quarta-feira, agosto 31, 1994

Sextuple star system: "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg

(My own copy)


"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!"

In "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg


The story, of course, being about how it doesn't quite work out like that.

When I think about “Nightfall”, Byron’s “Darkness” comes to mind, always:

"I had a dream, which was not all a dream,
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless; and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation: and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face...."

Taken from here.


(Bought in 1994)


If Byron can, why can’t I? Let's give it a go:

The fullness abhors the emptiness of light.
A quiet truth inaudible in a hopeless sky,
Calling through the soul of every man,
Imploring embodiment, a place of rest,
Faithfully witnessing entitled despair.
Grumbling like a remembering at night,
Occupying substance, enveloping sense.
Maligned perception obligingly wanes,
A breath before the recurrence leaches-
Tinging ever, the light whence ‘twas derived.

By Myselfie.

Sextuple star systems like Kalgash should be unstable. Planet Kepler 16-B orbits a binary star, where each star in turn orbits around their center of gravity. When it comes to triple-star system, the question is: where should the planets go? It just depends how the triple-star system is set up. Most multiple-star systems are hierarchical, so you would expect two of the stars to be much closer together than the third. We can have planets orbiting all three stars, but the planets must be much closer to the close-together stars whereas the more distant star can have much wider-orbit planets. What about six-star systems? You should give Space Engine a try. It's a simulation of the visible universe that used a combination of known data to provide actual stars and galaxies, and to create procedurally generated moons/planets/stars/galaxies etc. If you want to know what it's like to live on a planet with multiple stars, Space Engine is the simulator to show you. Just don't get lost in it and spend a week browsing star systems without contacting your friends or family, 'cause that's what I did back in the day.

NB: "Traditional" vampires would be screwed in a multiple star system like the one depicted in
"Nightfall".

terça-feira, agosto 30, 1994

Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL: “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke

(My own copy in English bought in 1994)


I can never look now at the Milky Way without wondering from which of those banked clouds of stars the emissaries are coming. If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but to wait.

In "The Sentinel” by “Arthur C. Clarke"



The time was fast approaching when Earth, like all mothers, must say farewell to her children.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke 



"Open the pod bay doors, HAL"


In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick



As a 15 year old I was about to start watching a Saturday matinee film (it may have been Thunderbird) when a future presentation advert came on. It looked like a fantastic space adventure so a week later I went to see it. I was amazed - incredible looking spaceships - computers which weren't just rows of flashing lights - shots which looked like they could have been taken on the moon and a fantastic space station. I just couldn't work out how they'd made it in the same way I couldn't work out the ending (nor could many others as I recall because there was a collective 'Ay' when Bowman turned into the Starchild). I saw it again about 2 years later - after I'd read the book - with a slight air of smugness knowing that I probably had an edge on many others. It's a great film that raised so many bars but of course at the time I was far too young to be able to 'trip' out on it unless you include sherbet dabs. I had never imagined SF could be anything like this. After all this time, I still find the special effects impressive, (although it was all done with models and CGI was unheard of). Even the soundtrack was extraordinary: Johann and Richard Strauss, (not to mention Ligeti's eerie choral music). I rushed out to buy the album, as well as an LP of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', and drove my parents to distraction playing them over and over and over again!

I was trained as a Physicist and a Computer Scientist, and have a literal turn of mind, but this is the only film (along with “Blade Runner” ‘82). I can immerse myself in and experience on a totally emotional level - and relish the lack of dialogue. The film just draws you in, takes you on a roller-coaster ride, and leaves you awe struck with its final scene as the camera pans back from the star-child, and one see the Earth behind him. Absolutely bloody amazing. This is the film that explodes the dreary 'must have characters you care about' axiom. Wonder how 2001 would look when checked against the rules propounded by those guys who run weekend courses in screenwriting, for people who want to write films you watch when it's 3.00 am and you can't sleep, and you're pissed.

It is always interesting reading the first reviews of what go on to major literary or film classics. It can tell you not just about the critics, how right or wrong they were, but about the time itself.

Reading some of the reviews at the time, you get the sense the reviewer knows that there is something about 2001 but neither has the language or courage to say how he truly feels. Makes me wonder what films that are coming out today will people still be talking in 50 years time? Always keep an open mind and recognise greatness sometimes exists in that which makes you feel uncomfortable, or causes a visceral reaction, on first viewing, I say.

Some things that stayed with me:

- the appearance of the monolith does not produce some 'ill-defined effect' on the hominids as some said at the time; rather, it inspires them with the idea of using tools to kill other animals, and then themselves. Hardly an 'ill-defined effect', when you consider the consequences of tool-making on mankind, from the enlargement of our brains with the additional protein from the meat, and the increase in both co-operation and conflict -- co-operation that was necessary in hunting, and conflict over scarce resources. The scene in which the two hominid groups fight over the water-hole neatly summarises all these concepts;


- I still recall the whole film vividly helped by all the facets Kubrick brought to bear on my mind, my senses and my imagination and leaving many questions that I still cannot answer. For what it is worth I still find a strong 'religious' (there is something more powerful than we could ever comprehend going on here) theme throughout the film's length. Music, sound and visual imagery can all be seen as religions;

- I once read an interview with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. The band did some wonderful film score work in the late 60s and early 70s, for Antonioni's badly underrated 'Zabriskie Point', for example, or Barbet Schroeder's heroin film 'More' (search for their fantastic 'The Nile Song' and play it as loudly as possible). Supposedly Kubrick asked them if they'd be interested in contributing towards the 'A Clockwork Orange' musical score in some way, but Pink Floyd said no. Years later, post-Pink Floyd's bifurcation, when Roger Waters was still grinding his axe towards Dave Gilmour, Waters - evidently a rather ornery bloke but still rather amusing with it - asked Kubrick for permission to use a sample from HAL's death: "....Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?......Dave?.....I really think I'm entitled to an answer to that question....Dave?.....Stop.....Stop, will you?......Stop, Dave......Will you stop, Dave?.....Stop, Dave....." and Kubrick reciprocated by saying no. Equalled perhaps only by HAL's silent murder of the three sleeping astronauts, which gave me nightmares for weeks;

- 2001 is not narrative cinema in the traditional sense. It's the kind of thing that you just have to let wash over you, the way you would a symphony. As such I can see why it's not for everybody;

- And silence, too: no "whooshing" in space! HAL's killing of Frank Poole is still one of the most chilling film deaths, all the more for the lack of dramatic music. (Hint: look up the planned Alex North score for 2001 on Youtube; North only discovered that Kubrick decided not to use his pieces when he attended the premiere! But they would also have killed the film (IMHO), playing to the action, instead of setting a mood.);

- One of the most telling scene is Dr. Haywood Floyd's moon base briefing. The admission of the use of a cover story, and the preparation and conditioning of the populous that is required. It sounds like a throwaway line, but Kubrick is saying a lot here about power and authority of the 'council'. We are back at the waterhole again, the most powerful apes using not clubs now but public relations techniques to maintain hegemony. Like all his movies it is a damning critique of humanity. But accurate. And ultimately hopeful. And beautiful. It also is responsible for making poor Hal lie,making him malfunction thus causing the deaths of all the astronauts . The technology may have changed, but the essence of what’s between humans and their primate ancestors hasn’t at all. The bone to spaceship scene showed the ascendancy of humans. This is a foil showing its degeneration;

- Some people here have criticized 2001 for being dull. Clearly they’re missing a lot. It’s a film that not just answers what we were and what we are, but what we might become. Say what you want but the film transcends space, time, religion and even death itself. Obviously the film is cryptic but that only means it requires multiple viewings. As Kubrick once said “I spend 10 years making these things, the audience spends two hours. Obviously they’re going to be confused.”;

- Only fault was the elongated kaleidoscope of colours near the end. Yeah, the psychedelic sequence falls flat. I wonder if Kubrick would've done that passage differently a couple of years later. Still, a masterpiece flaws and all. I read the book much later and was as stunned by Clarke's descriptive visualisation of the same passage;

(My own Space Odyssey tetralogy, all of them bought in 1994 at the British Bookshop in Lisbon)


- It’s been one of my favourite film for years; I must have seen it 100 times; I got the big Taschen book box about the making of the film; all those computer screens in the movie? Not computers at all; they did not exist in that form yet, they are tiny projection screens,each with their own little projector, playing little animated films of what they thought computers would show in the future. They even had to figure out how to make the projectors play upside down as the set turned around. Yeah, it’s my favourite film, watching it is what I imagine a religious experience would be like, it’s so awe inspiring and beautiful. This attention to detail hadn’t been seen before, and took a very long time to be seen again. Most youngsters won’t appreciate that these amazing glass cockpits weren’t even on the drawing boards in the 1960s, and TVs were lumbering monochrome CRTs with actual valves/tubes inside (and some transistors, if you had a newer model);

- It really is stunning to see Kubrick’s vision of the future from the 60s. Even iPad Pros on the breakfast table;

- Contains one of my favourite shot in cinema: when Keir Dullea is in the bathroom at the end and hears the sounds of a scraping knife. The camera - his POV - tracks to the door to observe the back of an older man who turns arthritically and reveals himself to be... ...Dullea. The older Dullea rises and shuffles towards us but finds nothing and no-one. The genius of this one deceptively simple sequence is that it changes from POV to a simple framing shot without a cut. 2001 is crammed with these cinematic sleights of hand and even fifty years later remains the benchmark for serious SF cinema. Truly a masterpiece. and as I understand it, in that simple series of shots at the end, Kubrick articulates Einstein's theory of relativity. Bowman lands on Jupiter(?), already aged by the journey through the Stargate, then sees himself as two much older men, co-existing simultaneously, before being returned to orbit planet earth, waiting to be reborn. Time is relative;

- The most interesting element is also the reverse robotization of the human astronauts and the humanisation of HAL. The former, with their very ordinary names of Dave and Frank, are completely devoid of character, emotion and - beyond the dispassionate video calls with family - personal life or sexual identity. HAL is the only true character in the film. As extraordinary events unfold, the journey of the human characters retains a prosaic quality and their behaviour remains coldly functional. Bowman seems totally unaffected by the murder of his crew members. Even his transcendent transformation into the Starchild finds him in a hotel suite. I could never work out if this conceit was supposed to be an almost quasi-Brechtian joke, or signalling a deeper philosophical point;

- What's most extraordinary to me is how a film from 1968 still looks, 50 years later, as modern as it does (with a few exceptions). The technological effort Kubrick went into to get the space hardware 'correct', with so much expert input, means that (skipping over the punched card being printed out for Bowman, BBC 12's jazz intro, and the buttons-instead-of-touch-sensors) you can look at the Discovery scenes now without cringing;

- Flat monitor displays and tablets as well, at a time when TVs were a tad on the rounded side; "Computer" graphics: ALL of which were hand animated! (There were (essentially) no graphics in the mid-60s, bar a few experimental pieces.);

- It's interesting to think that had Kubrick included ANY of the 'normal' scenes of life in 2001 (and he did shoot some highly dodgy Clavius base shots that were thankfully not included), we'd see those now as looking incredibly dated;

Bottom-Line: It is still one of the best SF films, and shows up the paucity of imagination and writing in contemporary SF films. 2001 still stands as beautifully and enigmatically as the black stone monoliths shown throughout it: touchable, watchable but still unknowable giving away little but raising question after question after question...Maybe the best cinematic murder ever, when Dave deactivates HAL 9000.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

quarta-feira, agosto 10, 1994

Theories Galore: "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll



(Original Review, 1994-08-10)


I’ve always interpreted “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as a (modern) Fairytale.

In a way most of modern commercial movies are more like classical fairytales: very elemental stories set in a simplistic moral universe, with stereotypical characters. The movies may seem to be more complex but that is mostly 'effect'. Movies are very good at the dazzle part of the story telling business. Complexity of story: very much less so.

It is an interesting point though: the differences between stories that were only meant to be told and the kind of stories we have invented and/or developed the moment we could write them down. It is, for instance, suggested that the flowery & repeated descriptors in Homer (rose-fingered dawn, wine-coloured sea et cetera) were part aide-memoirs and part moments that the storyteller didn't have to think about the next word. They were, in other words, part of the mechanics/structure of the story. Something that was no longer needed when people could write the stories down.

So, stories from the oral age have, by necessity, a different shape than later stories like Alice’s. Come to think of it, in a way it's similar to watching a movie in a theatre or a DVD at home. In the theatre you can't pause or rewind: you have to follow the 'story' in the moment. Same with oral and written stories. Around the campfire both storyteller and audience are engaged in a live stream event. You can't have your audience interrupting you, asking you to explain who is who again and wasn't X killed by that cyclops or was that Y...? A written story can have more complexity, because readers can take a break. Try to do “Shogun” as an oral story...

Still, fairytales are probably among the first type of story told and lots of modern stories still carry that DNA. Yes, some modern literature has as much in common with fairytales as birds with dinosaurs but they are still related. More to the point, we wouldn't have birds without those dinos. You could argue we wouldn't have either James Clavell or Marcel Proust without those old oral stories (and fairytales) too...

I think we can discount the druggie and Freudian interpretations as modern fantasies*. But otherwise it is clearly satirical at different levels (the boring schoolroom, linguistic philosophy) while alluding to events and places and presumably people in Alice's life. In a way it's the sort of story that we all make up for our children and grandchildren, but cleverer than most.

(*) So here's mine: There is a convincing theory that Carroll emphasized his relations with little girls (which in the Victorian mindset were necessarily innocent and asexual) to distract attention from his numerous relationships with young (20ish) women which the Victorians would have thought improper for a clergyman. So he sends Alice off down a hole and prattles on about her adventures while having it away with Dinah on the surface. Mind you, it’s just a theory…