Friday, November 21, 2014

Not a Review of Interstellar

by J. D. Popham
I went to see Interstellar over the weekend.  Interesting movie. If The Grapes of Wrath and 2001 A Space Odyssey had gotten together and had a baby it would probably look something like Interstellar.   But I’m not here to review Interstellar.   Instead I want to talk about the larger science fiction story lurking beyond the edges of Interstellar.

As you’ll know from various reviews, the central premise of Interstellar is that Earth is on the verge of becoming so inhospitable to human beings that the species is faced with the choice of moving off-world or becoming extinct.  Of course, humans have never had the lift technology needed to send even a fraction of our population into space, and aren’t likely to develop it in the future.  And even if we did, Earth is so far out in the galactic boondocks that any potentially habitable planets are beyond our reach.

Happily for humanity, some anonymous fifth dimensional benefactors have apparently detected our plight and opened up a wormhole out near Saturn.  At the other end of this wormhole are, not one, not two, but three planets that look at least marginally habitable. Early on in Interstellar, we are told that scientists are working on two separate plans for using this wormhole to save the human race from group suffocation.

Plan A involves mucking about with gravity (using insights gained from our fifth dimensional friends’ bending of time and space) in order to lift some really, really massive space stations off Earth.  Once in space these city sized craft would gravitate their way out to Saturn, through the wormhole, and on to humanity’s new home on the other side.  Of course Plan A depends on Michael Caine cracking the physics of gravitational manipulation in order to succeed. To that end he remains on Earth, writing out reams of equations while a crew of intrepid explorers travel through the wormhole to select humanity’s destination.

Now, it is possible that the secret to manipulating gravity is beyond even Michael Caine’s awesome intellect, and Earth’s human population is be doomed to perish in place.  In that case humanity’s future will depend on Plan B.   Our intrepid explorers have brought along with them a large cryo-bank of fertilized human eggs (and, one assumes, the means to bring them to term without Anne Hathaway having to carry all the maternal freight for the first few generations).  In the event Michal Caine’s calculations fail, Plan B calls for the team of astronauts to establish a colony on one of the three candidate planets, and there birth and raise a smallish generation or two from the egg bank.  Those generations will then birth and raise increasingly larger generations, until a self-sustaining population with sufficient genetic diversity has been established.

At the end of Interstellar, both Plan A and Plan B have been executed.  At least some of Earth’s population has been lifted from Earth in massive space stations and these stations gravitate merrily about the Solar System.  And yet, while enough time has passed that a few generations have been born and raised on the stations, no one on Earth's side of the wormhole seems terribly interested in traveling through to the other side and establishing a new home on a new world.  The Earth-born seem content with their nomadic lot.  There is baseball on the stations and, we assume, all the cultural comforts that it implies.  Perhaps, having barely avoided extinction on Earth, they are reluctant to trust themselves to the hardships and uncertain mercies of planetary life.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the wormhole the astronauts, believing Plan A to have failed, have fallen back on plan B.  The cryo-bank has been deployed and the first generation, we assume, are merrily gestating their way toward birth.  A new human race, which has only the most tenuous connections to Earth, its cultures and human ancestors is underway.

So there we are: Two parallel human civilizations separated not by mere terrestrial geography, but by a nigh untraversable expanse of galactic real estate.  Their only means of contact is through a wormhole, and humanity’s friends from the fifth dimension have given no indication as to how long that interstellar emergency exit will be held open.  It’s entirely possible that the two human civilizations could be separated for tens of thousands of years if not forever, without contact.  The Earth-born might never know of their lab-born kindred, and the lab-born would only know stories of lost Earth through tales passed down across the generations, those tales becoming entwined with and indistinguishable from that culture’s own unearthly myths and legends.

Interstellar sets the stage for the opening act of an Homeric science fiction saga that looms in the shadows just beyond the end titles.  Given the rich story-telling possibilities inherent in the film’s end position, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated when the lights came up.  It was as if the filmmakers had filmed a prologue and left the story proper, the story I really wanted to see and hear, on the cutting room floor.

Failure of imagination? Possibly.  Or a matter of artistic temperament. Christopher Nolan’s movies turn inward rather than outward, tending toward the claustrophobic spaces of an individual’s dreams, memories and illusions. Or Gotham City.   Even Interstellar, set in the vastness of space, has a somewhat closed-in feel, maintaining as it does a largely inward focus on a few characters and the small spaces they occupy.  Nolan rarely pulls the camera back to let the audience take in the larger view.  Even if he were mindful of the larger story he'd set up, grandeur and sweeping epics are not his idiom. 

I tend to call these abandoned or ignored bits of narrative 'found science fiction'.  You see them all the time once you start looking for them. Every story occurs within the context of a larger narrative, and stray plot lines, walk-on characters or roads not taken by one author are fodder for the imagination of another.

As I left the theater that night some new characters were murmuring in the back of my mind, and new plot lines began to unfold around them.  I walked the cold streets of DC with my head down, lost in thought, spinning stories.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: Lock In, by John Scalzi

Reviewed by J. D. Popham

John Scalzi writes nice science fiction.  Which is to say that while minds are not blown, paradigms are not shifted and hearts are not moved when Scalzi takes up the pen, he does tell a likable story in a prose style that makes said story go down easily.  Like most of his books, Lock In is not particularly profound or original, but at the same time it is charming, entertaining, inoffensive, and modestly clever so long as one doesn’t think too much while reading it. 

Lock In, a near-future police procedural, has all the qualities one wants in a good airplane read.  I expect to see many copies of it in airport bookstores during my travels next year.

Now, lest you think I am damning either Lock In or Mr. Scalzi's writing with faint praise, understand the high value I place on airplane reading.  When packed along with in excess of two hundred other people into an aluminum tube 30,000 feet above the ground for five hours, one wants as many of those people as possible reading the sort of charming and inoffensive prose Scalzi produces.  Thus entertained, they are less likely to wax wroth when a reclining airline seat bashes them in the knees, the passenger next to them gets territorial about the shared arm-rest, or a nearby one-year-old expresses displeasure or discomfort with the in-flight service in extreme tones.

One should never underestimate the value of a charming read.

The main driver of events in Lock In occurs in 2028, when the world is struck by a flu-like pandemic that leaves roughly one percent of those infected ‘locked in’; to outward appearances in a comatose state, yet conscious, aware and able to perceive most of what goes on about them.  With no cure or preventative for the virus on the horizon and with the medical community unable to unlock the locked in, the government spends lavishly on an aggressive technological program intended to develop means of releasing the afflicted from captivity within their own bodies.

The result of this program are advanced telepresence technologies and the infrastructure needed to support them.  A specialized neural/IT interface surgically implanted in the brains of the locked in (or ‘Haydens’ as they’re called in the novel) allows them to project their presence via the internet into a robotic body.  Haydens use these robotic bodies, called ‘threeps’ (owing to their resemblance to a certain movie robot) to interact with the physical world.   In addition to occupying robotic bodies, Haydens are capable of ‘borrowing’ or doing a ride-along in the bodies of Integrators; an Integrator being one of a small population of able-bodied persons augmented with the neural/IT interface for that purpose.  Lastly Haydens are able to use the new technologies to exist as a virtual presence in a sophisticated online space called the Agora, reserved exclusively for their use.

After establishing most of this backdrop with a short prologue, Scalzi introduces his protagonist, the newly minted FBI agent Chris Shane. Shane is a Hayden, having been locked-in since childhood, which means that his day-to-day duties are performed via his robotic 'threep'.  As a novice FBI agent, Shane is partnered with an experienced colleague; the hard-bitten and hard-living Agent Vann. Vann is a former Integrator.  She has a bad reputation with the local police, a penchant for smoking, drinking and ass-chasing, and a closely held back-story that, we are are assured, explains her private pain and public dysfunction. 

As a Hayden and a former Integrator, Shane and Vann are the FBI's go-to team for Hayden related crime. Because of the advanced telepresence at the disposal of Haydens, a Hayden whose actual body is in Topeka can commit a crime in Washington, DC via a threep. Hence crimes committed by and against Haydens tend to cross state lines and thus fall within the FBI's bailiwick.  As there seem to be only two agents assigned to this line of inquiry it would seem that Haydens are a fairly well behaved lot.  Happily for the reader, before agents Shane and Vann even shake hands on his first day, a violent Hayden-related murder occurs and we're off to the races.

As tends to occur in books like Lock In, the initial murder is not a stand-alone event, but the first in a trail of breadcrumbs that leads the two agents and the reader toward a larger conspiracy rife with murder and financial intrigue.  This is where Scalzi is at his best.  He is an engaging story-teller with an prose style that goes down easily and a plot that unfolds smoothly.  His characters, while not particularly interesting, perform according to spec and in a manner calculated to please the reader.  The good guys are likable, the bad guys are jerks and the reader isn't overly challenged when it comes to telling the former from the latter. While occasional information dumps are used to to provide the reader details about the telepresence technologies on which the plot hinges, Scalzi keeps them reasonably integrated into the story.

Despite the deftness with which Scalzi handles his descriptions of the technologies developed for the use of those suffering Hayden's syndrome, the way he uses them is a central weakness of Lock In.  In order for the novel to work as a police procedural Scalzi continually places limits and qualifications on the book's telepresence.  He boxes in the technology so that it can only be used in a manner that will support the who-done-it in progress.  That is where Lock In becomes awkward and ungainly despite Scalzi's best efforts. While he provides long passages devoted to explaining why these technological limitations exist, most don't pass the credibility sniff test.  They only make sense in terms of keeping the police procedural bits of the story from running off the tracks, and explaining why two trained FBI agents overlook clues that are immediately evident to the reader, or why they insist on taking at face value events that are obviously intended to deceive them. 

For all its charm, Lock In punches through the credibility envelope early and often.  Nothing in Scalzi's near future seems quite right because, like its technologies, everything in the story is somewhat skewed to serve the book's mechanics.  FBI agents fail to behave like FBI agents, lawyers fail to behave like lawyers and businesspersons fail to behave like businesspersons.  Secondary characters are, for the most part, straw-man characters; set up to be easily knocked down.  Their actions take place not because they makes sense, but to facilitate the hero's heroics and to make sure the story has a happy ending.

Who the perps are in Lock In, as well as their motives and methods of operation, will be evident early on for readers who care to focus on such things.  In that sense this book is very much like the many police procedural series that populate cable channels these days.  The point is not to puzzle you, challenge you or make you think, but to allow you to disengage your brain, let the scenery go by, and enjoy the story and its atmospherics on the story-teller's terms.  From a financial standpoint passive entertainment is the foundation of the modern entertainment industry. And if that's the sort of good time you're looking for, you should be quite happy with Lock In.

John Scalzi has stated on a number of occasions that he approaches writing as a business.  He plans his books as financial as well as a creative endeavors, and writes with a specific audience and the publishing industry's marketing needs in mind.  This is a solid formula for financial success in the writing trade.  Unfortunately, it also tends to result in a certain lack of creative daring; it tends to result in nice, inoffensive science fiction.  I believe Mr. Scalzi has the creative wherewithal to write great science fiction.  However, for that to occur he'll have to let his imagination off-leash to gambol and play at the edge of the abyss.

In that sense, Lock In disappoints and represents a missed opportunity.  If the author had taken the rather linear 'what-if' premise at the center of Lock In and run it through a few ninety degree turns and inverted spins, he might have taken us to someplace amazing.

Alas, 'nice' books don't visit such places.