Friday, April 20, 2012

Primer Makes Hard SF Human

Part of me really longs to enjoy hard science fiction. After all, the chosen subgenre of H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov has already stood the test of time, with some of its best works surviving several generations. For the life of me, though, I just can't muster enthusiasm for book-long treatises on how to terraform Mars or the niceties of hanging a space elevator in Earth's orbit. Such things may interest the super-smart set, but I'm a lowly man with a bachelor's in English and a yen for compelling tales about interesting people. Page after page of technical jargon makes the elephants dance on my eyelids. That's why writer/director Shane Carruth's debut film, Primer, proved such fascinating viewing: It makes hard SF human.

Aaron and Abe are going nowhere fast. Low-paying, full-time jobs keep them cash-strapped and time-poor, a deadly combination for young entrepreneurs trying to create their own company. Aaron's long-suffering wife doesn't mind the two forever tinkering the garage, but they're getting tired of selling self-built computer hardware for abysmally low margins. So Abe begins designing a new project, a weight-reduction machine so intricate and expensive it has Aaron cannibalizing his car for parts. Does it work? That's what Aaron wants to know, especially after a test run yields bizarre readings on a watch and a strangely advanced fungal growth. Abe thinks it does. He takes Aaron to a field near a self-storage facility, and what does Aaron see? Another Abe walking into the warehouse, an exact duplicate of the man sitting beside him. See, the machine doesn't reduce weight. It shifts a person back in time. Now they only have to decide what to do with it. ...

"Frankly, anybody who claims he fully understands what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar," says Esquire reviewer Mike D'Angelo. "Trying to get a fix on the film is like following the path of one blade on a high-speed ceiling fan; give it a shot if you like, but don't be surprised if you wind up very dizzy." Indeed, I'll admit that I resorted to Wikipedia a time or two while penning the above summary. Carruth keeps non-techincal exposition to a minimum, preferring instead to toss around engineering jargon that nearly made my eyes cross. Once both of them get into the machine -- no real spoiler there, right? -- things get even more complicated. Multiple versions of Aaron and Abe begin popping up, inserting themselves into earlier iterations' money-making and power-grabbing schemes. The good folks at io9 even resorted to a flowchart to keep the proceedings straight.

Sounds like everything I'd dislike, right? Not exactly. While all of the technical machinations matter, they aren't the film's sum and substance. That belongs to the characters themselves, their hopes and dreams and the way their lack of personal integrity sabotages them. We see single Abe longing for family life even as Aaron chafes under its restrictive routine. Their first impulse isn't to use the technology to right wrongs, but rather to pad their pockets and tell off their boorish boss. While the complexity swells as Primer progresses, people remain its focus, and the film never forgets to keep hard SF human.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Profound Whatever)


Jim Murdoch said...

Saw the film a while back and I have to agree. I did find a flowchart at the time that 'explained' the film--not sure if it's the one you link to here--but it gave me a headache; I'm just content to accept that it could have worked. About time I watched it again I think.

Loren Eaton said...

When one Abe starts injecting knock-out drugs into another Abe's milk is about where I lost the thread. But I still found it a really interesting story.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I saw the film with a room full of engineers. Needless to say, one hour and one excessively large whiteboard later, we knew exactly what happened, as well as a lot about the fundamental nature of the universe in which Primer takes place.

As far as the larger realm of hard SF goes--I feel ya, bro. Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars has been collecting dust on my shelf for years, it seems. Sometimes, I feel that the much-criticized "handwavium" used by almost all Hollywood SF is the greatest invention of SF--it allows them to tell a human story while not worrying about the technical facts. After all, Dr. Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are two of my favorite shows--and they really *only* make sense on a human level, with their speculative aspects disintegrating under too close scrutiny.

If you want some medium SF, try Neal Stephenson. His stories tend to take place after "the singularity" (i.e. the moment at which the world has changed so profoundly that prediction is just about useless). This, it turns out, is a good thing. Yes, his Diamond Age requires you to investigate its trippy human-component computers, semi-intelligent books, and ubiquitous cheap nanotechnology to make sense of the story, and his Anathem has a lengthy set of endnotes containing actual geometric, philosophical, and mathematical proofs from the history of our world's science. But both books (the only two I've read so far) don't force you to understand every minutae of his world. In fact, much of the fun resides in the fact that his worlds are in some ways incomprehensible, if plausible.

From my parochial viewpoint, it seems Neil Stephenson does hardish SF right--his stories are energized by real science, and inspire interest in real science, but aren't enslaved to mundane extrapolation of likelihoods or weighted down with nuts-and-bolts details. Though that said, I do enjoy the rare brilliant story, like Primer, that puts the awkward mechanisms of hard SF into the service of an interesting and thought-provoking human drama.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Speaking of semi-hard SF, have you read the serialized novella Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente? It's another fascinating experiment--it gives a surprisingly complete account of the nuts-and-bolts aspect of its premise, yet constantly shows off Valente's mastery of fantasy's more immediate and psychologically compelling narrative possibilities. In some ways, it reminded me of Neal Stephenson, but with different priorities. Stephenson's stories are driven by their fascinating technologies and insane-yet-justified conceits. Valente's is driven by its heartfelt intimacy, which allows us to understand her futurist conundrums from the inside. Neither, however, seems to fall into the central hard-SF trap: confusing interesting extrapolation with interesting narrative.

Loren Eaton said...

I haven't read "Silently," although I think I should maybe give it another try since it's been nominated for an award. (A Hugo, maybe?) I tried listening to it podcast while I drove and just found it hard to focus on.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I have to admit, I have a strong bias towards Valente, and give her stories the benefit of the doubt (even though some, such as "The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew," aren't as rewarding as hoped.) Silently more than repays that investment.

That said, you might want to read the first section in print. After listening to parts 2 and 3, Kate Baker's voice is permanently linked with that of the tale's narrator, but being able to take a moment and think through what I was reading really helped with Part 1. Everything makes perfect sense, and there really is one strong central story. It's just that different aspects of the story are told in violently different narrative styles.

Loren Eaton said...

I should try and read it, then. Audio doesn't seem the right venue for experimental, complicated pieces like that.

Thanks for the tip!