Brought to Booker: can science fiction ever make the prize list ?

An article in last week’s Guardian laments the lack of speculative fiction – that’s science fiction and fantasy in common parlance – novels making the Booker prize list.

Science fiction and fantasy, traditionally viewed with grave suspicion by the supposedly more ‘serious’ of the mainstream fiction genres, have together been a flourishing literary canon for years; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings regularly polls in high places as ‘Most Read,’ whilst writers like China Mieville, Alistair Reynolds and Peter F Hamilton have been patiently carving out successful careers with epic science fiction and fantasy novels for many years.

Perhaps part of the difficulty lies in the boundary-defying nature of some of the novels associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Alistair Reynolds and China Mieville include a luxurious element of the gothic in their novels; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell offered an alternative history take on fantasy, where magic is commonplace and is used in the Napoleonic Wars. Similary, Mary Gentle’s sprawling Ash: A Secret History follows the same character across centuries. Perhaps it’s simply the scope of the novels that causes them to be dismissed: Peter F Hamilton’s epic space-opera sagas, Michael Moorcock’s long-running Elric or Hawkmoon tales stride across whole volumes.

But with writers such as Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Michael Moorcock all a part of the canon, it’s hard to ignore the impact of science fiction and fantasy literature.

Perhaps this year will change all that.

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

Event Horizon: the ubiquitous cigarette

One of the most recurrent motives throughout ‘Event Horizon’ is that of cigarettes and smoking. Set in a distant future world with heightened technology, nevertheless the cigarette still appeals as a basic human necessity, grounding all the developments of technology in a firmly human mentality, that of needing ‘a quick gasper.’ After Smitty successfully navigates the ship through turbulence to bring the Lewis & Clark opposite the Event Horizon, Fishburne’s character tells him “If you’ve got ‘em, smoke ‘em,’ at which point he duly does so.

The use of the cigarette has several functions. Apart from allowing the camera to track round the various crewmembers as it follows the passage of the cigarette from hand to hand, it contrasts feelings of ease with those of tension. DJ casually removes his cigarette to inject Dr. Weir in preparation for the gravity-tank, which contrasts with Weir’s apprehension as he admits suffering from claustrophobia. Smitty smokes as a relaxation after fighting to bring the ship through turbulence, but his smoking also betrays his nervousness on hearing the real reason for the mission in Weir’s briefing. It also forms part of DJ’s own character, combining with his reticence and underlying tension, to portray an individual on the verge of a breakdown.

The secondary function of the cigarette is to create contrast with the surrounding advanced technological environment. In an age when interstellar space-travel has apparently led to the construction of vast ships, gateway-opening gravity propulsion systems (the language Weir uses to describe its function is dazzling, impenetrable and certainly confusing), with advanced computer software and medical facilities, people still continue to rely on old-fashioned nicotine in paper wrappings. The constant visual reference to cigarettes grounds the almost bewildering world of technology in a tangible plane, to which most viewers will relate. The fragility of the rolled cigarette clashes with the heavily metallicised world in which the crew are accustomed to living and working, emphasized by a shot of the comparative sizes of the rescue vessel, tenuously clasping onto the ‘Event Horizon’ itself, which dwarfs her completely.

There’s a wonderful shot in Aliens, where the camera tracks up an elegant hand holding a cigarette: subsequently revealed to be Ripley’s, it looks rather like the skeletal hand of one of the alien monsters themselves – a brief but neat ambiguity.

In space, no-one can hear you smoke.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Event Horizon: combining genres

One of the great strengths of Event Horizon is that it works to combine two separate genres, science-fiction and horror.

Of course, the Alien films also effect some combination of the two, although in this case it is the stalker-type film in the manner of Jaws and the fear induced by a remorseless killer – the same fear so effectively worked on in Westworld and later mimicked in Terminator.

In Event Horizon, the horror element is derived from the paranoia experienced from within the crew themselves, which they have brought with them. It is much more of a psychologically-based horror – the fear within.

It might be argued that, from a certain point of view, the genres of horror and science-fiction are related. The polarized stances of writers Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke are illustrative of this: Clarke’s writing believes that technological advancement will save mankind, Bradbury that it will be its ultimate destruction, and horror and catastrophe stalk the latter’s pages. Both horror and science-fiction concern the exploration of the unknown, the reactions of human beings to adversity, to situations reaching far beyond the areas of ordinary experience. Each genre can use the surprise factor, the unexpected, as a device to propel the narrative forward, and both place individuals in situations and predicaments outside the boundaries of everyday life.

The important difference between them can be summarized simply by the idea of ‘internal versus external experience.’ Science fiction, by definition, concerns situations that are conjectural, that have yet to exist: it is a genre that projects forward, to explore potential advances in society, technology and in human evolution (apart, that is, from the tired and unreliable technology of Star Wars mentioned previously). Thus, the concerns of science fiction are often necessarily external concerns, where mankind reacts to elements in an external world which differs from our own. Much of the fascination with this sort of narrative is as much to do with the extrapolation, by the author or director, of how technology or humanity – or even both – will evolve, as it is with the unfolding plot.

The primary concern of the genre of horror, however, is with an internal universe, with the dark elements that like with mankind, within the soul or the mind. The phobias that afflict everyone to a greater or lesser extent are internally created: though they may be triggered by external factors, such as spiders or, in the case of Event Horizon, by stasis tanks, it is the manner in which these elements work upon the internal landscape of the human soul that horror seeks to explore.

Event Horizon therefore represents something of a crossover between these two styles, combining aspects of both and allowing each to inform and work upon the other. The important elements of science-fiction are present – technology in new forms, humanity in a new environment – but inextricably woven into the fabric of the narrative are elements also of horror – a menacing evil, the internal fears and secrets of the various crewmembers.

Indeed, in this film, the one has directly contributed to the creation of the other: it is the manufacture of the gravity-drive mechanism that causes the horror to come forth. Hence the significance of the fact that the drive is often referred to as a gateway. The evolution of a particular technological achievement has led to the evil coming into this dimension, through the opening caused by the functioning of the gravity-drive.

The idea of humans tampering with things beyond their control and thereby unleashing malevolent force is a crucial part of horror, reaching back as far as Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and (for science-fiction), the original Godzilla where the monster is created by nuclear weapons, and also now of science fiction. The various novels concerning the effects of hallucinatory drugs, by writers such as Jeff Noon, Philip K Dick or William Burroughs, heighten what it means to experiment with drugs and the sense that it is always guesswork, and always involves an element of risk caused by a lack of knowledge or understanding, or of certainty. Dr. Weir begins as a scientist, someone whose vocation concerns experimentation to create empirical fact, and finishes as a personification of evil – a twist that neatly reflects the concerns of the film itself.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Defining the non-human: a twist in the tale

Matt Smith's Dr Who
Defining the non-human ?

I’ve written previously about science fiction’s essential truth: defining what it means to be human.

But a recent episode of Dr.Who, ‘Amy’s Choice,’provided a new slant: defining what it means to be a Time Lord. (Warning: a few plot spoilers ahead: for those of a nervous disposition, look away now.)

With the revelation that the Dream Lord was in fact the Doctor himself – the clues were there, in retrospect: who else might know the Doctor’s dreams, and has been with him all the time ? – in fact, the dark side of the Doctor, given voice through psychic pollen that feeds on one’s innermost thoughts, the true thrust of the episode became clear: it was about what it meant to be a Time Lord.

As the Dream Lord himself says: ‘The old man prefers the company of the young.’ He was giving voice to the dark preoccupations lying with the Doctor, about abandoning his companions, never making real friends, losing touch with them ‘once they leave the Tardis’ (and what about poor old Adric, sometime companion to Peter Davison’s incarnation, who left the Tardis not by choice, but by dying ?).

And the dilemma for Amy: does the Doctor really trust her when he hasn’t even told her his name ? The Dream Lord voiced the self-doubts that plague us all when we lie lost awake at night and the demons come knocking…

Here, all those things that are important to defining the human – relationships, trust, friendship – are presented as elements that the Doctor does not, indeed, cannot ever, have.

It seems to suggest the Doctor, as a Gallifreyan, is the opposite of human: his whole existence is diametrically opposed to the human condition. And he even has two hearts.


Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Infinite Space, Infinite Terror: a contradiction

The catchphrase used in Event Horizon‘s marketing, the title of this section, is remarkable for the fact that the film itself endeavours to run contrary to this idea.

Normally, most science fiction highlights the intense isolation of being lost in the limitless reaches of space, by means of a space-walk episode to re-enforce the scale of endless emptiness dwarfing the human figure, or panning back from an apparently large spaceship to reveal the vast depths of space surrounding it.

Much of the intensity of the first third of the film is generated by the fact that it is not the boundless reaches of space which inspires fear, but the claustrophobia of enclosed areas. Although the film contains numerous instances of both devices – pulling back from Weir’s cabin to emphasise the epic scale of the space-station at the beginning, or moving around the outside of the ‘Event Horizon’ itself before the two ships dock – there is primarily an emphasis on claustrophobia, on characters caught in oppressively confined spaces. The same sequence which pulls back from Weir’s cabin to illustrate the overwhelming size of the space station also re-enforces the small size of the cabin he occupies.

The gravity tanks are also extremely constricting, triggering Weir’s first hallucination aboard the ‘Lewis & Clark.’ When he first enters the stasis tank, Weir reveals that he suffers from acute claustrophobia, a condition which induces the episode that follows. His fear is brought about not by being dwarfed by boundless surroundings, but by being confined.

As the camera tracks around the empty tunnels of the ‘Event Horizon’ when first entry into the ship is made, again it is the oppressive atmosphere of enclosure which pervades the film, enhanced by the effect of echoing corridors. Blobs of escaped coolant fluid and forgotten tools float haphazardly around these empty tunnels, illustrating the lack of human control exerted in this environment.

The terror of the film, the second element referred to by the film’s catchphrase, whilst in part emanating from the surroundingly desolate universe (the crew make repeated references to how far from home they are, interrupting their leave in order to undertake the rescue mission, of which details are initially withheld from them) is also brought with the crew themselves – possibly brought aboard directly in the soul of Dr. Weir himself. As Conrad referred to it at the end of Heart of Darkness, the greatest horror lies not without the human mind, but within it. The evil brought back into our own dimension by the creation of the gravity-drive feeds upon the secrets and paranoid fears which each crewmember carries within themselves. When this element really begins to dominate in the latter part of the film, the narrative moves from its science fiction concerns to the genre of horror, effortlessly and efficiently blending the two.

Next week: more on the combination of genres.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his Music Matters blog.

The Food Machine

Since April, the Matt Smith incarnation of the Doctor has been enjoying the benefits of a new Tardis. It’s not a new vehicle as such, more of a reconditioned one. His ride has been pimped.

However, since the very beginning it’s always been a rather pimptastic craft. When Xzibit and his streetwise crew of funky mechanics get down to a serious bit of ride-pimping in their MTV show, they often fit a fridge into the clapped out old banger that they’re doing up, in which the owner can put cans of beer or tubs of ice cream or, er, whole sides of beef.

Back in the William Hartnell days, the Tardis went one better than this – it contained a food machine. In one of the first episodes, dating right back to 1963, the Tardis crew are hungry, and one of them says they fancy bacon and eggs. We see the Doctor fiddling with some slightly improbable dials on a big metal thing, and out comes what looks like a chocolate Club biscuit. His earthly companions, Barbara and Ian, have a taste and – would you believe it? – it tastes just like bacon and eggs. In fact, one of them says that it’s as if one mouthful is bacon and the next is egg. The obvious comparison is the chewing gum meal in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but luckily in this case nobody ends up turning into a giant blueberry.

What’s interesting to me is that this relates to a popular idea in twentieth century science fiction – the idea that one day we’ll be able to dispense with all that food nonsense, and instead take our meals in the form of a convenient pill. In some cases, the idea of synthetic food is shown as being something scary. In the dystopian future of Soylent Green, for example, only the super rich can afford to eat actual food, whereas the rest of us have to eat weird little nutrient biscuit things made out of something unpleasant (which I won’t reveal here in case I spoil the ending). In many cases though, synthetic food is shown as something to look forward to. Ian and Barbara certainly seem to find their egg-and-bacon Club biscuit pretty yummy.

This made me start to think about what food was like when I was growing up in the 1970s. Current ideas about food being fresh, organic and natural were nowhere to be seen. The more unnatural the better. This was an age where powdered fruit juice, called Rise and Shine, was made out to be a convenient luxury, and where metallic aliens laughed at any sucker who bothered to peel and cut up actual potatoes when they wanted to make mash. Why bother, when you can pour a kettleful of boiling water on some beige granules and get a dish of vaguely potato-tasting crap in around ten seconds? Real ale was the preserve of bearded, folk-singing nutcases. Adverts showed us what modern, futuristic beer looked like: sterile lager, in a gleaming steel can, encased in a block of ice. Vimto, Tizer and Irn Bru – a soft drink that actually purported to be made out of metal – were far preferable to anything that actually tasted like fruit. Instant soup came in little cubes that you added to water and brought to the boil. It was advertised as ‘square shaped soup’ because, supposedly, it made a square meal. Then there was Angel Delight, a strange pudding made of milk and coloured powder, which wasn’t truly delightful and didn’t actually contain angels. The ads showed it served up in a kind of fat wine glass, which had to be moored with a piece of string to stop it floating away, so light and fluffy was the pudding it contained. I always used the think to myself that if Angel Delight really was lighter than air, surely it would squelch out of the chubby wine glass and float away in an unappetising gobbet, possibly ending up on the windscreen of a passenger jet and causing a terrible crash.

The excesses of the 1970s have largely disappeared, but some fake food still survives, and there’s a popular markets for things like Jammy Dodgers, Golden Nuggets and Pot Noodle. The hard truth is that the food industry will always want to make products like this, because they’ll always be more profitable than, say, an apple. The more ‘added value’ there is in a foodstuff (i.e. the more that’s been done to it), the more profit there is in it. There’s practically no added value in an apple, whereas there’s an absolute ton in, say, Dairylea Lunchables. Of course, the supermarkets try to get added value into apples by slicing them up and putting them in a plastic bag to go in our kids’ lunch boxes, but there’s not a lot more added value potential than that. That’s why there’ll always be more adverts on TV for processed crap than for fruit.

The problem is that the food industry’s interests are pretty much the exact opposite of ours. Generally speaking, the less that’s been done to a foodstuff, the greater its nutritional value. The healthiest way to eat an apple is straight from the tree. Even cutting it up and putting it in a plastic bag will deplete the vitamins and minerals it contains. Besides which, simple fresh food is usually delicious. A really fresh, tangy Cox’s Orange Pippin will always be nicer to eat than an apple-flavoured chew.

All of this means that the idea of aspiring to replace food with pills is appalling. It’s anti-life and it’s anti-pleasure. The Doctor should get rid of his food machine and replace it with a highly skilled robot chef that can makes actual meals from fresh ingredients.

Reading ‘Event Horizon:’ an introduction

Event Horizon
Event Horizon (1997)

Released in 1997, Event Horizon represents a collision of genres derived from other film styles: from science fiction, horror, the action movie and war films. The otherwise predictable story – a rescue mission ship sent to recover a deep-space exploration vehicle that has reappeared after mysteriously disappearing seven years previously, and the anticipation of the various horrors that the crew will doubtless encounter aboard the stricken craft – is rescued from tired repetition precisely because it combines these genres: elements from each blending into a more engaging film.

Most science fiction films require little cerebral engagement from the audience, except perhaps an ability to marvel at the conjectured technological innovations, or at the film’s special effects. The better films, as indeed arguably all good science fiction should, set up their own world, along with its machinery, its social hierarchies and its technological evolutions, its own races and their cultures, and present it as a given, entirely credible, premise from which the film will depart. In fact, the most successful science fiction perhaps does not even attempt to amaze the viewer, or the reader, with its dazzling array of inventions: it simply gets to grips with the plot immediately, and by and large will ignore its own technology, or at least take it for granted. This makes the audience do so as well – only gradually as the film unfolds is the scale of the technological universe presented, unfolding through the demands of the narrative, and not governing it.

In this manner, the viewer accepts without consideration the premise set up by the narrative, and only marvels at it afterwards. Of course, some films demand the opposite reaction: the tired and frustratingly incompetent technology that is a feature of the first Star Wars trilogy, or the murky android flesh parlours in Blade Runner, complete with almost ever-present rain-soaked streets and citizens alike.

The structure of Event Horizon is also not presented as a straightforward sequence of events: a mysterious beginning, unexplained flashbacks, ambiguous characters towards whom the viewer’s attitudes will slowly change over the course of the film; all endeavour to subvert a traditional, organic sense of narrative progression. Total Recall also plays with the audience perception of characters and events successfully; perhaps because it is based, like Blade Runner, on a short story by the master of science-fiction, Philip K. Dick. Some elements of Event Horizon are clearly derived from the Alien series, inaugurated by Ridley Scott, later also the director of Blade Runner. The camaraderie shared by the crew of the ‘Lewis & Clark’ owes a great deal to the character-bonding in war films, while the tense build-up of expectation leading towards an unknown denouement is inherited from the horror genre.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring various themes and devices employed in the film. Next week: ‘Infinite Space, Infinite Terror: a contradiction.’

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his Music Matters blog.

Nostalgia for an age yet to come

While enjoying the whizzy new Matt Smith led series of Dr Who with the kids, I’ve also been watching some very old William Hartnell episodes that I got in a box set for my birthday.  The footage, dating back to 1963, looks as alien to me in 2010 as the Daleks must have looked to the Doctor’s earthly companions.  It’s black and white of course (colour not being adopted until the Jon Pertwee era), and with the kind of graininess that makes you think they must have carved every frame out of wood.

I’ve heard it said that early Dr Who footage looks as old as a Chaplin film. With magnificent pretentiousness, I’m going to admit that it reminds me of footage of the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, films of which I saw as an undergraduate. Scoff if you will – I would, if someone else said the same – but they’re both grainy, black and white, and teetering between being spooky and plain ridiculous. And if that isn’t enough, Carole Ann Ford (who plays the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan) bears a striking resemblance to Grotowski’s lead actress, Rena Mirecka. Check out the photos below.


The pace of Harnell-era Who is positively leisurely. Episodes dawdle along like a tortoise laden down with heavy luggage. The Matt Smith Who would fit the events of a William Hartnell episode into the pre-title sequence. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty to like.

For one thing, Hartnell’s Doctor is a really interesting character. The modern Doc strives with every fibre of his being to protect not just the whole of humanity but also all those who are inhuman. Hartnell’s Doc gambles (for the Tardis in a game of backgammon) and smokes a pipe (thus being enlisted by cavemen to show them the secret of fire). He’s even a tiny bit evil. At one point, he contemplates sticking a sharp flint into a caveman’s skull. On another occasion, he endangers his companions’ lives by pretending he needs some mercury for a broken fluid link, and later plans on leaving them behind to die of radiation sickness. What an excellent role model for the kids of the early 1960s!

Something else I like about Harnell-era Who is that it’s beautifully composed. The stark contrasts in the black and white tones are bold and exciting – far less bland than the dull washes of the early colour years. The designs of the costumes and sets feel utterly classic. I challenge you to look at shots of the original Tardis interior and not to want to go in and have a nose around. There’s a stylishness about British television set design in the black and white era that’s rarely achieved today.

In the early 1960s, British TV drama was produced more like theatre than film, but the composition of shots and edits is simple and elegant. The episode title is often overlaid on a still image, perhaps a character staring at something, but it’s not a still as such – the actor is actively staring, and you can see them breathing. There’s something oddly enjoyable about that.

Then there’s the music. The sounds produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are extraordinary, and really manage to put the appropriate eeriness in there. It’s extraordinary to think that people like Delia Derbyshire were making sounds which two decades later would send bands like the Human League into the charts, given that she was doing this before the synthesizer was commercially available – and certainly unavailable to her. The original version of the Dr Who theme was made with improbably-named gadgets like wave modulators and far from being played on a keyboard, it was assembled, note by note, on reel-to-reel tape.

To sum it up, there’s something tremendously appealing about seeing what the future looked like to those who lived in the past.

Neuromancer: filming the un-filmable

Mapping the future: Neuromancer.

There’s a move afoot to film William Gibson’s ground-breaking cyber-punk novel, Neuromancer. Director Vincenzo Natali is eager to realise the supposedly un-filmable novel, the papers have reported.

An earlier attempt to make Gibson’s techno-filled prose into a film resulted in Johnny Mnemonic, which has a brilliant idea at its heart – people who smuggle data in chips inside their head, jacking in to servers to download information into a storage device ‘wet-wired’ into the brain. But the film didn’t manage visually to live up to the potential of Gibson’s vibrant literary imaginings, and one wonders whether the techno-ridden crackle of Neuromancer can similarly be translated onto the screen, with better results.

Published in 1984 (Orwell would have approved), Neuromancer’s influence on science-fiction literature and film has been immense, most noticeably in The Matrix and its sequels (although, to my mind, The Matrix is more derivative of Philip Jose Farmer’s fantastic Riverworld sequence, but that’s for another article).

If it’s to be realised in a manner which captures the energy of the prose, the boundary-pushing imaginings and the idea of a world morphed by technology to such an extent as Gibson uses time and again in his writing, it will need to do so in a way that doesn’t make it seem itself a descendant of The Matrix and its children – Equilibrium springs to mind.

Should Neuromancer come off the page, or should it be left up to the reader to realise Gibson’s amazing vision ?

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his Music Matters blog.

Under My Skin: defining the human in science fiction.

Lying at the heart of most science fiction, it seems to me, is the attempt to define what it means to be human. Authors from Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson to modern darlings like Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville are, beneath their paranoid technicolour or cyber- or gothic steam-punk surfaces, offering an exploration of the human condition.

A recent episode of cult television series Dr Who caused viewers to complain to the BBC about the racy scenes between the Doctor and Amy Pond, admitting a previously, if not unadmitted then unexplored, sexuality into the canon: resisting the lavish advances of a mini-skirted Pond, the Doctor declares ‘I’m nine-hundred and seven years old: think what that means!’ Even here, science fiction is exploring the difference between Time Lord and human and the implications for their relationship.

As Dr. Tyrell, head of the replicant-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, remarks; ‘More human than human is our motto.’ The famous speech Batty gives at the end of the film is all the more poignant because, like all the replicants, he is aspiring to be human and his experiences, whilst short-lived, define his humanity: ‘I’ve seen things…attack ships in flames off the shores of Orion.’ There’s poetry here, as well as a lament for the loss of his all-too-brief glimpse into the human condition.

Ray Bradbury’s haunting short story ‘The Pedestrian’ from his brilliant 1982 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun, is set in 2053: the narrator, Mr. Mead is the only one walking the streets at night, everyone else is indoors being indoctrinated by their television sets. Arrested by a robotic police car, he is driven past a house – the only house with all its lights on. ‘That’s my house,’ he declares. The computer-controlled car cannot understand what he is doing: ‘Just walking, Mr Mead ?’ it asks him.

In the Matrix-indebted Equilibrium, the suppression of human emotion using controlled drugs in pursuit of a society without crime and violence results in a society stripped of its humanity.

As the hybrid being that is Lieutenant Ripley remarks in Alien Resurrection, as the good ship Betty heads towards the Earth: ‘I’m a stranger here myself,’ articulating a sense of isolation that we have all perhaps felt to some extent at some point in our lives.

It’s what Batty and the other doomed replicants are fighting for, what the robotic police-car can never understand, and what science fiction, in its myriad incarnations is expressing: it’s what makes us human that counts.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.