Saturday, May 09, 2020


Probably one of the most unprecedented things about COVID-19 has been the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented in the wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic. Well, at least in my unprecedented experience!

The ever-helpful Merriam-Webster watch on trending words hasn’t clocked it yet, but that may be because there are plenty of other words tickling the fancy of Americans on the web. It may also be that it defines the word as ‘having no precedent’, which while being concise, is somewhat unhelpful.

Our own OED defines unprecedented as an adjective meaning ‘Never done or known before’. It also does not show the word in its trending searches, suggesting that the British too have no trouble knowing what the word means (maybe because the OED definition is a little more useful than Merriam-Webster’s?).

Words are not hard-boiled objects that hold an unchanging value or meaning. Sorry, all you English language purists out there, decimate does mean destroy as well as reduce by a tenth, and literally does now also act as an intensive form of figuratively. It’s just the way language is – words get co-opted to mean things for which the speaker has no other word to hand, and if that happens widely enough, words change meanings. It also explains (at least in part) why so many meanings seem to have more words than is strictly necessary. Think of how many synonyms there are for the word bad – give yourself half an hour and see how many you can come up with. Surely just one word would do?

Well, unprecedented (synonyms – unparalleled, extraordinary, record, first-time, exceptional, unmatched, etc.) is a word whose meaning is, perhaps unconsciously, drifting towards a more subjective nuance of the never known before part of the OED definition. Because the main way that these times are unprecedented is primarily in the experience to those who are writing. Very few of us (at least in the English-speaking West) have lived through a major epidemic, let alone a global pandemic before. Few of us have ever had to contend with being forced to self-isolate indoors for weeks, not even being able to see loved ones who are dying or attend funerals. In our, personal experience as human beings, this is unprecedented.

But you don’t have to go back far to find that our current circumstances are far from being without precedent. Even last year, the Democratic Republic of Congo was fighting a major Ebola epidemic that went largely unreported in the West. A few years earlier, an even more significant Ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa. Ebola is both highly transmissible and very deadly - far more so than COVID-19.

Much of Asia has dealt with novel coronavirus outbreaks such as MERS and SARS in the last two decades, and while not as transmissible as COVID-19, they are both far more deadly. Go back to the fifties and the UK was dealing with a major influenza epidemic, and of course to 1918/19 and the infamous (and misnamed and misremembered) Spanish Influenza, which killed more people in a few months than the First World War, and was spread globally because of the mass movement of fighting men and refugees.

Dig further back and there is a history of cholera epidemics across Europe and the Americas as our ancestors set about trading with and colonising parts of South Asia and Indochina where the bacterium Vibrio cholerae is endemic. Or further still to the outbreaks of bubonic plague and the still mysterious Black Death in the Middle Ages and Dark Ages. Take it back further to the Cyprian Plagues that swept through the Roman Empire’s cities in the second and third centuries.
Epidemics have been with us since we built cities and decided to live cheek-by-jowl with our fellow human beings. Since we decided that we needed to travel the globe for trade, exploration and the novelty of seeing new places and people and conquering them for the heck of it. 

Urbanisation and travel have shaped epidemics and pandemics for thousands of years. As has politics – if you think the current debates about lockdown versus the economy are modern preoccupations, listen to this podcast.

The way we deal with epidemics has a long precedent as well. Quarantine (from the Italian quaranta giorni, rereferring to the forty-day exclusion on incoming ships to Venice during times of plague in the 14th century) has long been part of the way we deal with infectious diseases. During the Cyprian plagues people stayed in their homes or fled the cities to the countryside, leaving the poor and wretched to die with no care or help (apart from the early church who did stay and risked their own lives to care for the vulnerable and the sick). Nothing unprecedented here either.

Nevertheless, for most of us, COVID-19 is a crisis the like of which we have never experienced. For us, it is unprecedented. So, the subjective definition of the word is becoming normative, rather than the more objective nuance. It is a small shift in meaning, but also a profound one.

It shows why studying language and history is so importnat. It puts our apparently unprecedented experience into a bigger and wider context, shows us that such things have happened before, and indeed happen all the time, and that this too shall pass. Not without cost or pain. Not without inconvenience and disruption. But it will pass, and we will, for the most part, survive. Coming through pandemics is far from being without precedent.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Ad Astra

Tying itself firmly to the coattails of recent, 'hard' science fiction films such as Gravity, Interstellar, and Moon, Ad Astra is very much an attempt to do a Heart of Darkness for the space age in much the same way that Apocalypse Now did for the Vietnam War.

Visually sumptuous, well-acted, with an evocative Max Richter score, and in writer/director James Gray a creator who has an interesting body of work behind him. On paper at least, it certainly has all the right credentials

Hopes were high for this film before its release, and some critics have praised it highly. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission across the solar system to contact and stop his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) from an enterprise that could threaten all life on earth. We are also promised that what he discovers along the way could have profound implications for humanity and our understanding of our place in the universe.

We explore McBride's inner turmoil over his long-absent father through a series of inner monologues, while externally he shows little or no emotion or human connection. It's because he's never really known his father, you see. His father, we are repeatedly told by other characters, is a hero of space exploration, someone who went further into space than anyone else in order to uncover the truth of whether there is any other intelligent life out there. McBride only knows him as an absent figure for most of his childhood and his whole adult life.

A series of action-packed set pieces break up these introspective musings. They make little sense in themselves; an attempted hi-jacking on lunar buggies; an abandoned space station with rage-filled, killer test-subjects; a lethal zero-g fistfight. Each gives McBride an excuse to muse on the fragility of human existence, the pointlessness of our endless wars and conflicts and the bitterness of the unintended consequences to well-intentioned but misguided choices.

But its baggy, clumsy plotting could have been forgivable if there was a denouement that actually brought everything together or, at the very least, left us with a sense of awe and mystery. As best I can I will avoid too many spoilers, but it is hard to critique the film without hinting at the finale - so skip to the last three paragraphs if you would rather not know anything about how the film finishes.

Firstly, it is a pretty saccharine and bland ending. When father and son finally confront one another at the very edge of our planetary system, there are two major revelations - about his father and about what his father has found. They should fall like hammer blows, but they don't. The first is meant to change how McBride sees himself, the second how humanity understands its place in the universe. But they are skipped over so quickly that there is little impact at all.

Secondly, because we never see much of McBride's childhood or his marriage, we are only given vague visual cues and ponderous voice-overs to tell us he finds it hard to form emotional attachments or care for others. Consequently, we end up not really caring about him. More showing, less telling would have fleshed McBride out more and given us some emotional investment in him. Giving the criminally under-used Liv Tyler, as his long-suffering other-half, some actual dialogue and character development would also have given McBride's character arc far more emotional heft and depth.

Thirdly, Arthur C Clarke said that there were two answers to the question of whether we are alone in the universe. Either there is intelligent life out there, or there is none. Both answers are profoundly terrifying and have huge existential ramifications for the human race. While the question remains open, like Schrodinger's cat in its unopened box, we live with both options and can explore the ideas that they may unleash. The film opens the box, finds the cat dead and then shrugs its shoulders. McBride resolves his daddy issues with a similar shrug, resolves to be more connected with people in future (in another voice-over) and goes back to a presumably happier life with his long-suffering wife. And that's it! So much for uncovering the profound mysteries of the universe!

One of the other incidental issues touched upon in the film is religion. The crew with whom McBride travels to Mars, pray to St Christopher as they launch, commit the body of a departed comrade to God's keeping with a Christian prayer and, in an old recorded message, McBride's father talks of the profound sense of God's presence with him as he heads further out into the void. The denouement kind of skips over this, but the implication is that his discoveries have stripped McBride's father of hope and faith. This was another wasted opportunity that the film could have explored.

In a vast, beautiful but apparently lifeless universe, who are we, and what is our world? It is a question we are increasingly having to confront as we discover more and more about the scale and nature of our cosmos.

As a Christian, I do not see the universe as devoid of meaning. On the contrary, it is filled with divine meaning, whether or not there is any other intelligent life out there. Why the universe is so unimaginably vast is a mystery. Why God has created all of this to lavish his love on one species on one, tiny world in all this vastness is a source of wonder. The alternative, that we are utterly alone in the vastness of a meaningless void is truly soul shrivelling.

My faith in Christ, who left the divine realm to take up frail humanity and to walk a path of self-sacrifice to the cross for our sake, is nonsense to many, but for those of us who believe, it takes that vast, existential ache as we look out into the expanse of the cosmos and says 'I am known, I am loved and my existence has meaning'.

Our hope is not, as the film's opening and title suggest, in the stars. It is in the one who made them.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

This is How You Lose the Time War

This summer’s reading list has included fascinating books on theology, posthumanism and the latest short story collection from the wonderful Ted Chiang.

However, this year’s revelation was a novella by the science fiction and fantasy authors/poets Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The title, This is how you lose the Time War, could have been lifted from an episode of the Russel T Davies era of Doctor Who, although structurally and thematically it owes a very heavy debt to the Culture novels of Ian M Banks.

It starts with the very Banksian scene of a covert operative, equipped with the most sophisticated in-body weaponry, viewing her handiwork in destroying single-handedly (she thinks) the armies of two interstellar empires. This is to re-set the course of future history in a direction her side sees as more favourable to their plans. In this scene of carnage, she finds an enigmatic paper note that starts ‘burn before reading’. So begins a correspondence over time and space with her opposite number, an agent of the enemy in a vast, era and galaxy-spanning time war.

Following each protagonist as they seek to shape the evolution of humanity towards their own faction’s desired outcome, the narrative shows them regularly thwarting one another. At the site of each defeat, they leave encoded messages for one another. Initially taunting, then admiring, then almost comradely before becoming full-blown love letters, these witty, passionate epistles form the backbone of the narrative. The focus of the novella is less on the time war itself, its reasons and strategies, but more on the growing relationship that the letters reveal between these two protagonists.

Full of clever wordplay, the prose sometimes becomes almost purple (which is apt, given the chosen names of the two central characters). Overall, the use of language is wonderful. Punning, poetic, emotional and droll, the writers create whole worlds and epochs in each, brief chapter, only to leave them behind as the narrative and the unfolding correspondence go forward. That the two protagonists never properly meet (although they do espy one another at a distance on a couple of occasions) makes the correspondence they share all the more powerful and revealing.

But what are the consequences? Are the protagonists going to keep their superiors in the dark for long about their emerging intimacy? Is one or other of them trying to turn the other to their side by professing love falsely? And who or what is the ‘Seeker’ who dogs their footsteps?

The narrative taunts, occasionally misdirects, and ultimately finishes on a cliff-hanger. Is it going to lead to a sequel? I expect that many will want to know how the story of the lovers who never meet pans out, but I think the power of the narrative is that it does not wrap up its threads in neat endings and leave the reader wanting more. I certainly would love to read more from both these authors.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The body and Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon is the huge big budget science fiction offering from Netflix. While their recent output in films has been decidedly dodgy (Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox to name but two that audiences and critics alike have panned), Altered Carbon has had a more mixed response. 

Its central premise is that, out of salvaged ancient alien technology, humans have discovered a way to download and record human consciousness in small, hard drive-like devices called stacks that sit at the top of the spinal column. At death, this stack can be reinserted into a new body. If you are poor and die young or as a result of crime, the state will spin you up into any available body (usually those of criminals whose stacks have been removed and put on ice indefinitely). Thus, in an early scene, we see the parents of a seven-year-old girl who died in an accident brought back in the body of a middle-aged woman. Race and gender become irrelevant – an Asian man comes back in a Caucasian body; an Afro-American woman comes back in a white male body.
In one amusing scene, a cop of Mexcian descent spins up her late Grandmother into the body of a massive, tattooed and bearded drug dealer. Watching this massive man trapesing around a market choosing the choicest ingredients for the family feast on Día de los Muertos was initially amusing, then strangely poignant and uncomfortable, as this ancient festival of remembrance became subverted by new technology,

Of course, the rich can afford to have multiple cloned bodies in storage to give them back their own bodies after death. They can also regularly back-up their stacks, ensuring that even if the stack is destroyed, they can still be brought back. When a rich man is murdered and his stack destroyed just before his regular backup, it means his last 48 hours were lost and the identity of his murderer remains a mystery. This becomes the centre of the story.

Now, there is a lot to say about this series, including its huge debt to Blade Runner in visual style, and indeed to numerous other films. Actually, even the central conceit is far from original, although seldom seen in cinema and TV. Greg Bear introduced the idea of implants that could house a human consciousness and be re-housed in a new body in Eon back in 1985. Other authors, including Ian M Banks, Ken McLeod and Peter F Hamilton have repeatedly used the idea in their science fiction.

It is indeed a fascinating idea – not least because of its underlying assumptions. At its core is the idea that the human self is just software, the body merely the replaceable hardware on which it runs. Self is memory, personality traits merely programmes. The real you is just data, and data can be copied, uploaded, downloaded and stored. 

The roots of this idea are Neoplatonic – the idea that the real self is a spiritual, immaterial entity, the material body merely an imperfect echo. The Gnostics took the idea one step further, arguing the spiritual self was real and good, the material self a sinful illusion – even positing two gods over each realm – the good creator of the spiritual, the evil creator of the material.

Eastern religions also resonate with this idea with the doctrine of reincarnation – the spirit reborn time and time again into a new body. And for many, the Christian idea of life after death is seen as a disembodied existence in God’s presence. That, however, is a travesty of the actual biblical teaching.

Science Fiction loves this idea because it means in the godless universe that most of the genre’s authors inhabit, we have the promise of life after death. Posthumansists sees this as technologically achievable within the next century at the most.

It is a secular dream, but it is a fantasy.

The actual biblical understanding is quite at odds with all of this. The body and the spirit are integral. The word for soul in Hebrew and Greek means simply the person, the self, and in Hebrew is used of the body as well as the mind. The physical and spiritual are closely linked, so much so that life after death is always seen as an embodied existence – there is no positive depiction of a disembodied afterlife in either Old or New Testaments.

We are fully embodied in our self. Our memories are not just seated in our brains – they are also seated in our muscles and viscera. Our hearts and guts contain brain cells, and messages from the heart and bowels affect the brain as much as vice versa. Take us away from our bodies, we lose our self, our soul. We are not data, not software that can run in any body. We are an integrated whole. We are also constantly changing, our minds and our bodies are not the same from one moment to the next, and their changes are not separate, but intimately interlinked. Self is not static, it is in constant flux.

Altered Carbon is an interesting and fun bit of slightly OTT cyberpunk with some interesting ideas that it never fully explores, not least of which is how alienated a person put into a new body that is not their own would be. Indeed, would they even be the same person?

Monday, January 01, 2018

My Films of the Year

2017 was  bit of a bumper year for science fiction films, although very few were even remotely original stories or first time adaptations. Certainly nothing as outstanding as 2016's Arrival, which to my mind sticks out as one of the best films of that year of any genre.

We've had the remake of Ghost in the Shell, which dumbed down a complex story about emergent, self aware AI and post-humans for a simple story of lost identity at the hands of corporate greed. Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 was great fun, but is basically a comedy Star Wards clone, albeit one with real wit and imagination. The Last Jedi was a fun (and surprising) addition to the Star Wars franchise, despite plot holes, Thor 3 was even more fun than Guardians or Jedi (and as such was an delightful surprise).

I could probably add Wonder Woman to this mix, but great fun though it was, it is more a fantasy/superhero crossover than the Marvel universe films.

The less said about some of the other entries this year, the better!

So, nothing very original. Lots of sequels, reboots, additions to existing franchise 'universes' and the like. 2018 promises some more interesting material, with Ready Player One in particular generating a lot of early excitement, as is The Shape of Water. Both offer original (albeit in the former's case, adapted) screenplays that might just offer something fresh and new.

So, for my vote of the film that in 2017 stood out as the best science fiction film, I have to go back to a sequel, albeit one that was twenty five years in the making. Blade Runner 2049 managed to stand on the shoulders of Blade Runner, and while remaining hugely respectful and consistent with its forebear, managed to explore the same territory with new depth. And managed to look and sound gorgeous at the same time.

Yes, there are problems with it - particularly its rather leery camera focus on naked female bodies. I get the idea that this is a brutal, exploitative society and that this is reflected in what we see, but the decision to keep putting naked female flesh graphically on screen feels more exploitative than making a comment.

However, I also get the point that it is ultimately the female protagonists who are the main agents of change in the narrative, and this has been eloquently argued elsewhere.

So laying that discomfort to one side, I can say that, while my initial reaction to the film was that it left me cold emotionally, over the months since I saw it the ideas, questions, imagery and character arcs have continued to engage me, and I now really need to see it again. That's how I know a film is real classic - when it won't let you go. All the other films from this year that I enjoyed I would be happy to see again, possibly repeatedly. But Blade Runner I need to see again - because I know there are questions still remaining that only a repeat viewing will help me to tackle.

The biggest of these questions is around expectation. Without giving away spoilers, the story makes you start looking for a miracle and directs you towards an obvious but powerful answer. But it is the wrong answer, and we are brought up short, along with the protagonist. As one commentator said, at the heart of this film is a very uncomfortable message, but one to which we all need pay attention. We are not as special, not as unique, as we like to think we are. A very anti-Hollywood message indeed.

At nearly three hours in length, it is also a film that does not rush its storytelling. Many audiences found its length and long shots, long silences and lack of action for extended periods both frustrating and boring. I loved them! The film is an object lesson in telling a story by showing, not telling Which is another reason to see it again, because it misdirects you, makes you think you are seeing one reaction, from a character when it later transpires it was a quite different response. The narrative plays cleverly with our expectations.

Finally, it is a story that explores once again the use of technology to exploit and control people. It is about the exercise and abuse of power and how it is opposed. As such it is a very welcome and timely addition to the genre.


Probably one of the most unprecedented things about COVID-19 has been the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented in the wall-to-wa...