Flying free future

Sitting here in an airport lounge at LAX watching the planes take off is probably an apt time to contemplate  the way we take for granted  our ability  to travel, to viist other places and to do it quickly, hopping on a plane an being on the other side of the world in less than a day. It is interesting too that, despite damage to the environment  and the fact that the key requirement of air travel – oil – is a finite resource, we do not general question the fact that in 10, 20 or 30 years time we will still be able to jump on a plane and see  the world. Although this ability is a very recent one in historical terms – routine air travel overseas has only been around for 50 or so years in a manner affordable to the average citizen – it is now completely ingrained in our expectations about the world. This does not mean that everyyone has done it, but we all know it is a possibility. Even at the moments when I figure that perhaps oil won’t last for ever, those nagging doubts are replaced buy the thought that technology will have advanced, that we will have found something to replace jet fuel when we need to.

It is interesting then that two of the books I have read this year contemplate a future in which this kind of travel  is no longer routine, and potentially not even possible. In Player One by Douglas Coupland, a sharp sudden oil shock sometime in the approximate present suddenly grounds planes, leaving people stranded. While the cause is not explained, the major change in perspective is considered. Meanwhile in The Windup Girl the future seems to have run out of oil and people travel long distances on boats or dirigibles.

It clearly says something about the strength of environmental concerns that speculative fiction is now considering an energy poor future. In general much of the speculative fiction of the three decades that I have read (and I am not trying to argue that is comprehensive) have seen alternative technologies, often fusion, in the future. Or it hasn’t contemplated energy use. Future fiction, like historical fiction, does however reflect the concerns of the present in which it is created and thus oil shortages and the grounding of planes may become an increasing theme.

What would it be like to not fly routinely again? To find oneself grounded far from home, stranded in a foreign city? How would it be if we couldn’t visit friends or family who live on the other side of the world? What would it do to our cultures and economies to lose that ability? There is plenty of fodder in those ideas for many many works of fiction.

January cultural update

This year began on an island with no internet and plenty of time for reading and DVD watching, so January gets off to a big start.

Books

Player One Douglas Coupland So I read this in no time flat. And mostly really enjoyed it. It was engaging and interesting and entertaining and maintains some of those lovely observations of humanity at which Coupland excels. It also weaved some interesting ideas and themes through the narrative, which were thoughtful. Overall I think I found it more enjoyable than JPod, which while wonderful in parts I found a little too self-indulgent. My main criticism is that, in the final chapter, the book suddenly became preachy and over-determined. I just didn’t think some aspects of it were necessary – it felt like one of those American television programs which can’t leave things implied or at the level of metaphor but has to spell everything out in tedious exposition. Sometimes I think authors just need to trust their readers a little more.

The Ask Sam Lipsyte After travelling to Port Douglas and Brussels to no avail, this book was finally read on Kangaroo Island. It is brittle and clever, funny and repulsive, frustrating and compelling. I think the fact that Milo the central character is not always completely sympathetic adds to the sense of frustration, but it itself mirrors Milo’s own frustrations. It made me laugh out loud and contains some wonderfully sharp and insightful commentary on the current cultural and social condition in Western society. But it does it in a wonderfully absurd and unpreachy kind of way. While it does veer into the absurd, it does capture some things wonderfully well – in particular the relationship between Milo and his son and the randomness of children of that age. Occasionally confronting it is nonetheless well worth the read.

Excession Iain M Banks Part of the on-going project to re-read all the Culture novel.The least dark of his novels (well, at least one of the least), it contemplates the ideas of the ends justifying the means, the nature of conspiracy, personal morality and its consequences and how we deal with the unknown. Fascinating and clever in the way it brings the Minds of the ships to the core of the novel. And surprisingly easy to read on this re-read.

Wishful Drinking Carrie Fisher This auto-biographical story of her life clearly betrays its origins as a stand-up stage show, and I think it would have been helped with a bit more reworking. Its structure is a bit too random for a book and many of the lines would clearly be a lot funnier with the appropriate delivery. I have read Carrie Fisher’s fiction before and she is a better writer than this – it seems like a lazy attempt to rush something into print. It is nonetheless quite a fascinating story, particularly the descriptions of her childhood, and very easy and quick to read. The hard-core Star Wars fan might be a little disappointed though as there isn’t a lot of inside gossip in it for them.

Television

Generation Kill Watched this over a couple of nights and now have the urge to go and watch all the Iraq war films there are out there and write more about them. I might also expand on this elsewhere, however for a start I will say that this was cleverly crafted television which captured the confusion and craziness of the war and which provided an interestingly textured view of the marines involved. Fabulous performances too. It was interesting to see the individual anguish over civilian deaths, but the systemic problems which ensured that these things kept happening. It also showed the frustrations of incompetent leadership. It was interesting to compare it to other combat genre films – it hit many of the traditional combat film tropes, but also expanded on a number of themes which emerged in Vietnam films and beyond. But I think that is a separate post. And for those of you not interested in the finer aspects of the combat genre, Generation Kill also has Alexander Skarsgard! With his shirt off! And he smiles! And we all know the smile of Alexander Skarsgard is a beautiful thing to behold. But he is all serious and thoughtful as the leading character also. So highly recommended if you are at all interested in combat films, the depiction of the Iraq war, or Alexander Skarsgard.

True Blood Season 2 This was a rewatch, done over several nights in a row, which I think was a good option. I think I enjoyed it more this time around. I still think its greatest weakness as a season is that the Bill-Sookie-Eric aspect of the storyline is more a supporting act than the main feature, but this time around I found the Maenad story less annoying. Michelle Forbes is so wonderful in the role and so seductive that you can rather understand how she sucks in a whole town, magical powers or none. And the Jessica parts of the series are an understated delight. The main strength of the season is still the Light of Day Institute parts and Jason’s story, but on rewatching I found it more balanced overall. We could always do with more Eric though. It just made me wish I had season 3 handy to start rewatching, but sadly, this was not the case.

Better off Ted Season 1 So this is very funny. Funny and funny in a clever way. Sometimes a stupid clever way, if you know what I mean. In fact, it is probably the most consistently funny thing I have seen for a long time (Weeds and Modern Family notwithstanding). Its take on corporate advertising and identity is hilarious ( I still want to show the “bosses” one to my staff). The other really cool thing about the show is that, even though the characters could be easily be straight caricatures, the narrative manages to make them well-rounded and genuinely likeable. Even Veronica, the apparently heartless boss. Who Portia de Rossi plays brilliantly. Watched the whole series in about two sittings, so it must be good.

Movies

Black Swan Intense and compelling, its isn’t really “enjoyable” in the normal sense. A fascinating portrait of obsession and psychological imbalance. To me, the over-riding theme would seem to be that what is needed to succeed in an area as intense and obsessional as ballet will also destroy you. Fantastic performance – Natalie Portman is amazing. Although plastic surgery has not been kind to Barbara Hershey, somehow her distorted face fits perfectly with the distortion of her world. She carries off this complex and not entirely sympathetic character well. Overall, not for the faint-hearted.

Atonement The film does something which one most needs a literary adaptation to do – be faithful to the overall feel and intent of the novel, if not scrupulously the same – but I think it goes beyond that and uses the benefits of the film genre to the best purpose to make this a truly wonderful cinematic experience as well. The design is fabulous – the green dress which Cecelia wears is stunning in its colour and texture, while Briony’s white dress is beautiful and captures her youth and lack of understanding. Some of the shots and cinematography is absolutely marvellous too – the long continuous tracking shot through the exquisitely designed Dunkirk shows what cinema at its best is capable of. The film is of course horribly tragic and sad, but it is aesthetically wonderful and, as such, I highly recommend it.

Arlington Road As I may have mentioned before, I love a good suspense thriller. This was not one of those. Poorly paced and at times somewhat boring, a relatively unsympathetic main character was just not helpful either. Tim Robbins was appropriately creepy, but Jeff Bridges really has gone to the Al Pacino School of Overacting. And why didn’t he show any interest at all in the wife. It was unlikely and unbelievable, though it was a little redeemed by the ending and twist (though I did see part of it coming).

Games

Carcassonne While this is hardly a new game, and one that the grown ups of the family have played before, it finally entered our household at Christmas, as something that we thought the small boy members of the family might (eventually) be able to play. It has turned out to be an instant family hit, with even the 4 year old proving quite adept. Using logic and puzzle skills means that everyone can play in a meaningful way, even if their strategy isn’t always flawless. Highly recommended if one is looking for a game one can sit around and play with both the youngest and the eldest members of the family.