough. Mind you, if you do know them then an explanation for new readers each time will be annoying, so fair enough.

The story involves a super new spaceship which Rhodan and chums take away for a flight, land on a mysterious planet and then stuff happens. Space fights, robots, weird aliens, the whole lot. Eventually, they win through, but the story stops before most of the loose ends are tied up. You’ll need issue 35 for that!

Bonus extras include a review of the film Killers from space, rubbishing it in a pretty vicious way and a short story The Eagle Has Landed which just made no sense.

An interesting histroical artefact, but I’m not sure I’ll be looking for any more. Maybe my reading has become more sophisiticated. Has anyone else re-read a book from their past and thought, “How did I like this stuff?”

 

 

 

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Everyone’s gone to the moon

MoonBooksPhil: I love a bit of sci-fi. Not the heavy stuff with sprawling stories that span aeons, the more focussed tales where we crack on, have a bit of action and not too much psycho-babble. A series of recent train rides gave me the chance to indulge myself thanks to a couple of very different books picked up in Housemans excellent second hand section.

Kings of Space by “Biggles” author Captian WE Johns was published in 1954 and is typical of it’s time. A test pilot and his son are out hunting deer in Scotland when they see a flying saucer. Taking refuge in a nearby manor house it turns out they have stumbled upon the lonesome professor who has solved the problems of space flight by powering his ship with cosmic rays rather than all that pesky rocket fuel.

Our two heroes, the prof and his butler embark on a series of adventures visiting the moon, Venus and Mars in quick succession. Very quick as the whole thing is over in 175 pages and it takes nearly half a book to leave the Earth.

Each landing brings them face-to-face with alien creatures, worms on the moon, dinosaurs and prehistoric man on Venus and a dying race on Mars. All standard fare for this era of sci-fi.

If I’m honest, Johns could have strung this all out a bit. With the Biggles series behind him, I’m sure his publisher could have been persuaded that each planet warranted its own book. As it is, we land, see some creatures and then make a hasty exit.

Much more involved is Ascent by Jed Mercurio published in 2007. We have the life story of Yefgenii Yeremin, and orphan abused in Soviet era homes who works his way through flight school, the Korean War and finally into the Russian space programme.

The story is really about the abuses committed by Communism – Yeremin is the greatest fighter ace in Korea but wiped from history and posted to an Arctic wasteland to hide the Soviet involvement in a war they never officially took part in.

Eventually he is recruited into the space programme as part of the moon missions, being a man who will risk everything for Mother Russia.

Mercurio had taken real history and tweaked it to fit his story. Air combat involves close contact with many famous astronauts, the Americans recruited from those ranks after all so it’s plausible if a little contrived.

There’s also mention of the failed Russian moon programme and again, this is partly based on fact. There really was a plan to beat the Americans to the moon but no-one was actually launched in that direction due to technical problems with the rocket. As it is, elements of the Apollo 13 story are taken and woven in to the text, transferred to a fictitious Russian spacecraft.

This is much more modern sci-fi. Using a futuristic background to tell a real life story. Our “hero” suffers greatly at the hands of the state. Anyone who knows a little of this history will recognise many of his trials are perfectly accurate.

Two very different books then. The older one is a bit of a children’s book, simple story with plenty of daring do, just right for the audience it was aimed at. I quite like a bit of pulp sci-fi so I enjoyed it. Ascent is a very grown up book that isn’t comfortable reading at times. You’ve got to stick with it and if I’m honest, I didn’t care anything for the main character but then the removal of the personal to be replaced by the state was how the USSR worked, so maybe that’s how I was supposed to feel.

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Does it matter if it’s not a new plotline?

Star Trek 9Phil: Needing something to read on the train a few days ago, I picked up a second-hand book for a couple of quid. Star Trek 9 contains adaptions of 6 episodes from the famous sci-fi TV series. Ideal reading for a modest journey and cheaper and easier to manage than a newspaper.

Story 5 is called “The Return of the Archons” and involves the Enterprise crew searching for the remains of a missing spacecraft. Arriving on a planet, they discover the population appear to be preparing for a “festival” that begins shortly after they arrive at the “Red Hour”. This turns out to be a bacchanalian display of anarchy and violence.

It transpires that the world is being controlled by a computer which keeps the population under control to remove all violence. Realising that this means there won’t be any of the population control usually provided by war, it invented the “Festival” as a way of reducing the overall numbers with an overnight period when all forms of control were shut off , every moral law abrogated and every person sees every other as their enemy.

Now, I’m reading this and find myself reminded of a film from last year I read about: The Purge.

To quote the description in Wikipedia, “Crime and unemployment rates are at an all-time low due to the government having instituted an annual 12-hour period called “the Purge” during which all criminal activity (including murder) becomes legal”

Sound familiar?

It is said that at any time of the day or night, somewhere in the world, there is an episode of Star Trek appearing on television. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that the writer of The Purge saw The Return of the Archons and somewhere part of the plot lodged in the back of his mind. On the other hand, the concept of a special law-free period for population control isn’t a big leap. Similar concepts have been used in the films Death Race 2000 and Rollerball, although in these dystopian futures, the focus was on a “sport”.

Are there any new ideas out there?

Does it matter?

Perhaps people like to see ideas given a new spin. Both Archons and Purge take a similar concept but use it in very different settings. Possibly, the newer film has the advantage that it is possible to set this in a reasonably contemporary setting whereas years ago, you’d needed it to be on an alien planet for the audience to accept it. Like all good sci-fi, both are really talking about human nature but using a slightly fantasy setting to do it.

All this has got me wondering what hidden influences our book has. Ideas lurking in the back of our minds that have subliminally influenced our writing.

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Reading Dr Who

Dr Who booksPhil: To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the BBC’s DrWho, a range of books have been packaged up in new covers, a bit of text from the author has been added to the start and then they were thrust out into the world. Whether sales were rubbish or the plan was that they would be distributed this way, the books ended up in a “3 for a fiver” offer in my local remaindered bookshop.

How could I resist?

Reading a book based on a TV show is an interesting experience. None of them are great tomes and one was even joyously knocked off in a single day. I love being able to wallow for a day just reading and eating chocolate. That’s what Christmas is all about.

Anyway, what are they like?

Festival of Death is a Tom Baker (the best Doctor) story involving some complicated time travel stuff with 3 versions of the same Doctor in the same space. This was the one I read in a day and I’m glad I did as the plot is reasonably complicated. The author mentions some serious planning in the new introductory text. For most of us, our characters bumble along on a single timeline, perhaps we get occasional flashback but the subject of our interest generally stays firmly rooted in time and can’t meet another version of his or her self. Stick with the story and it’s good fun.

Earthworld occupies a very special place in Who history. It dates from the era when the show had been cancelled, living only in the minds and literature of the die-hard fan base. The BBC maintained a Who desk which had responsibility for keeping the show alive with novels and it was from here that this book was commissioned. Ostensibly a Paul McGann style Doctor story, it includes companions who were never part of the TV version, something that confused me to start with. A quick look on the Interweb filled in the background and after a while I wasn’t worried.

The story takes place on an Earth theme park of a type that will be familiar to anyone who saw the film Westworld. There’s a lot of philosophical stuff about what it means to be human and some very poignant parts as one companion is recovering from seeing her boyfriend killed in the previous story.

Remembrance of the Daleks is the only book here that is a novelisation of a TV story. Easily the best from the underrated Sylvester McCoy era, it appealed to me as the only decent story he got during his tenure. What’s interesting is that the book version allows the characters to develop depth and a proper back story. The companion “Ace” always struck me as one of the most annoying people allowed in the Tardis but here we get character development and an explanation where she came from, something the TV version omitted. Maybe my memories from 1988 (I looked it up) aren’t great but the books takes a good story and makes it a much richer experience and an awful lot better for it.

Worth a fiver? Certainly. Apparently 12 books were released, I might go back and see if they have the rest.

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I love Dr Who, but hate the sonic screwdriver

Dr Who?Phil: It’s no secret that Team Nolanparker are Dr Who fans. Over lunch last week I was quizzing Candice about the finer details of her trip around the Dr Who Experience in Cardiff.

Apparently the first part is really good where you take part in an “interactive experience” after which you go through the “more anoraky” display of props and costumes, which sounds more fun to me but then I am the more anoraky half of our team.

Anyway, we are both looking forward to the 50th Anniversary Episode this weekend. There will be no painting or kitchen fitting going on in one Solihull household from ten to eight on Saturday. Sadly, I’ll probably be on the train back from the NEC so I’ll have to record it, but this doesn’t greatly worry me. I have reservations about the thing.

In the good old days of Tom Baker (the best Doctor obviously), stories were long, 4 to 6 episodes, and the plot cerebral. The Doctor plotted and schemed his way out of trouble.

Modern Who fans want everything tied up in 45 minutes with lots of flashing lights, noise, a bit of tonsil hockey with the companion and the thud of a story arc landing. That doesn’t leave much space for plot so the writers have taken to employing a deus ex machina in the form of the sonic screwdriver. From a rarely used prop (Jon Pertwee was the first to have one but you hardly saw it), the thing is now brandished like a Wands up!magic wand. It unlocks doors, boost mobile phone signals, scans bodies and anything else that needs to be done without all the trouble of coming up with a convincing way of doing this. Basically, we get 35 minutes in, out comes the screwdriver and hooray, after a little more running down corridors, we’re all done.

Which brings me to “The Day of the Doctor“. Trailers show David Tennant and Matt Smith brandishing their screwdrivers at an advancing army. All I think when I see this is “it’s bloody Harry Potter”.

The Doctor doesn’t need a magic wand. He needs brains and cunning and ingenuity. He’s a clever man with 900 years of experience to help him get out of trouble. In the good old days, and even some of the modern ones, he thought his way out of a scrape. For the modern era, two of the best episodes are Blink and Dalek and in both the screwdriver stays in the pocket.

Duh cter WhoOf course, the world has changed. Modern viewers (apparently) can’t handle a storyline running across 4 episodes. Everything really must be wrapped up in 45 minutes. Harry Potter was massively popular so turning your main character into a sci-fi wizard works well for an audience educated at Hogwarts. And it’s only a telly programme so I should stop being so grumpy.

I’m sure the 50th anniversary episode will be worth a million X-Factor shows. I’m really looking forward to “An Adventure in Space and Time“, a drama about the creation of the series. Re-runs of old episodes were a much better option for Friday night telly than Children In Need last week too. More to the point, it’s great that we can still produce big-budget drama that doesn’t involve miserable cockneys. Best of all, it appeals to all age groups, something very rare nowadays.

But you’ll have to excuse me if I wish the Dr would learn to use a lock pick. Or even just blow the bloody doors off.

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Sci-fi short stories

Space 2 and all Asimovs Robot Stories.Phil: When Candice mentioned a couple of weeks ago that she’d met someone who write for Starburst magazine and that perhaps we ought to think about some sci-fi short stories, it sent me scurrying for my bookshelf.

While I own a huge number of books, very, very few of them are fiction. Those that are, are probably sci-fi because I like that sort of thing. Ignoring the complete set of Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books (which I have as well as all the radio series on CD and the TV series on DVD but don’t mention the terrible film) this leaves three books, two of which you see in the photo.

Whatdayaknow ? They are all short stories. Space 1 and 2 are compilations of shorts and the fat book is a collection of all Isaac Asimov’s robot stories.

Which makes me wonder why. I’ve read proper fiction at book length, but I didn’t want to keep it. Chatting this over with the Nolan, we both have the same problem. Reading a book is a voyage of discovery. Once you’ve been through this, a re-read isn’t as much fun. Thus, the books are destined for the charity shop to be replaced with something new but for some reason, I kept these.

As far as science fiction goes though, I’ve never been into the big books. Asimov wrote many short stories but also his magnum opus, the Foundation Series. I tried to read this, but like Frank Herbert’s similar Dune series, I couldn’t get into it. Monumental fiction doesn’t grab me. I’m sure that when you get into it, you love it. I can’t.

It’s not just books either (God this post is making sound really nerdy) but TV too. Start Trek is fine. I can handle the Next Generation of the same. Each episode is a story. Move on to Deep Space 9 or Babylon 5 (I know the later is a different “universe” but the point is the same) with its massive story arc that provides fans with endless hours of internet chat and I really can’t be bothered. These guys aren’t just writing about worlds but entire star systems with a breadth of imagination that makes the Total Perspective Vortex in Hitchikers seem sensible. (For the non-geek, this is a torture device where the victim is shown how unimportant they are in the whole universe. It’s powered by fairy cakes, thus justifying its place on this blog). I prefer to stick to a single species in a story, maybe two if pushed.

Be warned though, giant sci-fi can catch you when you least expect it. As a youth, I dabbled with the Perry Rhodan series of pulp fiction books. I foolishly thought I could read the set but then discovered that this German (translated into English, I’m not that clever) series actually ran to more volumes than there are people on the planet. When you find number 136 on the shelf of a bookshop, you get the message that there is more to this than you thought. My excuse is that I was introduced gradually with some fun stories and found myself hooked…

Anyway, I’ve re-read some of the books and you know what ? They are pretty good. Not too geeky – good sci-fi takes a real plot line and simply transfers it to a fantastic location or time – and very interesting. If nothing else, all this has made me re-discover some excellent writing.

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