Thursday, September 7, 2017
Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Sunday, August 13, 2017
Valerian as Espionage
It is not by accident that we chose this poster as an illustration. Unlike much of the publicity for the Besson film, it conveys a richness of character and diversity that better corresponds to the story than the images that focus only on the characters of Valerian and Laureline in an uncharacteristically threatening pose.
Like Besson's earlier sci fi classic, The Fifth Element, this movie has generated heated controversy between its proponents and a large body of detractors who have, we feel, misunderstood and hence misjudged the film as an art work. The primary reason for this split is probably because Valerian demands the viewer's attention to a degree that is uncommon today. With most action films, a spectator can run for a pee-pee break or stand in the popcorn line for a few minutes without missing too much, since a few explosions more or less will not vary the plot line, nor will omitting several iterations of "Go! Go! Now!" change the impressions of a character. Not so for Valerian. The action is non-stop, but the events are also tightly interwoven. This is because it is more than a science fiction action film. It is also, fundamentally, a spy film.
We are probably more sensitive to this spy designation because our own second novel in the Forlani Sage, Spy Station, is also centered on espionage. Espionage always demands mystery more than direct confrontation. Another word for spy is secret agent, so espionage presumes secrecy. Valerian and Laureline are not truly military personnel, but intelligence operatives. Their primary mission is to retrieve a stolen generator organism. To perform it, they must employ disguise, deception, and cunning, rather than just blasting their way into an enemy base and destroying it. Of course, as with any espionage, there is always collateral damage. But the point is to minimize direct confrontation so as to complete the mission: slip in undetected, snatch the object, escape as intact as possible.
Of course, there are lots of fancy accessories. Just as James Bond has his specially equipped spy cars and his Walther PPK, Valerian and Laureline have morphing body armor and impressive sidearms. Like those subject to JamesBondage, sci fi fans sometimes put undue emphasis on these technical gadgets to the detriment of story line and character (a classic example that pokes fun at fan obsessions is the wonderful parody Galaxy Quest). However, the discerning spectator needs to avoid excessive concentration on details in order to keep the overall operation in focus -- one needs to see the forest as well as the trees. It is essential to "follow the money," or in this case, the predicament of the Pearls and their last surviving pet generator beast. This is what all the critics and viewers who complain that Valerian is "hard to follow" have failed to do.
Another complication in this confusion is that this film departs from the usual trends of military sci fi, since it is the military that has caused the problem and that ultimately poses the greatest threat to the survival of The City of a Thousand Planets, Space Station Alpha. It is important to remember that the Pearls' home world is ravaged as collateral damage in a military engagement that they have no part in. It is the human space rangers who are responsible for the very radiation that threatens Alpha, since they turned the Pearls into galactic refugees. For their part, the Pearls do not envision any threat to the other species on the station and take great pains to "slime" their opponents rather than killing them when they have the chance. The danger lies in the military chain of command (the backbone of much military sci fi), while salvation eventually requires the space rangers to essentially mutiny in support of "humanitarian" ends (how strange that phrase sounds in the face of an interplanetary, interspecies reality that we all may have to face sooner than we imagine). The Space Cadets in the audience will always have trouble accepting a conflict where the military is at fault, just as war buffs cannot help finding issues with Platoon. All the more so when the smarter of the spy pair is -- unforgivably for some -- a woman.
For anyone who has made their way through one of John le Carre's contorted spy tales, Valerian is not truly that hard to follow. In many ways, it can be compared to one of the cinematic adaptations of Fleming's Bond stories, though in this case the spies have to navigate the interdimensional Big Market instead of the canals of Venice, deal with slinky females who can shape shift, and avoid an enforcer who looks like Ghostbusters' Zool and tears apart space ships instead of just throwing an iron hat. It is a travelogue where the viewer is zipped through space and time as well as mere geography. In fact, this is cleverly underlined by Besson in the Big Market sequence when a couple of kitsch-collecting American tourists provide a humorous homage to Sheriff J. W. Pepper on vacation in The Man With the Golden Gun. It can be said that Valerian is, in typically French fashion, very intertextual as well as interdimensional. Very nouveau roman!
In some ways, Valerian and Laureline are unlike Bond in that they are super-conscious of their role as secret agents and the human price they pay to do their jobs. They are closer to the realm of George Smiley. Their courageous friend Bubbles, done to surprising perfection by Rihanna, belongs more with the endearing figures in Smiley's People than the tinsel superficiality of the Bond Girls. Laureline, who is, we must remember, an "old-fashioned girl" from the Middle Ages in her comic strip genesis, forces Valerian to renounce his philandering ways as a tombeur de filles to an extent that Bond, even in On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Casino Royale (sic), never has to endure. How appropriate, since Laureline is never a fille but a fully conscious and unrepentant woman.
The espionage plot in Valerian unfolds in stages, as most spy intrigues must. On the surface, things begin with what appears to be a simple caper, recovering an object of dubious legitimacy. Casino Royale begins as an attempt to recover money embezzled by a labor official, Dr. No with the disappearance of a bird watcher, Goldfinger with a vacationer cheating at gin rummy. There is always more going on than is apparent, a seemingly sinister organization at work, many levels of things being covered up. There are obligatory escape sequences that have to introduce surprise after surprise, preferably contrasting extremely bizarre elements with others that are mundane and ironically comical. There is spycraft and the inevitable awkwardness of dealing with superiors who always demand more than is reasonable and reveal less than is necessary. In Valerian there is even the arch-enemy, the mole in the system who has a personal agenda that is counter to the general welfare.
We will return to Valerian in a future post to deal with some further issues of characterization. We hope that this discussion of the "spy side" of the movie will cause people to return and review it with a fresh perspective. Clearly, it is a film that, like The Fifth Element is destined not just for cult popularity, but ultimately for a classic status.
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Countdown Sale on Amazon UK!
Can a renegade political prisoner and an alien pleasure worker find happiness and meaning while threatened by sinister human corporations, giant parasitic locusts, and rampaging viking octopi? Klein, who reads Faulkner and makes love to music by Schumann, is not your average rocket jock. Entara, who can have up to six babies at a time and becomes the most famous singer on her home world, is not your average call girl. Add in a pacifist organic farmer who buries bodies under his cucumbers, an Iranian nuclear tech who cuts hair for a living, a chatty raccoon-like doctor who can put Humpty-Dumpty together again and creatures that can transmit racial memory through touch telepathy and you have just a sample of the wild characters in Life Sentence.
We will be having a Kindle Countdown Sale on Amazon UK that runs from August 8-15. On the first three days, you can order our exciting science fiction adventure for the lowest possible price, but hurry, because after three days, it rises by one pound, but is still a great bargain for the rest of the sale. Just go to : https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MCUIHXY
Saturday, July 1, 2017
Another Close Call for our World
We're just back from a wonderful cruise along the the Norwegian coast on the Hurtigruten Line's MS Nordnorge. As we docked briefly at Risoyhavn on the Vesteralen island of Andoya, we learned about a scary and unlikely incident back in 1995.
Andoya is home to Norway's modest space program, which is located on the seaward side of the island. Therefore, sailing up the coastal channel, we did not see it, but only the mountains between it and us.
Launches at Andoya are strictly scientific and employ Black Brant missile systems. Most of the research focuses on Arctic phenomena, such as the aurora borealis and its relationship to the magnetosphere.
Such was the 1995 mission that almost led to a global nuclear conflict. A missile aimed at the Norwegian far-north archipelago of Svalbard unfortunately assumed a course and a radar profile similar to that which would be produced by a US Trident nuclear-tipped missile launched from one of the numerous submarines we maintain in Arctic waters close to Russia.
The incident only lasted ten minutes until the Russian military was able to determine that this was not a first strike against their country. Nevertheless, their version of the Nuclear Briefcase was brought to President Boris Yeltsin and a retaliatory strike was being organized when the stand-down was given. You see, there is not much time to think, since it would take an American sub-launched missile only ten minutes to reach Moscow. This was at least the second time that cool-headedness on the Russian side saved the planet from an apocalyptic war, the previous time being a 1983 incident that is still not completely explained in a convincing manner.
When the several thousand natives of Andoya learned of this after the fact, they were astonished their little municipality could have such far-reaching influence. They celebrated the big misunderstanding with a droll Norsk sense of humor by printing up a batch of t-shirts inscribed with the message "We Started World War III!"
Thursday, June 8, 2017
Cephalopods and the Forlani Universe
One of our new UK friends, S. e. Murphy, recently asked on Facebook why we have cephalopods playing an important part in our Forlani novels. First of all, the word cephalopod may seem strange, but they are creatures almost everyone is familiar with: octopi, cuttlefish, squids, and nautili. As mollusks, they are a very ancient life form, having emerged and dominated the Earth's seas long before most life was crawling up on land. Like the nautilus, ancient cephalopods had an external shell, which modern octopi and other members of the family have lost, although they still have a small internal remnant of the old shells. Unlike the modern nautilus, ancient cephalopods, such as the ammonites in the picture, could be huge. They were a dominant, alpha species in their watery environment and ruled the planetary seas. Perhaps, if extinction events on Earth had happened differently, they might still be here today.
Modern cephalopods often show extreme intelligence for such a "primitive" animal. Octopi and others have well-developed senses and surprising problem-solving ability. They can squeeze themselves through tiny holes to get to new places. Moreover, they are skillful stalkers and hunters, able to outwit their prey. Their color-changing powers, linked to a complex range of emotions, can be used to express messages to others of their kind or to camouflage themselves almost instantly against enemies. Who knows whether, if environments on Earth had allowed them to continue developing over hundreds of millions of years after the great ammonites became extinct, octopus intelligence might not have developed far beyond our current human limits?
In some ways, it might seem that cephalopods might be evolutionarily blocked by living in the sea, but there is absolutely no necessity for this. Several years ago, we viewed a television program where scientists and artists proposed various types of amazing alien life that might exist in the cosmos, and one of them was a huge, intelligent, land-roving octopus. Wait a minute, you might object, how could they come up on land? It's true existing cephalopods don't have lungs, but consider whether they might be able to develop bladder-like organs that could store enough oxygenated water to allow them to start exploring the land. After all, the opposite has happened in the case of our oceans' present intelligence champions, the marine mammals. The ancestors of whales, dolphins, walruses, and other marine mammals were once four-footed, fur-bearing coastal mammals that ventured into the tides to search for their food, slowly and gradually developing the ability to live in the sea for long periods of time. Need more proof? Darwin discovered it in the Galopagos, where in relatively recent geological time, land-dwelling iguanas evolved to become comfortable in the sea and dependent on it for survival. On another world, given time and luck, cephalopods could adapt to land, at least on a part-time basis.
That is how we arrive at the Song Pai, the space-worthy cephalopods of the Forlani universe. we postulate a world where cephalopods develop in size, intelligence, and power to an advanced point. Their planet, Song Pa, had an older, land-based dominant life form which unfortunately destroyed itself through reckless genetic engineering. This left the stage open for the emergence of the cephalopods and their inheritance of the vacant lands that were still loaded with the technological lore of the Ancient Ones. Earthly octopi are notoriously opportunistic, and the Song Pai are likewise. They master the engineering of their hapless forerunners and, like them, move on into space.
Our Song Pai share many characteristics of existing terran octopi. Above all, they are aggressive and competitive. Think of them as viking squids. Yet they are fiercely protective of the newly hatched. The Song Pai life cycle has several stages, from cherished hatchling to dog-eat-dog adolescence through adult adaptation to a strict hierarchical order. We also postulate that the Song Pai would face a problem common to all alpha species -- overpopulation. Their solution is to restrict breeding so that only the bravest are allowed to reproduce, albeit posthumously! By proving its valor in kamakazi-like space battles, a Song Pai warrior, its eggs and sperm cryogenically preserved on the home world, is given the honor of having them released in the hatcheries and passing on its genes. Life and death exist together in a unique set of priorities that make Song Pai a fascinating type of creature, capable of many, many types of actions and reactions
The Song Pai are introduced in Life Sentence as allies and protectors of the female-dominated, quasi-marsupial Forlani. The "squids" honor the Forlani because of their common devotion to generation and the ongoing life force. Notably, they protect the Forlani from humans, who long to exploit them and their planet. The human convict Klein, protagonist of the first volume, develops an irresistible urge for revenge against the haughty cephalopods because of a personal matter, and it is exacerbated by a period of slave-like labor in their service. In the second novel, Spy Station, due out later this year, Song Pai reappear at a peace conference on Space Station Varess, where an assembly of aliens has been convened to prevent a war between Song Pai and a mysterious and powerful race called the Blynthians. The Song Pai's aggressiveness threatens to make Entara's peace initiative fail. Even worse, a number of secret agents employed by potential war profiteers stretches the alliance with the Forlani to the breaking point, but also leads to the discovery of new and unexpected qualities in the cephalopods. Introduce yourself to them by getting Life Sentence on Amazon and stay tuned for the upcoming release of Spy Station. Follow this blog to stay in the know.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Star Wars and the Election of 2016
People of many persuasions are scratching their heads to explain what happened last fall in the presidential popularity contest, but they are overlooking many factors, perhaps because they are too rooted in the past to see into the future. They say soldiers are always trying to fight the LAST war instead of the one they are in, so why not consider a different type of war to explain what happened? A Star War!
Let's take as a starting point that by the time Hillary Clinton faced up against Donald Trump in November, she had already lost. She lost a long time before she started running against the Donald. In fact, it was obvious that she had lost at her party's nominating convention, and actually some time before that. Oh, she could in fact have beaten Trump, but she had already made decisions that rendered that impossible when she and her staff and her DNC friends so badly underestimated what was happening to the only other campaign in town, that of Bernie Sanders.
Hillary's brand of candidacy was set in stone before the primaries began (and in fact remains in force among the DNC establishment): she was going to sweep the female vote and the minority vote even more effectively than Obama had done, and she was going to raise humongous sums of money to blow away any Republican opposition. She took the second half of this strategy to such a point that she not only raised more than she needed for 2016, but was already piling up cash and promises for 2020. It was a done deal -- how could she lose?
Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, another candidate believed in something other than electoral technology. Remember, Hillary was essentially running from Coruscant. New Yorkers seemed not to care that she did little for them in the Senate but run for higher office. Eh! That had happened before. Wall Street didn't give a rat's derriere what had happened in Benghazi or Kiev, or anywhere else as long as it didn't disturb their balance sheets. In fact, there was always somebody poised to make money over another little war. And as for the Times, they loved her cuddly relationship with Netanyahu and were prepared to blame any misfortunes on the Putins and Xis of the world.
On the other hand, here was this character running from Tatooine. Vermont, the pits of the United States in political terms: small, remote, sparsely populated, and poor. And their champion a geezer who looked even older than Clinton and whose only power seemed to be "an elegant weapon from a more civilized age," rewarmed Cold War non-communist socialism. For heaven's sake, nobody even remembered that old saw -- those old crackpots had been subverted and replaced by the Blairs and Hollandes and Merkels. Or had they? Among the youth of the USA, Sanders' sensible socialism slashed like a light sabre. They were a generation whose future had been sold out, forsaken, beguiled by the promises of a "sharing economy" that they were quick to realize was no more than a new kind of wage slavery without rights, unions, or pensions. They had grown up with fifteen-year wars that were going nowhere, crusades against all sorts of invisible enemies and evaporated paradises. They were willing to believe in a Force and still are.
Hillary was confident she could prevail. She and her husband had run Democratic Conventions before, and thanks to that heritage, she possessed the Death Star of party politics -- the superdelegates who could un-vote any challenge. Trump even made things so much easier, because how could Sanders refuse to submit with such an awful alternative confronting the nation? But she just didn't get it. Sanders knew deep down that he was probably going to lose, but he knew what he had to do to at least offer some future to the kids who were willing to try something new. What was it Obi-wan said to Darth at the end of their duel? "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." Hillary never realized that she could not win because she had always already discounted Sanders and his rebels. She refused to admit her weak points, and there was not just one exhaust port that was not adequately shielded against ALL attacks.
Of course, the struggle is far from over. In this galaxy, the Death Star of the two-party monopoly was never destroyed; in fact, it was barely damaged. The Sanderistas will have to count on some rough moments ahead. There will be more than one rout at Hoth to deal with. Yet this rebellion seems to have a lot of room to grow, as fewer and fewer of the youth accept the barrage of propaganda that is served up about the economy, foreign affairs, acceptable morality, or other chapters of the Prosperity Gospel that is forced on them. Science fiction is speculation par excellence, but then again, so is politics, as anyone who ever doubted that we would be ruled by an orange-haired clown other than Bozo or Ronald McDonald can attest. Reality may turn out to be stranger than science fiction.