Archive for apocalypse

Mission implausible

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2021 by xi'an

I watched two movies with the same starting point, namely an old man being forced to take care of an unknown girl, despite his lack of fatherhood experience and no initial inclination to do so, while later defying odds and surviving together… One is News of the World (absurdly translated as The Mission in French, hence my poor pun) with Tom Hanks and (fabulous!) Helena Zengel, the other is Midnight Sky, with the improved French title of Midnight in the Universe, with George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall. The first one is a (modern) Western, set in Texas right after the Civil War and sometimes presented as a modern (and over-washed) version of Ford’s The Searchers, while the second one is an ecological science-fiction film, set in 2049, as the Earth is collapsing under an unspecified but all encompassing disaster. The first is passable if implausible, the second one is a disaster at all levels.

In News of the World Tom Hanks is again doing his Jimmy Stewart impersonation, always doing the “right” thing even when this is rather implausible. The fact that no-one seems to care that a stranger goes away with a young girl may be plausible in the late 1800’s Texas, although I am surprised none of the very few women in the story, one of them the girl’s own aunt, does even object. On the other hand, the motive for the compulsory gun duel sounds very weak if darker than the rest of the story (and is there any chance a shotgun cartridge filled by coins (of the right diameter!) can fly true to its target?!) The choice of depicting Kiowa Indians as silent spectres walking away may be artistically motivated but it does not carry much weight, just like Hank in the movie is not making much progress in denunciation of slavery and genocide, besides keeping his own decency.

In Midnight Sky, George Clooney is a grumpy old scientist stuck in a Far North observatory, in terminal phase of a blood disease and who is gradually revealed as having always failed on the personal relation side. [Anyone wondering at the scientific pertinence of the presence of a most traditional observatory [incl. manual orienteering] at this latitude? Although I found that Canada has recently set an observatory on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut.] As Earth is collapsing under deadly radiation, Clooney finds himself alone until he discovers a little girl conveniently left behind during the evacuation of the station. As a space ship is returning to Earth, unaware of the disaster, the pair sets on an impossible mission to reach a better communication station. first on a snowmobile, then on foot!, with no goggles and a woolen hat in a snow storm!, just to make sure we can recognise Clooney!, while the disaster that see the pair stranded with only their clothes on a frozen tundra makes no sense. For instance, falling into Arctic water has a very low survival probability, esp. for a a sick and old man. And the part taking place on the very-low-tech space ship is light-years away from anything remotely realistic. Ending up (spoiler!) with the ship turning back to this habitable moon of Jupiter as if this would make any difference… Have a safe trip!

FALL [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2019 by xi'an

The “last” book I took with me to Japan is Neal Stephenson’s FALL. With subtitle “Dodge in Hell”. It shares some characters with REAMDE but nothing prevents reading it independently as a single volume. Or not reading it at all! I am rather disappointed by the book and hence  sorry I had to carry it throughout Japan and back. And slightly X’ed at Nature writing such a positive review. And at The Guardian. (There is a theme there, as I took REAMDE for a trip to India with a similar feeling at the end. Maybe the sheer weight of the book is pulling my morale down…) The most important common feature to both books is the game industry, since the main (?) character is a game company manager, who is wealthy enough to ensure the rest of the story holds some financial likelihood. And whose training as a game designer impacts the construction of the afterlife that takes a good (or rather terrible) half of the heavy volume. The long minutes leading to his untimely death are also excruciatingly rendered (with none of the experimental nature of Leopold Bloom’s morning). With the side information that Dodge suffers from ocular migraine, a nuisance that visits me pretty regularly since my teenage years! The scientific aspects of the story are not particularly exciting either, since the core concept is that by registering the entire neuronal network of the brain of individuals after their death, a computer could revive them by simulating this network. With dead people keeping their personality if very little of their memories. And even more fanciful, interacting between them and producing a signal that can be understood by (living) humans. Despite having no sensory organs. The reconstruction of a world by the simulated NNs is unbearably slow and frankly uninteresting as it reproduces both living behaviours and borrows very heavily from the great myths, mostly Greek, with no discernible depth. The living side of the story is not much better, although with a little touch of the post-apocalyptic flavour I appreciated in Stephenson. But not enough to recover from the fall.

Among other things that set me off with the book, the complete lack of connection with the massive challenges currently facing humanity. Energy crisis? climate change? Nope. Keep taking an hydroplane to get from Seattle to islands on Puget Sound? Sure. Spending abyssal amounts of energy to animate this electronic Hades? By all means. More and more brittle democracies? Who cares, the Afterworld is a pantheon where gods clash and rule lower beings. Worse, the plot never reaches beyond America, from the heavily focused philosophical or religious background to the character life trajectories. Characters are surprisingly unidimensional, with no default until they become evil. Or die. Academics are not even unidimensional. For instance Sophie’s thesis defence is at best a chat in a café… And talks at a specialist workshop switch from impressive mathematical terms to a 3D representation of the activity of the simulated neuronal networks. Whille these few individuals keep impacting the whole World for their whole life. And beyond… By comparison, the Riverworld series of Phillip José Farmer (that I read forty years ago) is much more enjoyable as a tale of the Afterworld, even if one can object at “famous” people been central to the action. At least there are more of them and, judging from their (first) life, they may have interesting and innovative to say.