Monday, 4 October 2021

Another science fiction roundup

Time for some more science fiction visitations and re-visitations.

Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1870)

(A World Tour Underwater)

A huge monster of a whale terrorises the seas. As our adventurers are tasked to hunt it, they are instead taken captive by what is revealed to be a highly advanced submarine.

The story is placed roughly at the time period of the American Civil War, and ironclads such as the Monitor are even name-dropped.

The book is notable for introducing the character of Captain Nemo, a sort of prototypical romantic super-hero (or villain) who travels under the sea in this Nautilus, having vowed never to set foot on land again. 

From L'Île mystérieuse TV-miniseries

Verne describes various then-science-fictional ideas about electricity and how it might power the submarine, weapons and the equipment needed by the crew. There's also a lot of thought put into how the Nautilus could be self-sufficient at sea.

As a kind of zenith to the story arc the ruins of Atlantis are visited, and Verne even presents numerous references that support the idea of there having been such a thing. (No there wasn't)

Verne also discusses how the geological evidence and slow accumulation of limestone points to a world much, much older than the few thousand years suggested by a superficial intepretation of the bible. Verne opines that the "days" of creation in the bible might have been somewhat longer, an idea often repeated in these discussions even now. (A compromise not accepted by hardline bible fundamentalists.)

From L'Île mystérieuse TV-miniseries

It's also neat to read about Nautilus visiting South Pole, which didn't happen in reality until decades later. The very contemporary Suez canal project gets mentioned, this was not yet completed at the time the story takes place.

The story is encumbered by numerous long descriptive lists of various fishes and organisms the adventurers come across, and this just goes on and on throughout the story, regardless of what other more exciting things might be happening. I get that Verne is showing how rich and varied the underwater world is, but give me space stories anytime, man.

But it's not a stretch to think this as a transition between a sea-adventure story and a science fiction space discovery story. It could work as a blueprint for various space stories to come; a vessel launched in otherwise unaccessible and hostile environment, where new alien lifeforms (deep sea fish) are discovered, and bug-eyed monsters (squids) are fought with special weapons and environmental suits.

Jules Verne: The Mysterious Island (1875)

Five prisoners espace a confederate Civil War prison on an observation balloon, and a storm takes them over a huge distance and they barely manage to reach an island on the Pacific.

To me this book read far better than "20000 leagues" but arguably it is less of a science fiction novel and more of a throwback to the adventure/Robinson Crusoe story. Still, space colonization stories might follow this formula too.

This is not to say that science is not present. With the ingeniuity of the engineer, the colonists manage to settle the island and make best of the elements, soon creating earthenware pots, metals, glass and even explosives and a telegraph line.

The TV adaptation of this novel was one of my earliest TV experiences, apart from strictly children shows, and boy was it exciting back then. The screenshots in this blog post are from the series.

I found the episodes on Youtube. I couldn't concentrate on it properly with the poor AI-subtitling, so it felt somewhat random and perhaps less "mysterious" than I had remembered.

With some interesting additions!

The characters and scenery still look fine and Omar Sharif is a good choice for the captain. 

Strangely, over the decades I have specifically remembered a few scenes, such as the building of a magnifying glass from glued-together clock crystals. The memory was not only that there is such a scene, but the visual impression of gluing together the two glasses with gunk was strong.

The process is presented in great detail and the shape is simple so perhaps this helped the memory stick in and renew itself. (Just to specify this further, no I did not remember those sticks.)

Science goes on sciencing

At least in the early 1980s local elementary school kids still read Verne books, possibly on the power of  re-runs of this show and the Willy Fog cartoon. Even I tried to read a few, but I likely skipped some chapters to make the task more manageable.

These two books reminded me how strictly boyish adventures these are, women are barely mentioned nor do they feature as characters.

Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966 novelization)

A backwards man is taken to an experimental treatment that increases his intelligence much beyond ordinary. Initially he can't even beat an experimental mouse in the maze game, but as his cleverness increases he's able to take in multiple languages and complex mathematics. Eventually he becomes the leading expert in the research field where he first was an object of study.

At the same time the qualities that made him likeable, tend to vanish and he has trouble having friends and human contact. However as his recall improves in hindsight he realises he has been used and been a butt of jokes for the people around him. The resentment grows.

The professors say "We are only interested in improving your intelligence, not your personality" or something similar. It's become a cliché, the more clever you are the less sociable you will be. This kind of story arc has pop-cultural longevity, for example Homer Simpson once got super-smart with the same predictable results.

This is also reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's much earlier Sirius, where the protagonist was a super-intelligent dog.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Another re-read. A future where firemen don't put out fires but set them in order to burn books and houses of book-hoarders.

451 is famous, perhaps not as famous as Nineteen-Eighty Four or Brave New World, but possibly more closer to our time and more prescient in showing how a fascist state might rise to power via media control and soft propaganda.

I've also seen it misrepresented on occasions. It is not so much a defense of how important and cool books as physical objects are but an attack against a culture of ever-present superficial "now/new" without history and memory, fluffy entertainment that will supposedly drive people away from thoughtful existence.

This places the story more closely alongside Orwell and Huxley. In 1984, the ever rewritten history, media and language had made critical thinking impossible or trivial, and in Huxley's vision people were kept at bay by light entertainment and drugs. A sort of mental decapitation enables the controlled and stunted society in all three.

What now seems current is the snapchat-esque telepresence room that extends to other homes. There people can partake in shallow plays or comment on other (trivial) media. The participants have nothing of consequence to say and nothing permanent is ever created.

A character offers a rationale for the book purge through a kind of extreme "cancel-culture" approach that deems books useless because in a world of billions of people, every book will have contradictory and offensive ideas for someone, so better get rid of them all.

The gender roles are clunky here but one could argue that when people have been stripped from their higher mental faculties this also encourages a conservative world view in these matters.

Suzanne Collins: Hunger Games (2008)

When people compare this to Twilight, it seems Hunger Games comes out as the winner. Possibly this is because of the ideology of having a "strong female character" compared to the clumsy Bella in Twilight. Ok, Hunger Games is a more interesting story, but neither is especially well written.

In the future, food is scarce (or kept scarce) and kids from different zones from US are sent as "tributes" to fight in the Hunger Games for the entertainment of people and to demonstrate order. The fight is to the death and there can be only one winner. Cleverly the world is built out of a sort of popular-cultural interpretation of ancient Rome, with gladiatorial games and the panem et circenses politics.

As a gameshow story, it has been pointed out that there are many precedents, for example Running Man.

The idea of the game show permits anything to happen. Items appear from nowhere, weather conditions are manipulated and even the principal rules may change. The tributes will try, together with their mentor, to create a plan that would secure them the attention of the sponsors and help them subvert the games and in the case of the protagonists to achieve something more than just an ordinary win.

I also read the sequels (Mockingjay and Catching Fire) but won't recap them here. If you thought the concept of the Games was cool, then the sequels will pull the rug from under you and instead deal with the realities of war and things like post-traumatic syndrome and being pawns in a larger "game". This is a bold and necessary move but also diverts from the charm of the original.

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