“We cannot save ourselves”

Interviewing Cixin Liu for The Telegraph, 29 February 2024

Chinese writer Cixin Liu steeps his science fiction in disaster and misfortune, even as he insists he’s just playing around with ideas. His seven novels and a clutch of short stories and articles (soon to be collected in a new English translation, A View from the Stars) have made him world-famous. His most well-known novel The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo, the nearest thing science fiction has to a heavy-hitting prize, in 2015. Closer to home, he’s won the Galaxy Award, China’s most prestigious literary science-fiction award, nine times. A 2019 film adaptation of his novella “The Wandering Earth” (in which we have to propel the planet clear of a swelling sun) earned nearly half a billion dollars in the first 10 days of its release. Meanwhile The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels have sold more than eight million copies worldwide. Now they’re being adapted for the screen, and not for the first time: the first two adaptations were domestic Chinese efforts. A 2015 film was suspended during production (“No-one here had experience of productions of this scale,” says Liu, speaking over a video link from a room piled with books.) The more recent TV effort is, from what I’ve seen of it, jolly good, though it only scratches the surface of the first book.

Now streaming service Netflix is bringing Liu’s whole trilogy to a global audience. Clean behind your sofa, because you’re going to need somewhere to hide from an alien visitation quite unlike any other.

For some of us, that invasion will come almost as a relief. So many English-speaking sf writers these days spend their time bending over backwards, offering “design solutions” to real-life planetary crises, and especially to climate change. They would have you believe that science fiction is good for you.

Liu, a bona fide computer engineer in his mid-fifties, is immune to such virtue signalling. “From a technical perspective, sf cannot really help the world,” he says. “Science fiction is ephemeral, because we build it on ideas in science and technology that are always changing and improving. I suppose we might inspire people a little.”

Western media outlets tend to cast Liu — a domestic celebrity with a global reputation and a fantastic US sales record — as a put-upon and presumably reluctant spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party. The Liu I’m speaking to is garrulous, well-read, iconoclastic, and eager. (It’s his idea that we end up speaking for nearly an hour more than scheduled.) He’s hard-headed about human frailty and global Realpolitik, and he likes shocking his audience. He believes in progress, in technology, and, yes — get ready to clutch your pearls — he believes in his country. But we’ll get to that.

We promised you disaster and misfortune. In The Three-Body Problem, the great Trisolaran Fleet has already set sail from its impossibly inhospitable homeworld orbiting three suns. (What does not kill you makes you stronger, and their madly unpredictable environment has made the Trisolarans very strong indeed.) They’ll arrive in 450 years or so — more than enough time, you would think, for us to develop technology advanced enough to repel them. That is why the Trisolarans have sent two super-intelligent proton-sized super-computers at near-light speed to Earth, to mess with our minds, muddle our reality, and drive us into self-hatred and despair. Only science can save us. Maybe.
The forthcoming Netflix adaptation is produced by Game of Thrones’s David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and True Blood’s Alexander Woo. In covering all three books, it will need to wrap itself around a conflict that lasts millennia, and realistically its characters won’t be able to live long enough to witness more than fragments of the action. The parallel with the downright deathy Game of Thrones is clear: “I watched Game of Thrones before agreeing to the adaptation,” says Liu. “I found it overwhelming — quite shocking, but in a positive way.”

By the end of its run, Game of Thrones had become as solemn as an owl, and that approach won’t work for The Three-Body Problem, which leavens its cosmic pessimism (a universe full of silent, hostile aliens, stalking their prey among the stars) with long, delightful episodes of sheer goofiness — including one about a miles-wide Trisolaran computer chip made up entirely of people in uniform, marching about, galloping up and down, frantically waving flags…

A computer chip the size of a town! A nine-dimensional supercomputer the size of a proton! How on Earth does Liu build engaging stories from such baubles? Well, says Liu, you need a particular kind of audience — one for whom anything seems possible.
“China’s developing really fast, and people are confronting opportunities and challenges that make them think about the future in a wildly imaginative and speculative way,” he explains. “When China’s pace of development slows, its science fiction will change. It’ll become more about people and their everyday experiences. It’ll become more about economics and politics, less about physics and astronomy. The same has already happened to western sf.”

Of course, it’s a moot point whether anything at all will be written by then. Liu reckons that within a generation or two, artificial intelligence will take care of all our entertainment needs. “The writers in Hollywood didn’t strike over nothing,” he observes. “All machine-made entertainment requires, alongside a few likely breakthroughs, is ever more data about what people write and consume and enjoy.” Liu, who claims to have retired and to have no skin in this game any more, points to a recent Chinese effort, the AI-authored novel Land of Memories, which won second prize in a regional sf competition. “I think I’m the final generation of writers who will create novels based purely on their own thinking, without the aid of artificial intelligence,” he says. “The next generation will use AI as an always-on assistant. The generation after that won’t write.”

Perhaps he’s being mischievous (a strong and ever-present possibility). He may just be spinning some grand-sounding principle out of his own charmingly modest self-estimate. “I’m glad people like my work,” he says, “but I doubt I’ll be remembered even ten years from now. I’ve not written very much. And the imagination I’ve been able to bring to bear on my work is not exceptional.” His list of influences is long. His father bought him Wells and Verne in translation. Much else, including Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, required translating word for word with a dictionary. “As an sf writer, I’m optimistic about our future,” Liu says. “The resources in our solar system alone can feed about 100,000 planet Earths. Our future is potentially limitless — even within our current neighbourhood.”

Wrapping our heads around the scales involved is tricky, though. “The efforts countries are taking now to get off-world are definitely meaningful,” he says, “but they’re not very realistic. We have big ideas, and Elon Musk has some exciting propulsion technology, but the economic base for space exploration just isn’t there. And this matters, because visiting neighbouring planets is a huge endeavour, one that makes the Apollo missions of the Sixties and Seventies look like a fast train ride.”

Underneath such measured optimism lurks a pessimistic view of our future on Earth. “More and more people are getting to the point where they’re happy with what they’ve got,” he complains. “They’re comfortable. They don’t want to make any more progress. They don’t want to push any harder. And yet the Earth is pretty messed up. If we don’t get into space, soon we’re not going to have anywhere to live at all.”

The trouble with writing science fiction is that everyone expects you have an instant answer to everything. Back in June 2019, a New Yorker interviewer asked him what he thought of the Uighurs (he replied: a bunch of terrorists) and their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government (he replied: firm but fair). The following year some Republican senators in the US tried to shame Netflix into cancelling The Three-Body Problem. Netflix pointed out (with some force) that the show was Benioff and Weiss and Woo’s baby, not Liu’s. A more precious writer might have taken offence, but Liu thinks Netflix’s response was spot-on. ““Neither Netflix nor I wanted to think about these issues together,” he says.

And it doesn’t do much good to spin his expression of mainstream public opinion in China (however much we deplore it) into some specious “parroting [of] dangerous CCP propaganda”. The Chinese state is monolithic, but it’s not that monolithic — witness the popular success of Liu’s own The Three Body Problem, in which a girl sees her father beaten to death by a fourteen-year-old Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, grows embittered during what she expects will be a lifetime’s state imprisonment, and goes on to betray the entire human race, telling the alien invaders, “We cannot save ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Liu has learned to be ameliatory. In a nod to Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, he points out that while wars continue around the globe, the bloodshed generated by warfare has been declining for decades. He imagines a world of ever-growing moderation — even the eventual melting away of the nation state.

When needled, he goes so far as to be realistic: “No system suits all. Governments are shaped by history, culture, the economy — it’s pointless to argue that one system is better than another. The best you can hope for is that they each moderate whatever excesses they throw up. People are not and never have been free to do anything they want, and people’s idea of what constitutes freedom changes, depending on what emergency they’re having to handle.”

And our biggest emergency right now? Liu picks the rise of artificial intelligence, not because our prospects are so obviously dismal (though killer robots are a worry), but because mismanaging AI would be humanity’s biggest own goal ever: destroyed by the very technology that could have taken us to the stars!

Ungoverned AI could quite easily drive a generation to rebel against technology itself. “AI has been taking over lots of peoples’ jobs, and these aren’t simple jobs, these are what highly educated people expected to spend lifetimes getting good at. The employment rate in China isn’t so good right now. Couple that with badly managed roll-outs of AI, and you’ve got frustration and chaos and people wanting to destroy the machines, just as they did at the beginning of the industrial revolution.”

Once again we find ourselves in a dark place. But then, what did you expect from a science fiction writer? They sparkle best in the dark. And for those who don’t yet know his work, Liu is pleased, so far, with Netflix’s version of his signature tale of interstellar terror, even if its westernisation does baffle him at times.

“All these characters of mine that were scientists and engineers,” he sighs. “They’re all politicians now. What’s that about?”

A safe pair of hands

Watching Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 2 for New Scientist, 23 February 2024

So here’s where we’re at, in the concluding half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune:

Cast into the wilderness of planet Arrakis by invading House Harkonnen, young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) learns the ways of the desert, embraces his genetic and political destiny, and becomes in one swoop a focus for fanaticism and (with an eye to a third film, an adaptation of author Frank Herbert’s sequel, Dune Messiah) the scourge of the Universe.

From Alejandro Jodorowosky’s mid-1970s effort, which never bore fruit (but at least gave Swiss artist H.R. Giger his entrée into movies and, ultimately, Alien), and from David Lynch’s more-than-four-hour farrago, savagely edited prior to its 1984 release into something approaching (but only approaching) coherence, many assumed that Dune is an epic too vast to be easily filmed. Throw resources at it, goes the logic, and it will eventually crumble to your will.

That this is precisely the wrong lesson to draw was perfectly demonstrated by John Harrison’s 2000 miniseries for the Sci Fi Channel and its sequel, Children of Dune (2003) — both absurdly under-resourced, but both offering satisfying stories that the fans lapped up, even if the critics didn’t.

Now we have Villeneuve’s effort, and like his Blade Runner 2049, it uses visual stimulation to hide the gaping holes in its plot.

Yes, the story of Dune is epic. But it is also, in the full meaning of the word, weird. It’s about a human empire that’s achieved cosmic scale, and all without the help of computers, destroyed long ago in some shadowy “Butlerian Jihad”. In doing so it has bred, drugged and otherwise warped individual humans into becoming something very like Gods. In conquering space, humanity teeters on the brink of attaining power over time. The “spice” mined on planet Arrakis is not just a rare resource over which great houses fight, but the spiritual gateway that makes humanity, in this far future, viable in the first place.

Leave these elements undeveloped (or, as here, entirely ignored) and you’re left with an awful lot of desert to fill with battles, sword play, explosions, crowd scenes, and sandworms — and here an as yet unwritten rule of SFX cinematography comes into play, because I swear the more these wrigglers cost, the sillier they get. (If that’s the sandworm’s front end on those posters, I shudder to think what the back end looks like.) Your ears will ring, your heart will thunder, and by morning the entire experience will have evaporated, like a long (2-hour 46-minute) fever dream.

As Beast Raban, Dave Bautista outperforms the rest of the cast to a degree that is embarrassing. The Beast’s an Harkonnen, an alpha predator in this grim universe, and yet Bautista is the only actor here capable of portraying fear. Javier Bardem’s desert leader Stilgar is played for laughs (but let’s face it, in the entire history of cinema, name one desert leader that hasn’t been). Timothee Chalamet stands still in front of the camera. His love interest, played by Zendaya, scowls and growls like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz.

Dune Part Two is an expensive (USD 190 million) film which has had the decency to put much of its budget in front of the camera. This makes it watchable, enjoyable, and at times even thrilling. Making a good Dune movie, though, requires a certain eccentricity. Villeneuve is that deadening thing, “a safe pair of hands”.

The man who drew on the future

Reading The Culture: The Drawings by Iain M Banks for the Times, 9 December 2023

“If I can get it to 155mph, I’ll be happy,” said Banksie (“Banksie” to all-comers; never “Iain”), and he handed me his phone. On the screen, a frictionless black lozenge hung at an odd angle against mist-shrouded hills. It was, he said, his way of burning up some of the carbon he had been conscientiously saving.

The BMW came as a surprise, given Banks’s long-standing devotion to environmental causes. But then, this was a while ago, 2013, and we were not yet convinced that clutching our pearls and screaming at each other was the best way to deal with a hotter planet. It was still possible, in those days, to agree that Banksie was our friend and deserved whatever treat he wanted to get himself. He was, after all, dying.

When Iain Banks succumbed to gallbladder cancer he was 59 years old and thirty years into a successful career in the literary mainstream, He’d also written nine science fiction novels and a book of short stories. Recently reissued in a handsome uniform edition, these are set in a technically advanced utopian society called the Culture.

The Culture is a place where the perfect is never allowed to stand in the way of the good. The Culture means well, and knows full well that this will never be enough. The Culture strives to be better, and sometimes despairs of itself. The Culture makes mistakes, and does its level best to put them right.

Yes, the Culture is a Utopia, but only “on balance”, only “when everything is taken into account”. It’s utopian enough.

Banks filled the corners of this galaxy-spanning civilisation with real (mostly humanoid) people, and he let them be giddy, inconsistent, self-absorbed, and sometimes malign. He believed that with consciousness comes at least the potential for virtue. The very best of his characters can afford to fail sometimes, because here, forgiveness is possible and wisdom is worth pursuing.

His effort went largely unrecognised by the critics. It fed neither our solemnity nor our sense of our own importance. The Culture was a mirror in which we were encouraged to point and laugh at ourselves. The Culture was comic. (The sf writer Adam Roberts calls it sane; I’m pretty certain we’re talking about the same thing.) As a consequence, the Culture is loved more than it is admired.

The first glimmerings of The Culture appeared in the 1970s in North Queensferry, among a teenager’s doodlings: maps of alien archipelagos, sketches of spaceships and guns and castles and tanks. Lovingly reproduced in The Culture: The Drawings, out this month, Banks’s exquisitely drawn juvenalia chart the course of the Culture’s birth. Bit by bit, pencilled calculations start to crowd out the drawings. The alphabets of the Culture’s synthetic language “Marain” grow more and more stylised, before being pushed to the margins by strange doughnut figures describing the cosmology of a speculative universe. Components emerge that we recognise from the books themselves. Spaceships — a mile, ten miles, a hundred miles long — predominate.

The book is a bit of a revelation; while he was alive Banks kept this material to himself. He was far too good a writer ever to imagine that readers needed any of it. Thumping literalism was never his style. These were the visual props from which he constructed his literary tricks.

The Culture is a loose civilisation formed from half-a-dozen humanoid species and whatever machine intelligences they bring along — or by whom they are brought. Artificial “Minds” are very often seen to outperform and outclass their creators. Spaceships and space habitats here tend to nurture their living freight rather as I look after my cats — very well indeed, albeit with a certain condescension.

Spacetime is no barrier to the Culture’s gadding about, so its material resources are functionally infinite. Nostalgic value is therefore the only material value anyone bothers about. No-one and nothing lasts forever. Everyone in this world is mortal. The Culture is canny enough to realise that in this world of hard knocks, opportunities for curiosity and play are so rare as to be worth defending at all costs, while beliefs (and religious beliefs in particular) are mere defences against terror. With terror comes exploitation. In Surface Detail (2010) the Culture must somehow take to task a society that’s using a personality-backup technology to consign its ne’erdowells to virtual hells.

The great thing about the Culture — the brainchild of a lifelong and cheerful atheist — is that nothing and nobody is exploited.

Banks very roughly mapped The Culture’s story over 9000 years — more than enough time for humans on their unremarkable blue marble to merit least a footnote. (The Culture’s first visit to Earth in the 1970s causes mayhem in the 1989 short story “The State of the Art”.) Groups join the Culture and secede from it, argue, influence and cojole and (rarely but terribly) go to war with it. Countless species have left the Culture over the years, retreating to contemplate who-knows-what, or chiselling their way out of the normal universe altogether. Now and again a passing reference is made to some vast, never-before-suspected epoch of benign indifference or malign neglect.

Consider Phlebas (1987) set the series’ tone from the first, with a story of how a devout religious society comes up against the Culture, goes to war with it, and promptly implodes. The Culture is well-intentioned enough towards its Idiran foes, as it is towards everyone else — but who said good intentions were enough to avert tragedy?

The last Culture book, Hydrogen Sonata (2012), asks big questions about belief and meaning, many of them channeled through a subplot in which one person’s efforts to play a virtually impossible piece of music on a virtually impossible musical instrument play out against the ground of a society for whom her task is trivial and the music frankly bad.

My personal favourite is Excession. By 1996, you see, a significant number of us were begging Banks to kill the Culture. Its decency and its sanity were beginning to stick in our craw. We knew, in our heart of hearts, that the Culture was setting us a moral challenge of sorts, and this put us out of temper. Why don’t you break it? we said. Why don’t you humiliate it? Why don’t you reveal its rotten heart? Banks indulged us this far: he confronted the Culture with a void in space older than the universe itself. It was a phenomenon even the Culture couldn’t handle.

Such sideways approaches to depicting the perfect society are, of course, only sensible. In fiction, utopian happiness and personal fulfilment make fine goals, but rotten subject matter.

But Banks’s decision to stick to edge cases and intractable problems wasn’t just pragmatic. He knew the Culture was smug and safe, and he spent entire novels working out what might be done about this. He was committed to dreaming up a polis that could avoid the catastrophe of its own success, and what he came up with was a spacefaring society, free of resource constraints, devoted to hedonistic play at the centre, and fringed with all manner of well-meaning busy-work directed at cadet civilisations (like our own on Earth) deemed not yet mature enough to join the party.

“I think of the Culture as some incredibly rich lady of leisure who does good, charitable works,” Banks wrote in 1993; “she spends a lot of time shopping and getting her hair done, but she goes out and visits the poor people and takes them baskets of vegetables.”

It’s an odd-sounding Utopia, perhaps — but, when all’s said and done, not such a bad life.

Apocalypse Now Lite

Watching Gareth Edwards’s The Creator for New Scientist, 4 October 2023

A man loses his wife in the war with the robots. The machines didn’t kill her; human military ineptitude did. She was pregnant with his child. The man (played by John David Washington, whose heart-on-sleeve performance can’t quite pull this film out of the fire) has nothing to live for, until it turns out that his wife is alive and working with the robots to build a weapon. The weapon turns out to be a robot child (an irresistible performance by 7-year-old Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who possesses the ability to control machines at a distance. Man and weapon go in search of the man’s wife; they’re a family in wartime, trying to reconnect, and their reconnection will end the war and change everything.

The Creator’s great strength is its futuristic south-east Asian setting. (You know a film has problems when the reviewer launches straight in with the set design.) Police drones like mosquitos rumble overhead. Mantis-headed robots in red robes ring temple bells to warn of American air attack.

The Creator is Apocalypse Now Lite: the Americans aggressors have been traumatised by the nuking of Los Angeles — an atrocity they blame on their own AI. They’ve hurled their own robots into the garbage compactor (literally — a chilling up-scaled retread of that Star Wars scene). But South East Asia has had the temerity to fall in love with AI technology. They’re happy to be out-evolved! The way a unified, Blade-Runner-esque “New Asia” sees it, LA was an accident a long way away; people replace people all the time; and a robot is a person.

Hence: war. Hence: rural villages annihilated under blue laser light. Hence: missiles launched from space against temple complexes in mountain fastnesses. Hence: river towns reduced to matchwood under withering small-arms fire.

If nothing else, it’s spectacular.

The Creator is not so much a stand-alone sf blockbuster as a game of science fiction cinema bingo. Enormous battle tanks, as large as the villages they crush? think Avatar. A very-low-orbit space station, large enough to be visible in the daytime? think Oblivion. Child with special powers? think Stranger Things. The Creator is a science fiction movie assembled from the tropes of other science fiction movies. If it is not as bankrupt as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels Prometheus and Covenant (now those were bad movies), it’s because we’ve not seen south-east Asia cyborgised before (though readers of sf have been inhabiting such futures for over thirty years) and also because director Gareth Edwards once again proves that he can pull warm human performances from actors lumbered with any amount of gear, sweating away on on the busiest, most cluttered and complex set.

This is not nothing. Nor, alas, is it enough.

As a film school graduate Gareth Edwards won a short sci-fi film contest in London, and got a once in a lifetime chance to make a low budget feature. Monsters (2010) managed to be both a character piece and a love story and a monster movie all in one. On the back of it he got a shot at a Star Wars spin-off in 2014, which hijacked the entire franchise (everyone loved Rogue One and its TV spin-off Andor is much admired; Disney’s own efforts at canon have mostly flopped).

The Creator should have been Edwards’s Star Wars. Instead, something horrible has happened in the editing. Vital lines are being delivered in scenes so truncated, it’s as though the actors are explaining the film directly to the audience. Every few minutes, tears run down Washington’s face, Voyles’s chin trembles, and we have no idea, none, what brought them to their latest crescendo — and ooh look, that goofy running bomb! That reminds me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow…

The Creator is a fine spectacle. What we needed was a film that had something to say.

“Trees and bushes and hills. Or houses and streets. Or rooms and furniture.”

Reading The Wolves of Eternity by Karl Ove Knausgaard for the Telegraph, 12 September 2023

1986: nineteen-year-old Syvert Løyning returns home from navy service to find his widowed mother chain-smoking. If she’s not dying of lung cancer, she’s making a good stab at it. Her declining health leaves Syvert spending most of his evenings looking after his younger brother Joar. His efforts in this direction are sincere but often ineffective.

This is Knausgaard’s long, compelling prequel to 2021’s The Morning Star, a novel which saw time collapse and brought the realms of the living and the dead into collision. To this metaphysical malarkey, The Wolves… offers the unprepared reader the coldest of cold openers. What should we make of Syvert’s slow, ineluctable decline amid the edgelands of southern Norway (woods and heaths and lakes, football fields and filling stations)? What of his equally slow recovery, as he acquires a girlfriend (Lisa), a job (at an undertaker’s) and a purpose — tracking down his dead father’s secret second family in the former Soviet Union?

Half way through, The Wolves… breaks off and moves to present-day [Russia] to follow Syvert’s lost relation Alevtina on her way to her step-dad’s 80th birthday party. Alevtina describes herself self-deprecatingly (and accurately) as “a kind of hippy biologist who talked to trees”. Knausgaard makes a show of giving her the same close attention he devoted to Syvert, but there’s a sight more handwaving going on now: a sophomoric piling-up of cultural capital about Death, Hell and various species of Russian messianism and biophilia. Never trust a protagonist who’s a college lecturer.

Both halves of The Wolves… have their strengths, of course. Alevtina’s half is flashier by far; consider this time-reversed vision of some woods: “If you filmed that, an injured or sick animal that crept away to hide, died and rotted, and then ran that film backwards, the soil would pull apart to become an animal that rose up and slunk away.”

But there’s a greater power, I reckon, to be gleaned in the ordinariness of things. The pity we feel as Syvert sorts out his father’s old boxes, “not to get closer to him, more the opposite, to remove him from me, put him back in his boxes, back with his things”. And terror, when it occurs to Syvert that the World (which The Wolves… sees to its end) is only “what the eyes could see… A sort of duct in front of and behind us, with various things in it. Trees and bushes and hills. Or houses and streets. Or rooms and furniture.”

Knausgaard should resist the siren call of his library card, and go on writing very big books about nothing. The less The Wolves… is about, the more it has to say.

“And your imaginations would again run out of room…”

Reading The Beetle in the Anthill and The Waves Extinguish the Wind by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. For The Times, 18 April 2023 

In Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Beetle in the Anthill, zoopsychologist Lev Abalkin and his alien companion, a sentient canine “bighead” called Puppen-Itrich, are sent to the ruined and polluted planet Hope to find out what happened to its humanoid population. Their search leads them through an abandoned city to a patch of tarmac, which Puppen insists is actually an interdimensional portal. Lev wonders what new world this portal might it lead to?

‘“Another world, another world…” grumbles Puppen. “As soon as you made it to another world, you’d immediately begin to remake it in the image of your own. And your imaginations would again run out of room, and then you’d look for another world, and you’d begin to remake that one, too.”’

Futility sounds like a funny sort of foundation for an enjoyable book, but the Strugatskys wrote a whole series of them, and they amount to a singular triumph. Fresh translations of the final two “Noon universe” books are being published this month.

Arkady Strugatsky was born in Batumi, Georgia, in 1925. His kid brother Boris, born in Leningrad in 1933, outlived him by nearly twenty years, though without his elder brother to bounce ideas off, he found little to write about. The brothers dominated Soviet science fiction throughout the 1970s. Their earliest works towed the socialist-realist line and featured cardboard heroes who (to the reader’s secret relief) eventually sacrificed themselves for the good of Humanity. But their interest in people became too much for them, and they ended up writing angst-ridden masterpieces like Roadside Picnic (which everyone knows, because Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based on it) and Lame Fate/Ugly Swans (which no-one knows, though Maya Vinokaur’s cracking English translation came out in 2020). Far too prickly to be published in the Soviet Union, their best work circulated in samizdat and (often unauthorised) translation.

The stories and novels of their “Noon universe” series ask what humans and aliens, meeting among the stars, would get up to with each other. Ordinary conflict is out of the question, since spacefaring civilisations have access to infinite resources. (The Noon universe is a techno-anarchist utopia, as is Iain Banks’s Culture, as is Star Trek’s Federation, and all for the same unassailable reason: there’s nothing to stop such a strange and wonderful society from working.)

The Strugatskys assume that there’s one only one really grand point to life as a technically advanced species — and that is to see to the universe’s well-being by nurturing sentience, consciousness, and even happiness.

To which you can almost hear Puppen grumble: Yes, but what sort of consciousness are you talking about? What sort of happiness are you promoting? In The Waves Extinguish the Wind (originally translated into English as The Time Wanderers), as he contemplates the possibility that humans are themselves being “gardened” by a superior race dubbed “Wanderers”, alien-chaser Toivo Glumov complains, “Nobody believes that the Wanderers intend to do us harm. That is indeed extremely unlikely. It’s something else that scares us! We’re afraid that they will come and do good, as they understand it!”’

Human beings and the Wanderers (whose existence can only ever be inferred, never proved) are the only sentient species who bother with outer space, and stick their noses into what’s going on among people other than themselves. And maybe Puppen is right; maybe such cosmic philanthropy boils down, in the end, to nothing more than vanity and overreach.

By the time of these last two novels, the Wanderers’ interference in human affairs is glaring, though it’s still impossible to prove.

In The Beetle in the Anthill Maxim Kammerer — a former adventurer, now a prominent official — is set on the trail of Lev Abalkin, a rogue “progressor” who is heading back to Earth.

Progressors travel from planet to planet and go undercover in “backward” societies to promote their technical and social development. But why shouldn’t Abalkin come home for a bit? He’s spent fifteen years doing a job he never wanted to do, in the remotest outposts, and he’s just about had enough. “Damn it all,” Kammerer complains, “would it really be so surprising if he had finally run out of patience, given up on COMCON and Headquarters, abandoned his military discipline, and come back to Earth to sort things out?”

By degrees, Kammerer and the reader discover why Kammerer’s bosses are so afraid of Abalkin’s return: he may, quite unwittingly, be a “Wanderer” agent.

So an individual’s ordinary hopes and frustrations play out against a vast, unsympathetic realpolitik. This is less science fiction than spy fiction — The Spy Who Came in From the Cold against a cosmic backdrop. And it’s tempting, though reductive, to observe the whole “noon universe” through a Cold War lens. Boris himself says in his afterword to The Beetle…:

“We were writing a tragic tale about the fact that even in a kind, gentle, and just world, the emergence of a secret police force (of any type, form, or style) will inevitably lead to innocent people suffering and dying.”

But the “noon universe” is no bald political parable, and it’s certainly not satire. Rather, it’s an unflinching working-out of what Soviet politics would look like if it did fulfil its promise. It’s a philosophical solvent, stripping away our intellectual vanities — our ideas of manifest destiny, our “outward urge” and all the rest — to expose our terrible littleness, and tremendous courage, in the face of a meaningless universe.

In their final novel The Waves Extinguish the Wind — assembled from fictional documents, reports, letters, transcripts and the like — we follow a somewhat older and wiser Maxim Kammerer as he oversees the heartbreaking efforts of his protogée Toivo Glumov to prove the existence of the Wanderers for once and for all. It’s an odyssey (involving peculiar disappearances, bug-eyed monsters and a bad-tempered wizard) that would be farcical, were it not tearing Glumov’s life to pieces.

Kammerer reckons Glumov is a fanatic. Does it even matter that humans are being tended and “progressed” by some superior race of gardener? “After all,” Kammerer says to his boss, Excellentz, ‘“what’s the worst we can say about the Wanderers?’” He’s thinking back to the planet called Hope, and that strange square of tarmac: ‘“They saved the population of an entire planet! Several billion people!”’

‘“Except they didn’t save the population of the planet,”’ Excellentz points out. ‘“They saved the planet from its population! Very successfully, too… And where the population has gone — that’s not for us to know.”’

Not our Battle of Britain

Watching Andrew Legge’s film Lola for New Scientist, 12 April 2023

Two sisters, orphans, play among the leavings of their parents’ experiments in radio, and by 1938 the one who’s a genius, Thomasina (Emma Appleton), is listening to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on a ceiling-high television set that can tune in to the future.

The politics of the day being what it is, Thom’s sister Martha (Stefanie Martini) decides that this invention (named Lola after their dead mother) cannot remain their personal plaything — it belongs to the world. With the help of Sebastian, a sympathetic army officer (soon enough Martha falls in love with him) the sisters are soon collaborating with British intelligence to fox Nazi operations a day before they happen.

Drunk on success, Thom lets her ambition get the better of her, and starts sacrificing the civilians of tomorrow in order to draw out the Wehrmacht. When a horrified President Roosevelt catches wind of this, it spells the end of Churchill’s efforts to draw the US into the war against Hitler.

Good intentions, ambitious plans and unintended consequences usher the world into Hell in this often stunning piece of micro-budget science fiction. As high concept movie ideas go, Lola’s counterfactual 20th-century history is up there with Memento and Primer and Source Code.

Attentive readers will feel a “but” hovering here. For some reason the director and co-writer Andrew Legge took a day of rest after fleshing out this winning idea; he seems neither to have finished the script, nor given his actors much directorial guidance. Lola is more a short story narrated to a visual accompaniment than a fully fledged film. Thom and Mars are supposed to be nice 1930s gals transfigured by their access to glimpses of 1960s pop culture — but it’s impossible not to see them for what they are, personable young actors from the 2020s let loose to do their thing in front of the camera.

This makes Lola a good movie, rather than a great one — and it’s a shame. Some extra scriptwork and a spot of voice coaching would have added hardly anything to Lola’s admittedly tight budget. In 2009, Legge made The Chronoscope, a 20-minute foray into the same territory. Lola is more solemn than that short outing, but no more serious, as though Legge were intimidated, rather than inspired, by the possibilities offered by the feature format.

Elsewhere, the film’s resources are deployed with flair and ingenuity. The film is an historically and technologically impossible but highly convincing assembly of found footage and home movie. (Among Thom’s other incidental inventions is a hand-held camera that records sound.) Famous radio broadcasts of the period are repurposed to chilling effect. (Lola’s “Battle of Britain” is not our battle of Britain). The Zelig-like manipulations of newsreel footage are fairly crude in purely technical terms, but I defy you not to gasp at the sight of Nazi invaders waving their Swastika over a bombed-out London, or Adolf Hitler being driven in state down the Mall. And Neil Hannon (the maverick musical talent behind The Divine Comedy, not to mention Father Ted’s “My Lovely Horse” song) has a quite indecent amount of fun here, cooking up the beats of a counterfactual 1970s fascist Top 10.

These days the choice confronting British and Irish filmmakers is stark: do you want to make your movie as quickly as possible, on the lowest possible budget, get it seen, and generate interest? Or do you want to spend twenty years in development hell, working with overseas production companies who don’t know whether they can trust you, and — with many millions of dollars on the line — are likely to homogenise your project out of all recognition?

I wish Lola had impressed me less and involved me more. But in a business as precarious as this one, Legge’s choices make sense, and Lola is an effective and enjoyable industry calling card.

“Our trained mediums are standing by”

Watching Mali Elfman’s Next Exit for New Scientist, 22 February 2023

From out of nowhere, a chink of light appears. With painful slowness, the light grows stronger: we are inching towards a half-open door. Beyond the door, everything seems normal. A little boy is playing a game of pretend. At least, that’s what we think. Soon enough, we learn what’s really going on: the boy is playing cards with his dead father.

Nothing else in Mali Elfman’s debut feature lives up to this unsettling opening sequence (though there’s a sight gag — two would-be suicides renting a car from Charon Vehicle Rental — that comes close).

Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker — actors who turn up regularly in work by horror director Mike Flanagan — play Teddy and Rose, driving across the US to an appointment with Dr Stevensen (Karen Gillan) who has promised them a clinically managed euthanasia. Teddy, a Londoner, has spent ten years trying and failing to make it in the United States, and figures that being turned into a pioneer ghost (his transition from life to death monitored with all the latest gear) will at least give his life some meaning. Rose is weighed down with guilty secrets, and just wants to be done with it all.

Mind you, even Rose is not as nihilistic as the man who, early on in the film, wonders in front of their hire car, and under their wheels, with a note pinned to his chest: “Thanks for the help”.

Suicides and homicides are common now, as Heaven beckons (or whatever passes as Heaven), and our hardscrabble lives on this ordinary Earth lose their preciousness and meaning. “Our trained mediums are standing by,” a radio advert announces, offering contact with the newly visible dead. This is a world lost to itself, snared by fantasies of the hereafter.

But what do these newly discovered ghosts really want, as they stream into our world through every available screen? Not every haunting is as touching as that of the boy and his dead parent. Rose guzzles bourbon by the bottle so as not to see her mother watching her from inside the motel pay-per-view. A friendly cop, caught up in a drinking game, confesses to a thoughtless on-duty prank that killed a family of five; not surprising then, that he thinks “they’re here to hurt us.” Karma, a hitchhiker Teddy and Rose pick up out in the desert, has her own doubts: ”Just because we can see them,” she points out, “doesn’t mean we understand them”.

It’s at this point, about half way into the movie, that the viewer’s heart, if it does not immediately sink, certainly begins to tip: surely this film has bitten off way more than it can possibly chew?

Teddy admits that what he really wants out of his own managed death is for the news to get back to his absentee father: “I’d rather kill myself than live the life you gave me.” This is not a bad line, but what follows is horrific, and not in any intended way: a stage-managed confrontation with Teddy’s dad; an impromptu psychodynamic therapy session in a filling station car lot. The script rights itself, but having lost all confidence after this compound pratfall, it delivers, in the end, only a low-key retread of Joel Schumacher’s 1990 flick Flatliners. (Judgement waits for us all; struggle gives life its meaning; you know the rest.)

Next Exit is a promising film, but not a good film. It warps the world into a very strange shape, to ask some valid — indeed, pressing — questions about where the value of life resides. But it loses its way. If the writing had exhibited half as much commitment as the acting, we might have had a hit on our hands.

Enacting the alien for the duration

Reading In Ascension by Martin MacInnes for the Times, 4 February 2023

In the course of Martin MacInnes’s long, dizzying, frustrating third novel, marine biologist Leigh-Ann Hasenboch sets sail to explore a vast chasm in the ocean floor, blasts off into space to pursue an errant space probe, and finally falls apart like a salmon, bleeding out of the real world altogether.

Or does she? Few writers can make the real world appear so elusive. Leigh, we’re told, grew up in Rotterdam, an environment as engineered and as managed as any space capsule. Her father told her not to dig too deep, and stared at her in horror when, playing by the sea, she once drove her plastic spade against the beach’s concrete foundation.

He also beat her, or that’s what she remembers, but there are few certainties in this book, and no guarantees: perhaps the child Leigh was glimpsing premonitions of the beatings she’d receive from the world itself: all those romantic disappointments and professional frustrations! She doesn’t have an easy time of it, and has a knack for taking the difficult path, even as she rises to become a world expert on space habitats and nutrition.

In Ascension is a science fiction vehicle driven with the literary brakes jammed on. Ecological mysteries (that newly discovered chasm beneath the Caribbean reaches deep into the Earth’s mantle) coincide with astronomical mysteries (an alien artefact appears, then disappears), and a somewhat conspiratorial plan is hatched to send an international human crew on a rocket to figure out what (if any) extraterrestrial grand plan is drawing humanity off their dying planet and in among the stars.

That Leigh, after the longest time, joins this project, and earns a place on the crew that will replace the replacement crew if that crew as well as the first crew somehow come to grief before launch, tells you much about MacInnes’s strategy. He has some wild malarky to sell, and he makes it digestible by stretching it out like dough. Science fiction writers, on the other hand, make their malarky acceptable by committing to it — and I can’t help but feel that there’s a moral difference here.

Afficionadoes of MacInnes’s first two books will argue that his unique combination of indirection and ecological speculation amounts to a metaphysical, or even supernatural form all its own, part Robert Macfarlane, part Ray Bradbury.

They’re not wrong. Few writers summon the uncanny as well as MacInnes, whether it be in the depiction of a research vessel, bobbing above the ocean’s limitless depths, or in throw-away lines about astronauts disappearing into clouds of irregular paperwork. And no-one but MacInnes captures so well the way we use social games (modish blather, bureaucracy, rationalism, science) to assemble a manageable reality, away from the wild world’s blooming, buzzing confusion.

MacInnes sometimes realises these preoccupations in splendid macguffins. As Leigh and her two crewmates pursue a 1970s-era Voyager spacecraft far beyond the bounds of the solar system on board their cramped spacecraft Nereus, we begin to intuit that their craft’s innovative propulsion system is not merely not of this Earth; it is, quite literally, unworldly. “The whole of the propulsion system will be sealed from the crew,” we’re told. “It isn’t just advisable. It’s essential. If you try to observe it, it disappears.”

There’s no doubt that MacInnes has fun driving Leigh — an unhappy, not very likeable research graduate — toward her space-and time-busting apotheosis. I just wish that his fun wasn’t taken quite so much at the expense of the reader. “The alien may be a particular way of calibrating energy,” Leigh realises, as she and her crewmates munch though bowls of genetically engineered algae and prepare for First Contact, “not constituted in any one of the properties that delivers the power, but in the act of delivery itself…. Then the alien exists for the length of time the journey endures, the process of realising a journey. Not arriving to meet the alien at the end, but enacting the alien for the duration.”

That’s sly enough, but not nearly as effective as Ray Bradbury’s “The Martians were there — in the canal — reflected in the water.”

We’ve learned a valuable lesson today

Watching M3gan, directed by Gerard Johnstone, for New Scientist, 25 January 2023

Having done something unspeakable to a school bully’s ear, chased him through the forest like a wolf, and driven him under the wheels of a passing car, M3gan, the world’s first “Model 3 Generative Android”, returns to comfort Cady, its inventor’s niece. “We’ve learned a valuable lesson today,” she whispers.

So has the audience, between all their squealing and cheering. Before you ask a learning machine to do something for you, it helps if you know what that thing actually is.

M3gan has been tasked by its inventor Gemma (Allison Williams, in her second Blumfield-produced movie since the company’s 2017 smash Get Out) with looking after her niece Cady (Violet McGraw), recently orphaned when her parents — arguing over who should police her screen time — drove them all under a snow truck.

M3gan is told to protect Cady from physical and emotional harm. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Gemma works for toy company Funki, whose CEO David (comedian Ronny Chieng) is looking for a way — any way — to “kick Hasbro right in the d—.” In a rush to succeed, Gemma ends up creating a care robot that (to paraphrase Terminator) absolutely will not stop caring. M3gan takes very personally indeed the ordinary knocks that life dishes out to a kid.

The robot — a low-budget concoction of masks and CGI, performed by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis — is an uncanny glory. But the signature quality of Blumfield’s films is not so much their skill with low budgets, as the company’s willingness to invest time and money on scripts. In developing M3gan, James Wan (who directed the 2004 horror film Saw) and Akela Cooper (whose first-draft screenplay was, by her own admission, “way gorier”) discovered in the end that there was more currency in mischief than in mayhem. This is the most sheerly gleeful horror movie since The Lost Boys.

Caring for a child involves more than distracting them. Alas M3gan, evolving from Funki’s “Purrfect Petz” (fuzzballs that quote Wikipedia while evacuating plastic pellets from their bowels) cannot possibly understand this distinction.

The point of parenting is to manage your own failure, leaving behind a child capable of handling the world on their own. M3gan, on the contrary, has absolutely no intention of letting Cady grow up. As far as M3gan is concerned, experience is the enemy.

In this war against the world M3gan transforms, naturally enough, into a hyperarticulated killing machine (and the audience cheers: this is a film built on anticipation, not surprise).

M3gan’s charge, poor orphaned Cady, is a far more frightening creation: a bundle of hurt and horror afforded no real guidance, adrift without explanations in a world where (let’s face it) everything will eventually die and everything will eventually go wrong. The sight of a screaming nine-year-old Cady slapping her well-intentioned but workaholic aunt across the face is infinitely more disturbing than any scene involving M3gan.

“Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal,” wrote the social scientist Sherry Turkle back in 2011, “but it consigns us to a closed world — the loveable as safe and made to measure.”

Cady, born into a world of fatuous care robots, eventually learns that the only way to get through life is to grow up.

But the real lesson here is for parents. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. And that’s fine, except that it assumes that we always know what’s in our own best interests.

I remember in 2014, at a conference on human-machine interaction, I watched a a video starring Nao, a charming “educational robot”. It took a while before someone in the audience (not me, to my shame) spotted the film’s obvious flaw: how come it shows a mother sweating away in the kitchen while a robot is enjoying quality time with her child?