Saturday, July 28, 2012

Greg Egan

Greg Egan is one of the strangest authors I've ever read. He writes basically the hardest science fiction there is. By that I mean that his books are often about some idea in physics he wants to explore, rather than some part of the human condition.

For example, one of his most recent books is The Clockwork Rocket, the first part in an intended three part trilogy. The clockwork rocket is set in a universe with very difficult physical rules to our own. Those with a passing knowledge of physics might know that the faster you go, the slower time passes for you in this universe. Were we able to travel at the speed of light, we could effectively travel into the future (and could we exceed the speed of light, we would reach the past, thus violating causality). In the universe of the Clockwork Rocket, the opposite is true: travel fast enough and time stops in the external universe, but continues for you.

This is a fun notion, but Egan doesn't just leave it at that. Instead he has taken some results from relativity and applied some tweaks, and looked at all the conclusions. And he kind of wants you to know. A good third of the novel is people having conversations about physics, including diagrams explaining it. The heroine, Yalda, discovers the book's version of relativity, and you follow her doing so.

Its... a bit weird to be honest. I have, in the past, read entertaining non-fiction books explaining some basic concepts in physics, but to do so requires thinking. You need to think about what the text says, apply it to the diagram, and thus achieve comprehension. This is fine if you want to understand how the world works, but in the context of a fictional book... I don't really care. I don't really want to spend the time required to comprehend Egan's made up physics, I'm sort of happy enough to accept that it works the way it does. Perhaps for the enthusiastic reader, he could have provided this material as additional material (and indeed there is in fact additional material of this vein available on his website!), but in the book proper, it breaks the flow.

The rest of the narrative is reasonably engaging, Yalda's struggles in a male dominated society are quite good, but the pacing is kind of nuts. The book spends 2/3rds not in the rocket itself, occasionally presenting genuine struggles Yalda is facing, and occasionally just lecturing physics. Even some of the struggles are weirdly resolved: Some of Egan's writing reminds me of Asimov's Foundation books, which often set up a particular problem that the society he invented (the Foundation) was facing clearly, then explained how it was resolved. In Egan's case, the problem is set up, but then its just written away by some external event. Asimov would attribute the solution to the cleverness of his heroes, but quite frequently the solution is external to Yalda, even when she is actively trying to solve it.

For instance, once on the rocket Yalda is almost lost to weightlessness. She tries to return by throwing rocks: a reasonably ingenious method, but this doesn't work. Instead she's just rescued by another character. The rescue itself doesn't seem particularly significant either: the character who rescues her was already shown to like her, so it doesn't really seem to have much point, other than setting up another problem Yalda notices during this time.... which is also resolved through no real agency of the main character.

Despite all this, I still find Egan strangely readable. His characters are just enough relatable, and the plot just enough engaging, to keep me going. I still wish there was a bit more bite to it all though.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dark Knight Rises: All the spoilers

Yeah, so seriously, all the spoilers here.

I'm not gonna hold back at all..


So after watching and really enjoying the film, I was interested to read online reaction. While its mostly positive, there are some people who really hate the film, for some... pretty stupid reasons frankly. First of all, many geeks saw the Talia twist coming.  I'll freely admit as someone who often sees twists approaching, it completely past me by. Of course, I hadn't been reading internet speculation sites where everyone was guessing that she would be cast as Talia, which probably helped a little. But as someone who didn't do that, and definitely knows who Talia is.. yeah, it was a surprise. Sure its a bit weird on reflection that Ra's had a son instead of a daughter, but the films have diverged from the comics in multiple ways so I didn't really spare it a thought.

The nice thing about this twist, even if its predictable, is that it explains a lot about the rest of the film: Bane has some weirdly specific knowledge, which its now clear he got from Talia, particularly Batman's identity. Some people have apparently also got annoyed that this makes Bane effectively Talia's bodyguard. Well... sort of, but he's clearly her equal, and the issue with Batman and Robin was not that Bane was working for Poison Ivy, its that a potentially very rich villain character is delegated to a mindless thug. The Bane of this film dominates it, and does exactly what he should be doing narratively. Being in love with Talia (or some kind of father figure thing) is just an added piece of motivation.

I think their plan holds together pretty well. The important thing to realise is their motivation. Bane, and thus Talia, were exiled from the League of Shadows, and their goals are not the league's goals. Ra's wouldn't die to destroy Gotham, he thinks much more long term than that, but Bane and Talia are avenging his death. They know Wayne killed him, and they know Ra's last wish was for Gotham to be destroyed. So they decide to torture Wayne and destroy Gotham. Its a cruel, disturbing plan, with the people of Gotham turned into animals for the chance to survive (hints of the the Joker's plan there), only to have it utterly dashed in their destruction.

Unlike the Joker's plan, its relatively (ha), straightforward. They want to nuke Gotham, but its not that easy for them to acquire a warhead and manufacture it there. So Talia sets up the fission plan, and Bane gets a scientist to work on weaponising it. They use Daggert for his financial resources. When Wayne cuts off the plan, Talia and Bane realise that he's caught on to the dangers, and need to put him in a position to reveal its location. They move into Gotham. Bane prepares his army (who would have been needed anyway), but has to bankrupt Wayne using stock market jiggery pokery (ok, yes, it almost certainly couldn't work: pretty sure all transactions that evening would be invalidated, but we can go with that). They also know that the additional threat will pull Wayne out of retirement (and even if it doesn't, they could just go and find him if necessary!)

The underlying political current in this film is a little weird. Its actually about how demagogues can subvert popular movements (which happens all the time historically: see the Roman Empire to the French Revolution), particularly in this case a fascistic presence, which Bane clearly is. The weirdness comes from the time this film is being made: after all this is a time when the worry isn't really the tyranny of the mob, but the tyranny of the elite who use and abuse us. This film could be seen as a criticism of the occupy movement, but I think its just a warning that such movements can easily turn much worse.

This leads to the scene with the police charging the people. Its... a bit weird. First of all, its a terribly stupid thing to do against people with automatic weaponry, second of all, its a bit weird that only the police officers do it. Authority versus anarchy. I guess that's not always a bad statement to make, but its certainly an unusual one.

Incidentally, I have no problem with catwoman finishing off Bane. Batman did defeat Bane, using the weakness he learnt in prison (fighting smart), so it was ok for him to be finished quickly: he'd served his role, and lost his metaphorical power.

There are, as always some plot holes. Why did the entire police force go underground? There's absolutely no way Batman could have got that nuke far enough away in time (could have been easily solved by adding three minutes to the timer, but I guess that'd be less dramatic), and it is a bit stupid that Alfred knows so much about the league (that's the film trying to save time by skipping Batman investigating it, but it comes across as a bit odd).

I liked Blake's arc a lot, but was expecting to end differently. I was expecting him to turn into the Azreal figure from the comics, a demented version of batman. Certainly his brandishing of fire arms made me think that. As it is, the film went for a much more hopeful bent, which is reasonable. The Robin thing was a bit silly, but I think thats just for the slower members of the audience. It seems likely he'll actually take up Batman's mantle anyway (yes yes he has no resources, but that really isn't the point).

Finally.. should Batman have died? I certainly liked him dying, and I think it would have been fine, but.. would have been very harsh on Alfred, who is completely broken in the funeral scene.

One note on Batman retiring. No, the comics batman would never give up entirely. But this Batman really isn't the comics batman. He's nowhere near as smart, or as committed. And that's fine. This Batman is a good man willing to give up everything, and while he hid for 8 years to perpetuate a lie, he knew it couldn't last (and hence didn't really quit). With the end of this film, its not really a lie: Batman is dead, or at least Wayne's version, and Wayne is free to leave the city in relative place. He's even given room for his successor, should a large enough threat rise in Gotham again.

Dark Knight Rises: No Spoilers

[I have the morning off thanks to trains being terrible, so you get some blog posts for it!]

So I will do my best to provide a brief review that does not spoiler the Dark Knight, but if you want to go in completely blind, then look away now.

It's great. Really well told story, thematically it works pretty perfectly. Anne Hathaway is really good, I think I already knew that, but she makes sure that Catwoman is actually a person rather than a comic book character, something previous incarnations really didn't do. She has motivations for her actions, and she's also very smart and good at what she does. Tom Hardy is of course great as Bane, who is a very different presence to the Joker. The Joker was a force of chaos and fear, who didn't have one plan: he had a multitude of plans all set in motion at once, with no real expectation that they would all succeed. Bane really has a goal, and does his best to accomplish it with the resources he has available to him. He's a towering, intimidating physical presence, in a way no villain has been in Batman so far.

The plot hangs together really well. There are some odd misteps, and some slightly clunky bits of exposition from characters with magic knowledge, but mostly it ties together, and works with the theme of the film. I'll talk more about this in the extended spoilery review.

The action scenes, are, as we might expect, very intense and brutal, and for the first time we get to see a fight scene clearly in the Batman films: no fast shaky editing taking away out understanding of what's going on. My only major criticism is that, at least where I was sitting in the imax cinema, the score actually overwhelms the dialogue at multiple points in the film, to the point where I couldn't really hear what characters were saying. This is a shame, and feels like something that could easily have been fixed in post-production really: maybe it was just the particular screening I went to.

So: recommended.