Archive for February 20, 2020

Man Made Moon

Posted in FILM, literature, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2020 by dcairns

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Algis Budrys is really good.

I find it a bit discouraging that I’m back reading science fiction at my time of life. It IS the literature of ideas, and I love it, but I have a superstition that reading too much bad prose is bad for one’s prose, and Kurt Vonnegut was right to observe that most of those toiling in the literature of ideas were pretty sucky at putting elegant sentences together.

For instance, in the (excellent) short story Death March, Budrys is moved to say “Bessmer was a big, sprawling city that curved around the bay like a long arm.” I frown at this. I can picture a city curving around a bay, but the added information that it resembles a long arm while doing so tells me nothing. And arms, outside of Mickey Mouse cartoons, can only approximate a curve.

In the novel Rogue Moon, a character is described as “a heavy-boned man with loose, papery flesh and dark-circled, sunken eyes.” I recoiled in horror from this description. Then I pictured Attorney General William Barr, and recoiled again. Then I decided that the description only coincidentally fitted Barr in the sense of summing up my moral revulsion at his human failings, and was not a plausible description of a human being. I’ve never seen anyone be “heavy-boned,” for instance.

But BOY, Budrys is an exemplar of “the literature of ideas.” And I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m reading him now. I owned his 1977 novel Michaelmas IN 1977, or near enoguh, but couldn’t get into it. As an adult I gobbled it up. It’s about the internet — which didn’t exist when Budrys was writing, or was at best a couple of giant, clunky computers sending each other morse code. He predicts exactly what it would be like. He also posits a guy with an AI in his briefcase secretly controlling the whole thing. it’s the only AI in the world, Then, one day, it detects another…

Here’s the first movie bit: Budrys throws out these great story ideas but what he does with them isn’t usually very cinematic. But he’s been filmed twice: TO KILL A CLOWN (1972) stars Alan Alda as a sociopath in command of killer dogs. I haven’t seen it but I clearly must. It’s not sf though. WHO? (1974) was filmed by Jack Gold and is quasi-sci-fi. The Soviets (Budrys was born in what is now part of Russia) return a top scientist, disfigured in an accident and cybernetically reconstructed in such way that the Americans can’t tell if it’s really their man. It’s a thoughtful meditation on identity wrapped inside a would-be espionage thriller and it doesn’t quite work. The central design — the character’s iron mask — is a let-down.

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(When the wrong people are in charge, the central bit of design will generally disappoint, while less important stuff is allowed to look good because it’s left to actual designers to make the decisons. Therefore, Batman is usually clunky-looking, while the Batmobile is OK.)

Now we’re on to Rogue Moon. The second movie bit will emerge in due course. In this novel, an alien artifact is discovered on the moon. The US has been teleporting agents up there, trying to get inside the thing, but found it to be a maze of death-traps. They’re triggered in consistent but unpredictable ways:

It is, for instance, fatal to kneel on one knee while facing lunar north. It is fatal to lift the left hand above shoulder height while in any position whatsoever. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armour whose air hoses loop over the shoulders. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armour whose air tanks feed directly into the suit without the use of hoses at all. It is crippling to wear armour whose dimensions vary greatly from the ones we are using now. It is fatal to use the hand motions required to write the English word “yes,” with either the left or right hand.

Charting a path through the complex to discover its secrets using trial and error seems likely to cost an unacceptable number of lives.

Fortunately, they’ve found a way of charting the progress of their agents through the complex, up to the moment of their deaths. Bear with me…

Each time the teleport somebody up there, they also create a duplicate version which they keep on Earth in a state of sensory deprivation. Through a process they don’t understand, this dupe remains psychically linked to his lunar doppelganger, experiencing the same stuff until he’s killed. The trouble is, getting killed on the moon sends the Earth duplicate mad.

So they have to find a guy who doesn’t mind getting killed. And, since there is a person for every job, they find one, an unpleasant macho nutter admittedly, but one they can work with.

“Now look,” Barker said, slapping the folder. “According to this, if I make a wrong move, they’ll find me with all my blood in a puddle outside my armour, with not a mark on me. If I make another move, I’ll be paralysed from my waist down, which means I have to crawl on my belly. But crawling on your belly somehow makes things happen so you get squashed up into your helmet. And it goes on in that cheerful vein all the way.”

What Budrys has come up with here seems to me an analog for the video game narrative. Complete what you can of the route, and if you get killed, start again and try to figure out what you did wrong.

Groundhog-Day

Here’s the second movie bit. GROUNDHOG DAY is, as far as I know, the first movie to use an approximation of this approach to a story. Oh, wait, before that there’s 12:01 PM (1990) and 12:01 (1993), both time-loop movies adapting Richard Lupoff’s 1973 story (that’s how far sf movies lag behind the literature). Obayashi’s adaptation of THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME (1983) is listed on Wikipedia as a time-loop story but I haven’t seen any version of this popular manga so I don’t know how relevant it is. The following year, URUTSEI YASURA II: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER portrayed another time loop.

More recently, HAPPY DAY and the lovely Russian Doll use the video game structure successfully to very different ends.

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It seems logical that as video games have grown in both sophistication and popularity, their tropes will infect cinema. Ideas like long subjective camera action scenes like the opening of VILLAINESS strike me as of limited value, since they’re basically like watching a video game over the player’s shoulder, removing the actual thrill of participation. But if you can come up with a novel way of showing it, the actual problem-solving aspect of gameplay can be adapted from games to movies. The two examples I’ll offer are SOURCE CODE and EDGE OF TOMORROW, which are both very engrossing entertainments.edgeot

Rogue Moon, however, was published in 1960.

So Budrys wasn’t working out a way of using vidgaming as a narrative ploy. What he was up to is revealed late in the novel, and I think it’s to do with the way the human race accumulates knowledge.

“The thing is, the universe is dying! The stars are burning their substance. The planets are moving more slowly on their axes. They’re falling inward towards their suns. The atomic particles that make it all up are slowing in their orbits. Bit by bit, over the countless billions of years, it’s slowly happening. It’s all running down. Some day, it’ll stop. Only one thing in the universe grows fuller, and richer, and forces itself uphill. Intelligence — human lives — we’re the only thing that doesn’t obey the universal law. The universe kills our bodies — it drags them down with gravity; it drags, and drags, until our hearts grow tired with pumping our blood against its pull, until the walls of our cells break down with the weight of themselves, until our tissues sag, and our bones grow weak and bent. Our lungs tire of pulling air in and pushing it out. Our veins and capillaries break with the strain. Bit by bit, from the day we’re conceived, the universe rasps and plucks at our bodies until they can’t repair themselves any longer. And in that way, in the end, it kills our brains. 

“But our minds… There’s the precious thing; there’s the phenomenon that has nothing to do with time and space except to use them — to describe to itself the lives our bodies live in the physical universe.”

There’s more. Go get it, if you’re intrigued. Despite occasional infelicities of style, at his best Budrys was a terrific writer.