Ad Absurdum

Christopher Fowler
A postscript to yesterday's review on the subject of 'serious' SF. (I had written that piece hastily in a Jamie Oliver airport cafe balancing my laptop beside a badly heated poached egg which I didn't have time to send back again; no wonder he went broke.) 'Ad Astra' fell at the first hurdle here because instead of an opening-out, a grand expansion of ideas that unify or coalesce or broaden to encompass humanity and all within or beyond the universe, we have a reduction of what 'serious' now appears to mean when applied to Hollywood films; family bonding, 'closure', faith, and the endless examination of the self, the self, the self. While one can think of dozens of great mould-breaking SF writers, I can conjure up only a handful of great SF movies; '2001: A Space Odyssey', 'Arrival', Annihilation', 'The Martian', 'Close Encounters', both Blade Runners, '28 Days Later', 'Children of Men' and 'Gattaca' among them, along with some terrifically enjoyable and underrated screen forays that get overlooked;
'The Omega Man', 'In Time',
'Soylent Green', 'Life', 'Orbit 9' and others. I've never been a fan of the ponderous 'Solaris' because too many SF movies use space as a metaphor for the human condition in isolation. Unfortunately 'Ad Astra', or perhaps we should just call it 'To The Stars', has beneath it's glittery wrappings a ridiculously pedestrian central story about father-son relationships. It's a shame because one of the best ideas on display here is left unexplored - that because space travel will be micro-controlled upon the results of psyche-evaluation, we will only ever be government pawns. The film can't explore this because it would take the story in the opposite direction. SF is allowed to be a bit ridiculous, of course. There's something screwy about a great many SF novels from 'Fahrenheit 451' to 'The Stars My Destination', but we buy in because the central premise allows the author to explore specific themes.
I have lately become friends with Christopher Priest, whose books I greatly admire, and he develops his stories from more mysterious starting points - the things we can't define about ourselves. There's a reason why Homer didn't explore his tale from the point of view of Telemachus - and 'Ad Astra' pinpoints it. Although I did like the zero-gravity baboons.


Roger (not verified) Sat, 07/09/2019 - 01:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Perhaps someone could make an SF movie about badly heated poached eggs - it would take highly advanced technology (or Jamie Oliver) to produce them.
Which "Solaris" is "ponderous"? Surely space is a very good metaphor for the human condition in isolation. If it's Tarkovsky's version you don't like, what about "Stalker", then? The important thing about SF is that "the central premise allows the author to explore specific themes". We accept one absurdity or impossibility, they throw in a few more ideas (perhaps the problem with Tarkovsky's SF is that he concentrates too exclusively on the themes) and we're off!

Rachel Green (not verified) Sat, 07/09/2019 - 07:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm waiting for an Iain M Banks adaptation.

Christopher Fowler Sat, 07/09/2019 - 08:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You'll have a long wait, Rachel. I was a mate of Ian's and he had endless trouble with adaptations. He's tricky to adapt, but I'm surprised that his best non-'M', 'The Wasp Factory', was never filmed. I didn't get on with his 'M' books but I have friends who love them.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 07/09/2019 - 15:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The BBC made a really good version of Iain Banks' 'The Crow Road' many years ago, featuring a young Peter Capaldi as the missing 'Uncle Rory'. It's definitely worth watching, and it starts with an unremoved pacemaker exploding in a crematorium oven. Good start.
Some of his other books, like 'The Wasp Factory', which if made by the right people, could be astonishing. 'Complicity' and 'Espedair Street' lend themselves well to adapting for film or TV. But like Mr F, I don't enjoy the books written with the 'M' in the author's name.

eggsy (not verified) Sun, 08/09/2019 - 13:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Complicity and Stonemouth have also been adapted to film and TV respectively.
Unfashionably, I do enjoy the M-works. Mr. Banks' indulgence in graphic violence, however, I feel uncomfortable with (hopefully that's the point - he always has a sound literary reason for it).

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 08/09/2019 - 21:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Iain Banks' book about Whisky, 'Raw Spirit' is superb. But then, I do like Whisky.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 09/09/2019 - 05:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you, Ian. Our library has Raw Spirit in and I'm sure it will please my husband no end.

Ken Mann (not verified) Mon, 09/09/2019 - 09:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Man in the White Suit is a great SF movie.