Monday, 26 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.

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 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?
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 only left-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.

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 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.
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.
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.

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.

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.
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.
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... 
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. 


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, 14 December 2011

Worlds have been built

Just finished all the world building for the new novel - well, probably. I'll likely have to refine it all when I get a decent way into the actual writing, and deliberately left some details on the last few universes a bit vague in case the story goes somewhere completely different.

(see, this is a second novel, so I'm trying to learn from the first one...)

So now I have to go back into that general story plan I wrote a few months ago, and update it with all the strange things I learned while figuring out how these seven universes work. I'll probably get into the first draft proper very early in January. If the last book is anything to go by, and if the new one turns out to be about half the length (still novel sized!), then I should be done sometime in 2012.

Hopefully before the world ends.

(well, actually, pretty much definitely before the world ends, but that's another story entirely)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

New Stuff!

First off, that paperback version of The Last Man on Earth Club is done and available for sale on People are already buying it - a bit of a surprise since I haven't done much marketing yet, but a nice surprise all the same!

Sadly, it's unlikely to come to any time soon, because CreateSpace books only go on Amazon's US site. I could have done a Lulu version, but decided not to bother once I found out how much they wanted me to charge for the book. So you'll have to get it from the US for now - sorry!

The blog's been updated with lots of new material - pages for books and films I've done, plus a bonus for Last Man on Earth Club fans: the scripts for the original version of the story, when it was intended to be made as a series of short films on the web. Plus you can now see Satnav Lifestyle, the last film I made, thanks to my co-conspirator Amelia Tyler putting it up on YouTube for all to see.

Plus you don't have to go to all the trouble of downloading a sample of The Last Man on Earth Club if you just want to check it out - the sample is now here on the blog, powered by the nice people at Goodreads. Or you can just read some reviews, if you like.

I should probably go and tell more people about all this, now :-)

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,
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.

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 Stand originally 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.

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 Preacher as 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 fiancĂ©e, 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.


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.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Stand By

So I'm re-reading The Stand, just so I can put in my tuppence in a review, and what should happen?

I get a cold.

It's not exactly superflu but it was exquisitely timed. It's like the virus knew I was reading about a deadly bioengineered flu-based pandemic that wipes out humanity.

This is no normal virus. This is a method virus.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to take a bath in Lemsip.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Apocalypse Review: Contagion

It's been a while since I blogged, so I decided I might as well give myself something to talk about - this is the first in what will be a semi-regular series of reviews of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films, books, comics and anything else that reaches my notice. This one comes from a very recent film, but I'll range back over older stuff too. As well as review each one, I'll add a few notes about how the apocalypse is depicted in each case.

Lots of actors means lots of actor heads
on the poster. Thus causing utter joy
for poster designers everywhere (they
only had to come to work to do the
middle bit).
(Feature Film, 2011)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns

Amazon US Blu-Ray/DVD (release date: 3rd Jan 2012)
Amazon UK Blu-Ray/DVD (release date: 5th March 2012)

REVIEW (spoilers!)

Somewhere in the world, two viruses meet and share RNA; a chance recombination that creates a new killer disease. Within days, it’s spreading across the globe. Within weeks, millions are dying and the world’s authorities are racing to find a cure as society collapses around them.

Contagion is a relatively realistic depiction of what might have happened if H1N1 or SARS hadn’t been spotted ahead of time and prevented from doing their worst. This time, the infection makes an unfortunate connection in a Hong Kong casino, and is taken to Japan, Europe and the US by business travellers, from where it rages uncontrolled across the world.

The film refuses to follow just a single protagonist, instead taking what seems a very sensible choice for this kind of global narrative: a number of characters push the story forward, all trying to stop the infection in one way or another: Matt Damon as a father with immunity to the disease, trying to protect his daughter who may not be immune; Laurence Fishburne at the CDC, running the US response to the disease; Kate Winslet as a scientist sent to Minnesota to persuade the state authorities to prepare; Marion Cotillard as a WHO official sent to Hong Kong to trace the beginnings of the virus; and Jude Law as a conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccination agitator. This approach works well, especially in the early stages of the film as we flit from city to city across the world and see how the infection begins, building tension without the need for hyperbole. The first half of the film is gripping and horrifying, using the medium beautifully, keeping the music low-key while focusing on shots of people touching things, implying all those methods of infection long before someone actually spells it out – by which time it’s too late. Something very like a subtle tilt/shift lens marks out the flashbacks to key moments during the initial infection, isolating the characters in frame without losing the surrounding space – but none of these tricks overwhelms the story, which refuses to sensationalise what’s happening even as the bodies start to pile up. 

But as it goes on, the multiple-narrative approach tends to work less well; it’s hard to give each character the time they need to develop, and some strands seem to vanish entirely – the Hong Kong story virtually disappeared for what felt like half an hour. Characterisation is difficult when you only have the time for broad strokes, and as realistic as the science in this film is, the characters tend to turn into shorthand tropes: the scientist testing the cure on herself, a kidnappee developing Stockholm Syndrome, the conspiracy theorist acting like an idiot, the heroic virologist told to shut down his work but then giving it just one more try and discovering something vital, the husband who knows about the threat warning his wife to get out of town and setting off a panic because she inevitably tells her best friend. If there isn’t a TV Tropes page for the characters in this film yet, there should be.

There’s another problem with the multiple narrative approach, which it shares with anthologies: one story almost always ends up being not as good as the others. In this case, it’s almost everything to do with Jude Law and his anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, who promotes a homoeopathic remedy that doesn’t work, while claiming the actual vaccine is a lie. I’m no fan of people who endanger the lives of millions by falsely claiming that vaccines often cause conditions worse than those they protect against, but such people do at least try to give the impression of plausibility, which Law never manages. This isn’t really his fault, but rather a problem of writing. He’s been turned into a straw man: obviously wrong for no reason other than to make it clear that he’s wrong. I would have been more convinced of the danger he represents if he seemed to really have some kind of honest belief in what he was saying – if he acted as though he were the hero in his own little film, rather than an annoying crank. 

There’s one final failing which spoiled the end of the film for me, and that’s the way in which it tries to be a satisfying narrative when the reality of what would happen doesn’t easily fit into the usual template of a feature film. The main narrative tension through most of the story comes from the lack of a vaccine, and the increasing horror as the disease takes its toll. And then the vaccine is found, but that’s not where the story ends. It jumps forward several months, the time needed for the vaccine to be mass produced. These would be months of terrible privation, as people feared contact, as food supplies grew short and the medical profession would be worse than decimated through their constant contact with the infected. But while do we see little bits of social unrest and a single mass grave, the long months of social decline are mainly shown by the fact that rubbish hasn’t been collected for a long time, and it doesn’t take a worldwide pandemic to cause that (people in New York, the UK and Naples have all seen this happen for much lesser reasons at one time or another). The final act of the film has little tension in it, because all it really concerns itself with is the slow process of vaccine distribution and a return to normality. The worst is already over, but stories of this length work best when the worst comes right at the end; so all we have are a serious of somewhat flaccid scenes wrapping up the various narratives and reassuring us that everything’s going to be okay now. Sure, the world’s lost many millions of people, but Matt Damon puts on a prom night in his house for his daughter, so things must be better. And Laurence Fishburne makes up for causing the panic that doubtless killed many thousands by giving his dose of vaccine to his cleaner’s son. These endings seem false and cloying, as though the only way to cope with the horror is by smearing it with treacle.

And with nothing at stake during the conclusion of the film, the epilogue that shows how the disease got its start and spread into the casino to infect Gwyneth Paltrow and dozens of others seems superfluous. The film would have vastly more impact if this ending followed a moment of great horror, illustrating how very simply that horror began – but with all risk and tension gone, all it can do is satisfy curiosity.

But nevertheless, this film still stands head and shoulders over most stories about apocalypses, mainly because it doesn’t try to turn it into an adventure. That makes it vastly more horrifying, because we can all too easily grasp how real this threat is, and that our world can be reduced to chaos by nothing more than a disease. Despite going on a bit of rant about the second half of the film, I did largely enjoy the whole thing. I just wish it hadn't turned so sentimental at the end.


Where this film largely excels is in its depiction of a viral apocalypse. Most apocalypses in film are presented as backdrops for adventure, but this one is taken seriously and shown as realistically as they can manage, given the constraints of a feature film (which are far tighter than most people realise).

Viral apocalypses are a very unlikely candidate for a full human extinction, and Contagion illustrates why this is the case. The virus depicted in the film is nowhere near as deadly as the bubonic plague, which repeatedly left Europe mourning anything up to half its population, from late antiquity (the Plague of Justinian) to early modern times (the 1665 plague). But Yersinia Pestis is no longer a real threat; either we have evolved to deal with it, or it has evolved to be less deadly. These days, the greatest threat is from bugs that take the opportunity of mass world travel to become far deadlier than they would once have been, but even these have a mortality rate of about 1% (which the film quotes for the Spanish Flu of 1918, though the death rate from the MEV contagion in the film may well be higher). This still means many millions of deaths and economic disruption that may take decades to recover from, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

(Viral apocalypses can, though, work for populations which have been isolated from the rest of the world for a long time; witness the effect of smallpox and measles in the New World, and the often 100% mortality rate for Inuit societies that traded with passing European and American whalers. While global travel spreads disease, it also helps humanity to survive by exposing us to things we might otherwise never meet, spurring us to medical research which helps to keep us far healthier than our ancestors)

The response to the disease is only marginally less realistic: the film adopts the multiple narrative style to illustrate firstly the individual patient zeroes of several countries, and then to show various aspects of the response to the plague. The difficulty of this is covered extremely well, and anyone watching should come away with a very good sense of how such a pandemic would be dealt with if it really happened, explaining key concepts like R0 by having a character try and explain this to a bureaucrat who thinks only in terms of how much the CDC are trying to steal her budget. The only real problem is that the film necessarily has to resort to shorthand; as much as it covers an event on a global scale, each story it shows has to be condensed down to a digestible size. This means that we only see one main administrator at the CDC, who seems to have only one operative in the field in one part of the US. And surely the CDC would have more than two scientists in their lab trying to figure the virus out? But no film could cope with the vast numbers of people that would really be involved in such efforts; that they show one scientist working in a lab elsewhere who makes a vital contribution does at least give some sense of distributed effort. A TV series or novel would be better to give a deeper sense of the effort needed to fight such a disease, but Contagion has to work within very narrow limits, and does an excellent job with what time it has.

Sunday, 25 September 2011


...I just went and did a Lucas all over my book.

Not as bad as a full-on stinking Lucas, where the original work is obscured to the point that characters are acting differently and scenes now mean opposite things. This is a rather more minor affair; a sweep through the text to make improvements, clarify points, and generally get rid of some shoddy sentences that had no right being there in the first place.

But even so, it places me in that devilish position of having altered the work after publishing it. Self-published authors are notorious for this, especially when they haven't done a particularly good job of proofreading and editing, and are then prodded into making improvements after they read the scathing reviews. This wasn't the case for me, though I did take into account some comments on matters other than editing. Anyway - I felt it needed to be done. So I'd best explain why, and what I'm doing to make the process a little easier for those who've already shelled out their cash...

1) This happened because I finally got round to doing the POD version via Createspace. I decided the beginning wasn't quite as good as it could be. Maybe the first few paragraphs needed toning down a bit. And then there were a few lines of dialogue that didn't ring true. And a couple of points that could have been clearer. And then... well, once you get started, it's impossible to stop. Most of the changes are in the very first chapter, but there's lots of little bits all over the place. None of which changes the story or the characters, and I doubt a new reader will even notice. You might not even spot the majority of changes on a re-read. It's largely a matter of polishing. While I was at it, I had another go at the cover, simply because my graphic design skills are limited and I'd grown sick of the old one.

2) If you bought the Smashwords version before all this - just download the latest revision. You can always get any revision later than the one you initially paid for. Kindle customers can re-download it, and they'll automatically get the latest version. If you want to keep the old one, you'll have to save it somewhere else before you get the new one.

However, people who bought it at Barnes & Noble and the other online retailers Smashwords distribute the book to won't be able to get a free update (I think - I'm not sure how they run things). Therefore, if you've paid hard cash for the book but would like the new version without paying even harder cash, please use the following Smashwords voucher to get a free copy: QH68Y. This will be up until the end of October, by which point the book should have filtered through to other retailers, and hopefully it won't be a problem any more.

And now I need to get back to that POD version, and some more work on the new novel. I'll try and write something interesting on here soon. Promise!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Sound of Something Almost Silent

That gentle whispering you hear in the leaves. That gentle cry from a robin's nest. That sonorous hint from a distant road.

This is not the sound of me doing nothing.


I'm getting into the planning and worldbuilding for the next novel. I've got a reasonably solid outline now and I'm figuring out how the seven worlds we visit in the story all work. It's all terribly complicated. I feel like I'm building humans from scratch, which requires some pretty amazing chemistry to avoid them all coming out like gloop.

So I'm just going to work quietly by myself for a while. I've got too much history to write. And it's far too much fun.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Ardourish Racket

Hm. Might need to rethink that title. It sounds... wrong.

But anyway: the endlessly generous Nick Spalding has listed my little book on his wildly wonderful blog, Spalding's Racket. You should go and look at his books at Amazon UK or Amazon US or Smashwords, because they're really rather good. His basic idea for Life... With No Breaks is demented and insanely difficult to achieve with the quality he managed.

Also, I want his sales, dammit!

In other news, Bonnie of Bookish Ardour has allowed me to grace her writing blog with a guest post about  planning stories. You may recall Bonnie saying nice things about my book and letting me be very silly in an interview; she's looking to do lots more good things with more contributors, so anyone who's interested should head over there and drop her a line.

I'm knee deep in plotting my next novel. Just for fun, I threw away the second half and started again. But at least it's starting to make sense now. Next up: research! Lots of research. Vast amounts of research. And worldbuilding. I've gone and made another seven worlds or so again. It took me six months to figure out the worlds for Last Man on Earth Club; I wonder how long it'll take this time?

Saturday, 30 July 2011


Apparently there's a Paul R Hardy extravaganza going on over at a lovely, wonderful blog by the name of Reawrite!

Kellie (she of the blog) reviewed LMOEC for Sift and now she's running this lovely mini-event thing on her own blog, which is thoroughly nice and brilliant of her. So there's an interview with me, that review thing, and a free copy of the book up for grabs!

So take a wander over this weekend and witness the glory that is the extravaganza.


Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Superhero Apocalypse Problem

Superheroes are a problem.

Well, actually, they cause lots of problems (the biggest complaint being that they’re inherently silly), but the one that concerns me most is their intersection with the Post-Apocalyptic genre.

These two genres don’t mix. They can’t mix. The whole purpose of a superhero is to save the world, or at least some part of it. By their very nature, they mitigate against an End of the World scenario.

But at the same time, the genre invites the apocalypse to its door, again and again. Superheroes who save the world need to save the world from something. And therefore every superhero universe is constantly flirting with disaster. The apocalypse is permanently looming just over the horizon, far closer than in a sane and sensible world like ours (well, okay, a relatively sane and sensible world like ours).

But it never actually happens. At least, not for long. This is not to say that dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories haven’t been told in the superhero genre, it’s just that there’s always a way to hit the reset button, and it always gets used. The basic structure of some of these stories have been used so many times that they’re instantly recognisable. Here’s a classic example:

The hero or heroes are propelled forward into the future, and discover that something went horribly wrong at about the time they left, and now their world is a horrible wasteland/dictatorship/playground for alien invaders/whatever. They fight the enemies in the future, ally themselves with the last surviving heroes who didn’t get zapped into the future, convince them to help them get back to the past, and then make sure the problem never happens when they get home.

Every now and then someone tries to buck the trend – for example, the Wildstorm Universe had the above happening and then showed what happened when the superheroes failed to solve the problem, but even that’s about to be wiped away as the last bits and pieces of the cancelled Wildstorm imprint are folded into the DC Universe. On those rare occasions when an apocalypse does last, it’s always off on the side somewhere, like the Marvel Zombie world, or “Angor”, a world that suffered nuclear destruction mainly so that various survivors could cause problems for the Justice League. And even that one was rebooted a few years ago.

The superhero genre flirts with the apocalypse, but never marries it. Which is strange, given the attitude of the superhero genre to most others: one of utter inclusivity. It grabs bits and pieces from fantasy, science fiction and horror as and when it needs to, and is flexible enough to plunder almost anything else. Perhaps most delightfully, the Justice League was once turned into a situation comedy for a few years, both acknowledging the inherent silliness of superheroes and revelling in it (who can’t love the idea behind the one-shot Justice League Antarctica: getting rid of some annoying incompetent supervillains by placing them in a position where they can do no harm – protecting a virtually empty continent. Until they get attacked by penguin-piranha hybrids, of course...)

There’s one thing most superhero stories can’t do: come to an end. They go on, month after month, year after year, changing and modifying and telling the same basic stories to each generation as it comes, rebooting whenever things get too complicated. And because they never end, there’s one genre they can never really get hold of: Post-Apocalyptic. This is a strange paradox, because a superhero universe is, as I said above, constantly on the brink of apocalypse. Aliens are always ready to invade. Other universes hold worlds full of potential genocidal maniacs. Mad scientists are always inventing ways to end the world, even if only by accident. Brooding villains plot against the world. Disillusioned heroes can go off the rails at any moment. And let’s not forget how horrifying normal people can be when confronted with a wave of superhumans in their midst: the parallels between the Holocaust and treatment of “mutants” in Marvel comics are intentional and deliberate.

There are more than enough ways to achieve an apocalypse even in our world: how on earth do they manage it in a superhero universe when there are so many more, even given all the people trying to prevent it?

The short answer is: because the story must go on and must keep selling, or else all those people who work for Marvel and DC will be out of a job, and the shareholders of their parent companies won’t get the benefit of the constant reselling of these properties into other media. On the level of the story itself, there’s a strong impetus to show the good guy beating the bad guy, and morality winning out, however tenuously. Because, y’know, kids read these things.

This leaves an uncomfortable status quo for the superhero genre, at least for those of us whose interest has outgrown the youthful fascination with people in costumes hitting each other. Many of us are driven to look at stories outside the mainstream universes, which have the opportunity to come to a conclusion. But even then, they have a tendency towards a hopefulness that I don’t think reflects the true nature of a world that must suffer the presence of superhuman beings. Watchmen and Miracleman/Marvelman are probably the most obvious of these, both of which end up showing streets washed with blood and spattered with corpses. Despite this, both stories end on a more or less hopeful note as the terrible massacres provoke a response of rebuilding and co-operation. Both stories are, in different ways, inversions of the superhero-saving-the world story, but nevertheless, the world is saved. I think the fact that the number of superhumans in these stories is relatively small helps bring this about; a world with a wider flowering of superhumanity – such as in the mainstream superhero universes – would be in a lot more trouble.

So what might a world constructed upon the basic premise of a superhero universe be like if it actually happened? What is that premise, anyway? I think it’s this: A world roughly like ours begins to see superhumans created on a large scale, by some uncontrollable and random means; some superhumans use their powers to help people, and some use them for more selfish ends.

(note that this isn’t the premise of a superhero story; it’s the premise of a superhero universe. Also, there will be variation depending on how long ago this started happening, but I’ll leave that to one side for now as it complicates things unnecessarily)

I think that if you have enough superhumans in the world, it ends up being doomed, simply because the kind of power to destroy that we normally reserve for parliaments and presidents is given quite randomly to ordinary human beings to use and abuse at will. Of course, the world will do its best to prevent this – I expect there would be pogroms and genocides in some places, intensely strict legislation in others, and at the very minimum a registration process for anyone with a superhuman ability – but in the end, it’ll be like trying to hold back the tide.

I doubt that it would necessarily be some massive cataclysm that ends it all in some sudden way, but rather a series of smaller disasters that erode the capability of the world to sustain life. Say, for example, a melting of the icecaps. Or a disease that wipes out a huge part of humanity, or makes them sterile. Or something that wipes out the crops that feed millions. Or disperses the ozone layer, letting in a UV flood. Or wipes out a nation with grey goo. Or the destruction of the moon, wrecking the normal tidal cycle, destabilising the earth’s spin and causing multiple asteroid strikes from bits and pieces of the smashed moon. All of these things can probably be moderated or contained, and maybe even reversed in the long term, given the power available to those trying to save the wold. But it’s easier to destroy than create, and with enough people carrying these kinds of powers, I don’t hold out much hope for a world suffering the affliction of superhumanity as it's usually depicted in a superhero universe.

As much as I still love the genre, this is one reason why I haven’t read a lot of it lately. Like most people who were alive at the time, I survived the Cold War, although I had a residual and constant fear of apocalypse. Living in a superhero universe would be like this, but vastly magnified: you wouldn’t know where or how the end of the world might happen, let alone by what method. A world that could kill itself in so many ways would be a world of constant nervous terror, even among the wonders that superhumanity could bring about. Plus you’d be witnessing the constant erosion of the life you knew as more and more of it was destroyed by calamity after calamity. Definitely not somewhere you would want to live.

Which would make it an excellent place to tell a story. If I ever get round to doing it properly...

(astute readers of my work have doubtless already recognised such a world. Astute readers of the reviews of my work will likely realise this is an oblique response to some (perfectly valid) criticisms of the work. I suspect that the above is something I did not make entirely clear in my novel. Either that or a) I'm completely wrong, or b) some people don’t like superheroes at all. Oh, well...)

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


How did I forget to mention that Frida Fantastic had reviewed The Last Man on Earth Club? HOW? Probably because I was trying to get some writing done. Also that interview I need to do. And that guest blog post. Oh well, it's a hard life :-)

Also, how did I not know this madman existed?

Sigh. If YouTube had been around when I was starting as a filmmaker, this is the kind of insanity I'd have been trying to do. Clearly I was born ten years too soon :-(

(I shall try and compose a blog post worth reading soon, I promise!)

Sunday, 17 July 2011


Another happy review pops up, this time by Kellie of Sifted reviews, who specialise in SF&F reviews. Or possibly speculative fiction. Or something like that. Anyway - it's a good review. I should probably go and tell people, or something...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Books and Books

So here's the latest skinny (whatever that means):

If you want a free copy of The Last Man on Earth Club, head over to Bookish Ardour, where I've been reviewed, interviewed, and will be given away on the thirteenth of the month. It was a fun interview to do - I think Bonnie has the right idea: don't just send a list of questions, but do it in two or three exchanges so you get to develop some themes and a conversation.

Also, I made fun of George R R Martin's initials. Because I couldn't help it.

(I know the real reason for the initials in his name, of course: he probably doesn't want to get mixed up with this guy)

Other reviews and things are in the works. So's my new novel. And the works are damnably cranky. Excuse me while I go and oil them.