Thursday, September 09, 2010

"Never Let Me Go" is relatable science fiction?

In last Sunday's LA Times, there was a lengthy article about director Mark Romanek and his soon-to-be-released movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go.

The story, which the article calls a "dystopian drama", is based on a science fictional premise. But Never Let Me Go is not an action-packed adventure tale, and the science fiction is hidden from both the reader and the characters for much of the novel. Most reviews only hint at the SF themes, because they are considered "spoilers" for the story.

And it seems clear to me that even if Never Let Me Go is science fiction (and I think it is), it's much more likely to be shelved with Ishiguro's  Remains of the Day in the "literary fiction" section of your local bookstore, than next to the latest Brian Herbert novel.

Given all that, it's not too surprising that Romanek downplays the SF elements of the movie version.

However, I was a bit disappointed by the way that Romanek - and the reporter who wrote the LA Times story - described the movies take on science fiction:
"Never Let Me Go" is a science fiction film with none of the conventions of the genre. There are no rocket ships, alien life forms or sentient computers — just a group of outwardly normal schoolchildren and young adults whose lives will be truncated by a procedure forebodingly referred to as "donation" that ends in "completion."

"I never wanted it to be a science-fiction film in terms of its being fantastical. I wanted it to be relatable," says Romanek. "We said, 'Let's make a science-fiction film that doesn't have any tangible science fiction in it.'"

I suppose it shouldn't be too surprising the LA Times writer used the tired "science fiction is about rocket ships and aliens" trope, since that description isn't too far off for most movie SF. At least he didn't refer to talking squids from outer space.

What I disagree with is Romanek's suggestion that "fantastical" elements automatically make a movie "unrelatable". For me, it's the depiction of a character's personality and relationships that determines whether she's relatable, not the setting.

And considering pretty much all I know about English boarding schools comes from George Orwell's essays and  Harry Potter novels, the setting of Never Let You Go doesn't seem much less exotic than a love story set in the 19th century American prairie or future Tokyo or the moon.

It turns out that Romanek actually did have to add some SF background for people to fully understand what was going on in the film:
As it turned out, some members of the "Never Let Me Go" preview audiences were thrown by what the film intentionally left vague. Was it unfolding in the real England of the late 1990s, or some parallel reality? Romanek worried that the audience was so busy trying to sort that out that it wasn't hooking into the story's emotions, its chronicle of first love. So working with Ishiguro, Romanek and Garland added a new opening card that reads:

"The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952

"Doctors could now cure the previously incurable

"By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years"

As the movie makes clear, that breakthrough came at an unimaginable price. And that's the heartbreak of "Never Let Me Go."
Sounds like science fiction to me.
Official trailer:

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Paolo Bacigalupi: Science fiction that makes us look at the world through a different lens

In May Paolo Bacigalupi gave a talk at the Google offices in San Francisco, not long after winning the Nebula Award for his novel The Windup Girl

He talked about how science fiction can "stretch the normal" like a rubber band, that eventually snaps back and makes people look at the present differently (quoted from the transcript:

So the thing I like about science fiction is the opportunity to take what looks normal and then to twist it, to- to take an idea and stretch it out into some unreasonable place where you think the world is going to be safe and stable, and then to rip the floor out from underneath you and drop you into something else. Ideally that process is a bit like stretching a rubber band. You pull somebody out into a different world, and then you let the rubber band snap. And when people come back to this world they're going to look at our place now, the present, with a different lens as well. And that's really the thing that excites me about science fiction.
Bacigalupi also talks about using science fiction to make people environmental issues that might otherwise be ignored:
"[to] look at drought or look at how chemicals might disrupt our endocrine systems and turn us all into stupid people. Or how agricultural companies with their IP and their terminator genes might actually really change the way that we interact with food. [. . .] And maybe interact with in a more tangible, visceral way than we would otherwise.

[. . . ] Yes, I want my characters to be interesting. Yes I want my stories to be fascinating and gripping.  And yes, I actually am this evangelist banging on my pulpit trying to get people to pay attention to some things that are pretty interesting and fundamental. And that we mostly spend our time not looking at. And that we prefer not to.

He also reads from his disturbing short story "Pop Squad" and his all-too-plausible tale of drought "The Tamarisk Hunter"

Watch the video:

A few samples of Bacigalupi's short fiction with biological themes you can read for free:

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Temperate Bacteriophages and the Abyormenites

Science fiction author Hal Clement (1922-2003) was known for creating aliens that are well-adapted to the often extreme physical conditions on their home planets. Clement is probably best known for his 1954 novel Mission of Gravity, which takes place on a planet with a surface gravity hundreds of times greater that of Earth. But that's not the only unique world he imagined.

Clement's novel Cycle of Fire is set on the planet Abyormen, which orbits a dwarf star, which in turn circles a blue giant. The planet's usual orbit creates two sixty-five-year-long seasons; the "hot season" and the "cold season". Each season is dominated by a different intelligent species. 

Abyormen's life forms have evolved a unique form of reproduction to account for the widely varying in environmental conditions. All its creatures - including the intelligent ones - lay spores in their alternate season counterparts. Those spores lie dormant until the seasons begin to change.

When the cold season on Abyormen draws to a close, the "cold" Abyormenites die and the "hot" Abyormenites emerge from the spores left in their bodies decades before. Those newly hatched "hot" Abyormenites carry spores for the next generation of "cold" Abyormenites, which in turn lie dormant until the next change of the seasons. Thus each sapient species on the planet absolutely depends on the life and ultimate death of the other for their own survival.
  As Donald Hassler writes in his Clement reader's guide, the inspiration for the Abyormenites came from an article about the viruses that infect bacteria:
Clement has said that Andre Lwoff's article entitled "The Life Cycle of a Virus," which appeared in the March 1954 Scientific American, gave him the idea for Cycle of Fire. Not only is the content of Lwoff's piece referred to in chapter fourteen of the novel but also the poetic tone of this scientific article underlies the novel. Lwoff describes the way certain viruses are capable of remaining dormant inside the totally alien life form of certain bacteria for several generations before they reappear as distinct virus life, and he emphasizes the cycles of life and death coupled here with reproduction and the protection of generation. Although much of Clement's fiction avoids such sublime and poetic images, Cycle of Fire is meant to demonstrate, on this most elemental level of life and death (not microscopic in the novel, of course), the symbiotic inter-dependence of what seem to be very alien life forms.
AndrĂ© Lwoff received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965 for his research on viruses  - called "bacteriophages" - that infect bacteria.  Bacteriophages have two different modes of reproduction. In some cases the bacterial cells are broken open ("lysed") after the viruses reproduce, in what is known as the lytic cycle.

But not all bacteriophages destroy their hosts. As Lwoff explained in his Nobel Prize lecture:
As far as we know, the bacteriophage itself controls its own regulation. The bacterium infected by a virulent bacteriophage has become a virus factory which cannot be stopped except by its own disintegration. A bacterium has no control over the development of a virulent bacteriophage. But this is an extreme case. The relations between virus and bacterium do not always have this dramatic character.

As a matter of fact bacteriophages exist which do not kill all the bacteria which they infect. Some infected bacteria survive and perpetuate the ability to produce bacteriophages. These are lysogenic bacteria. Their investigation has profoundly modified our ideas on the relations between cell and virus.

The DNA of the so-called "temperate" bacterophages that follow the lysogenic life cycle  is integrated into the bacterial genome. The viruses remain dormant until the environment in the bacterial cell is favors lytic reproduction. It's easy to see how Clement drew on the life cycle of these microbes in imagining the life cycle of the Abyormenites.

While this story might just be considered merely an interesting writing anecdote, I think it illustrates an important element of science fiction. Clement read an article about cutting edge science, but didn't just incorporate the scientific observations directly into his story. Instead he built on the science to create something very different from the original inspiration. I think that's one of the factors that distinguishes science fiction from fiction with science. And that's one of the reasons why I enjoy reading SF.


Lwoff, Andre. "The Life Cycle of a Virus" Scientific American 190, 34-37 (1954) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0354-34 [requires a site license to access)]

Lwoff, Andre. "Lysogeny" Bacteriol Rev. 17(4): 269-337 (1953) [free access]

Hal Clement (Starmont Reader's Guide) by Donald M. Hassler @

Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement @ (you can get a "new" copy for only $102!)