Can you take a franchise too far? Police Academy says you can, which is why I’m always a tad apprehensive before I take my seat for another Alien instalment. On the whole it’s been a good run: one or two classics, the occasional ‘meh’, and only one real stinker. But there is a formula for the best ones:
More than one killer xenomorph.
Lots of people with lots of guns, but no clue…
An android with an agenda to make things just that much harder.
No more than three survivors at the end.
So on that basis, Alien: Covenant is something of a winner.
The Covenant in question is a huge ship carrying two thousand people, in suspended animation, to a far-off world ripe for colonisation. Unsurprisingly, the ship suffers a disaster en-route (and the rather gruesome death of its captain), so the jaded crew decided to investigate a much closer world, looking to cut seven years off the journey time. The right climate, water and vegetation. It seems perfect; but of course, it’s not…
Ignoring everything they’ve seen throughout the Terminator franchise, a group of Japanese researchers have come up with a computer that writes short stories… and it’s actually produced a piece of work that got through the first round of a literary competition.
Creative writing as a manufactured commodity – that’s a scary thought, but perhaps it’s inevitable. Companies love automation: feed a few instructions in one end and get a finished product out of the other. It’s always been a popular notion that there are only a handful of stories and that everything written is a variation on those; if that’s true then why can’t a machine just write a half decent story?
In case you’re wondering how I decide which book to read next, it’s usually just a random stab on the internet. If it’s got a interesting cover, proper punctuation and decent typesetting then I’ll give it a go. Oh, and if the Guardian doesn’t like it then there’s a fairly good chance I will.
The City and the Stars falls into the interesting cover category, and it is also part of the SF Masterworks set, and that alone means it probably won’t disappoint. The book (written by the late SF demi-god Arthur C. Clarke) falls into what I call extreme Science Fiction: pushing the boundary to pretty much the end of everything. Another book in the same vein was the weighty but brilliant Seveneaves, a book that looks at what mankind will become five thousand years from now. Clarke takes it a wee bit further.
The City in question is Diaspar (a name uncomfortably close to the word despair), the last city on the desert planet Earth… a few billion years in the future. The population is content, if not happy, being able to conjure anything they need from thin air and having, after a fashion, overcome the inconvenient business of death. Well, not everyone is happy; one person in particular, Alvin, can’t settle with the idea that he’ll live for a thousand years, then after being stored in a computer for a few centuries, he’ll be reborn to do the same thing again for another thousand years. No, for Alvin, this will never do, so he decides to leave Diaspar and look for something beyond…
The genius of this book is that it’s entertaining, and at the same time, a little bit depressing. As I read it, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, is that it? Billions of years into the future and we’re still pretty much alone?’ I’ve always had a hankering to look at mundane speculative fiction: the idea that in the far future, we’re still alone and in the scheme of things, not much has changed. I think the City and the Stars fits the bill while still being a very absorbing page turner. The viewpoint is a close-in omniscient one, with Clarke jumping quite cleanly from character to character, reading his mind and then jumping out. It’s pretty seamless, and it’s rare to see it done this well. The dialogue is workable, but nothing to really write home about, but the sense of place you get from Clarke’s writing is stunning. Yes, the city of Diaspar is perfect, in a clinical, computer-generated sort of way, and although it’s large enough to hold ten million people, there’s this overriding sense of claustrophobia, especially when you’re following Alvin on his quest. The prose is somewhat stark which again lends itself well to the sterile, unchanging nature of the environment.
Not a cheery read, but very difficult to put down nonetheless.