Monday, June 23, 2014

Fiction and Science

Given that federal and state agencies may often be compared to unkillable weeds like kudzu, Jim Geraghty may have betrayed his presuppositions by writing a satire about a fictional United States Department of Agriculture agency directed to observe and respond to their growth (That he writes for National Review probably betrays them as well). Although based on some actual federal departments, Geraghty's titular bureau in The Weed Agency is fiction. Several of the things he writes about it, though, aren't, as he indicates several real-world bureaucratic nightmares he adapted to the story of the USDA Agency of Invasive Species.

Alan Humphrey is the skilled bureaucrat who guides the agency, first created by the Jimmy Carter administration, and does so with little or no input from the actual agency director, whomever that may happen to be. We meet him as he begins to train Jack Wilkins, a young Carter White House aide who leaves the political world for the bureaucratic one. We watch as Humphrey skillfully fends off Reagan budget-cutters, Al Gore-era "fix the broken government" reformers and "Contract With America" small-government disciples. At each turn Humphrey employs a kind of bureaucracy-jitsu to demonstrate why the AIS should not only not be cut, it might even be better off expanded.

Agency follows in the path of Christopher Buckley's 1986 The White House Mess, although it's neither as broad in some of its satire or as arch in its tone. The real-world anecdotes, plus the chapter headings that display the US federal deficit and the AIS budget (hint: Neither ever shrinks), give the book some immediacy, especially as we read in actual headlines these days about the Internal Revenue Service offering an excuse for lost records that it would never accept from a taxpayer.

As the book starts, it has a tone of Humphrey revealing the secrets of his trade, so to speak, to Wilkins, and almost feels like a bureaucracy-centered version of The Screwtape Letters, wherein a senior demon explains to his rookie nephew how to tempt human beings. Geraghty doesn't stay with that theme, and Agency suffers when it wanders off as well as when it spends several pages making fun of the dot-com boom and bust. It's still funny enough and still dead on target in its mockery, but it had the potential to be more if it hadn't gotten lost in the middle and muddled around at the end.
The presence of a movie tie-in novel is usually pretty certain, especially in the case of large science fiction epics. They often provide some interestingly different perspectives on the movie's version of events. An author, sometimes a big name and sometimes not, is contracted to write the novelized version based on the shooting script or story treatment. And of course, there are always movies made from books, which do a better or not so better job of bringing their tales from page to screen.

2001: A Space Odyssey developed a little bit differently. Director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke met in 1964 when Kubrick had the idea he wanted to work on a movie about extraterrestrial life. The two hit it off, and began working on ideas -- drawing on a couple of Clarke's own 1950s short stories like "The Sentinel" and "Encounter the Dawn." They intended for the novel to come first, followed by the movie, with both projects bylined as collaborations. Clarke would have top billing on the book and Kubrick on the movie. But the two projects fed each other, changing both story and theme interactively, so they eventually came out together, with the dual credits on the movie and Clarke solo on the book. Clarke has said that the novel should also have a dual byline.

The story is similar across both media, although Clarke's book explains more of what's going on while Kubrick's movie focuses on visuals and impressions and allows for a wider range of interpretation.

The novel opens three million years ago, where a small tribe of hominids is dying out from starvation and thirst. A strange black monolith appears among them and their behavior starts to change as it affects their thinking. The peaceful, vegetarian tribe becomes hunters who learn the use of weapons and not only save themselves by learning how to feed on animals, but also defeat a neighboring tribe. From there we shift to 1999, where Dr. Heywood Floyd leads a team of scientists that finds a strange black monolith buried under the Moon's surface. Uncovered for the first time in three million years, it transmits a message to a small moon of Saturn.

Now we shift to 2001, as two astronauts and the self-aware computer HAL 9000 guide their spaceship Discovery towards Saturn on a scientific expedition. But the astronauts, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, are becoming suspicious at the behavior of their computer crewmate, and their mission may be in jeopardy. The fact that there may be more to the mission than they have been told doesn't help things.

Clarke spends a great deal of the "modern" section of the book describing the two voyages and does an excellent job in the 1999 section of showing how routine a trip to a space station and the moon have become (He did this, of course, a year before astronauts actually landed on the moon and four years before they quit). He's hit and miss on his predictive qualities; he absolutely nails the iPad when he describes a computer screen wireless newsreader but whiffs badly on the idea that six billion people on the planet mean worldwide famine and meat shortages even in the U.S.

The monoliths and their unknown purpose tie the different sections of the book together. Clarke's limitation of dialogue in the Discovery section highlights the isolation of the space travelers and provides an excellent atmosphere for the tension of the voyage into the unknown. His unadorned style reads like a news article and helps focus attention on the ideas he and Kubrick wanted front and center. Though feeling a little padded at times and dated by events, 2001 remains a journey worth taking by book as well as by screen.

No comments: