Guilty Pleasures

Gareth L Powell @ 09-09-2010

Escapism gets a lot of bad press. Some mainstream critics use it as a derogatory term when dismissing genre literature; some serious genre writers go to great lengths to  prove that their books are more than “simple” escapism. However, escapism has its place.

Part of the reason we read science fiction is to be transported into new imaginative realms, and this is especially true in cinema. After a hard day of work, what better way to unwind than with an hour and a half of relatively mindless spectacle?

As we’re bombarded with doom-laden news reports and press anxiety over terrorism, global disaster, and societal collapse, films such as Cloverfield, Independence Day, and 28 Days Later provide us with a cathartic release. They enable us to explore our fears in a secure context. While watching the film, we can wonder “what would I do?”, and take reassurance from the fact that the protagonists and their families survive whatever disaster has befallen the world.

And then again, sometimes we just want to see a fleet of spaceships blow the living hell out of famous American landmarks.

In the 1950s, they called these films “B-movies”, and they primarily dealt with society’s fears concerning radiation (The Amazing Colossal Man), nuclear war (The Day The Earth Stood Still) and communism (Invasion of The Body Snatchers). Their modern counterparts, the Hollywood ‘blockbusters’, address our modern concerns in a similar way: with the focus primarily on entertainment.

Yes, they’re sensational and yes they’re frequently implausible; but they have their place. Gritty realism cannot transport us from the day-to-day world. When I’ve been writing all day and I need something to take my mind off the plot for a couple of hours, I don’t want a film I’m going to have to concentrate on, or one that reminds me how grim the real world can be. Instead, I’d rather sit down with a bowl of popcorn to watch Armageddon, Back To The Future, or Aliens.

Do you have films you revisit over and over again? What are your guilty viewing pleasures? Please feel free to share your recommendations in the comments section below.

Gareth L Powell is the author of the novels The Recollection and Silversands, and the short story collection The Last Reef. He is also a regular contributor to Interzone and can be found online at www.garethlpowell.com


“Superlenses” could lead to movies of molecules

Tom Marcinko @ 11-06-2009

neonFor a long time physicists thought it was impossible to see anything smaller than about half the wavelength of light.

That’s true if you look at the propagating component of light waves. But light also records smaller sub-wavelength details in its evanescent components, which do not propagate. At least not usually. What [John] Pendry showed [about 10 years ago] was that evanescent components can propagate in a material with a negative refractive index, and he pointed out that a thin film of silver ought to have just the right properties.

Since then, the race has been on to build superlenses. In 2005, Nicolas Fang at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created one that could record details as small as one-sixth of a wavelength. That was a significant improvement over the diffraction limit, but why not better?

Fang and company recently achieved resolution of only one-twelfth the wavelength of light. The theoretical limit is now pegged at one-twentieth a wavelength, which should be small enough to watch molecules in motion.

The impact of such “transparency” on the micro level opens up fertile realm for speculation: Surely drug designers, among others, are going to want superlenses of their own.

[Story: Technology Review physics arXiv blog; thanks for the tip, dpodolsky; London neon sculpture photo: clry2]


Super Hero Fatigue – Why I am Tired of American Rubber

Jonathan McCalmont @ 07-01-2009

This month in Blasphemous Geometries: the life-span of the Bush administration has seen an astonishing proliferation of super hero cinema.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont compares the rhetoric of American foreign and domestic policy with the thematic underpinnings of the super hero movie genre, and explains why he’ll be as glad to see the back of costumed crusaders as he will the back of Bush.

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With the Bush era rumbling to a long overdue end, some critics have turned their gin-shortened attentions to the question of which cultural artefact best incapsulates W’s period in office. One popular yardsticks are the ways in which the Presidency has been depicted through film and TV. The Clinton era, for example, has come to be seen as a period of intensely human and libidinous cinematic Presidents such as those of Ivan Reitman’s Dave (1993) and Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995). In fact, were it not for films such as Independence Day (1996) and Air Force One (1997) asserting the President’s penchant for arse-kicking you could be forgiven for forgetting that while Clinton claimed to feel people’s pain, he was no slouch when it came to meting it out in the form of air strikes and deciding, for the first time, that the spread of WMDs was a military matter.

However, while the Bush era has been quick to provide us with Presidents who are either mentally unstable religious zealots (Battlestar Galactica) or bloodless pragmatists more eager to seek revenge than examine the facts (The Sum of all Fears [2002]), the enduring cinematic icon of the Bush era is undeniably the super hero. Continue reading “Super Hero Fatigue – Why I am Tired of American Rubber”


Nebula Award winners announced

Tomas Martin @ 28-04-2008

Chabon has moved to embrace genre writing over the last few yearsOver the weekend, the Nebula Awards Ceremony took place in Austin Texas. Hosted by the Science Fiction Writer’s Association of America (SFWA), the following excellent works from last year won the top prizes:

Novel: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Chabon, Michael (HarperCollins, May07)

Novella: “Fountain of Age” – Kress, Nancy (Asimov’s, Jul07)

Novelette: “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”
– Chiang, Ted (F&SF, Sep07)

Short Story: “Always” – Fowler, Karen Joy (Asimov’s, apr/may07)

Script: Pan’s Labyrinth – del Toro, Guillermo (Time/Warner, Jan07)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Rowling, J. K. (Scholastic Press, Jul07)

Damon Knight Grand Master for 2008: Michael Moorcock

Personally I’m delighted to see Chabon and del Toro get recognised for their work. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a tremendously rich alternative history detailing a Jewish settlement in Sitka Alaska coming to the end of its 50 year lease.

[via Ellen Datlow, book cover via amazon]