Sunday, 28 April 2013

Oblivious


So I managed to get myself down to our mini-maxiplex, and catch up with something I missed...

(there will be spoilers to follow. REALLY MASSIVE PLEASURE KILLING SPOILERS. You have been warned!)


Friday, 26 April 2013

Thorn!

The letter Thorn. Or Þorn.
Which is probably why
nobody uses it any more.
I put something odd in my new book way back when I was writing the first draft, and forgot to check whether or not it works when you look at it on a Kindle. And joy of joys - it does!

May I introduce... the letter Thorn!

You see, the English language has a long and messy history, both in its spoken and written versions. The alphabet we know, love, and wish-we-could-get-that-damn-song-out-of-our-heads used to be somewhat different. W, for instance, used to be printed thus: VV. Because V is latin for U, and hence... double-U. Plus the letter S was printed in two forms: the short S that we still use, and the long S, printed like this: ſ. This of course leads to all sorts of hilarious moments in Terry Pratchett novels whenever words like Press appear as Preſs. It also leads to the modern German letter ß, which is just a compression of ſs.

Most of our current alphabet descends from the Latin script, but Thorn comes from Old English runes, along with the letter Wynn (Ƿ). Thorn is the Th sound that we still use today, either as in 'Thunder' or as in 'The'. It fell out of use back in the fourteenth century, replaced by Th in one case, and occasionally by Y in the other (hence Ye Olde English etc). It's still used in Icelandic, one of a magnificent 30 letters in an alphabet used by about 320,000 native speakers. (Norwegians, meanwhile, have to put up with having only 29 letters. Which is a good excuse to link to this).

But the most important thing here is that I can use it in my book without worrying that it'll come out looking like some kind of machine gobbledigook. Result!

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Things I Learned While Researching: Kriegsspiel

"You have sunk my battleship, your majesty."
(I write novels and make films, so I have to do a bit of research every now and again. And sometimes I stumble across Very Interesting Things. So here's one of them!)

Georg Leopold von Reisswitz was not your typical wargamer.

He never applied paint to an orc or a space marine. He never spent pizza-fuelled weekends conquering distant parts of the universe. Nor did he ever step foot inside Games Workshop. But he laid the groundwork for all these pastimes, because he designed one of the first wargames in history, if not the first.

And he wasn't doing it because he wanted to escape from reality, or prove that he was a military genius despite never having been anywhere near a serviceable firearm. He knew how to fight, and how to lead men in battle. He was a Prussian officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century.

(Anyone who doesn't know where or what Prussia was is in sore need of a history lesson. It was in eastern Germany, had Berlin as its capital, and held a lot of very bad farming country in what is now Poland. Their aristocracy, known as 'Junkers', lived in constant fear of a peasant uprising and developed their military to a frightening degree in order to defend themselves against it. That military made them big players in 19th century Europe - and eventually the core of the German state that Bismarck created. The downside is that the military culture became way too important, helping set the stage for all the horrible things that happened in the 20th century. But I digress...)

Kriegsspiel - literally 'wargame' - was intended not as a harmless diversion but as a tool to train officers. In peacetime, it's really rather difficult to give officers a way to learn how battles actually work, because it's hard to simulate the chaos and unpredictability of combat.

Soldiers can't run away when their feet are glued to a board.
Firstly, Reisswitz designed maps without hexes or squares, so that units could move much as they would in real life. This was no stylised game like chess: if you order a unit of dragoons to advance 50 paces NNE, then that's what they'll do.

Secondly, Reisswitz removed the random element. Kriegsspiel does not use dice. Instead, there is an umpire who is independent from the players and adjudicates the results, with the aid of various tables provided with the rules.

Thirdly - and here's where it gets really interesting - there isn't a single board. There are at least three.

Each player gets their own map/board, on which they have to keep track of troop movements themselves. The umpire holds the correct, accurate board - and only tells the players of troop movements they would be aware of if they were a commander in the field. The players have to send out  scouts if they want to find anything out - but if a scout is captured by the enemy, they may never know what's over the next hill until it's too late. This restriction of perspective is really the most important aspect when it comes to training: the players have to learn how to deal with the limitations that a commander would face in reality.

By a combination of good networking and even better luck, Reisswitz managed to get the game in front of the Prussian king, who played it along with some of his generals. They spotted the potential straight away. You'd think Reisswitz would be made for life - but while he may have been entirely unlike most wargamers, he did live up to the stereotype in one way. His social skills were... not that great. And there was one aspect of military prowess he couldn't train for with Kriegsspiel. The one most important to a peacetime staff officer: politics.

Jealousy and resistance within the army meant that Kriegsspiel was not used as much as it could have been, and Reisswitz eventually committed suicide in despair. His son picked up where he left off, and kept it alive until it was discovered up by Bismarck-era strategists, before eventually being forgotten until the 1980s. While it can't compare in popularity to anything from Games Workshop, it enjoys a keen fanbase, and can be bought from a company with an amusing name.

For more information, check out kriegsspiel.org.uk.

(Note: there are other games with similar names, but they aren't Kriegsspiel. If in doubt, remember that Kriegssiel has two s's)

(and if anyone ever finds or makes an online version, let me know. Also if Sid Meier ever updates Gettysburg!, which I've just realised was a pretty good RTS implementation of many of the basic ideas)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Saturday, 6 April 2013

I used to like trains...

National Rail (Rest of UK)
On some tracks you can go both ways at once.
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am convinced that nationalrail.co.uk is a gateway to a parallel universe.

I don’t mean one where the trains run on time and the tube never goes on strike. These are mundane concerns. No, the strange new world I perceived as I booked tickets a week ago was one where the geography of Britain was rearranged into a layout that only the most heavily medicated among us could possibly have imagined.

For example, it suddenly became imperative to use Fenchurch Street station if you wished to travel to Southend Victoria. As anyone who understands the geography of south-east Essex knows, the best station to use is Paddington, which heads in the opposite direction. But I’m only joking; no, of course, you take Liverpool Street, which conducts you a safe distance to the north of the Thames before diving back down towards Southend, thus avoiding most of Southend itself. Such things are common sense, surely?

I also found it suggested that perhaps the best way to travel south to London from the Midlands was to stand on a platform at Rugby for about an hour while a number of other trains passed by going in the right direction and presumably only stopped with their doors open to lure unsuspecting travellers to a mysterious future in Milton Keynes. Given that the train station in Rugby is approximately a squillion miles from the town centre but very handy for the cement works, I declined the website’s suggestion of a stay there.

What other strange geographical traps exist in this other universe? Is there a station under the Severn where locomotives from Arriva Trains Wales and First Great Western re-enact the rising of Owain Glyndŵr? Do SNCF trains sneak across the Channel Tunnel at night to drink wine and laugh at their slowcoach English brethren? Are apostate CrossCountry trains hunted by their former co-religionists from Virgin Trains to be sacrificed to Richard Branson? Is Dr. Beeching chased along the tracks at night by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, vampire hunter? Are there copies of Metro on the seats that contain news of vital importance to the day’s current affairs?

Or should National Rail get their algorithms sorted out? Yes. Probably they should.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Building an Alien Invasion Part 1

It’s the most basic terror that science fiction can provide – not only are there aliens out there, but they want what’s ours and will stop at nothing to get it. Alien Invasion stories are a staple of the genre, but they’re often undermined by the failure of the writers to do some basic preparation before they begin – such as understanding the laws of physics. Or biology. Or economics. Or common sense…

So I’m going to go over a few of the major problems and suggest solutions writers could use when building an invasion – solutions that are less about an excuse for cool CGI, and more about writing a compelling and surprising story.


PROBLEM ONE: THE DISTANCE
Voyager 1. Top speed: 0.0056% lightspeed.
The first major problem is that it’s an unimaginable distance to even the nearest stars. At our present level of technology, it’s taken us 34 years just to get a probe out to the edge of our solar system – 0.18% of a light year. The nearest star is 4.2 light years away. It’s not a journey we’re likely to be making soon. Alien invaders will have to overcome exactly the same problem, probably magnified because they’re unlikely to come from the very nearest star. So here’s some solutions…

SCIENCE-Y SOLUTIONS


SCIENCE-Y SOLUTIONS

Very Fast Ships
Project Orion: Nuuuukes iiiin Spaaaace!
Travel time to the nearby stars would take many thousands of years at present speeds, but a decent amount of technological advance might bring that down to a hundred years or less – something doable in a human (or alien) lifetime. It’s still a very long journey if you’re launching an invasion, though – if you assume that an invasion has to have some kind of political support back home, is that going to last for decades? Would radio signals reach the invasion fleet halfway to their goal, recalling them because their homeworld has had a massive social revolution? And of course, we’re still only talking about the nearest stars, a mere handful of light years away and unlikely to be inhabited, so longer journeys from the vast bulk of the galaxy might not be worth considering.

Once you reach truly fast speeds, though, another factor comes into play which makes the journey a little more possible: relativistic time dilation. As anyone who’s read Einstein’s papers (or, more likely, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War) will know, time travels differently depending on how fast you’re moving. A ship travelling at a significant percentage of lightspeed might take five hundred years to make a journey, but the people on board might only perceive it as five years. The invaders might be fresh and ready for the fight, but everyone they ever knew at home will probably be dead. Maybe they've had to abandon their own world – which actually works quite well if they’re coming to stay and have no interest in returning home.

Generation ships/Hibernation
Asteroid Ship. A nice place to bring up ten generations
of your descendants before they fall upon the enemy.
On a really long journey (far beyond human or alien lifespans), there are two obvious ways to keep the inhabitants going: either they don’t age in some kind of suspended animation, or they do grow old and die, but their descendants keep running the ship and will be the ones to conduct the invasion at the end of the journey. If they’re in suspended animation, then they’ll likely be up and ready for the invasion, unless there have been some problems along the way like losing all their personalities in a computer failure, which could create extremely confused and unpredictable invaders (as in Douglas Adam’s Mostly Harmless). If the invaders have come on a generation ship, they may have tired of the whole purpose of the journey somewhere along the way – or they may have become religious fanatics even more insanely dedicated to wiping us out. Indeed, they might not even have started out as invaders in the first place.

Essentially, the point is: no matter what you do to alleviate the effects of a long journey, humans (and aliens) might not be the same once they reach their destination, leading to a certain unpredictability that can make things interesting.

Time Perception
Minimum travel time, end to end: 100,000 years.
Enough time to get really good at Scrabble.
But why restrict ourselves to invasions from beings quite so similar to us? Humans have evolved (and are still evolving) to meet the demands of our environment. Might not space travelling aliens adapt to the requirements of a spacefaring life? Including, most importantly, the vast gulfs of time that space journeys require?

These kinds of aliens are likely to be vastly more advanced than us, and may not be biological at all, meaning they may have vastly greater control of not only their bodies but their minds. If there’s any kind of life to be had in space, then adjusting time perception so that they can experience long journeys in the blink of an eye will be a vital adaptation. Or maybe they are simply capable of enduring the boredom without going mad or changing into something completely different along the way.

Of course, this level of advancement will put them so far beyond us that they might not have any interest in planets, let alone the antlike beings on the surface of a little blue-green world. Or they may see us much as we look at a farm on our world: something to be managed lest some dangerous growth gets out of control. They might decide that our whole biosphere needs pruning, or that we simply need to be removed and placed somewhere else. It all depends on their perspective, and the trick here is figuring out exactly how a vast alien intelligence will think. A difficult choice, but perhaps a refreshing one.

Long Distance Communications
Very Large Array: we're hoping the aliens don't use cable.
Of course, there’s one thing we do that already travels at the maximum speed of the universe: radio. Our signals have travelled more than 100 lightyears out into the galaxy, and (though very faint) will continue to travel on, possibly alerting aliens to our presence, and, as time goes on, providing a vast wealth of information about us.

What if their ‘invasion’ is one not of military might, but of information? We can’t expect them to link to the internet and hack our systems directly if they’re transmitting at the same speed as us, but human systems can be hacked in other ways: by ideas. Carl Sagan’s Contact shows what happens when a benevolent elder race sends us a package of information to give us a technological boost. Sagan, however, was an optimist; what might a malevolent alien race send us?

The first temptation is to say reality TV, but (if I’m serious for a moment), the aliens wouldn’t be able to respond adequately to our own culture without being laughed at – they’d be years, decades or even centuries out of date. So they have to send something that can destabilise our world without much reference to our own transmissions. But that can be surprisingly easy; on our own world, we’ve seen stone age societies disrupted by the cargoes transported to distant Pacific islands during World War 2. If similarly advanced cargoes of information were dumped on us, these too could disrupt our world – maybe causing wars, maybe making us dependent on their transmissions for continued survival, maybe lying to us about what to expect from galactic society so we’re unprepared for the real invasion. Ideas themselves can be very dangerous sometimes…


FICTION-Y SOLUTIONS

Faster Than Light Travel
How to make FTL boring.
The main purpose of FTL in fiction is to turn interstellar travel into an analogue of either sea or air travel on Earth – something we can understand and cope with. Planets then become distant lands across the sea rather than strange unknown worlds, and it seems possible to walk around on any of them without instantly dying from the lack of breathable atmosphere. In other words, it gives us a way to ignore how different alien worlds, species and cultures are likely to be; alien invaders become more like foreigners from our own world - weird but understandable.

That’s fine if you just want a way to get the aliens from A to B and don’t much care how they do it. But it can be a bit dull just to wave a wand and say ‘hyperspace’ or ‘warp drive’ or whatever: that's essentially magic. FTL should have a cost, and it's the cost that can make it interesting. One obvious example is the folding of space in Dune, where interstellar travel is accomplished with the help of the drug Spice, which makes the navigator prescient and thus able to operate the hideously complex systems that actually fold space; the enormous value of Spice then drives interstellar conflict. Or another example, from Iain M Banks' Culture series: FTL travel has long become routine to the point where no-one particularly thinks about it, but there's still a basic rule: the size of the engine you use has a direct effect on the speed a ship can travel. This then becomes a critical point in the plot of Excession as one particular ship races to prevent two invasions threatening the Culture at the same time. Or what if the systems that travel between the stars are somehow biological, and the invaders have either harnessed them somehow, or perhaps are living within them? Maybe such a lifeform would want to pause in our solar system to feed – most likely on something manageable like an asteroid or a comet, but this could then present an opportunity for the aliens living on them to make forays against us.

So when you're building an FTL system, bear in mind a simple principle: nothing in this universe comes for free. Sometimes it might seem as though it does, but there are always hidden costs somewhere...

Instantaneous Travel
Also a bit dull.
Another way to avoid the problem of distance altogether is literally to avoid the problem of distance altogether - by connecting two parts of the universe with a portal that lets you travel from one to another with minimal effort. Maybe you're piloting a ship through a wormhole, or perhaps simply walking between two rooms that actually exist in different star systems - either way, you're making life easy for the aliens.

Much of how an invasion using this system would go really depends on how you set up the rules of how the system works. Can invaders just turn up in the middle of London with no warning, or must they engineer a wormhole that manifests somewhere in the solar system and forces them to use some kind of basic space travel as well? If the former, then some of the reasons for invasion that are usually absurd suddenly become viable – a need for planets to colonise, for example. Because if you can travel from planet to planet without the trouble of going into space, then you’d probably wouldn’t bother with space travel at all.

And this leads to more interesting possibilities. It could mean a vastly skewed technological approach, especially if these portals turn out to be somehow natural in origin and societies using them have been able to develop with no concern for actual space travel; we could see steampunk-style invaders, or ones whose technology relies exclusively on genetically altered creatures, or any kind of strangeness (or maybe just cheap copies of Egyptian warriors).

And, of course, this kind of interstellar travel should still have a cost. If not an economic cost, then maybe a social one; for example, when two societies on Earth get to know each other, their cultures soon start to leak across the divide, and a good deal is often lost. In the end, maybe an alien race could turn us into copies of them simply by having a more advanced culture and being willing to share. Not your typical alien invasion, but a very effective one in the long run.

Invaders from Another Dimension
More interesting, but only because of the beard.
(and the potential for some very wrong slashfic)
But why should the invaders come from another star? There’s another situation that could lead to alien invasion – an incursion from another universe entirely. Parallel universes are a common enough trope in science fiction, usually intended as a way of exploring an alternative version of our own world. But if the technology exists, and those worlds aren’t able to travel to distant stars, then the temptation for an invasion in search of living space, minerals, water, and maybe even slaves becomes very possible. An interesting idea would be to show a culture similar to ancient Rome stumbling across portals to our world, then launching raids against us for all the things ancient peoples would have wanted: loot, people to enslave, and then weapons and technology once they realised we were more advanced.

Or, of course, there’s nothing to stop this other world being rather more alien than that. Nor is it necessary to make it an actual alternate earth; it could be another kind of universe altogether – maybe some kind of hell dimension where the demons have decided it’s time to spread their empire of pain to our world. Or maybe even an invasion from heaven because God decided we needed to be taught a lesson.

And all this is only for universes that are side by side and equally real. You might also consider invasions from universes that are created within ours as simulations, where the inhabitants we created break loose and try to claim some kind of place in a more real world. The opposite is also possible: if it turns out that our universe is only a simulation within some greater universe, the what’s to stop people from the world above just simulating an invasion happening to us, from any direction they care to imagine? Or entering our world themselves and playing with us as though we were toys?

Once you start playing with other realities, virtually anything becomes possible – the main trick is to find something interesting and then follow through on the implications without just using it as a gimmick.

Invaders from Another Time
Aaaand right back to the dullness.
It gets even stranger once you allow for time travel, because then you could have invaders coming from the past or future of our own world – our ancestors or descendants. The first thing you have to decide is how time travel works: can time be rewritten, or can’t it? If it can, then that offers an instant reason for travelling back into time: the invaders are from the future and want to make some change in the history of the world. Most of the time we see stories about individual travellers or small groups trying to accomplish a change, but why not have an entire civilisation facing extinction in some future time come back to try and make it right – at our expense? And what if they make mistakes and found reinforcements coming back in time, each from a different, changed future, leaving to another conflict among the various groups of time travellers? This could get very messy, and very interesting.

If time cannot be rewritten, then time travel can still be useful. Firstly because you could always be going forwards in time – maybe we’re being invaded by beings who existed here millions of years ago, or maybe it’s an enemy from our own past coming forwards in time, with no way of returning home and a desperate need to conquer us in order to survive. Secondly, you can always invoke the many worlds hypothesis, in which a journey to another time means you end up in a parallel universe that’s exactly the same as ours was at that moment, allowing access to the past without any way of affecting the present. But why they would come to our time when they could skip back a few thousand years and find a world much easier to conquer? Why not hop back to the Dark Ages and rebuild Rome, or supplant the ruling dynasty of China (as so many invaders did)? There’s nothing to stop this being a historical story as well as a science fiction one, and that could make it even more interesting.

Energy Lifeforms
Less dull, but twinkly.
Finally, here’s a pretty weird idea for a way to get between the stars: become the only thing we know of that makes this journey on a constant basis – light itself. If we have aliens that are composed entirely of energy, and especially if they can transform themselves from one kind of energy to another, then they could take advantage not only of lightspeed, but also a time dilation effect that would make the journey seem almost instantaneous. Quite why they’d bother invading is another question entirely, but they’d certainly be a bugger to fight.

(I did actually find a reason why such a race might invade and exterminate humanity in The Last Man on Earth Club, but I won’t spoil it here).

IN PART TWO...
We'll look at some reasons for alien invasion that make sense. Unless the invasion starts first. In which case it's already making sense.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Why Would Anyone Want to Invade Earth?

Argh. I left this blog post half done for a bit, and then Phil Plait went and did a similarly themed one, which is doubtless much better. I almost threw this away, but what the hell. My next post on this subject, though, will attempt to answer the question he didn't: ways to make an alien invasion actually plausible. So stay tuned!


Slightly more realistic than Tom Cruise.
'Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.'
HG Wells, The War of the Worlds




Nothing to see here. Move along.
There’s one thing that makes HG Wells’ War of the Worlds make sense, and it’s the thing that no longer makes any sense at all: the invaders come from Mars. In the closing years of the 19th century, it was still possible to imagine that there were aliens on the red planet, even if it looked rather arid. These days, we know that ‘arid’ doesn’t even begin to describe the Martian environment. Words like ‘freezing bloody cold’, ‘absence of oxygen’ and ‘no fun whatsoever’ give you a much fuller picture. Unless the little green men have been hiding really well, there’s no chance of alien invasion from anywhere nearby.

Which doesn’t stop us imagining it for a moment. Because, after all, alien invasions sell books, discs, downloads and cinema tickets in their millions. So we've jumped to assuming that invasions come from other star systems, even though there's a major problem with that: it's one hell of a long journey. A trip from Mars might take a few months, but getting between the stars can take much longer. We regard our 'stellar neighbourhood' as a sphere about 50 light years in radius - that's fifty years of travel at actual lightspeed. Which may not even be possible. And 50 LY is a piddling distance compared to the rest of the galaxy, which is 100,000 LY in diameter. It could take thousands of years to get here. Even if the aliens have amazingly fast FTL that gets them from A to B in only a few years, it's still a long journey in extremely harsh conditions. 

So the end goal had better be worth it. There has to be something here that's worth mounting an invasion. I wonder what that might be...?


Comet Tempel (actual NASA image). Basically a great
big slushie. NASA didn't say what flavour.
Resources

Water
Life needs water – or at least, all the life we’ve seen so far needs it. Virtually everywhere that water exists on Earth, life does too. It’s both the easiest medium to live in, and the perfect solvent in which the chemistry of life can happen. It’s no coincidence that life on Earth began in puddles and seas and oceans; and just because we live on dry land, it doesn’t mean we really escaped the sea. We just brought it with us. Most land creatures are just bags of water that have to keep their H20 supply constantly topped up in order to survive, making water a precious, finite resource for life, a resource that’s rapidly running out in some areas.

But that’s just on Earth. If you’re able to travel through space, water suddenly becomes less of a problem, because it turns out to be extremely common. In fact, we got most of our water from space in the first place, during the early days of the solar system, when the Earth was constantly bombarded not only by asteroids, but by comets. You see, comets are mostly made of water ice. And there’s a lot of them out there. There may well also be a thing called the Oort cloud on the edge of the solar system that consists of untold numbers of the things – and if that exists for our system, it may do for others as well.
If you can fly through space as far as Earth, you can easily process some comets for your water needs. Unless, of course, you didn’t fly through space to get here, but that’s another issue entirely.

Very bad example of sending miners to an asteroid.
Minerals
Minerals have the same issue as water, because they also come in handy clumps floating around in space. This time we call them asteroids. And they’re easier to get at than minerals on Earth, because they aren’t at the bottom of an annoying gravity well that forces you to use lots of energy to escape.

And there really shouldn’t be any difficulty in finding the specific minerals you need. Everything in the solar system was formed from the same cloud of gas and dust, which clumped together over many millions of years to form asteroids, comets, moons and planets. The Earth is the result of many of these ‘planetesimals’ falling in on each other; so anything useful you can find in the rocks on Earth should be present in the asteroid belt, which is really just a collection of debris that managed to escape becoming a planet. In fact, some things may be even easier to get hold of. The Earth was molten for a long time after it formed, and the heaviest stuff (mostly iron) sank to the centre. In an asteroid, this won’t be the case – they should be even richer in heavy elements than the outer shell of the Earth (which is all we have access to).

And if it’s like this in our solar system, it’s going to be like this elsewhere – oh, maybe the ratio of gas giants to rocky planets will be different, or they’ll be in different places, or there’s a different balance of minerals – but there should still be more than enough floating around out there to satisfy the needs of resource-hungry aliens.

The exception to this would be the ‘hegemonising swarm’, as Iain M Banks puts it, AKA Von Neumann devices. Self-replicating machines that exist only to make copies of themselves wouldn’t target us specifically, but if we happen to be in their path, they won’t say no to gobbling up everything they can get their manipulators on. The main objection to the possibility of our planet being disassembled by hordes of robots is a variation on the simple question posed by Enrico Fermi: given the age of the galaxy and the number of times such waves of invasions could have been launched, why hasn't this happened already?


The Inhabitants
Now it gets a bit trickier, because while raw materials are pretty easy to find and likely to be generic in every solar system, life might not be. Evolution throws up all kinds of weirdness, and the plants and animals we see on Earth are just the tip of the iceberg for what’s possible. And maybe, just maybe, there’s something in the terran biota they want. For example…

How did I just know this image would
exist somewhere?
Food
There are problems for any alien species looking to live off the land: their digestive systems would have to be able to cope. There’s all kinds of ways they could be poisoned or given terrible indigestion or just find that our flesh passes right through them virtually untouched. For example: amino acids. These are the building blocks of proteins, which are in turn the building blocks for much of our bodies. Amino acids come in two types: ‘left-handed’ and ‘right handed’, essentially mirror images of each other. Every lifeform on our planet uses left-handed amino acids, and onlyleft-handed amino acids. There’s no particular reason why this should be the case – right-handed ones can do exactly the same things – it’s just that our earliest ancestors randomly decided to be lefties. If our invaders are built of the right-handed versions, they'd be unable to get much sustenance out of us because their whole body chemistry is based on dealing with the wrong kind of amino acid. And that’s just one of many potential problems. They’d better hope they grabbed some lunch before they set out.


Reproduction
The notion that aliens have come all the way here to make babies is patently absurd. They almost certainly won't be able to mate with us. They probably haven't even got the right, um, equipment. And even if they did, there are all the other problems of having a completely alien biological heritage to worry about. The fact that this concept keeps rearing it's nasty little head in science fiction is probably more to do with our own psychological makeup; we have an unpleasant history of kidnapping women from other tribes.

Pink Sea Urchin. NSFW.
(Honestly. Not kidding.)
But maybe they're not bothered by reproduction itself. Maybe they're just perverts who want to do horrible things to alien species because they get turned on by the fact that we're ugly and weird and strange. To them, mating with us might be seen as a form of bestiality: disgusting to the vast majority, but compelling to a few people. This, oddly enough, makes more sense than most reasons for invasion, simply because it's irrational; an irrational desire could override the common sense objections to hurtling halfway across the galaxy and doing something incredibly stupid and destructive. But it's hard to see this being a very common desire, so it's (hopefully) very unlikely. After all, they're just as likely to be turned on by sea urchins as us. 


Seriously, I could have used images from Futurama to
illustrate this whole thing.
Drugs
Drugs have the same problems of physiology as anything else an alien might want to ingest. But many of the drugs we use on a regular basis happened by accident. Caffeine, for example, was evolved as a defence against insect pests, who tend to find it poisonous. We, being somewhat larger, only experience milder effects which we consider pleasurable (most of the time). There’s a whole heap of compounds being produced in nature which might turn out to have unexpected effects on alien life. Of course, you’d think that a civilisation advanced enough to travel between the stars would be able to synthesise their own drugs, but still…


Okay, so maybe some aliens need slaves.
Especially slaves with opposable thumbs.
Slaves
Another historically vital resource for which humans launched invasions of foreign lands. In fact, slaves were a prime spoil of war all the way into recent centuries; it’s only very recently that we’ve stopped mounting raids on each other to steal people. Because, after all, much of the brute labour that humans used to do is now done by machines. Which brings up the main problem for this as a reason for alien invasion: if they’re technically advanced, manual labour shouldn’t be an issue. Or mental labour, for that matter. If the aliens need us as slaves, then there's something very, very wrong with their technology and/or society.



No, it won't be these guys. Not unless they're so incompetent
that they let people post pictures of them on their blogs.
Study
This makes perhaps the most sense of all – maybe the aliens just want to learn about us for the sake of learning itself. Ethical ones would keep themselves secret and just observe, but unethical ones might well consider it interesting to either use our planet as a resource for lab animals to harvest, or just conquer the place and breed us as required. It’s a long way to travel just to get some test subjects, but this is a more likely – and terrifying – scenario than many of the others, mainly because the difference between us and them is no longer a barrier to them interacting with us. Instead, the differences between our species becomes the reason why they take an interest in the first place.

But before you panic, make some note of why such a species would come to us in the first place. If they want to learn about us, they're more likely to study us in our own environment than they are to take us out of it and conduct pointless acts of vivisection. The more we learn how to do science, the more we realise that we have to be careful to prevent our own presence contaminating the data we gather; there's no point in studying the feeding patterns of ants if those ants pick up a new diet because the researchers keep leaving rubbish in the forest. If aliens have to conquer us before they start studying us, there's vastly less that they can learn, and vastly less chance that they'd make the journey in the first place.


Colonisation
Believe it or not, this may be easier than
finding another planet to live on.
Maybe the aliens don’t have enough room at home. Maybe they just need more living space, and all that stands in their way are some pesky natives who aren’t using the planet properly anyway. In fact, they’re overusing it and they’ll kill it off before long. Surely it’s the aliens’ manifest destiny to take the planet and colonise it properly?

This, of course, presupposes that travel between the stars is easier than just building somewhere else to live. There’s a lot of asteroids in any given solar system, and if you have the technology it shouldn’t be too difficult to throw together a habitat that biological lifeforms could thrive in. Maybe you're just hollowing out the asteroid to form a glorified but comfortable cave, or maybe you're getting a bit more ambitious (see image).

Of course, this presupposes that the aliens are actually biological, and aren’t already adapted to living in space – sure, it’s a harsh environment, but solar energy is free and all the necessary minerals are readily accessible, if you happen to be a machine with the right equipment. And if you’re capable of getting between the stars, that’s one of the things you may well be.

Of course, there’s an easy argument to take it the other way: if space is crowded and living space is jealously guarded, then there’s a good reason to come here, get rid of the natives and set up shop. But if there were such enormous pressures on aliens to find new spaces to live, you’d think they’d have done it already. It’s not impossible that colonists should come calling one day; just very unlikely.


Extermination
There’s no reason why aliens should like us, and many reasons why they shouldn’t. We pollute our environment, we drive other species to extinction, and we fill the cosmos with broadcasts of reality TV shows. Surely we deserve euthanasia for that crime alone.

Tarkin later said in his statement that Alderaan was
"looking at him in a funny way".
Pre-emptive Strike
As well as killing us off for the crimes we’ve already committed, aliens may also decide to just wipe us out to prevent us ever challenging them in the future. A pre-emptive strike to stop us polluting the spaceways might be justified by projections of our likely behaviour once we get hold of FTL technology. Even a quick glance at human history will show that we’re liable to go invading other worlds if given half a chance, so why give us that chance?

The Space Pope says that
scaliness is next to godliness.
Religion
If aliens believe they were made in the image of god, they may take exception to us running around, pretending to be intelligent while looking like anything but their conception of a decent, god-fearing species. Or they might simply consider that we have no souls and are therefore animal pests that need to be exterminated. Or if they think we do have souls, they might come here with the express intent of converting us to their religion, whatever that might be. You might think that aliens capable of travelling to distant stars would be more rational, but there’s no guarantee of that. And the more irrational they are, the more likely they are to do something that has no material benefit to them (or us).


I mean, like, THORIUM BOMBS, man.
Fun
Or maybe they just like killing and genocide. The life of a spacefaring species would be long, and eventually they’re likely to get bored. If you’ve tried everything else that life has to offer, maybe you’ll turn to killing and destruction just to get a thrill. Or maybe it's the aliens' children who are looking to waste time in a particularly nasty way. Of course, that's pretty much what's happening on our planet - except that we're turning more and more to virtual thrills that have little or no impact upon reality. Aliens would likely have even better ways to distract themselves, making this a little less likely than it first appears. Hopefully.


Travelling faster than light means you can't see what's in
front of your spaceship until you've hit it... 
Accidental
Maybe they blunder into our solar system without checking it first to see if anything’s there, and there’s some awful misunderstanding when they interpret our radar signals as a precursor to an attack. Or maybe they deposit some kind of highly virulent plague without meaning to. Or maybe they don’t even notice us at all and kill us off on their way through via excessive radiation from their interspace drive wotsits. Or maybe they're planet sized and wreck our solar system by shifting all the orbits so that the Earth either freezes, drifts into the sun, or gets whacked by Mars. 





YOU WILL ANSWER TO PROFESSOR FERMI FOR THIS.
Conclusions

Any alien invasion has to get past the biggest barrier between them and us: space. So far as we know, doing that would present a vast, possibly insurmountable cost that makes any invasion very unlikely.

And even if they could get here, why would they bother? Their technology is likely superior to ours. Their biology is almost certainly incompatible with ours. There's little or no resources here that they can't get elsewhere, and much more easily. Pretty much any sensible reason to invade is incredibly unlikely, leaving only the irrational, random, unethical and accidental reasons, which would be rare in the first place, and even rarer given the vast gulfs of space that lie between stars. You can overcome this problem by assuming that the galaxy is crowded with life and therefore the distance to the nearest civilisations are small enough that they could actually get here - but if that's the case, you still have to answer to Enrico Fermi and his paradox.

So based upon what we know now, the probability is low. The next time I look at this, I'll go through all the things that could make alien invasion a real possibility, which means we may have to move beyond what we know. Realism and the laws of physics might have to be abandoned, but then, after all, science is a work in progress, and it's still possible that we've been very, very wrong about the universe...

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Apocalypse Review: The Last Man on Earth

The house in this poster isn't in the film. It's been
added because no-one is able to cope with the
concept of a Vincent Price film that isn't gothic.
(It does turn up in almost every Tim Burton film,
though)
The Last Man on Earth
(feature film, 1964)
Directed by Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow
Written by William F Leicester and Richard Matheson
Based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson


Amazon US DVD
Some notes on buying: you should really get a version that's original B&W, and in the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio. So far as I can tell, that's what the Amazon link above provides. UK and other international buyers should get this US NTSC version - it seems to be the best transfer. Whatever you do, DO NOT get a colourised version. Unless you think that adding pastels to a horror film is a good idea.


Review (Spoilers!) 
A strange disease has spread on the wind and turned humanity into a race of vampires. One man is immune. By night, he hides away in the fortress he’s made of his house; by day, he wages a war of annihilation against them even as his sanity slips.

The main problem with The Last Man on Earth is that I’m watching it in 2011, having been deadened to spectacle and special effects. There’s not a great deal of either in this film; the ‘vampires’ are semicatatonic, the empty streets are achieved by filming on a Sunday morning, and the corpses are mostly unconvincing dummies. The level of threat seems minimal as the ‘vampires’ bash ineffectually against Vincent Price’s barely-fortified house, and we hardly see them actually harm anyone.

Worse than that, I’ve been spoiled by storytelling techniques that emphasise realism; by exposition not delivered in a characterless monotone; by dialogue that sounds like actual people speaking; and by actors who’ve learned to tone down their performances for film and TV, rather than projecting and posing as if they were on a stage.

(Vincent Price is nevertheless fun to watch as a source of spectacle in his own right, and certainly stands out against the cardboard cutouts he’s required to act alongside. He does a great job of generating sympathy for his plight. It’s possibly his most human performance. But even so, he’s still Vincent Price, with his stylised manner that we’d regard as excessively theatrical these days.)

The Last Man on Earth has dated badly in these respects. But in others, it shines out as a truly imaginative piece of horror – not so much because the story is original (it’s an adaptation, after all), but because it’s willing to challenge the audience in ways that modern films fail to do, even with their superior special effects and more realistic depictions of human behaviour. Perhaps this is just a comparison with the much-derided recent adaptation of the same book, which turned the story into a humans vs monsters special effects-fest, but I was nevertheless constantly surprised by how far the story was willing to go.

In this story, stereotypical moppet children die, and die horribly. Soldiers given terrible orders by the government carry them out no matter who suffers. Even though the flashback device is horrendously done, the disintegration of society it shows is still compelling. The hero’s plight for much of the film is treated seriously, and not as an adventure. And even some of the storytelling technique is superior to what we might see today: when Price’s wife returns from the grave, we don’t see what he has to do to dispose of her: only the horror on his face as his wife attacks and he finally realises how serious the plague is. And, knowing what he’s been doing to the ‘vampires’ ever since, the audience is trusted to fill in the horrifying details. It’s hard to imagine a modern filmmaker passing up the chance to actually show the killing, but concealing it turns out to be the more powerful choice.

And then there’s the final horror, and the most powerful idea in the whole story, which transforms it from a simple tale of postapocalyptic survival to something much more horrifying: the shift in perspective as we realise the Last Man on Earth isn’t just an innocent, tormented survivor, but a terrible force of destruction hunting down humanity’s replacements. As the film ends and he accuses them all of being freaks and monsters, it’s clear that he’s the one who needs to be put down as much as any vampire or zombie. Having this happen in a church while he’s pierced by a spear is really too much of a grasp for significance, but the point is made even without that.

This willingness not to pull punches or offer any kind of sentimental cushion to the audience is what makes the film stand out fifty years later, even though it sometimes behaves like a low budget piece of schlock with primitive production values. If you can peer past all of that, there’s something truly gripping here that’s worth the effort.


DEPICTION OF THE APOCALYPSE
If you’re looking for a detailed, realistic depiction of an apocalypse – well, this is probably as close as you could get in the early 1960s. Which means that while it actually manages to get reasonably close in terms of a few basic ideas, the actual depiction falls down on a regular basis. It’s been three years since the plague destroyed humanity, but the effects are limited to abandoned cars, a bit of random debris here and there, and of course the bodies of ‘vampires’ taking a nap while the sun’s up. While still wearing barely damaged clothes. The filmmakers have a little too much faith in the durability of human artefacts, but then they really weren’t to know how quickly an abandoned city can be reclaimed by nature.

What’s really silly, and what you simply have to accept if you’re going to get anything out of this film, is that the plague turns people into vampires: vampires who don’t seem to do much that’s vampirish and who shamble around more like zombies, but can be defeated by a variety of anti-vampire tricks: garlic, wooden stakes and mirrors (because they can’t bear to see their own reflections, for some absurd reason).

In general, the science in this film is more like a pastiche of science than anything that really makes sense. Terms like ‘vaccine’ are bandied about with no understanding of what they mean (a vaccine is useless if you’re already infected, but it gets treated more like an antidote here). Even when they get something right, it rapidly falls over: Price thinks that maybe his blood has antibodies that make him immune – not an unreasonable hypothesis. So he transfuses his blood into someone else to cure them. Without doing any tests to make sure this is true. Or checking the blood type of the recipient first. Ouch.

What the film gets right is the mood. The sense of despair. The feeling of hopelessness that leaves Price sometimes barely able to continue with his mission of eradicating the ‘vampires’. It’s the human details that do this: lacking a printed calendar for years later than the plague, he has to draw his own on the wall to keep track of time. He encounters a dog and hopes he’s found a companion, but the dog soon perishes and he has to bury the little corpse. He finds another survivor and his first thought is only that she may be infected – and, of course, he’s right.

And then there’s the ending, which sets this apart from so many other post-apocalyptic stories: instead of just a brutal, miserable fight to survive against the forces of apocalypse, it turns out that the Last Man on Earth is himself a force of apocalypse who must be destroyed if those ‘vampires’ who’ve been able to reclaim some of their humanity are to survive. It’s incredibly difficult to find a way to end a postapocalyptic story, because the worst has often already happened; this final twist offers something shockingly different even today, even when the concept that the true monster is mankind has been used over and over again.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Apocalypse Review: The Stand

This is the cover to the first edition I read.
All the other ones are better. I'm just a
masochist, I suppose.
The Stand (Complete & Uncut)
(Novel, 1978 & 1990)
Written by Stephen King


US Paperback - US Kindle 
UK Paperback - UK Kindle
(easy way to check if you're getting the full, expanded version: use the Look Inside feature to see if it has the introduction where King explains why he did the 1990 Complete & Uncut edition)


Review (spoilers!)
A terrifying bioengineered virus escapes from a military facility and devastates the US, leaving only a few survivors plagued by dreams that drive them to engage in a conflict between good and evil.

The Standoriginally came out way back in 1978, and was pretty damn long despite the many cuts King had to make to get it down to some kind of reasonable length. In 1990, King reissued the book, having become just a teensy bit popular in the meantime, and was able to get everything back in that he originally wanted, as well as revising and updating much of the rest.

It’s an epic length, and it’s meant to be an epic. The original idea calls for a battle between good and evil that resembles a Tolkien-scale fantasy conducted in modern-day America, a theme King would return to more than once. This makes it as much a fantasy novel as a horror novel, though the horror is very definitely there (but I’ll come to what I think the true horror of the book is later on).

The problem is that the book doesn’t start out with this epic battle. It doesn’t even really get to it for a pretty big chunk of the story, because first of all it has to get through a very well depicted and harrowing viral apocalypse that wipes America clean of most of humanity and leaves everything in place for the game of good vs. evil.

The only problem is that the apocalypse is the good bit and the battle against evil is… well, it’s a bit tedious at times. There’s really not much actual battling going on. King later reported that he ended up having to kill off a sizeable chunk of the ‘good’ characters just to keep up the interest in the story. And it doesn’t help that he always seems to be having so much more fun when dealing with the ‘evil’ characters. The first appearance of one of these in the early chapters of the book (with two unpleasant people on a killing spree) bursts off the page in comparison to the personal and family dramas that the ‘good’ characters are going through at that point.

And when you finally get to the battle… well, there basically isn’t one. The good guys walk into town after the Dark Lord has pretty much screwed up his own cause by trusting a maniac who derails all his evil Dark Lord plans by basically being a maniac. He’s about to take revenge on the good guys who finally showed up for the battle, and the aforementioned maniac accidentally sets off a nuke. Or possibly the Dark Lord’s own lightning does it. Or maybe the hand of god comes down and sets it off. It’s not entirely clear.

The biggest problem is that the intended story (battle of good vs evil) doesn’t actually seem like it’s the real, main story here. The viral apocalypse originally conceived of as a way of getting everything ready for the battle is far more compelling, and the fantastical/religious confrontations after that end up seeming like an attempt to trump the apocalypse with the only thing the author could think of that might be bigger – a religious battle of cosmic proportions.

But, as I’ve said before, this is a problem. Apocalypses are just too devastating to use as an introduction to another story. You can’t top the destruction of almost all human life by having the few survivors run around having religious confrontations. The story might have worked if the apocalypse had been presented in flashback – but the siren song of utter destruction was clearly too great for King to resist. We’re left with half of an excellent book, and then a long, slow trudge (even longer in the 1990 version) towards an end that can never match the promise of the beginning.


DEPICTION OF THE APOCALYPSE
Usually one apocalypse is enough. But here we have two: one viral, and one religious. They overlap and intertwine, but are fundamentally separate in the way they operate. Despite his forays into other genres, King is very much a horror writer and both these apocalypses are horrific – but for very different reasons.

Firstly: the viral apocalypse. Unlike Contagion, there’s no pretence that this is anything natural, nor is the response to the superflu quite what we would expect in the real world; nevertheless, it’s gripping stuff. There’s a little bit of handwavium called a ‘shifting antigen’ to explain why the bug is so deadly, and thankfully this is never explored further than that (though if you’re interested, viruses do shift their antigens on a regular basis when they meet another strain and swap these protein keys on their coat, and this is why influenza keeps coming back at us. It just doesn’t do the shift constantly while it’s infecting you, thus making it virtually impossible to defend against).

More interesting than the bug itself is the rather paranoid attitude to how it’s created and how it develops. A secret, off-the-books government installation develops a wide variety of diseases with this particular nasty twist; there’s an accident, one of the army guards realises what’s going on and does a runner with his wife and child, not realising that he’s already infected. The government then does everything it can to try and stop the outbreak – and prevent anyone finding out that it was their fault in the first place. Even as millions die, the military is deployed to kill journalists and suppress protests with live ammunition (at Kent State, of course). The pointlessness of the cover-up might seem a little bizarre at first, but we’re in a darker America than even the one we have now. In the original version, the story is set in 1980, and it’s easy to believe that the people who brought us Mutually Assured Destruction and were willing to push the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war only a few years later might decide to behave in such an insane manner, even as they find themselves with the first sniffles that presage death within a few days. It makes slightly less sense in 1990, when the updated version is set, but still seems plausible if you’re willing to be paranoid about the more secretive arms of the US Government. And indeed, the updated version shows us much more of this, expanding significantly on the government side of things. There’s a very clear feeling of impending armageddon that was a familiar dread to anyone who lived through the cold war; you could even interpret this as a novel about those terrible dangers we were subjected to for forty-five years (if it weren't for the second apocalypse).

King’s skills as a horror writer come to the fore as the apocalypse builds: that sick, lurching sense that things are just going to keep getting worse is prevalent as the superflu spreads, and he’s very much at home dwelling on the nastier aspects: a prisoner locked in his cell considering cannibalism as he regards the corpse of his cellmate; towns suddenly depleted of people; cars turned into coffins on every highway; and even the details of the disease itself, with the swelling and blackening of glands in the neck, show signs of King’s fascination with the unpleasant side of life.

But eventually, the tidal wave of death dies down, and the surviving characters head out on the road, driven by dreams into the arms of the second apocalypse – the religious one. And this is where the story falls down, for more reasons than just the loss of interest after the first apocalypse ends.

It rapidly becomes clear that the second apocalypse considers the first one to be just a curtain raiser, and in that regard, it’s basically the Rapture with a twist; instead of the good people going to heaven and leaving the sinners behind to choose sides between god and the devil, a seemingly random (but possibly hand-picked) selection of people are left alive to choose sides between a saintly old woman in Nebraska and the Dark Lord who gathers his forces in Las Vegas. There’s no concept of ‘the elect’, but otherwise it’s pretty clear that we’re in Christian fundamentalist territory as far as the workings of the universe go.

Some of the characters object to this (or at least the good ones do, anyway; the evil ones get nailed to crosses for far lesser infractions). As saintly and kind as their prophet is, it’s clear that what’s required of them is really quite vile. Not content with putting them through the horrible experience of watching all their loved ones die and leaving them to try and survive in a world filled with corpses, the good lord then requires that they march off to sacrifice themselves on cue so that the final battle can be won.

Except that this isn’t a final battle humanity has any real say in. It’s not their fight. It’s two supernatural beings playing chess with each other, and this is the true horror of the second apocalypse: this is the kind of universe that religious fundamentalists actually believe in, where humans are no more than pieces on a board to be positioned and sacrificed at whim. And what’s more, they’re expected to like it, or else they might be punished with greater suffering. It’s a pointless, hypocritical waste that’s only addressed in the book through the mouths of the characters who recognise this for the horror it is, and are then shouted down or bribed with miracles to keep them playing the game. Other than that, no one really deals with the true enemy: God and the Devil combined, who are willing to sacrifice billions of lives so they can play their game.

I don’t know if King intended this to be the true horror of the second apocalypse, or whether he was just trying to depict an epic quest using the mythology of the land in which it’s set, imitating the structure of Tolkien. It was certainly effective in horrifying me, much more than most horror stories I’ve read or seen. And perhaps if the horror of this supernatural interference had been further explored as the true reason for all the suffering in the story, and maybe even confronted somehow, then the book might not have ended in such a disappointing way.

(time to go and re-read Preacheras an antidote, I think)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Apocalypse Review: Last Night

Party like it's 1999. Especially if 2000 isn't going to happen.
Last Night
(Feature Film, 1998)
Written & Directed by Don McKellar

Amazon CA DVD - Amazon UK DVD
(don't bother with the US DVD - it's rubbish. The Canadian DVD isn't much better but at least it's widescreen, though possibly not anamorphic, and the transfer is supposed to be much better. The UK edition is something I haven't seen but does at least claim to be widescreen)


REVIEW (spoilers!)

The world ends in six hours. How are you going to spend the last night on Earth?

Back in 1998, the world was getting ready to end – in the cinema, anyway. Two major Hollywood blockbusters about asteroid impacts came out in swift succession. Armageddon and Deep Impact were run of the mill stuff in which the world was saved (or left with only a mild singe or two) by the usual crews of heroes with the usual bland adventures.

Then came Last Night – a tiny little Canadian film with a far more interesting premise: the world is going to end and saving it is impossible. All that’s left is for everyone to choose how to spend their last remaining hours on earth. There’s a family getting together for Christmas (though it isn’t Christmas), giving their adult children back the presents they’d had when they were kids. There’s an executive at the gas company calling every customer to reassure them that the gas will stay on until the end. There’s a guy working his way through every sexual fantasy he’s ever had. There are parties in the streets, people overturning cars for the hell of it, suicide pacts and a demented woman jogging around yelling a countdown to anyone who cares to listen.

Threading through all these choices are the recently bereaved Don McKellar, who thought he’d decided to be alone at the end but can’t quite work out the details, and Sandra Oh, who’s decided to be with her husband, but has become stranded on the wrong side of town while trying to get a few last supplies. They don’t really want to make a connection, but the film inexorably pushes them towards it as the clock ticks down towards the end.

To some extent, this is a series of interesting, often funny vignettes about what might happen at the end of the world, and that willingness to explore things happening on the sidelines rather than following the main plotline might leave some people wondering if there's a point. But when you place the apocalypse at the end of a story, there’s never any need to worry about where things are going. The ending of Last Night pulls every thread together in a moment of sublime beauty as the world ends; even watching it now after first seeing it twelve years ago, I still wept.

And unlike most of the whizz-bang apocalypse blockbusters, this film is actually about something. It’s not a terribly complicated something; it’s much more of an emotional thing. It’s about the connections between people and how important they are. Many of the choices people have made about how to spend their last hours are monumentally selfish, and the film shows how destructive that is. On the last night, most people are just too busy doing their own thing to help one another. For those few who rise above that and come together (quite literally, in one case), the last second of life on earth becomes a perfect moment.

There’s only one downside, now I look back at the film from a distance of years, only slightly less overwhelmed by the story: Don McKellar’s performance. There’s something rather flat about the way he ambles through the movie, and maybe that’s a choice, given that he’s supposed to be emotionally numb from the loss of his fiancée, who died just before the end of the world was announced. But when put up against all the other actors, he doesn’t quite ring true. Even David Cronenberg manages a better performance, and he’s not actually an actor. But in the end, it’s a minor irritation, and the rest of the film is good enough to rise above it.


DEPICTION OF THE APOCALYPSE

If there’s one thing this film doesn’t care about too much, it’s the exact mechanics of the apocalypse. And it’s right to do so, because the story is really about the people and how they face up to the end of everything, rather than anyone trying to actually do anything about it.

And now, having said that, I shall proceed to poke holes wherever I may.

The apocalypse appears to be something to do with the sun – or a sun, anyway. Towards the end, Don McKellar observes that there are no nights any more, and even as the clock approaches midnight, it still seems to be a bright sunlit day. If something had gone wrong with the sun, then this would, of course, be impossible; the Earth would still be turning, and night would still happen (okay, sure, maybe the moon would be much brighter due to reflection, but not so bright as to turn night to day).

If night has been banished forever, then there would have to be a second star coming close, which offers a more plausible method for destroying the world, though I doubt it would be so sudden: firstly, the temperature increase would be gradual, and life would not be able to continue with such ease until a sudden cut-off point. Secondly, an incoming star would make a mess of the solar system through gravitational interactions. The earth would not just plough on in the same course until it hit the star – it would most likely be flung out of the solar system altogether and freeze to death, or be bombarded with debris driven inwards as the rogue star knocks everything out of whack.

Or, of course, it could be something different entirely. Maybe aliens have decided humanity needs to be exterminated and have told them when it will happen. It really doesn’t matter to the story. But it’s clear that the exact details haven’t been worked out. Which is fine for this film. Because it doesn’t matter. Okay? IT DOESN’T MATTER. 

(I’ll just repeat that to myself for a bit…)

Where the filmmakers have put in a little thought is in the human response to the apocalypse, which is resolutely Canadian, well organised and polite. The government shut itself down in an orderly manner. There was chaos and social unrest when the end of the world was announced, but they got over it. Electricity and gas are still running. Nobody seems to have run out of petrol. Nobody’s dying of starvation (or even from a lack of alcohol).

It’s a lot like On the Beach in this regard: an inevitable apocalypse creeping up on the world, and everyone trying to keep things going until it’s all over. The partying gets a bit out of hand towards the end, and people die in stupid, pointless ways, but somehow, society keeps itself together until the final moments. Last Night chooses to believe more in the goodness of humanity in its final moments, but then it doesn’t have to contend with the bitterness of a self-inflicted apocalypse that was a very real possibility when On the Beach was written. Absolving humanity of any guilt in its own destruction – which it does, in part, by refusing to specify how the world is ending – allows the film to examine human reactions to an apocalypse without any baggage that would skew the results. It’s not responding to any issues of nuclear war, environmental breakdown, social decay or anything else; it’s purely about the characters, set free to do what they will in the last few hours before the end.