Monday, July 27, 2009

The Boy Who Would Live Forever

The Boy Who Would Live Forever is the fifth novel in the Heechee Saga by Frederick Pohl. And being the fifth of its kind, it is very much like watching the third sequel of Jurrasic Park or Mission Impossible. The author really has nothing new to say and is perhaps writing in the hope that people who liked the other Heechee novels would buy this one too because it’s a Heechee novel.

Nothing much really happens in the story. The plot itself is insipid. Wan, the orphan boy who’d been found by the Harter-Hall party has become very rich and slightly psychotic. He is hell bent on taking revenge with the Heechee, for what reason, it’s not very clear. And in the end people manage to stop him from destroying the Heechee in the core. Neat.

Having finished reading the entire series, I believe there are serious flaws in the world that Pohl has imagined. One, there is a complete absence of politics in this world. The main organizational entities in the galaxy seem to be space exploration companies. These companies seem completely independent of any government control (which is the capitalist idea that might just be plausible) and also infinitely fair and just in the way they carry out their affairs (which seem a lot less likely). Individuals with capital seem to be in complete control of everyone’s life, without any public support at all.

Even economy-wise, there are severe flaws. Wealth almost always seems to correspond to material wealth. Energy and information don’t seem to be commodities at all. Information wasn’t a commodity in Pohl’s time, yes, but energy very much was, he should have figured that in. For example, the machine intelligences in his stories own themselves if they own their hardware. What about the energy to run this hardware? Who own the ‘bits’ or the software of these machine AIs?

But the first few books who didn’t deal too much with machine life or with the Heechee themselves were good. Starting the series is highly recommended, just stop when you start getting bored.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Torchwood Children of Earth

The 2009 series of Torchwood was a mini-series composed of just 5 episodes. Each of these 5 episodes were telecast on consecutive days within a single week. I think the format was unusual but it did result in a spectacular storyline and a plot that kept the viewers at the edges of their seats all along.

Grittier than Usual
Although Torchwood is a Dr. Who spin-off it does have a gritty, semi-adult tone. The stories don’t always have happy endings. The main character – Jack Harkness – rends your heart apart at times. But even then, ‘Children of Earth’ was grittier than usual. It forced the audience to face a lot of difficult question. Do the needs of many really outweigh the needs of a few? It is okay to sacrifice one life for the sake of one million? What if the proportions are different? What if you had to sacrifice a million lives to save billions? Would the decision still be all that clear cut?

I think that’s the central question that ‘Children of Earth’ makes us ponder about. Unfortunately there’s no straight answer to that. Your eyes well up with tears with Jack Harkness’s as in the climactic moments he is forced to take a very difficult step indeed.

But fortunately in the real world, it seldom comes down to such clear cut mathematics. Often there are ways to benefit everyone equally. The only thing it takes is wisdom and compassion. An injury to one is an injury to all. That’s the lesson we take away from Children of Earth.

Jack Harkness
The character of Jack Harkness fascinates me. For one, he’s the first gay lead character that I’ve seen on television. His romance with Yanto Jones, another lead character on the show, is touchingly portrayed. The show portrays gay people as utterly normal, so much so, that you hardly ever even think about the fact. Just like you’d never think about a straight person’s sexuality and take it for granted. That, I think, is one of the major achievements of the show in general.

But more than that Jack Harkness is also a man who cannot die. So we has to face the staple science fiction-ey problems of outliving his loved ones and hiding his true identity from those who cannot know about it. But there is another, more unique problem he faces. In his role as a Torchwood operative, he is forced to take decisions that other, normal people would not take. And that’s because while normal people wouldn’t be around to face the consequences of their decisions, Jack Harkness would always be. If he chooses to fight the aliens and not sacrifice a million children, the world may be destroyed. Normal people might be willing to sacrifice their world for their children because they would eventually die (either in the war or later) and their misery would end. But Jack Harkness would live on. He’d have to face this world, destroyed or otherwise, every fresh morning that he wakes up.

I think that’s why he decides to leave Earth and go on a galactic journey amongst the stars. He can’t live in a world that keeps changing where he doesn’t. He can’t live in a world that gives him the illusion of being permanent and then falls apart around him.

The Next Series?
Series produces Russel T. Davies has said that the fourth 2010 series is ready to do and telecast would depend on the response to ‘Children of Earth’. I do wonder how they’d do it with Jack Harkness now galavanting around the universe. But as we know with all Dr. Who spinoffs, it’s usually not very difficult. :)

‘Children of Earth’ raises, but just raises and doesn’t really discuss, another important issue. When humans are asked to gift the alien with 10% of their children what they decide to do is choose the bottom 10% in terms of academic performance. When this happens on screen, it really hits you like a hammer. Would there really come a time when your right to live will become linked to your academic prowess?

The second issue it raises is of the difference between the civil service and the politicians. Now, I confess here that I don’t know much about the political scene in Britain. But what I can understand despite that is that the show delineates an important difference between the civil servants and the politicians. Politicians are transient. They come and go. But civil servants have to stay, sometimes for several decades working in the same department. That permanence makes them a lot more responsible than the politicians. The democratic system, because of its transience takes away a lot of accountability from the shoulders of politicians who thrust it upon the shoulders of civil servants. This is an issue that any modern democracy should look into.

There is also the issue of the US meddling with the affairs of UK that seems to be a raw nerve within the latter nation. Torchwood, Dr. Who and other spin-offs bring it up often enough.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Annals of the Heechee

The Annals of the Heeche is the fourth book in Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga. It narrates the story of Robinette Broadhead, sometime prospector and current billionaire as he galavants around the galaxy trying to keep the Foe – enemies of this universe – at bay.

The first thing that this book reminded me was the Ender books by Orson Scott Card. The first reason is the significant role that machine intelligences play in both Heechee and Ender. Machine intelligences don’t come into play in the first Ender book, but from the second book on, Jane, a mysterious AI who becomes Ender’s companion for life. Similarly, Robinette Broadhead in Annals of the Heechee has several AI companions who are a significant part of his life.

The second way that it reminded me of the Ender books is the way it deals with the aliens – the other. Ender’s story begins with a complete othering of the aliens. They are mysterious, unknown and threatening. There seems to be no way at all of understanding or communicating with them. Indeed, human being must exterminate the aliens in order to even survive. And this remains so till almost the very end of the story when with a classic twist in the tale, the other becomes understandable, negotiable and even amiable. The same occurs with the Annals of the Heechee. In the beginning, the Foe remain mysterious and deadly but only at the very end is their secret revealed and they become understandable and even benevolent in some sense.

What struck me as amusing is that the characters in the Heechee saga seem to be the realization of common geek fantasies. A spouse who is an expert programmer AND breathtakingly beautiful, not to mention Russian with a cute way of speaking English? A best friend who is a cheeky computer program in the likeness of Albert Einstien? Mr. Pohl most definitely knows how to pull the strings of the geek heart. :)

Star Trek XI

I saw the film on the weekend it opened and didn’t quite know whether to like it or not. It was an awesome action movie but with Star Trek you always expect something beyond an action movie. And on the first watch, I didn’t seem to get anything of the beyond.

Then I came back home and read the official back story comic. That gave it some perspective. And I also had the time to mull over the movie itself. I had time to appreciate how cleverly the reboot had been done. How characters had been tweaked to have more depth without moving too far from the original. How the presence of old Spock guaranteed that continuity is maintained in a very strong way.

And then I went and watched the movie again. This time it seemed a lot better. But still not quite there, I’m afraid.

It was only after the discussions on environmental science fiction going on at the IITK SF Workshop mailing list that I realized that Star Trek XI could possibly be seen as having strong environmental undertones. That is, if you look at it in conjunction with the back story.

The central crisis in the movie is an environmental crisis. A star is going nova which is going to destroy an entire world. We have the technology to stop it. However, we’re not doing it because of familiar reasons – apathy, mistrust and politics.

What was most appealing about this reading was the character of Captain Nero. As has been said before, Captain Nero is a strangely troubled man. He is, in some sense, an icon of what will be left behind if indeed an environmental disaster occurs to earth. Captain Nero symbolizes loss and anger and helplessness and that’s what we will be left with if we don’t do something about it soon.