The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.


And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Provenance: Ann Leckie returns to her Ancillary universe

Provenance,

Ann Leckie,

Orbit Books

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seemed to come out of nowhere and conquered all before it, scooping the Arthur C Clarke, the Hugo and the Nebula awards among others, and for my own part it (and the following two books in her Radch trilogy) made my annual Best of the Year lists (in fact I recall Justice also made a few of our guest Best of the Year selections too, it impressed a lot of people). Her new novel, Provenance, is set in the same universe, but isn’t directly connected – it’s a different world and society (outside the imperialist Radch space), and different characters, and I think that was a wise move by the author, giving fans something fresh but at the same time also expanding the universe she has built previously.

Much of the events in Provenance rotate around or involve Ingray Aughskold, a young woman from a highly privileged, important and influential family on the world of Hwae. These kinds of mover and shaker families don’t operate just like a classic dynastic model though, they also frequently foster and adopt other children, raised to be part of the family and with them competing to be the one who will be named as the heir. In her case she suspects her brother is their mother’s favourite to inherit her name and title, he simply seems more devious and determined and scheming. Not terribly pleasant characteristics, but for the sort of political wheeling and dealing class, quite useful. And so at the opening we find Ingray, somewhat out of her depth, on a station in another system, where she has used all of her remaining resources to have someone secretly rescued from what is euphemistically called “compassionate removal” (essentially a prison planet where undesirables are dumped and have to fend for themselves).

Ingray’s world is obsessed with “vestiges”, historical artifacts and documents which are used to prove worthiness and rights, both on the personal level to the family history to the entire planetary society itself (not unknown in our own history, think of the supposed Wallace Sword in the Stirling monument, or Henry VIII’s Arthurian round table). The person she has had broken out of imprisonment, Pahlad Budrakim, also comes from a powerful family like her own (actually one her mother, the current Netano, has contested against for political office). And he was put away for stealing the family vestiges and replacing them with clever forgeries. Ingray’s plan to get Pahlad free, return to Hwae and find the never-recovered vestiges and present them to her mother as proof of her abilities is a bit desperate, even to herself, a last-ditch, all-or-nothing approach. So she is already filled with self-doubt as she embarks on this mission… And then when she finally gets Pahlad Budrakim delivered, removed from stasis, the person who emerges, despite looking like Pahlad Budrakim, claims not to be that person or even to know them. It seems her plan has fallen apart right at the first hurdle and all that remains to do is go home, broke and resigned to failure and the inevitable gloating of her brother.

Needless to say, this is not exactly how Provenance plays out, or it would be a very shot read. Instead Ingray finds that her travels and her scheme have brought her into wider plots, involving some of those she meets in her journey, her family, her planet and other powers. She will find herself again worrying about being out of her depth, of attempting to form plans in response to strange new turns of events, then finding her plans don’t always work and she’s going to have to have a wee panic but then settle down and think again. There’s actually something very pleasing about this – Ingray isn’t some superbly-gifted character, highly-trained and with capabilities normal people can only envy (the sort of character we see all too often), she’s a regular person, and a young one, inexperienced and learning as she goes. It’s as much a coming of age story as it is a mystery and conspiracy tale, and Ingray feels quite natural and believable, and increasingly likable as the story progresses.

In the Ancillary series the imperial Radch normally use the pronoun “she” for any citizen, they don’t differentiate in language between genders. Here in the Hwaen and other cultures which come into play here, Leckie expands that, with Hwaens using three gender pronouns, he, she and e, and eir instead of their, while different cultures also follow different naming conventions (much as some Earth cultures do – for example, not every culture follows the Western model of forename and surname in that order). My only problem with “e” is as a British person when I see “e opened the airlock” I can’t help but imagine it in a Cockeny or Yorkshire accent, or another which drops the “h”, which I imagine isn’t a problem American readers have. And this and with exposure to these other cultures, including the alien Geck and people from various walks of life, Provenance feels more rounded socially than the Ancillary trilogy – a part of that universe, of course, but showing us whole different parts of that universe, and hinting at more to explore. And that’s something we SF geeks do love, for sure, a good bit of world – or universe – building, and it expands that setting from the original trilogy nicely, widening that set for more future tales (I sincerely hope) set in that universe. An extremely satisfying and enjoyable read.

The Corporation Wars come to a cracking conclusion with Emergence

The Corporation Wars Book 3: Emergence,

Ken MacLeod,

Orbit Books

(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)

I’m always a happy reader when I have a new Ken MacLeod book waiting for my attentions, he has, consistently, been one of the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction writers in these islands for the last couple of decades. As well as intriguing thoughts and gripping stories, Ken is also adept at doing what the best science fiction does – using SF to address the problems of human nature. And in the Corporation Wars trilogy that’s no mean feat, considering, for the most part, the various characters in this series aren’t actually human. We have robots who have achieved sentience, we have computer AIs which oversee much of the Earth policy in this distant proto-colony system, and we have the emulation of human minds running in digital simulations or, to interact with the real universe outside the computer reality, downloaded to mechanoid “frames”.

The first two volumes have seen these deceased humans – fighters and terrorists from two rival factions, the Axel (accelerationists) and the Rax (reactionaries, basically racist, Nazi, power-hungry types), their memories and minds digitally resurrected to man combat machines for Earth, as compensation for what they put the world through during their millennia-gone battles. But twenty light years from home and thousands of years into the future, not even in flesh bodies, these groups can’t help but revert to their previous behaviour… And yet some are starting to learn, starting to look back on what they did before their (usually violent) deaths, on how Earth society has evolved since then, and, importantly, to think about the now sentient robots they have been tasked with dealing with.

After much evolution and interaction – not to mention some spectacular action – in Dissidence and Insurgence, Emergence continues seamlessly (the overall effect, I found, is less that of reading a trilogy but one long tale with small restful pauses), all of the characters now very firmly established, developed. There are no ciphers or stock characters here, even the robots, the newest intelligent beings in the story, are evolving rapidly, showing individuality, wit, even friendship and care for others. And then there is the massive “super habital” world the colonising corporations have been orbiting for so long, finally brought fully on stage, and opening up yet another avenue for exploring how diverse and rich, and astonishing, life, in any form, can be.

There’s plenty to chew over here, from the rights of any sentient being (human, posthuman, robotic or otherwise) and how we deal with them (our behaviour to them saying much about our own moral faculties – or lack of them) to the use of economic and military power. In the Rax I thought I detected more anger than in the preceding volumes; here they are not just the far-right, but quite clearly Nazis, right down to the arm salutes as one group makes a grab for power, and I thought perhaps this was a quite understandable reaction to the hideous growth of such hate groups in the real world. But as well as the thought-provoking elements and the cracking sense of pace and action which pushes events along at a gratifying clip, there is also some humour here – the nasty space-Nazi trying to justify racial superiority when he is nothing but a digital emulation of his old mind in a robotic frame (ah, but an emulation based on a white brain! Yes, that’s how stupid and bigoted these people are). It’s a superb casserole of ingredients, building to the boil at just the right moment.

Emergence is out now from Orbit Books, you can read about the first volume here, and volume two here, while we have a recent report on some of the science fiction events Ken had as a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.

Much is taken, much abides…

I’m revisiting Babylon 5 at the moment, just into season four. A man Earth president who schemed to get power, who conspired with dark forces to get that power, who establishes a cabal to enforce his rule, suspecting anyone who offers criticism of being disloyal, harping on about alien influence ruining the purity of Earth and of “fake news” spreading anti-government propaganda. Twenty two years old and it seems very sadly relevant to today.

This evening I just reached the point where, preparing for a final battle he may not return from the captain quotes from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It’s a harkening back to previous generations, measuring ourselves against their historic deeds and considering ourselves unworthy of them, not their equals. And yet this looking back to a lost, golden age of great heroes who strode through all problems with their mighty deeds is a peculiar faculty of humans that we have had going right back to at least the time of Homer – the Iliad and Odyssey are replete with those ancients even then looking back to the centuries before them, marvelling at great heroes and deeds with a “we shall not see their like again” feeling for their own era. And yet each of those eras too had their own great turmoils, and usually those generations too overcame them. Which gives us hope for our own troubled times. We must not yield.

Reviews: the Laundry is changing – the Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief,

Charles Stross,

Orbit Books

The latest volume in the brilliant Laundry Files arrives from the delightfully warped brain of Charlie Stross. I’ve enjoyed Charlie’s books for many years, but I have an especially soft spot for his Laundry novels; in fact they’re a particular favourite of mine, a delicious mixture of fantasy-horror, laced with dark humour and some fine satirical sideswipes at society and organisations, and, in the form of husband and wife team Mo and Bob, characters that grow on you very quickly and who you become very fond of and invested in.

For those not in the know, the Laundry is nickname for a very special section of British Intelligence, with a very unusual remit – like MI5, MI6 and predecessors like the famous SOE they track and attempt to neutralise threats to the security of the realm. Except the Laundry deals with what most would consider supernatural threats – vampires, portals to other realms, mind-crunching extra-dimensional parasites and unspeakable Elder Gods.But this is no Buffy-esque secret Watcher society, the Laundry may be super-secret (even most of the cabinet doesn’t know about this, and they operate beyond even the secretive oversight of the other intelligence services (which is going to be one of the problems in this volume) but they are still a part of the civil service, and that means procedures, HR requirements and lots of paperwork in-between trying to save the world from soul-devouring monstrosities.

After an enormous incident in the preceding novel though, involving many deaths and an invading force from another dimension in a major British city, the usual clean-up protocols are useless – the Laundry has been exposed to the public and government scrutiny, and as we open poor Bob, who has faced everything from unicorns (nasty buggers) to the skin-crawling horror of the The Sleeper, has an even more terrible foe to face – a live interview on Newsnight. With the Laundry exposed the media is diving on this once secret division and of course the government isn’t too happy either, and in best tradition both media and government are looking for someone to blame for the previous disaster. The media scent blood and the embarrassed government wants scapegoats to blame. And there is outrage that the Laundy has been operating beyond the oversight of the parliamentary intelligence committees (and the legalities that constrain just what more regular services like MI5 can and cannot do).

This is just the start of a seismic shift in how this organisation has been run for many decades, and enemies can scent a sudden weakness and opportunity. The fact that the Laundry has held off absolute nightmares from devouring our Green and Pleasant Land (not to mention the rest of the world and humanity with it) seems to count for little in this atmosphere. And some enemies are prepared to use the devious weapons of the political-corporate elites as much as they will use more fantastical means. Why use up your supernatural energies when you can manipulate government ministers and get them to go along with your ideas – privatise and outsource many operations to a private security firm, it’s more cost-effective and market-efficient, don’t you know! And the group pushing the prime minister for this has already successfully taken over entire sections of the Laundry’s opposite numbers in Washington. Bona fide government contractors, what could be better???

Naturally there is much more going on here, the dark forces using ideas dear to certain sections of the political establishment (supposed free-market competition and efficiency that usually actually means even poorer service – usually bailed out by the taxpayers – and contracts given to firms which just happen to have friends in government, and where many politicians go on to serve after retiring from political life), to infiltrate and quietly take over whole sections of the fabric of our society we depend on, without anyone even knowing they have ceded that control. The huge upset in the operations of the Laundry are also mirrored in Bob and Mo’s personal life – in the most recent volumes both have been through enormous changes that have left their marks. They are both still in love but unsure they can be together (not just in the emotional sense after the traumas they’ve endured, there is an actual safety issue, not least because Bob is now also the Eater of Souls).

I don’t want to go to deeply into the unfolding narrative here, it’s nice, tight, packed with tension and turns, as you would probably expect from one of Charlie’s books, but this set-up with the Laundry now in the open and being menaced as much by government rationalisation plans as it is secret societies and dark gods, is one ripe with potential, both for satirical humour and for dramatic tension, and Charlie uses it perfectly, giving a gripping new installment and quite a major development in the Laundry itself. If you are already a Laundry fan you know you need this, and you know you are in for a treat, if you are new to the series then get yourself started with the Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue and I think you will soon be as addicted as the rest of us. Clever, funny, gripping, inventive and with more than a few satirical comments on the state of our modern world, what more can you ask for? Except maybe a TV series? Constantly surprised there hasn’t been a Netflix or HBO type series based around the Laundry novels yet…

You can read an excerpt from the Delirium Brief on the Orbit blog. Charlie will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Jo Walton as part of Ken MacLeod’s guest selector strand on August 16th. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

This little piggy went to market – Okja

Okja,
Directed by Bong Joon Ho,
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun HeeBong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal

Bong Joon Ho brought us the brilliant monster movie with a twist, The Host and the film adaptation of the Snowpiercer graphic novels, so when I saw his latest film, Okja, was due to make its bow at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I had to grab myself a ticket. A Korean film in both Korean and English – and boasting a nice bonus in the form of the great Tilda Swinton – Okja sees a huge multinational attempting to rebrand itself away from its toxic image, with new CEO (Swinton) waging a PR blitz to try and make the company look warm, eco-friendly and fuzzy after the reign of her father (who even his own family admitted was psychopathic). And the main plank is the superpig, which, over the next ten years, as well as being studied by their own scientists, will be given to traditional farmers in different parts of the world to raise for ten years.

Following the slick (and sickeningly obviously fake) PR launch (riffing nicely not just on how heartless corporations try to hide their agendas with a feel-good PR blanket but also the way so many super-rich CEO seem to desperately want the public to love them), we move to the mountains of Korea and meet Seo-Hyun Ahn’s Mija, who loves with her grandfather and Okja, their now fully adult superpig. Okja is less farm animal and more family member/pet (let’s be honest, to most of us pets are family members), and we get to see Mija walking with him through the woods, playing with him, tapping the sleeping giant animal so he rolls over on his back and she can sleep on his tummy. It’s all quite adorable and I take my hat off to the very young Seo-Hyun Ahn for being able to give such a convincing and emotional acting job to a CG creation she couldn’t see when the film was shooting, it’s a terrific job for such a young actress, and it isn’t long before the audience totally buys into their relationship.

But the day is coming when the corporation wants to pick up Okja and take him back to their American facility, hold their even bigger publicity show and then… Well, gigantic or not, what usually happens to farmed pigs sooner or later? Mija is heartbroken at Okja being taken away from their hillside farm, this is her best friend in the world, and the animal is so clearly bonded with her too. She decides to set off to Seoul after Okja, in what could, in other hands, have become a clumsy Disney-esque “incredible journey” type tale, but fortunately never does. Enter some comedic light relief in the form of some animal liberation activists, apologising to everyone for any harm as they try to free Okja. They have a longer term plan though, and Okja and Mija become a part of it – and of course the corporation too has plans to use both superpig and adorable young girl for their own ends, and the pair are caught between them.

This was such an utter delight – adorable and emotional in places, often wonderfully funny in others, and with some deliciously satirical barbs, especially for giant corporations, the spin doctors who spend vast sums trying to persuade the public how nice they are (really, we are not evil, honest!), and most especially on the way humans treat animals, especially food animals. I don’t think the film is trying to persuade anyone to become a vegetarian (although some scenes made me glad that I am), but certainly to think about the mass-production of animals for food and the appalling way thousands of animals are treated every day so we can buy cheap food from the supermarket and not bother our consciences by thinking of what sort of life the animal that ended up on our plate had before its demise.

The story moves from sweetly emotional to gleefully satirical, with swipes at Almighty Power and healthy doses of our old friend The Absurd, saving perhaps for a later scene where we see what is to happen to the animals, which is just horrifying. The CG for Okja is terrific, the animated animal coming across much more like a giant, good-natured Labrador than pig, and young Seo-Hyun Ahn’s acting with this creature added in post-production totally sells the relationship and is the heart of the film, while Tilda Swinton’s increasingly deranged CEO steals scenes left, right and centre. This is an absolute gem.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

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(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Kenstibec returns in Jon Wallace’s cracking Rig

Rig,

Jon Wallace,

Gollancz

Back in 2014 I was offered an advance copy of a novel by a writer I knew only from short stories in the likes of Interzone (still a great place for short SF). The publisher was excited and comparing Jon Wallace’s Barricade to Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut novel Altered Carbon. Which is one of my favourite debut novels (it would also be the very first book my long-running science fiction book group covered). So it had a big claim to live up to and by the literary gods, it damned well did and then some. It went on to become one of my favourite reads of the year (in fact a quote from my review can be seen in the new book), as did the sequel, Steeple. Fast-paced and action-packed, but still managing to layer in plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of being to environmental destruction, the refugee crisis, the classic Frankenstein monster that humans make in their pride only to then turn on them. Yes, they gave us gripping, tight, rapid action but also a good deal of thought too – a perfect having and eating the cake situation.

Given how highly I rated the first two books you’ll understand I was more than happy for a chance to read the new book, Rig. In Barricade Kenstibec – often shortened to just Ken – was a Power 9, a model of Ficial, an artificial being optimised for specific work (Ken is an engineer, others are medics, soldiers, even “pleasure models” – one of several nods to Blade Runner’s Replicants). Human-looking but a little too perfect, kept in perfect repair by clever nanotech, able to heal even horrendous injuries. Which is quite handy given this near-future world is ruined, chemical and nuclear pollution, a devastated world where the few remaining Reals (actual humans) now live a short, brutal life more like something from the Middle Ages, and like our centuries-ago ancestors heir to every infection going with little or no medical help any more. But a Ficial? They can shrug off almost anything. Until Ken is hit by a special virus which destroys his nano, leaving him, physically at least, almost human. And he’s not happy about it.

Where the first two books took us from the ruins of Edinburgh to a demolished London, and saw the fall from Ficial grace of Kenstibec, Rig opens up the setting, well away from the wretched mess left of the British Isles, with a group of Reals and a couple of Ficials working together on a new plan out in the Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of  what had been American and Canada, using a beautifully designed, hi-tech floating base – the Lotus – as a sort of ark, rescuing youngsters from the barbarous slave markets in surviving settlements on the coast, to train for a new, better world to rise from the ashes. Ironically this modern Noah’s Ark had originally been part of the Martello Project – as the more historically astute of you will infer from the name, these were a form of fort, designed to repel unwanted visitors from the coast of the UK (mostly desperate refugees – a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream, no doubt).

Ken, now sporting a hi-tech mechanical arm to replace his real one, lost in Steeple (now that he can’t regrow damaged parts like a proper Ficial) is finding himself somewhat adrift on this new ocean life (pun intended, sorry). One of the Ficials now co-operating with the Real crew calls him brother, despite the virus having stripped his Ficial physical superiority from him. But Ken doesn’t feel entirely Ficial anymore – like a human he gets sick, he has to eat, excrete and all the other messy processes of life. And feelings, he’s developing feelings that the brutal Ficial conditioning would have kept burned out of his mind as inefficient. But he’s not human either, and he knows it – like Blade Runner’s Replicants he really doesn’t understand his emotions too well, he’s simply not had the experience. Fortunately he has some of the crew who have taken to him, not to mention Pistol, a dog who has become very attached to our Ken. In some ways he’s suffering a form of PTSD, and like similar sufferers of that condition his animal chum is a powerful device for helping him to hold it together.

Naturally the new human-Ficial plan to create a new, young population trained to make a better society and world from the spoiled ashes of the old goes awry. There are disagreements between the crew as to the correct way to do this, not least from a moral point of view. But their arguments are about to be rendered irrelevant by events – someone has been watching their trips to the coastal slave markets, someone who has designs on both their population and on the Lotus (which may now be an ark, but still carries a substantial military payload from the pre-devastation days, a rare and powerful prize).

And I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing any more of what happens, because this is a beautifully-paced roller-coaster, with some gripping, tight twists and turns and some major revelations. We get a little more of the history of the final days before the world collapsed and see more of the violent, small communities which are surviving it in the finest Mad Max style (yes, including some dangerous driving, a nice nod back to the first book when Ken had become a specialist in such driving trips), and the ways in which some groups will use even the end of the world for their own ends, power, privilege and enrichment. Slightly longer then the previous two books, Rig still maintains a cracking pace, delivering a number of high-octane action scenes. As with those earlier books it still healthily mixes these with a lot of observation and commentary to chew over alongside that action, from politics to religion, taking in a number of very current hot topics, from the environment to the refugee crisis to politics (including a reference to the last US president who reminded me a little of President Booth in Judge Dredd history) to the greedy one percent.

This is a terrific slice of action-fueled science fiction, but Rig, and the previous two books, are also a journey, not just the physical one Ken takes from Edinburgh to London to the Atlantic, but a journey of the self; he’s not properly Ficial, not Optimal anymore, but he’s not quite human either. But he’s slowly learning to be himself, whatever that now is, and to realise if he does there are others who will be with him on that journey. And those people, those friends, are perhaps more important than any Ficial efficiency, more important than anything else. All this served up with brilliant post-apocalyptic action on the high seas and the roads, delivering thrills and even some outright horror along the way. The Tin Man had it a lot easier than poor Kenstibec…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Boldly Go…

Star Trek: Boldly Go #1,

Mike Johnson, Tony Shasteen,

IDW

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I’ve been a Trek fan since I was knee-high to a Tribble, but I must confess I rarely dabble in the novels and comics spun off from the various incarnations of Trek, but every now and then one comes along that tractor beams in my attention. And right off the bat I will admit that this cracking cover artwork by George Caltsoudas was a part of that, I couldn’t resist picking it up for a wee peek, and once I did Johnson and Shasteen did a fine job of keeping my attention for the whole read.

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Set soon after the events of the recent Into Darkness movie, with the Enterprise destroyed our crew have been displaced – Scotty is lecturing at Starfleet Academy (and having to use put-downs on some snotty cadets in his class), Spock is on sabbatical on New Vulcan with his father (Uhura has decided to accompany him and learn about Vulcan culture as well as spend time with him), Sulu is now promoted to Commander is First Officer on the USS Concord (under the command of a young captain called Terrell – yes, as in Star Trek Wrath of Khan’s Paul Winfield) in a remote part of the galaxy. Meanwhile James T Kirk is the interim captain on the USS Endeavour, another Constitution-class starship.

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There’s a nice scene of the over-excited bridge officers of the Endeavour discussing their new temporary captain before he arrives. It’s a nice scene, reminding us that highly trained Starfleet officers or not, people are people and they love a wee gossip, especially about each other. And let’s face it, Kirk must have a hell of a reputation in the fleet by this point, some good, some bad, some true, some pure fantasy and it’s pretty understandable his new crew would be nattering about it, until his Federation-born Romulan First Officer, Commander Valas snaps their attention back to duty with a crisp “Captain on the bridge!”, followed by a wry “at ease, I promise I didn’t hear anything” from an amused Kirk.

All of these groups are about to have their new paths altered however – the Concord encounters a strange vessel approaching them at high speed, emitting an odd signal they can’t quite decipher. And then things cut off – on the Endeavour a garbled distress call is intercepted, and with both ships being so far out Kirk opts not to wait for orders from HQ (naturally, this is Kirk, after all), as they are the closest to the Concord, and they make haste to rescue their comrades, while Kirk has the strange message forwarded to Uhura to see if she can tease some meaning from it.

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As I said, I only occasionally read Trek novels or comics, despite years of following all the shows and films. Not sure why, I think perhaps while I liked some over the year there were some where the characters didn’t match the way I thought they were and it put me off. No such problem here, Shasteen does a fine job of creating some fine, sharp comic art and carries the likenesses of the modern Trek film characters very well (and adds in some nice visual references to Trek history – Uhura’s Vulcan garb being strongly reminiscent of Spock’s wife-to-be in the classic Amok Time episode, Spock’s attire also similar references some Nimoy-era movie costumes, little touches but they work and they also let you know the creators here are clearly familiar with Trek history and lore, which I’m sure fans appreciate).

The duo also really nail the characters – Kirk’s wry amusement at his own legend preceding him onto his new bridge is very in character, for instance, a young Sulu knowing he is experienced through his Enterprise days, despite his lack of years, but still pondering if he is really up to being a First Officer yet, Scotty’s smart smack-down of a cheeky cadet in his lectures, Uhura more than holding her own on Vulcan, it all rings very true and authentic, and that appealed greatly to me, as much as the actual story did (and let’s be honest, we love these characters, they are family to us and we love Trek as much for them as we do the stories).

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And there are numerous references to Trek history (great to see this timeline’s version of Terrell, also good to see a Romulan officer, given The Next Generation once pondered the fairness of anyone of Romulan descent being barred from serving). Add in this mystery vessel, as yet unseen but there are hints you will recognise (and no, I won’t spoil them by mentioning them here), and you’ve got a terrific first issue, establishing the post-movie scene for our various crew members nicely and setting their new adventures into place and leaving us with an intriguing situation and hook – pretty good going for a single issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: how the future used to look – Tom Gauld’s delightful Mooncop

Mooncop,

Tom Gauld,

Drawn & Quarterly

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We’ve been huge fans of Tom Gauld’s work for ages here on the blog, so it’s always a pleasure to have a new book from him, and in my own case I also had the added pleasure of getting to meet and chat to Tom about Mooncop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few weeks ago (report here). In his weekly Guardian cartoons Tom has often referenced science fiction and also a sort of retro-futurism which somehow manages to combine humour and amusement along with nostalgia and a gentle melancholy. Think, for an example closely related to his new book, of his cartoon of three panels, one showing the Moon from billions of years ago to 1969, an unchanging vacuum desert, then a panel showing the brief visits of Apollo, then the last showing the Moon from 1973 onwards, back once more to the empty, unchanging desert, empty of people, the bright moment of optimistic future exploration has been and gone.

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(revisiting some of Tom’s earlier work before our Edinburgh Book Festival chat I saw this strip in a different light now, perhaps an early ancestor of what would become some elements of Mooncop. Collected in the You’re All Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld, published Drawn & Quarterly)

Mooncop takes that feeling and that older, optimistic belief in the future, one many of us of a certain age grew up, that by the 21st century we would be living on the Moon, holidays in space, jet packs for all (an old children’s guide to the future proudly proclaiming all of this as if it were fact was one of Tom’s inspirations for the book), and delivers a story that celebrates the wonders of the stark Lunar landscape while also questioning why we thought we would want to live there in the first place. “Living on the Moon, whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now” comments one older lady, one of the original colony designers, to the Mooncop, who replies “Not to me. I think what you did was wonderful”.

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Our cop zooms around that astonishing landscape in his hover-car, but with little to do – zero crimes, means actually his efficiency rating is high, but that low crime is mostly because there are fewer and fewer people still living on the colony. Helping an old lady find her missing dog (off for a Lunar walk in his pressurised “hamster ball”, which makes for some smile-inducing visuals), or retrieving the faulty robotic automaton of Neil Armstrong (a clever way to give him a sort-of cameo and pay homage to that first human on the Moon) is about the worst he has to deal with in his police duties. And as he returns to his apartments each evening (a relative term on the Moon) he experiences an ennui, that this place he always wanted to come to and finds beautiful is slowly dying as people give up and move back to Earth.

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Perhaps he should too? What’s the point in being the only cop on the Moon if there are almost no people for him to serve and protect? Every day there are fewer and fewer. He feels like he arrived at a great party after it had started to break up, and starts to consider the other may be right and he should request a move back to Earth too. And yet… And yet, it’s the Moon, it’s that stark, otherworldly beauty and the image of the Earth rising above the horizon, a homage to that remarkable photo, Earthrise, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as they came out of the shadow of the dark side of the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the first time any human being had ever had a view of the whole globe hanging in space.

He loves it, and as the book continues, as the 60s-style optimistic, shiny Big Future fades in the face of everyday necessity and reality Mooncop becomes less about the science fiction or the humour (although both remain present, I should add) and more about that personal journey, not the physical one to the Moon but the inner one we all have to take at some point, about getting to a place, both physically and emotionally, where we don’t judge our place by what others say but how we feel about it. Our slightly-lost Lunar policeman needs to figure out where he is happiest, what makes him feel right. It’s a lovely, gentle tale of how the future used to look on one level, while on another level it’s about how it isn’t the discoveries and new locations and technologies which make a good future, it’s us ourselves and our understanding of where we want to fit into it all.

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The art is gorgeous throughout, Tom’s minimalist approach paying dividends on the largely barren Lunar landscape, while the colony itself is quite different from many other Moonbases I’ve seen in science fiction. Rather than a huge, domed city sprawling across the plains or a large underground base as in 2001, here it’s individual buildings – apartments, small houses, trees, coffee shops (even a Mooncop needs coffee and donuts, which of course come packed in their own little pressurised containers), with their own little domes, spread out across the landscape, reminiscent of a small town in one of the great deserts of the USA, and there are some nice little references in the art to visual inspirations from the real-world (once futuristic, now run-down cube apartments in Japan) and from science fiction (from Duncan Jones’ Moon to 2001 and Silent Running). It’s a lovely, smile-inducing work, presented in a lovely, well-designed small flexible hardback with metallic finish (a nice addition to your shelves)

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(Tom Gauld at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, photo from my Flickr)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Boldly going… Fifty years of Star Trek

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man … where no-one … has gone before.”

Two of the most enduring television series of all time were born out of that remarkable era of social, artistic and scientific revolution and evolution, the 1960s, series which didn’t just capture the attention and love of the science fiction fans but of a wider audience, appealing to men and women, to different ethnic groups, children, adults, which would become so successful they would become embedded into the popular culture to the level where event those who aren’t fans are still aware of the icons of those series. They are also two of my personal life-long favourites, and I use “life-long” literally – as I’ve grown up with these series and their later evolutions. They have always been in my life; they excited me, thrilled me as a child and engaged my imagination with adventure and wonder, but also set my young mind to thinking, inspiring me to seek out books on related subjects the stories would touch on. How many of us have shared that experience, that inspiration?

One of those shows has already celebrated its fiftieth anniversary year, our beloved Doctor Who. The other one which has gone through my whole life with me marks fifty years today: Star Trek.

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As with Doctor Who, although there may have been a few who thought there was something special about the work in the beginning, no-one could really have foreseen the cultural impact the show would make across half a century (and let us hope, with new films and a new series to come, much longer). Like many of the best tales this is a story of triumph against the odds – famously the pilot episode, the trial show shot just for the suits at the network, was rejected. Trek creator Rodenberry, as I recall even as a kid listening to him on my Inside Star Trek LP (yes, I still have it) back in the 70s, promised the channel a “Wagon Train to the stars”, following the hugely popular Westerns of the period but set in space but brought them something more cerebral. But then in an unprecedented move the network let Rodenberry fashion a second pilot episode, and from that the series sprang forth.

And while Star Trek delivered more than its fair share of action, fist-fights (with ripped shirts, naturally) and more, as the network wanted, it also offered up something more cerebral, many of the stories adding a more thought-provoking layer. It addressed racism (this in a 1960s America in which city streets were sometimes burning during the fight for Civil Rights), equality among all regardless of race, colour, gender, of overcoming our own flaws to become the better versions of ourselves, and by doing so create a finer world, the nature of power and the responsibility to use it wisely. The wonderful Nichelle Nichols, our First Lady of Geekdom, was told by Doctor Martin Luther King himself that her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise was important – a woman, and a woman of colour, on a prime-time TV show, occupying a position of authority as a senior officer, it sent a signal to others who weren’t seeing many other people of colour on their screens back then. Nichelle would later work with NASA to use her Trek fame to encourage more women and more minorities in the space programme and sciences, just another in the many ways the show inspired others.

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Poverty was eliminated on Earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it – hopelessness, despair, cruelty…,” Counsellor Deanna Troi, USS Enterprise, talking to a time-travelling Mark Twain.

As you may have guessed I am not going to reiterate the history of Star Trek here – plenty of others will be doing that for the anniversary (pleasingly among the mainstream press too, not just among our geek community – Trek has reached out everywhere) and besides, most of you are more than familiar with it anyway. No, this is more of a personal piece, a few thoughts on what Star Trek has meant to me over the years, and I’m pretty sure it has had a similar effect on many of you. I’ve read and watched a huge amount of science fiction since I was a wee boy, and I still do, and I have loved so much of it. But what marks Trek out as extra special to me is quite simple: the quality of hope. Hope for the future, hope that we can overcome our own failings, that we can rise above pettiness, greed, selfishness, be better people, and by extension make the world a better place.

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Just recently I was talking to Mary and Bryan Talbot at the Edinburgh Book Festival about their Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, a historical and biographical graphic work about a nineteenth century revolutionary, activist and dreamer, but one which also touched on the Utopian elements of some of the science fiction of the day, imagining overcoming poverty, disease, the grotesque inequalities in society so that everyone had their fair chance. The book was dedicated to their friend, the late Iain M Banks, as an author of future utopias himself with the Culture. And at one point we noted how the Utopian theme has dropped more and more, in recent years, that the dystopian future seems more common in science fiction, not just because it offers drama and spectacle but, it seems, because so many of us look around this world and wonder where that optimism of the mid 60s went to? That we would overcome, that we would evolve morally and use our knowledge and technology for the betterment of all?

And it isn’t hard to see why, in a world where zealots slaughter innocents and equally vile bigots then blame entire sections of society for their actions, increasing division, difference, hatred, while the 1% claws ever more wealth, resources and influence and the rest despair and give up thinking what can you do, what difference can any of us make… To my mind though that makes the hopeful message of the Star Trek future more important than ever. A future where we can build something as vast and powerful as the Enterprise (the ship, I would argue, is almost a character in her own right), but we do so not for some imperial colonisation or warfare or conquest, but for exploration, for advancing knowledge, learning from other cultures, just because we can and because it makes us better, stronger as a species.

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Utopias rarely come to actual reality, and if they did they often would by a dystopia to some because we all have different ideas of what they should be, these things are rarely a one size fits all match. But we’ve dreamed of them forever, and the dream that we can make it better because, because we simply have to, it has to get better than this or what is the point? That dream is an important spur – we may never have a Federation-like ideal society (I suspect Babylon 5’s visions of a more divided future is more realistic, given human nature and history), but if it inspires more to fight for equality, to have rights enshrined into law to protect everyone, to expand educational opportunities and awareness of other problems, practical and moral, that we need to address, then that dream is serving a good purpose.

The greatest danger facing us is irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily not understood,” Captain James T Kirk.

Of course there are many other qualities to Trek – the deep bonds of friendship between the characters are emotionally satisfying, to the extent that many of us feel as if these fictional characters are almost people we know (and we feel the same about the real actors behind those characters, and it causes us genuine grief when we lose one of them). I think that and the dream of a better possible future are some of the reasons why Trek, early on, spawned an entire fan community and early conventions; it brought a lot of people from all over the planet together. It still does; in many ways those early Trek conventions and gatherings and cosplaying (before that term was used widely) set a bit of a template for the SF and comics and gaming conventions that are so common now.

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And there are so many of the stories across the various series and films – I’m sure each of us could fill a whole post with our favourite episodes and why we love them so much. City on the Edge of Forever, with Harlan Ellison’s compelling time-travelling romance and the horrendous personal cost in protecting the integrity of history. Patrick Stewart’s measured but beautifully emotional role in The Inner Light, living a lifetime in a few hours with a people long, long gone. Avery Brooks’ Sisko wrestling with his conscience over methods he would never normally use but is forced into for the greater good, but at enormous personal guilt: “I can live with it. I can live with it…”

Or the fantasy of Deep Space Nine as a 1950s pulp sci-fi series in a magazine which couldn’t admit the writer was black, and the blurring of which was real and which was truly the fiction. Majel Barrett-Rodenberry and M*A*S*H* star David Ogden Stiers facing love late in life and death in a culture with very strict rules on age. Data creating a daughter, who lives only a short time but is so grateful for the gift of that life. Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield playing members of two very different species, desperate to bridge the communication gap, using storytelling and myth, in Darmok.

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And then there are the ones which just flat out made us laugh with our cast of friends – the Trouble with the Tribbles (and the wonderful DS9 tribute decades later), the Little Green Men where the Ferengi find themselves back in time at Roswell (and dealing with rather rougher humans than the evolved Federation types they are used to). And… Well, again I think you all could be coming up with similar lists and also thinking the more you come up with the more others pop into your head – oh, what about? And then that episode where…?

But for all that again I come back to that simple but incredibly precious quality that Star Trek has delivered again and again across half a century: hope, that optimism that whispers to us that we can make the real future a better place. Live long and prosper.

(this piece was originally written for the Forbidden Planet Blog)