Category: Sci-fi

The Great Derangement

The Great Derangement

This whole year, the phrase ‘climate change’ has been much in news. We have broken all records of highest temperatures. There have been many floods and droughts. The alarming rate at which our climate is changing has been increasingly visible for the last decade. Climate scientists like Michael Mann have been shouting themselves hoarse fighting the climate change deniers.

In his book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh examines ‘climate change’ in the context of literary novel. Why is it, Ghosh asks, that such a serious topic has been completely banished from literary fiction? Why does a novel that deals with gigantic catastrophes, immediately gets labelled ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’? And why it is that these genres are not considered elite enough to be included under the sacred umbrella of literary fiction?

These are not easy questions and Ghosh delves into the history of modern novel, starting from Gustave Flobert and nineteenth century Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who sought to bring the European-style realist fiction to India. In the novels that followed this realist tradition, depicting extreme conditions occurring in Nature was frowned upon. Instead, Nature was this mild and moderate entity that was so harmless that it receded into the background. ‘Improbable’ was something that the modern novel never dealt with because it clashed with the realist sensibilities. Descriptions of terrifying seas or howling winds that eventually cause a cyclone were not serious literature. Such outbursts were banished from the elite kingdom with labels such as ‘the melodrama’, ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’. What caused the separation of science fiction from literary fiction? In his brilliant analysis, Ghosh shows how the change came about gradually, how Nature was consigned to sciences, remaining off-limits from Culture. With western artists propagating this literary tradition, those in Asia and Africa were always trying hard to catch up with every new iteration of modernity, the new ‘isms’ that kept on appearing with increasing regularity. We have devastating effects of climate change occurring at a frightening pace and yet, serious literature seems to be blissfully ignorant of it. “In this regard”, says Ghosh, “the avant-garde, far from being ‘ahead’, was clearly a laggard”.

There are many aspects to the complex issue of climate change. It is no coincidence that the carbon economy in developing nations started with end of the British Empire. This is closely related to the much debated issue of sharing of responsibility to cut emissions between the developed and developing nations. For all the jubilation made over the Paris Agreement on climate change, it offers very little in terms of immediate effective action. It takes no cognizance of our behaviour that has put the planet in grave danger.

What is remarkable about The Great Derangement is the forthrightness in its analysis. Many climate change essays assume an ideal world and propose solutions. The Great Derangement goes beyond the feel-good press statements and climate agreements. It deals with the effects of the tainted era of imperialism and the dirty politics played behind doors when such agreements are signed. “The might of carbon-intensive economy cannot be fought with a politics of sincerity” – is one of the book’s blunt conclusions.

What do we see if we step back for a moment and try to look at the big picture? That is what the title of the book is all about. Greenland has lost a trillion tons of ice in four years. CO2 levels at present are the highest ever. We have droughts in places that never had shortage of water. Floods continue to threaten the low lying areas. Natural ecosystems like rain-forests and coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, literary fiction writers living in their ivory towers are blissfully ignorant of the crisis. Politicians who have the power to make decisive policies can see no further than the next election. And the general public, caught in a never ending cycle of carbon-intensive economy, has neither the power nor the will to do anything about the crisis.

This, then, is an era of The Great Derangement.

Three Body Problem

Three Body Problem

I like science fiction. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke are amongst my favourite authors. When I read sci-fi, I am looking for novel ideas of what else is possible in science. As many of the prescient sci-fi authors have shown, their ideas are not just castles in air. Some of the concepts in Asimov’s novels are very deep, like the three laws of Robotics. Others are more speculative – for instance the science of psychohistory on which The Foundation Series was based. I get excited reading about such concepts and I am always left wanting for more. Many times I feel that these books do not have enough hardcore science for my taste. This is understandable because they have to sell. Stephen Hawking was told by his publisher that every equation in A Brief History of Time would halve the sales. He settled for one : E = mc².

With this background, it was a pleasant surprise to read The Three Body Problem, a sci-fi novel by Chinese author Cixin Liu. The Three Body Problem has been a best-seller in China and it became hugely popular all over the world when its translation won the prestigious Hugo award. Its first stage adaptation has just debuted and its film adaptation is under way. The book was also recommended by Mark Zuckerberg in his book club. What I find most amazing about The Three Body Problem is the fact that it became so popular in spite of so much hardcore science in it.

At its core, the plot of The Three Body Problem is an old one. Battle of an alien civilization against humanity. The story starts against the backdrop of cultural revolution in China. A fifteen year old girl is killed while protesting against the Red Union. A physics professor is tortured to death by Red Guards in front of a large crowd. Fast forward forty years and we meet the daughter of the physicist Ye Wenjie, who is working on a secret army project. As the story progresses, we are confronted by some fundamental questions in Physics. Can everything about the universe be known simply by observation and experiments? Particularly interesting are two hypotheses – the shooter hypothesis and the farmer hypothesis. In shooter hypothesis, a hunter shoots at a target creating a hole every ten centimetres. Intelligent beings living on the target propose a law : there is a hole in the universe at every ten centimetres. In farmer hypothesis, a farmer feeds his turkeys at 11 am everyday. A scientist turkey hypothesizes : food arrives at 11 am everyday. On thanksgiving day, food does not arrive. Instead, the farmer collects the turkeys and kills them all.

Wang is a scientist researching on nanomaterials – materials composed of very small particles that have extraordinary properties like high strength, low weight etc. Paths of Wang and Ye Wenjie cross and Wang discovers that Ye Wenjie was the first human on Earth to send and receive a transmission from an extraterrestrial civilization. The aliens are on the nearest star system Alpha Centauri and they are called Trisolarians. Trisolaris is so named because it has three suns. These three suns have a complicated trajectory and as a result there are no fixed seasons on Trisolaris, only stable periods followed by extreme weather conditions. Trisolarians have very advanced technology and they are looking for a new home to conquer. They find it on Earth.

The story takes many dazzling twists and turns, characters enter and exit. And in the midst of all this, the reader is exposed to some brilliant ideas of futuristic science. We live in a four dimensional world – three dimensions for space and one for time. According to one theory, there are seven more dimensions, making it an eleven dimensional space. What if we could manipulate the rest of these dimensions? Turns out that the Trisolarians have achieved the capability of manipulating higher dimensions. Using this, they unfold a proton in two dimensions so that it becomes a vast surface that consumes all of Trisolarian sky. Then they build a quantum computer with four such protons – two of them on Solaris and two on Earth. These computers are able to communicate instantly, without any time lag.

In the foreword, Liu Cixin talks about his childhood. In the village in rural China where he grew up, there was no electricity and China had yet to become polluted. The Milky Way was clearly visible every night. As he became older, he began to learn about planets, stars, and the vast distances between them. He struggled to grasp the vastness behind the concept of light-year. And it was then that he discovered his special talent. Units such as one light-year which are unfathomable to everyone else took on concrete forms in his mind. He could visualise them and play with them.

Progress in science is always slow and takes time. This does not mean that our imaginations should be limited by it. The Three Body Problem is a journey into what science may look like in a couple of centuries from now. Cixin Liu is being heralded as Arthur C Clarke of China. I am looking forward to his other books getting translated to see how far this comparison holds.

Jurassic World : A Brilliant Self-satire

Jurassic World : A Brilliant Self-satire

I know what you are thinking. Who wants to read anything on Jurassic World? It’s been seen, written about and forgotten. You should write about new movies soon after the release. Yes, I know the rule. But on this blog, to quote the immortal Bard of Avon, it is a rule “more honoured in the breach than the observance”.

So coming back to Jurassic World, here’s a question for you. At what point do you decide that you like a movie? Or hate it? Within first few minutes, during the intermission or afterwards? The amazing thing about Jurassic World is I know exactly when I started liking this movie.

Till about 4:30 minutes into the movie I was yawning. Two brothers going on a vacation to Jurassic World and no points for guessing how that visit is going end. What else is new? At about 5:30, I was enraged, metaphorically throwing myself on the floor in a metaphoric apoplectic fit. The two brothers are riding in a train that enters the Jurassic World gate, camera glides over one brother’s dirty sneakers while Jurassic Park theme plays in background? Are you kidding me? They could have been eating Pizza or bowling. And the score ends in a panoramic shot of the park which is far from spectacular, it could be any theme park in the world. Why are they wasting a phenomenal John Williams score on such tepid visuals?

I was still fuming as Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) entered in the next shot. At about 7:30, Clair is giving a tour to prospective investors and she is saying, “No one is impressed by a dinosaur anymore..these days kids look at a Stegosaurus like an elephant from the city zoo”. The penny dropped. This was not just another action packed flick, this was a brilliant satire that was unfolding before me.

As the drama continued, there were more clues to be found in every corner of the frame, so to speak. The kid adds genetic combinations to make a dinosaur on the screen – a kid’s play, literally. The software guy, Lowery (Jake Johnson) – whose desk is also cluttered – is wearing an original Jurassic Park T-shirt, (in bad taste according to Clair). There are many references to John Hammond – “spared no expense” – throughout the movie. The satire reaches its peak with the helicopter ride of Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and Clair. It ends exactly the same way as did the ride with John Hammond, Dr. Ian Malcolm, Dr. Sattler and Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park. Waterfall enclosed by lush greenery, helicopter descending, John Williams soundtrack. Except that this time, the helicopter lands with a loud bang, the co-pilot gets sick, runs into the bushes and starts puking. (I literally LOL’ed here.) Rarely does one see such biting self-satire.

So what’s really happening under the surface? I like to imagine that it’s Steven Spielberg talking to the select circle of Jurassic Park fans. Fans who were there to witness the birth of CGI revolution brought on by Jurassic Park. The narrative is about how technology has changed cinema over the years. It’s no coincidence that the kid watching slides of early movies showing a T. rex fight gets to watch the same fight in CGI near climax. There is also an element of Spielberg’s own journey. The Mosasaurus that saves everyone in the end has a strong resemblance to the shark in Jaws.

For those of you who were born later, it may be difficult to understand the impact of seeing a live dinosaur on screen for the first time. I remember coming out of the theater feeling dazed, unable to believe what I had just witnessed. Never before did images appear so real, so lively. It was birth of a new era. In the next 20 years, cinema underwent a revolution. Now we can have anything on the screen and make it look plausible. The term ‘special effects’ has lost its meaning. Even a chewing gum ad can have a dinosaur and no one will bat an eyelid. This is what Spielberg is lamenting about (or so I like to think).

Jurassic Park was a special project for Spielberg. Watching the special contents DVD, one is amazed at the painstaking research that went on for three years during the making of this movie. Jurassic World shows the fossils of this work when two brothers stumble into the old visitor’s center. Night-vision goggles or the 1992 Jeep Wrangler Sahara, it’s all there, gathering dust.

In the end the movie relents a bit and you see the T. rex roaring over the empty theme park, to the triumphant major chords in background. No satire here. Except for the concrete and glass buildings, it could have been a T. rex roaring 65 million years ago. As Spielberg explains in the Jurassic Park DVD, T. rex is the star of the movie. He felt that he had to bring it back one last time in the climax. Jurassic World follows this tradition.

Message of this parallel narrative is simple. Dinosaurs have become outdated.

Or as Dr. Ian Malcolm would quip, “Don’t you mean extinct?”

The Martian

The Martian

I saw The Martian. I have not read the book. This was not intentional. The book has been in my reading list for a while, I just never got around to reading it. And then the movie came out. So for once, I decided to see the movie first and then read the book.

There was another reason to watch the movie. It stars one of my favorite actors, Matt Damon.

Here’s what I like about Matt. While doing a wide variety of roles, he does not change his getup much, save the occasional blond hair, blue contacts, or a funny mustache – and often, not even that. If you just look at his photo in a magazine, it’s still Matt looking back at you. But then you see him on the screen and everything changes – accent, body language, and sometimes the body itself. For Invictus, he got himself physique of a Rugby player (though his size does not fit in the traditional Rugby player category), walked with both feet firmly planted on ground and made himself robust like a rock. He was Francois Pienaar in flesh and blood. To be fair though, he had tough competition in Morgan Freeman. The way Morgan managed to resurrect Nelson Mandela on screen with his body language and voice is a topic for another post. In the Bourne series, Matt was agile, sharp, and quick as lightning. In Legend of the Bagger Vance, he became Rannulph Junuh – a golfer from Savannah,  easy going and relaxed with a delightful Southern accent. And in all these transformations, his instrument was his body.

Matt is one of the best examples of actors using their body as an instrument. He has another interesting quality. He is at that sweet spot between a star and a serious actor. He has enough star quality to blend easily in the Hollywood’s Who’s Who Extravaganza that was Ocean’s Eleven, but he is also serious about his acting which allows him to experiment. That he does not have many signature mannerisms also helps, save perhaps the toothy grin, which has become less frequent as he transitions from his younger roles.

First thing that strikes you about The Martian is its low key approach. The stock camera movements and cuts depicting launch sequences have been done away with. In fact, there is a deliberate attempt to create disharmony by playing 70’s Disco hits that feel so out of place. This ironical interplay reaches its high point when Mark Watney (Matt Damon) prepares for the final launch, with ABBA playing in the background.

The downplay does not make the film routine. Nothing about the grand landscape of the Red Planet can be routine. With two rovers sending pictures of Mars everyday, there is no dearth of details. This is one occasion where the 3D does feel like an advantage. Instead of superheroes beating the heck out of each other, it’s much more rewarding to watch the Martian landscape in 3D.

Most of the movie – barring the climax – is shot like a documentary, with few witty lines and tense moments thrown in. There is much science here and from what I have read, much has been left out from the book. This makes me wonder how the movie will come across to laypersons not familiar with intricacies of space flight. Apollo 13 was packed with details as well, but they spent quite a bit of time explaining the main points. The Martian is more abrupt, never dwelling too much on one particular problem and the problems just keep coming.

While watching The Martian, it struck me that perhaps we are becoming familiar with space exploration. And this reflects in the way the director does not spend much time on things like the movement of spaceship across the sky – one of the favorite shots of earlier directors. Soon, a spaceship going by could be as routine as a car or a train. We want more – survival on Mars or psychotherapy in space. In other words, space is slowly becoming another background location where the usual human interactions can be played out. And this is where Kubrick (And Arthur C Clarke!) still wins. The high point of 2001: A Space Odyssey is not rooted merely in the wonder of space exploration, it goes beyond. The journey from early humanoids to artificial intelligence and its implications leaves you breathless.

There are some moments in The Martian where Ridley Scott pauses for a moment and reflects. When Mark soliloquies, “I am the only person on this planet”, the vastness of Mars and of the space beyond hits you. It’s one of the few existential moments in the film.

Even if you don’t care for the scientific details, The Martian is worth a watch for the beautiful Red Planet and some well paced drama in space.