Friday 30 July 2021

The Future Refusing To Be Born

There will always be a place that our unevenly distributed future reaches last.
(Image via Goodreads)

In Neil Sharpson’s excellent debut novel When The Sparrow Falls, that place is The Caspian Republic: a country founded by expatriate American and Russian bioconservative activists, whose boundaries are roughly those of present-day Azerbaijan.

While the rest of the world has embraced an almost-singularitarian future of AI-guided mass prosperity, near immortality, and widespread expansive human rights, this Caspian Republic has hewed to a quasi-religious “Humanity First” doctrine and polices the use of technology.

The reader’s guide to this setting is Agent Nikolai South, an aging detective with StaSec, one of the country’s various rival agencies devoted to maintaining ideological purity, and punishing those who try to use illegal technologies.

In a police state where ambition is often met with tragedy, South’s proclivity for keeping his head down has kept him safe. But when the agency needs someone politically reliable, yet expendable, he gets swept up into a protection detail and investigations that have implications for the entire country.

Sharpson’s prose is sparse, clear, and engaging. He ably paints a picture of a deeply flawed society, and one that is the all-too-believable result of nostalgia-driven politics and identity-driven ideology. Because the Caspian Republic’s technology is pretty much limited to what was common in North America in the 1980s, readers will be reminded of late-era Cold War spy stories.
Welsh statesman 
Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)
once described Fascism as
"The future refusing to be born."
(Image via Wikipedia)

But while the setting may seem familiar to readers over 40, many readers will engage with it viscerally because of quotable passages like “Nominally, the currency of the Caspian Republic is the moneta, but in truth the coin of the nation was fear. Whoever could inspire fear was rich, whoever lived in fear was poor.”

One of the highlights of the book is the way in which cultural mores come into conflict between the protagonist and influences from the world outside the boundaries of the Caspian Republic, and the questions that are interrogated. Who or what deserves to have legal rights? What limits should be placed on individual action for the good of the community? To what extent should we allow technology to dictate the future of the species and the planet?

There are coincidences scattered throughout the book that do strain credulity. It is suggested at one point that this may be due to an iteration of Roko's Basilisk — a thought experiment about a future artificial intelligence so advanced it can manipulate events in our present to ensure it comes into being — but for us this thread of the novel fell flat.
Author Neil Sharpson provides
interesting insight into his novel
on an episode of Androids and Assets.
(Image via Amazon)

Likewise, it was at times difficult to believe South’s emotional journey from apathetic true believer in the national cause, to someone who sees the country’s problems and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Not because this journey can’t happen, people can change beliefs, but because of the speed with which it happens in the novel. Over the course of two days, South becomes comfortable betraying all he has stood for his entire life.

While many reviewers have made comparisons between When The Sparrow Falls and Orwell’s 1984, we feel that those comparisons, while useful, are perhaps superficial. Although both authors begin by examining repressive government autocracies, Sharpson is far more hopeful and seems to suggest that all such regimes are unstable and will collapse under their own internal contradictions. We feel that When The Sparrow Falls is just as much in conversation with a lesser-known midcentury science fiction novel: the infamous Hugo winner They’d Rather Be Right, as it tackles similar questions of governance by algorithm.

Because the novel takes place almost entirely within the borders of the Caspian Republic, the AI-embracing rest of the world is largely ignored. The few glimpses of the mind-uploading, technocratic, utopian society are somewhat facile (though it has to be admitted that such scenes are difficult to write well). We were left with questions about whether the rest of the world is that much better than the Caspian Republic. If nothing can be done without approval of the Artificial Intelligences that guide humanity, in what way is it not a totalitarian state?

The strength of Sharpson’s prose, the fast-paced and engaging plot, and the extraordinarily interesting political dynamics of the setting make for one of the best debut novels of the year, despite some minor flaws.

Monday 26 July 2021

Ignoring Foreign Films in 1964

This blog post is the seventh in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

There was no Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1964.
Godzilla vs. King Kong remains
one of the most successful Japanese
movies of all time. Still didn't 
earn a Hugo Award nomination.
(Image via DenOfGeek)

As had happened in the previous several years, fans had been solicited for nominations in a variety of categories including Best Dramatic Presentation. But of the 165 people who sent in nominating ballots, fewer than a dozen people offered suggestions for what should be considered in this category.

In response to the extraordinarily low number of ballots cast in the Best Dramatic Presentation category in 1961, a paragraph was added to the WSFS constitution as Section 2.1: “At the discretion of an individual convention committee, if the lack of nominations or the final votes in a specific category shows a marked lack of interest in that category on the part of the voters, the Award in that category shall be cancelled for that year.”

And for the first time in 1964, this clause was invoked by the Worldcon Committee, who called the disappointing ballot count evidence of a “total lack of interest in the category.”

But we would suggest that this ‘lack of interest’ in 1964 reflects both that it was an exceedingly mediocre year for celluloid science fiction in North America, and that the Hugo Awards remained a largely parochial award that rarely recognized works made outside of the United States or the United Kingdom.

During a 40-year stretch from 1964-2003, no foreign films were shortlisted for the Hugo Award: no nominations for Stalker, Akira, Fantastic Planet, City of the Lost Children, Solaris, Planet Of The Vampires, or for Alphaville.

In terms of the 1964 Hugo Awards, it seems a travesty that the Chechoslovakian epic Ikarie XB-1
Ikarie XB-1 is among the best science fiction movies
ever made, and far ahead of its time on many fronts
including depiction of competent women astronauts.
(Image via

didn’t get any recognition. Loosely based on Stanisław Lem’s The Magellanic Cloud, the movie chronicles the multi-year voyage of humanity’s first expedition to Alpha Centauri. The production design by Karel Lukás is among the most influential in the history of science fiction cinema, inspiring everyone from director Stanley Kubrik to designer Matt Jeffreys to architect Eero Aarnio.

The sets built by Lukás help bring to life one of the most mature and human-focused science fiction stories on screen that had been filmed to date. Although the story starts slowly, the filmmaker builds viewer’s emotional investment in the crew and their relationships, and the payoff is excellent because it makes later moments connect.

There are numerous details that we loved about Ikarie XB-1: The non-military international crew, the belief in science, the reaching out to new civilizations in peace and friendship, the fact that the crew has women in positions of authority, the moments of philosophical musing. Combined with the high production value and the technical expertise of the editing and filmmaking, this is a stone-cold classic of science fiction.

Another notable omission from Hugo contention in 1964 was The Mouse On The Moon, an odd
One of the many shots from Ikarie XB-1 that gets
compared to Kubrik's 2001.
(Image via
science-fictional sequel to Peter Sellers’ surprise 1959 hit The Mouse That Roared. This was a great-looking movie despite being made on a shoestring budget with only one member of the original cast returning for a second movie. Notably, the recasting included future Doctor Who companion Bernard Cribbins, Terry Thomas who received a Golden Globe nomination for the movie, and Margaret Rutherford who would go on to win an Academy Award a few months later for her performance in The V.I.P.s.

This little-remembered sequel, which depicts the fictional European micronation Grand Fenwick using their terrible wine-making skills to develop a space program to rival the Soviets and Americans, is charming.

Given its then-unknown director, lack of resources, and insane plot, the movie has all the ingredients of a flop. But inventive reuse of props and sets from other productions, breakout performances from some then C-list actors, and first-rate cinematography made this one of the most surprisingly winsome science fiction movies of the year.
The Mouse On The Moon helped propel director
Richard Lester to a longstanding collaboration 
with The Beatles, directing multiple movies
with the various members of the band.
(Image via

The movie (along with his short film The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film) helped Director Richard Lester earn the opportunity to direct The Beatles’ first movie A Hard Day’s Night.

Several more mainstream movies might also have merited some attention from the Worldcon voting membership: Roger Corman’s X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes is a well-done mad-science gone wrong parable whose narrative arc is not dissimilar from that of The Invisible Man. It’s among the best movies Corman has ever directed.

Likewise the 1963 cinematic adaptation of John Wyndam’s The Triffids is a competent and visually interesting film, though it excises the novel’s most interesting themes surrounding labour and colonialism. The result is mostly similar to a decent zombie movie.

On television, and in retrospect, the obvious major contender for a Hugo Award casts a very long shadow: the first season of Doctor Who. Revisiting these episodes with 50 years of hindsight is an eye-opening experience because within the first two serials (those that aired in 1963) you can see almost everything that made the show such an enduring classic: the sense of wonder, the dynamic between the Doctor and companions, and the engaging plots.

If we had been nominating in 1964, the serial we would have put on our ballots would be the second one The Daleks. Although that series introduced Doctor Who’s most enduring foes, the story has more in common with the 1960 movie The Time Machine than it does with later Dalek stories; the bifurcation of a race into a hideous violent species (Morlocks/Daleks) and a peaceful beautiful race (Eloi/Thals), the moralizing over the effects of global warfare. Made on less than a pittance of a budget, with barely two sets, the actors make extraordinary use of what little space they have to act.

In 1963, the best science fiction on screen was not coming from America: It was coming from Czechoslovakia, from Japan, and from England. If Hugo voters had been able to cast their nets a little more widely, they would have found some dramatic presentations worthy of a Hugo Award in 1964.

Friday 9 July 2021

The End Of History & The Last Question

A novella that could be interpreted as a direct rebuttal to the work of Francis Fukuyama, Light Chaser
Light Chaser hits
shelves Aug. 24, 2021.
(Image via Goodreads)

is a deftly written space opera whose slender size belies the big ideas its authors are tackling.

Collaborations are tricky businesses, but Gareth Powell and Peter F. Hamilton’s work here shows that the results can produce a unique and engaging chemistry. Both of these authors are best known for tackling space opera, but Powell has usually provided more action-heavy fare while Hamilton has gone for vast sweeping epics. Light Chaser is an interesting balance of both of their strengths.

Set in a distant future where a human diaspora has populated millions of planets across the universe, the novella follows a near immortal traveler Amahle whose task is to document, collate, and share the memories and experiences of those living in these worlds. After working on this task for millennia, Amahle’s memory of her own experiences has faded, providing an interesting point of reflection on the role of the cultural archivist.

The worlds she visits are disparate but stable. Some could be described as high-tech civilizations, while others are immiserated medieval monarchies. What all these societies have in common, however, is that they are stable and unchanging. Humanity has hit a steady state; this is the ‘End of History.’

One of the nicely used tools for worldbuilding employed by the authors is Amahle’s collection of work experiences. By allowing her to vicariously live the memories of a few inhabitants of civilizations she visits, the reader is provided an ethnographic glimpse of the civilization instead of a summative infodump.

As her travels progress, Amahle starts to receive coded messages from a mysterious sender in her past… and starts piecing together the fact that her AI companion on these voyages may have ulterior motives. At moments, this may remind readers of the 2010 Hugo-winning movie Moon.
Capitalist eschatology
reached its apex in 1992.
(Image via Amazon)

Be forewarned: the ending that may be undermined by the narrative structure of the novella. For example, the book starts at the end of the plot and even five pages in, the reader already knows that the protagonist will sacrifice herself and her partner in order to kill an ancient and evil force. So it doesn’t come as much surprise when the reader learns that this ancient evil force is behind the stagnation of the human race, nor does it surprise when they start preparing to sacrifice themselves.

That being said, the novella is very welcome for its implicit criticism of complacent feel-good neoliberal end-of-history ideology that leaves major portions of the human race trapped as part of low-wage low-rights pools of exploitable labour. The metaphor was both incisive and perfectly woven into the story.

Light Chaser is an absolutely essential text for fans of either author, offering the punchy dialogue and sprightly pacing of Powell’s best work and the quirky-big-space-idea think pieces of Hamilton’s. It will likely find a place on several of our nominating ballots next year.