My science fiction itch

Sketch of Larry Niven's "Ringworld"

Sketch of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been fascinated with anything futuristic. My favourite viewing as a child ranged from the Tomorrow People through to Logan’s Run and everything in between. When the Star Wars films came out, I was in heaven. Although I liked the science fiction represented on TV and in the cinema, it took me a long time to grow a liking for literary science fiction.

I tried many books, but found that most of them lacked the raw guttural excitement of what I’d seen on screen. I found myself drawn to fantasy fiction. Somehow, the reverse was true. Most fantasy films were pretty ropey when compared to the best of the written word. Of course, these days we are spoilt with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit & Game of Thrones.

Lately though, I have a science fiction itch that I can’t quite scratch, so I find myself steadily ploughing through the SF Masterworks series from Orion Publishing. I can pick them up for a song from my favourite disorganised bookshop. I started with the Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Published almost 40 years ago, the novel still seems fresh and follows the life of a soldier in an interstellar war against the Taurans. The war ebbs and flows as both sides learn from the conflicts. Straight after this, I read Tau Zero by Poul Anderson which is even older. The bed-hopping colonists in the book suddenly realise there is something terribly wrong with their ship. Although the scope of the novel is epic – the destruction and rebirth of the Universe – I can’t help being disappointed with the ending.

Larry Niven‘s Ringworld was next – again, an old book. Published in the year I was born, it follows an unlikely group of 4 voyagers setting out to explore a the massive ring like construct of the title. The story bounces along at a jaunty pace and the characters grow throughout the book. Of the three, this was the best so far. What struck me about each of these books was the role that physics plays in the story. They almost read like stories made up to illustrate the theory of relativity.

More recently, I read the Demolished Man which is the oldest so far. In a world full of people who can read minds – how can you murder someone? An intriguing concept and the story proceeds at a breakneck pace. Of all the books – it is very difficult to believe that this was written over half a century ago. It feels so fresh. Highly recommended!

Right now, I’m reading Hyperion. A massively imaginative tale of a group of pilgrims heading to a religious site on the planet of the title. The story unfolds in a Canterbury Tales-esque fashion with each character telling their story. Of course each tale is intertwined and quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This is the most recent tale and the first to convince me to seek out the sequels. My disorganised bookshop doesn’t carry them, so I’ll have to pay full price – but somehow, I’m convinced they are worth it!

What else should I read to scratch my science fiction itch?

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Star Wars could do with some magic

English: Opening logo to the Star Wars films

English: Opening logo to the Star Wars films (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was something magical about Star Wars. Confusingly, it was the first and the fourth film in the saga and it came out when I was just 7 years old. There are not many films I clearly remember watching at the cinema from back then. I remember two. Grease was enjoyable but not really my cup of tea. Star Wars, however was magnificent. It was a classic science fiction fairy tale, with a Princess (Leia), a downright evil baddy (Darth Vader), a loveable rogue (Han) and a rag-tag collection of droids and a farm boy.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the film, dozens probably. It was on again last weekend and considering it is now 35 years old, the film wears its years very well. The version being shown was the hobby enhanced edition with all the effects George Lucas added on afterwards to tart up the film. To be honest, I don’t think they add very much to what was already a damn fine film. If anything, the pace seems a little pedestrian, but certainly watchable.

Fast forward to this weekend and we sit here watching the second film in the franchise (or episode V in the new parlance), The Empire Strikes Back. Most people agree that this is by far the best film of the series but I’m not so sure. I like the ice battle on planet Hoth, but I find the training scenes with Yoda very slow. It is still a good film though and ranks among my favourites.

In between these two screenings, there was an enormous disturbance in the Force. A colossal empire by the name of Disney took control of the Star Wars universe. And boy, do I think it’s a good thing. Despite being no lover of Disney, somehow I have been to both Disney World and Disneyland and whilst I don’t like the tweeness and the triteness, I have to admire the vision and production values that lie behind the brand.

After the first three Star Wars films, the franchise was on a real high. It seemed unstoppable. There seemed hardly a child in the world who didn’t own a huge collection of Star Wars figures. A vast merchandising machine went into action and there was Star Wars on just about anything you can imagine.

When George Lucas announced the next three films in the series, episodes I – III, the Star Wars community rejoiced. There would be more wondrous science fiction epics to watch. Only somehow, it didn’t work out that way. There was a fine cast and the effects were magnificent, but where was the humour?  Where was the witty dialog? The interplay between charismatic characters. They were turkeys.

Disney have announced the next three films and let us hope that in these films the Force rediscovers its mojo. If they can hit the high notes that they did with Pirates of the Caribbean, then all will be well in the universe again.

To infinity and beyond…

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programm...

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programma Apollo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a child, I had such a thirst for knowledge, I used to enjoy reading encyclopaedias from cover to cover. I found them absolutely fascinating. Every page I turned over, I read about something completely new which I knew nothing about. One of the areas that particularly piqued my interest was space travel.

The thing about space is that it is so vast and so full of the unknown that the possibilities seem endless. If anything, the literature I was exposed to and the TV and films I tuned into during my youth only reinforced my obsession with all things cosmic.

I was born in the seventies (just) and things looked so very promising. Man had just walked on the moon and the Apollo missions were in full swing. All the textbooks were quite confidently predicting that there would be a 2001 style space station in orbit and we would have established bases on the moon and Mars. I used to look up at the sky and think that one day, I would walk on another world.

Films like Star Wars and TV programs like Star Trek and Space 1999 only reinforced this notion and I used to revel in fiction like the Stainless Steel Rat. The first time I saw Alien, I thought it was so realistic even though the prospects of long range space travel and discovery of aliens have yet to be realised decades later.

So here we are and we have seen all the significant dates like 1984, 1999, 2000 and 2001 fly past. I have to confess to being bitterly disappointed with mankind’s progress into the universe. In every other endeavour, we have made leaps and bounds but truth be known, we would struggle to repeat what we did in 1969 – put a man on the moon.

There have been glimmers of hope, like the space shuttle, skylab and the International Space Station, but by and large progress has been glacial. As the old cold war superpowers have lost interest, other emerging nations have stepped up to the plate, but to date, no-one has really set their sights much higher than that amazing mission in 1969.

More recently, I have been encouraged by some green shoots. Governments seem to have largely given up, so it is left to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic programme to commercialise space travel. Today, I spotted a news story on Twitter about Peter Diamandis who is widely expected to launch a startup company to mine asteroids for diamonds. How cool is that?

So do I still harbour ambitions to walk on another world? Well, no, probably not. But I’m sure by the time we get there – they will have jet powered disabled scooters – with twin lasers mounted front and rear…

May the force be with you – engage and make it so!