DVD Review: A Scanner Darkly

Banksy once opined, "I need someone to protect me from all the measures they take in order to protect me." There's a shade of that sentiment to A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's rotoscoped, philosophical science fiction stoner movie, based on a story by Philip K. Dick. Do the government have a right to choose what drugs you do or do not use? And should they hold you responsible for the things you do as a result of addiction and altered states of mind? Either way, do you want them watching you while you're in bed?

In the America of A Scanner Darkly, the concepts of open democracy have been completely reversed: every aspect of your life is available for scrutiny by the authorities, while they remain anonymous even to one another. This leads to the strange situation of an undercover narcotics agent with the codename of 'Fred' (Keanu Reeves) being assigned to investigate a shady character called Robert Arctor, even though Arctor is actually Fred's own undercover identity. Fred takes the opportunity to invasively monitor his own home because he doesn't want someone else to end up doing it, and also because it may help him get to the bottom of the psychotic scheming of his friend and housemate Barris (Robert Downey Jr). At least, that's what Fred tells himself in his more lucid moments. You see, Fred has become addicted to the dangerous drug he's supposed to be tracking down, and he's starting to genuinely have trouble understanding that Arctor and Fred are not actually two separate people.

A Scanner Darkly
curves to an interesting arc - essentially following the course of drug abuse from hilarious highs to tragic self-loss. Much of the movie consists of Arctor and his friends getting up to all sorts of drug-addled high jinks in downtrodden suburbia, before the turning point when Fred discovers that his drug abuse may have caused irreparable brain damage. It's a strange feel to the film really, as it slowly transitions from light-hearted to bittersweet, while the whole time producing quick-fire, witty dialogue that veers between the high-brow and the nonsensical and various mixtures of the two.

Downey Jr's Barris deserves special mention. If I never thought of Downey as an especially good actor before, I do now. Barris is a character who's extremely charismatic in his thoughtlessness and strangely brilliant in his stupidity. We see many different sides to this man, for example when informing on Arctor to Fred, or when making "for approximately 61 cents of ordinary household materials, the perfect home-made silencer" which actually succeeds in making the gunshot louder, or when idly watching a friend almost choke to death before lecturing him:

Alright, I'm gonna give you a little feedback since you seem to be proceeding through life like a cat without whiskers perpetually caught behind the refrigerator. Your life and watching you live it is like a gag-reel of ineffective bodily functions. I swear to god that a toddler has a better understanding of the intricacies of chew-swallow-digest-don't kill yourself on your TV dinner! And yet you've managed to turn this near death fuck-up of yours into a moral referendum on me!

A Scanner Darkly
is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But if you're looking for a psychedelic combination of the clever and the dumb, the low-key and the world-changing, the humorous and the serious - and let's face it, who isn't? - then look no further.


A Fantasy

I'm planning on trying to tighten up my story writing with a tale featuring an actual plot - including escalating tension and well thought out character motivations. Until then, there is this:

The Terrapin Piratess

I dreamt of soaring through the sky and awoke on the see-sawing deck of a wooden ship. I was lying on a towel with a pillow under my head. A parasol cast its shadow over me, a translucent white disc against a bright blue sky.

I sat up and put a hand to my head. I didn’t feel any different than I normally would of a morning, except I normally woke up in my bed and not on the deck of an old sailing ship. The prow lay ahead of me, rocking against the sky, the horizon invisible. A tall wooden pole thrust out of the deck to my right - the mast, I supposed. A few figures were about on the deck, sweeping with mops, moving heavy objects. They seemed to glitter eerily in the bright daylight.

“You’re awake then,” a woman asked. I turned to face her approaching footsteps.

All I could think to say was the most obvious question that came to mind. “What the fuck?”

“Surprised?” she asked.

“You could say that.”

She was a piratess, without a doubt: she wore baggy pantaloons and a frilly shirt. Bandoleers criss-crossed her chest, stuffed with flintlock pistols; a cutlass hung by her hip. Smoky black hair spilled out from her bandana, curling through the air like ink through water. Her left eye was covered by a patch with a smiley face on it.

“How did I get here?” I asked her. I was reasonably certain that this wasn’t a dream.

“Abducted,” she said, savouring every syllable. “Scared?”

“Annoyed,” I answered curtly. “I’ll be late for work.”

“I’m sure you recognise me,” she said, ignoring my comment and raising her nose, turning her head to display her - admittedly not disagreeable - profile. “If you’re not scared, it must only be because of an entirely understandable infatuation with my public persona.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re that piratess.”

She cleared her throat. “Which piratess?”

“The really nice one legendary for taking men for a brief ride in her ship and then giving them a lift to work.”

She gritted her teeth. “You don’t recognise me.”

Best to stay on her good side, I thought. “Of course I do. I’m just not very good with names.”

“But you know of my many nefarious and dashing deeds? My romantic conquests and impossible escapes?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping to leave it at that.

“Which did you most enjoy hearing about?” she said, feigning disinterest and again presenting her profile to me.

“Um, well…”

She examined the mast casually, at the same time resting her hand on her cutlass and angling the hilt in such a way that I could read the name engraved on it.

“The time you stole Captain Reno’s sword… Or received it as a gift…”

“Stole,” she whispered.

“Stole it from him in a… such a daring, dashing, um, nefarious fashion. In fact,” I added, getting bolder, “when I first heard of it, I was with a gentleman of lesser constitution who swooned.”

“Really?” she said, stifling a look of surprise. “I have that effect on some men, I must admit.”

“And, although it’s hardly a dashing conquest or impossible deed, I must confess that although I could never put a name to it,” I lowered my voice as if sharing a shameful secret, “I have always enjoyed hearing about your beautiful profile.”

Her cheeks reddened. “It has been said that my profile has corrupted many a gentleman.”

“So I hear. Anyway, if it’s not too far out of your way, could you drop me off at my workplace? You’d think they could survive more than a few hours without me, but you just can’t trust those guys not to open strange email attachments.”

She rested her hands on her hips - satisfied with my flattery, it seemed. “It’s a lot of effort to turn a ship around once she’s underway. If I catch a fish I don’t want to keep, I usually just chuck it over the side…”

“I can’t swim.”

“Ha!” she barked.

She grabbed my arm and pulled me up and over to the side of the ship. I resisted a little, but I didn’t think she‘d throw me over.

“Ta-da!” she exclaimed.

I peered timidly over the side. “What kind of ship is this?”

“The best kind of ship,” she said proudly. “The kind mounted on the back of a giant terrapin.”

“So where are we?”

“The Great Desert.”

What I had taken for the rocking of a ship at sea was in fact the swaying of the terrapin’s scaly green legs as it crossed vast dunes of sand. Now I was no longer under the parasol, the sun seemed to be cooking my skin. “Is there actually much to plunder in the middle of the Great Desert?” I asked.

She went quiet. “So,” she said, “you really don’t know my name?”

I took a deep breath to give me time to think. “To be honest, I don’t know the names of any piratesses.”

“What,” she scoffed, “not even Sawbone Kate?”

“Well, okay, obviously it would be a bit much to imagine that I hadn’t heard of Sawbone Kate, but she’s the only one I’ve heard of. Hey, you’re not Sawbone Kate yourself, are you?”

She gritted her teeth. “No. I am most definitely not Sawbone bloody Kate.”

“Well, I’m afraid that you and all the other non-Sawbone Kate piratesses will have to just tell me what your names are.”

“My name is Annabel Lovelock,” she said, as if certain that I wouldn’t care.

“Annabel Lovelock. That’s a beautiful name for a piratess,” I told her earnestly, even if my thoughts were mostly focused on how to get home from the Great Desert.

She said nothing.

“Also,” I began, “can I ask you about this piece of jewellery I seem to have acquired?”

She peered down at the shackle around my ankle and the chain connecting it to the mast. “Merely a safety precaution. It’s a long way down to the ground from here.”

“Right. So, if I can’t leave, can I get something to eat?”


“I’d love to know what you think you’re going to catch.”

“I told you,” Annabel said, “it’s a surprise. You’ll find out when I catch one.” She jiggled the fishing rod, as if that would make the lure a more inviting target to whatever passing desert creatures might survive in the wake of a giant stomping terrapin. I couldn’t even look down, it gave me vertigo.

We sat like that for a few minutes more, our legs hanging over the side of the ship, our arms resting on the railing. I had to break the silence to bring something up that had been bugging me. “Your crew are strange.”

“They’re clockwork drudges.”

“Oh. Like robots.”

“Yeah, but analogue is the way to go. I don’t know why digital ever caught on.”

“The one in the crow’s nest?”


“It keeps shouting out, ‘Land ho!’”

“Well, it can see land, can’t it?”

“Oh, right. I guess it’s supposed to do it then.”


“So, have you always used drudges?”

She seemed to answer only reluctantly. “No.”

“You used to have a crew of human piratesses? What happened?”

She sniffed. “None of your business.”

“It didn’t work out then?”

She didn’t say anything for a long time. And then: “I think they were intimidated.”

“By you?”

“Sure,” she said, holding her head high, “by my…”

She fixed her eye on me and I realised she wanted me to finish her sentence for her. “By your smouldering beauty and sharp wit,” I suggested.

“Yes,” she said, weighing my words carefully. “I expect that was it.”

“And your giant terrapin.”

She shook her head. “No, they have a dragon. It’s much bigger. And it can fly.”

“Well, I doubt they’re as good company as you are.”

She sighed. “Okay, you can stop flattering me now. It gets tiresome in the end.”

“Oh. I actually meant it that time.”

The fishing rod twitched. “I don’t believe it,” Annabel muttered, clearly as surprised as me.

“What is it?”

She reeled it in.

“What is it?” I asked again.

She didn’t answer.

“Is it really edible?” I asked, dubious.

She pitched the rod over the side of the ship. “Let’s find a supermarket.”


“Not that I should really be pointing things like this out, but chaining me to a shopping trolley is hardly going to stop my escape. In fact, you really don’t have to chain me to anything. I’m hungry and I don’t have any money.”

“It’s just so you don’t forget that you’re my booty.”

“I’m your what?”

“My booty. You know, my stolen treasure. What did you think I meant?”

“Never mind. This floor is freezing.”

Annabel started to pull fruit and veg into the trolley indiscriminately. I followed by her side. A dreary PA announcement played, like so much white noise.

“The other customers are all looking at us,” I said quietly.

She smiled at that. “They’re probably paralysed with fear at the sight of such a fearsome piratess.”

Two women pointed at Annabel and me and whispered to one another, covering their mouths. “Or,” I suggested, “they’re laughing at the guy in his pyjamas standing chained to a guest from a fancy dress party.”

Annabel stopped shovelling potatoes into the trolley. “Is this enough vittles?”

“Excuse me?”


“How big is your fridge?”

“Don’t have one.”

“It’ll do then. Annabel, the checkouts are over there.”

She kept pushing the trolley towards the exit. “I’m a piratess,” she said. “I don’t pay for things.” A burly security guard moved to stop us, but thought twice when Annabel drew her cutlass.

Outside, the terrapin was sitting straddling a dozen parking spaces, and the drudges lowered down a platform from a crane.

Annabel pushed the trolley onto the platform and unfastened my shackle from it.

“Are you letting me go?” I asked.

“Ha! No, I just don’t want you to fall off if the trolley rolls away,” she said, adding: “It’s actually rather dramatic to watch when that happens, and the destructive side of me revels in it a little.”

I nodded silently, and wondered just how often she was successful in her desert fishing.

“Whoops!” Annabel exclaimed, before dropping the chain clumsily.

I got on the platform with her.

She cleared her throat. “That was your cue to run away.”

“Why?” I asked, a little hurt. “Are you bored with me already?”

“No, I’d catch you.”

“I thought as much - so why bother running away at all? Besides, I’m hungry.”

She gestured to the drudges peering over the edge of the ship and the platform began to lift up. “It would’ve been a bit of fun,” she muttered. “You’re a pretty rubbish prisoner.”

“You’re a pretty rubbish piratess. Nice giant terrapin, though.”


It was chewing on a nearby bus shelter, twisting the metal framework into a strange, organic shape with its reptilian beak.

“Careful,” Annabel said, putting her arm around my waist and pulling me close. “Don’t fall.”

“You’re subtle, aren’t you?”

She just smiled.

“Why do you want me as your prisoner, anyway?”

“No reason,” she said, giving me a little squeeze. “Why don’t you want to escape?”

“I’m just hungry.”

She lifted her chin, presenting her profile to me proudly. “You know, there’s no shame in having fallen in love with me. When it comes to me and men, it just seems to take the drop of a hat.”

I laughed that suggestion away, feeling strangely awkward as I did so, as if caught in a lie. “There’s no shame either,” I said, “in feeling lonely, with only clockwork for company.”

“Oh, they’re more fun than you’d think,” she answered, as we came level with the deck and its attendant crowd of androgynous brass bodies. “Right, boatswain?”

“This unit has encountered an error,” it said, helping to swing the platform over the ship, “and must be restarted.”

“See?” Annabel continued. “Always making jokes!”

The platform touched down on the deck, and drudges came to secrete away the trolley and its bounty. Annabel led me onto her ship, her arm still around my waist.

I squirmed in her embrace. “You don’t fool me,” I told her firmly, trying not to be unkind. “You’re not dangerous or frightening. And I doubt you’ve ever sunk a ship or duelled at dawn or buried treasure.”

Nobody would bury treasure,” she retorted. “You spend it. Or invest it in the stock market.” She stopped and turned to face me. “And while we’re at it, you don’t fool me either.”

I laughed. “I’m not trying to.”

She leaned closer, and for a moment I thought she was going to kiss me. I held my breath and didn’t dare move. “I think you are,” she whispered. “So we’ll just carry on not fooling one another, shall we?”

I looked deep into the eyes of the smiley face on her eye patch. “Um, what?”

She laughed and pulled me to her side again. Beneath our feet, the terrapin began to move.

“Where are we going?” I asked her. “I mean, where are you going, even though I will reluctantly accompany you there?”

“Off to find further adventures and plunder, I think,” she said. “To woo you with the riches of the world and my own courageous feats.”

“Well,” I mused, “I have some things to do which are better than being wooed by a one-eyed, cutlass-wielding woman with her own giant terrapin, but I’ll put them on hold. Speaking of the eye, wasn’t the patch on the other one earlier?”

“Of course it was. If I left it on the same one all the time, I’d probably go blind in that eye or something.”

“Oh, right. I guess that makes sense.”

She just shrugged and smiled.

She took my hand and lead. I followed.


The Never-Ending War on Inertia

I wrote a 2000+ word vignette for this week's Sunday Scribblings, but I've become stuck on the final part. I am experiencing considerable inertia in general at the moment, but hopefully I will be able to post it tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a calming picture of the majestic pearly nautilus:


Comet Halley

The nucleus of Halley's Comet as imaged by the ESA probe, Giotto. The nucleus is the bit on the far right, a dark and irregular (Arthur C. Clarke called it peanut-shaped) chunk of primordial ice and dust. Comets are believed to exist in vast numbers in parts of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, but when some event sends them careering through parts more local to us, they react pretty badly: coming to pieces as their ice sublimes away and forms a conspicuous cloud.

The picture above is a great example of robot bravery - Giotto was seriously knocked around by debris from the comet, including one impact that put it into a spin so that its Kevlar dust shield was no longer constantly protecting its sensitive bits. The camera that took this image was eventually destroyed by another impact.


The Future... in SPACE

While your tin-foil-suited life in a moon bubble may still be a long way off, there are some very exciting unmanned missions coming up over the next decade. All of the missions listed below have either already been launched or are launching this year.

August 2007: Launch
May 2008: Land on Mars

Phoenix is the latest rover lander mission to Mars, and it's heading to a radically new environment from the ones we've seen from landers so far. Phoenix will land on Mars' northern polar region, looking to understand the history of the ice there (and thereby also the history of Mars' climate) and also to search for microbial life. On top of that it has a really nifty set of fan-like solar panels.
Phoenix homepage

New Horizons
February 2007: Jupiter gravity assist
July 2015: Arrival at Pluto

New Horizons is the first mission to Pluto, and our first proper look at it. Next month, New Horizons will also become the latest mission to Jupiter, where it will hopefully do some science and get some pretty pictures. In the long run, New Horizons may also go on to visit other Kuiper Belt Objects.
New Horizons homepage

Summer 2007: launch
March 2009: Mars gravity assist
September 2011: Arrival at Vesta
February 2015: Arrival at Ceres

Dawn is a spacecraft I find it easy to get excited about: a mission to Ceres and Vesta, the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt. Vesta seems to be a pretty standard potato as asteroids go, but Ceres is round enough to qualify as a dwarf planet and seems to have some interesting features, although we have no detailed images of it.
Dawn homepage

June 2007: Venus gravity assist
March 2011: Mercury orbit insertion

The only spacecraft so far to vist the Sun's innermost planet was Mariner 10, probably because not only is it really hard to get to, so far into the Sun's gravity well, but once you're there you have to worry about intense heat and radiation. MESSENGER looks set to give us a good look at a planet that's been off the guest list for too long.
MESSENGER homepage


Pushing Ice - Alistair Reynolds

I'm a huge fan of physicist-turned-science fiction novelist Alistair Reynolds. To many of the writers who choose to set their stories in space and in the future, the realities of the Universe are hindrances to be ignored or dismissed. Reynolds, on the other hand, sees them as a ripe source of conflict, tension and surprise. And I think that he's never got this across quite so well as in Pushing Ice.

The trick, I think, is the way that the novel centres on a group of people in the near future - which, since no-one, not even Reynolds, actually knows what's going to happen in the near future, basically means a group of people recognisably of our own time - and then subjects them to extremes of space and time the likes of which none of Reynold's more exotic characters have ever experienced. A strong thread in all of Reynold's books - but this one especially - always seems to be to ask, 'but what would it really be like?' What would it feel like, what unexpected and disorienting things might we encounter, in deep space, moving at great speed, separated from our loved ones, faced with exotic civilisations? What challenges would we have to overcome?

Reynolds has a great knack for answering these questions in a dramatic and interesting fashion. Throughout Pushing Ice Newtonian and Einsteinian physics conspire together with international tensions, corporate irresponisibility and baffling alien intelligences - not to mention the sheer scale of space and time in the Universe - to throw up lethal problems that force a cast of everyday spacemen and women to re-evaluate their certainties and priorities.

The book isn't perfect, of course, the first part has a serious case of white-room syndrome that only fades in later parts of the book; I'm left with little picture in my head of what should be an iconic spacecraft. Reynolds also continues to show a slight difficulty in introducing the diversity of perspective and passage of time that he likes to use. But aside from that, Pushing Ice is a poweful, atmospheric book, full of compelling characters and situations that are both highly imaginative and very believable. Its central theme is also, while hardly original, extremely well conveyed by the span of the story: all existence is fleeting, even that of whole civilisations and species - so STFU and enjoy it while it last.


Friday Propaganda Blogging

Created by WPA War Services of LA, between 1941 and 1943


Further Calendrics

Stop! Put that calendar down! Right. Now.

Are you qualified to use that thing? Do you know the difference between a sidereal and solar day, for example? If not, Phil Plait will fill you in here.


Space Round-Up

Scientists report definitive evidence of the presence of lakes filled with liquid methane on Saturn's moon Titan in this week's journal Nature cover story.

Read more at the Cassini homepage.

Emily Lakdawalla summarises the paper and its background here.

Did bodies of liquid water shape the Martian landscape? Are reservoirs of liquid water driving the plumes on Enceladus? Here's a drier explanation for Mars and one for Enceladus too.

Do you tend to think of the moon as a flat disc? Watch it wobble here.

What will the solar system be like after the sun has gobbled up all of its tasty, nourishing hydrogen? Astrophysicists in exotic Warwick have improved our understanding. Find out what they have to say here. (Via)

So far we've only been able to detect two extra-solar planets anywhere near the size of Earth (5.5 and 7.5 times the Earth's mass, respectively). This should change thanks to COROT, a mission by the French space agency, CNES. [cf Beagle 2.]

And what about America? How about that base on the Moon?

The NASA plan endorsed the idea of a permanent base on the Moon, but did not offer a purpose for such a base: no scientific or military or practical application was identified. Instead, proposals for lunar bases have come from those who want to build the base, not from those who might use it. The goal of permanence suggests a never-ending, money-consuming program.

Louis D. Friedman has written another of his excellent critiques of NASA policy; read the whole thing here.