Sci-Fi network (SyFy?) once had the market cornered on good science fiction TV series. That was before they decided to rely on wrestling and straight-to-video movies to fill their programming slate. These days, everyone from AMC to MTV to the premium channels has some sci-fi or fantasy in their lineup – some good, some not. So it’s nice to see something worth recommending on Sci-Fi/SyFy.
The Expanse, based on the novels by James SA Corey, takes place in a near future in which humanity has expanded into our solar system to colonize Mars and mine the asteroid belt. There’s no faster-than-light travel, and one of the central tenets of the books is a realistic approach to the science and challenges of space travel and survival. Continue reading
We took in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last weekend. First movie night since our previous baby-sitter went to college, so yeah, the wife and I were reminiscing with friends about how we used to see movies every weekend…
We enjoyed this film quite a lot – sometimes in spite of itself. As far as I’m concerned, the more big budget movies that reasonably attempt to intelligently tackle space travel and sci-fi themes the better. Yes, the Nolan brothers are insistent here – insisting that their framework of time and inter-generational connectivity drive the plot – even in the face of the extreme distance and sheer statistical unlikelihoods of interstellar travel. Just like the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Memento, the Nolans are all in, using the conventions of movie storytelling and expectations to reinforce their thematic agenda. As noted: insistent.
We liked the generational love-story. Very intense, very different from your typical male/female lead romance. We liked the slow-build first act, reminiscent of Close Encounters. We liked the scope and feel of the big space moments, supported by an effective score. The acting performances were all first-rate.
So the science aspect of Interstellar, the insistence on the narrative framework inter-connections… Yes, they work in the moment, but afterwards this bothered me a little. And if you look at other reviews of this movie, you’ll find the sci-fi community a little less enamored of it than the general consumer, mostly for this reason. Ideas on relativity and time, and sustainable life in the proximity of black holes – these are tough to convey to a general audience without too much dumbing down. I’d be curious to know what actual physicists thought about this.
Still, it’s a very good movie, and if you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy Interstellar, you should certainly give it a look.
…written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffra, and Amanda Silver; directed by Matt Reeves; starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Toby Kebbell. And some really good CGI guys…
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the better sci-fi dramas we’ve seen lately. Set in a post-infectious disease event world, with the vast majority of humans having succumbed to the simian virus in the previous movie, the film rightly begins with the apes. They are, after all, the stars of this show.
Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes have built a thriving hunter-gatherer civilization outside the ruins of San Francisco – and we quickly learn they have language (written, spoken, and sign), specialized roles, laws, and yes, politics. They’ve seen no humans in years (and are happy about this) when a human blunders into an ape hunting party and promptly shoots one of the apes.
Turns out, the survivors of San Francisco are running low on fossil fuels, so they’ve traveled out to the apes’ forests in an attempt to get the old hydroelectric dam working. But Caesar’s having none of it. He rallies the apes, who converge upon the humans and let them know they need to stay in the city and leave the forest to the apes.
A couple of quick recommendations for readers of science fiction and comic books on a cold February’s day…
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, his first book, is a military-themed Heinlein-ian story with heart and humor. The basic premise: when earth-dwellers reach the age of 75, they have the option go sever all ties with their home and enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces to help protect and advance humanity’s outposts in interstellar space. Not much is known about what happens when you enlist on Earth, but most agree it involves a significant physical modifications. You also get the opportunity to settle in one of the colonies once your enlistment is up.
John Perry, a widower from Ohio, signs up, and we follow him on his journey. Scalzi does a fine job of narrating from the perspective of a man whose lived a full life, confronted by some pretty fantastic dangers and situations.
This is the third book I’ve read in recent years by Scalzi. The last one, Redshirts, comes with our highest recommendations, and I’m looking forward to picking up his most recent offering, The Human Division, soon.
In Brief: Set right after Episode IV, Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels finds Han Solo and Chewbecca looking to score some bank from a heist of a local crime lord. Of course it’s more complicated then that, especially when Lando shows up…
Pros: Zahn’s done his homework on plotting – anything from The Sting to Sneakers to Oceans 11. He also knows the Star Wars universe well enough to add some easter eggs for the hardcore fans and has a good sense of dialogue for the established characters.
Cons: Any good heist story involves a lengthy setup and establishment of the rules of the target. While Zahn does a solid job here, especially with incorporating the tech of the SW universe, this may cause the book to drag for some readers.
Review: Your devoted Star Wars geek knows of Timothy Zahn, long considered one of the best novelization authors out there. His Heir to the Empire series, which takes place soon after Episode VI, was good enough to draw me in to several more of Zahn’s books. With that history, the Scoundrels premise (and cover) grabbed me as soon as I saw it in the store.
Scoundrels has Han and Chewie looking for work in the months after the destruction of the first Death Star. Han has already lost his reward from the Rebel’s victory at Yavin, and Jabba’s bounty hunters are moving on him again. An encounter with a young man called Eanjer opens up an opportunity. Continue reading
In Brief: Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special is a steampunk alternate Western with fantastic trappings. That’s a lot of genre-melding. Familiar events in Tombstone proceed down a different path amidst shamanic magic and alternate Tom Edison’s inventions.
Pros: Resnick is a master of dialogue and a student of the real history of the West. The characters are so familiar (based on real people we know from history and other media), and its fun to see them reimagined within this setting.
Cons: The dialogue-heavy and scene-by-scene style really stretches at times. The pace suffers as a result, and you may find yourself wondering if this story is a novella dressed in a short novel’s clothing.
Review: The Buntline Special is the first in a series of Weird West tales penned by legendary sci-fi writer, Mike Resnick (check him out). We’ve been reading Resnick since first discovering sci-fi novels and also enjoy his series of reflections with colleague Barry Malzberg on the state of business and writing in the speculative fiction world. So a Weird West series, with obvious steampunk and fantasy element (just look at the cover), written by a great sci-fi author… We’re in.
Mostly, it’s a fun read that goes quickly. Mostly, it works. Here we are in Tombstone, Arizona. The Earp brothers are feuding with the Cowboys, led by the McLaury brothers. Wyatt Earp has sent for Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson. Sound like any one of many familiar movies? Tombstone is the one that plays in my head here.
In Brief: Alastair Reynolds’ epoch-spanning, pan-galactic novel features very intelligent, very human characters questing after universal mysteries while confronting the seeds of violence and intrigue sowed from within their own neo-utopian society.
Pros: Reynolds, who worked for years as an astrophysicist with the EU Space Agency, has an unwavering command of the scale and breadth of his galaxies. His ideas can be eye-popping and wondrous, and yet they come across as grounded in scientific reality. The plot is fairly tight, the lead characters approachable (for post-human clones).
Cons: Reynolds sometimes writes with the detached sterility of an astrophysicist. The front-loading required to get the plot moving in the first 50-75 pages may require some patience.
Review: Alastair Reynolds has received good pub on his science fiction novels for more than a decade. He’s an author I’ve been meaning to read for quite awhile, having started but put down one of his earlier books. I picked up House of Suns after seeing several good reviews elsewhere; I’m glad I did.
As with any new sci-fi novel or series, the first points the author needs to establish, in addition to the characters, are how the technology works and its relative level of advancement. We get an early glimpse in HoS with lead characters Pursulane and Campion building and deploying a star-dam for a grateful civilization. The star-dam is a series of interlocking fields designed to keep the star in place, regulating its energy dispersal as it goes nova, thus giving any nearby inhabitants millions more years to live in the region. Cool concept, expertly described here.
In Brief: In Redshirts, John Scalzi cleverly riffs on the Star Trek universe and its many imitators from the point-of-view of the junior crewmen. You know, the guys with short life expectancies wearing the red shirts.
Pros: The book has some laugh-out-loud funny parts, and Scalzi’s economy of language and ability to set up characters and scenes makes for smooth reading. The story also toys with ideas of creativity and the overused sci-fi paradigm of alternate universes in a smart and entertaining way.
Cons: If you don’t like Star Trek or have some familiarity with some of the tv series, you won’t get the full extent of some of the humor and scenarios. Conversely, if you’re an overly sensitive Trekkie who takes umbrage at any implied criticism of the Enterprise and its continuing missions, you may want to duck and cover.
Review: Last summer we heard John Scalzi plugging Redshirts on a radio interview and the book immediately went into the reading queue. Here’s the premise, straight from the novel’s back copy:
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.
Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to realize that 1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces, 2) the ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and 3) sadly, at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Unsurprisingly, the savvier crew members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs.
Then Andrew stumbles on information that transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.
Having read and enjoyed some other Scalzi books, it didn’t take much to get me on board. What I recall from the radio interview was how much fun he obviously had writing this project and describing, as well as how much fun the interviewer obviously had reading it. Throw in the fact that Scalzi worked as a writer/creative consultant on the Stargate: Universe tv show, so know his mass market and media sci-fi.
In Brief: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is good science fiction/space opera set in our solar system. The first in a trilogy (naturally), this book provides strong characterization and a mix of detective fiction and military sci-fi.
Pros: Corey’s two main characters are interesting dudes with problems who also give us a solid foundation of the book’s universe. The belters vs. inner planet politics and conflict is very well done, and the pacing and basic writing are effective. We also dig the old-school cover art.
Cons: A couple of overly familiar themes lie at the heart of this book: a first contact scenario (albeit a different take on it) and the evil and greedy military-industrial corporate antagonist. However, these are relatively minor issues.
Review: A reasonably plausible future setting with space travel, inter-planetary politics, ship-to-ship battles… Add elements of mystery and possible extra-terrestrial contact. Sounds like space opera, which is where Leviathan Wakes firmly plants it flag. Along with time travel stuff, space opera is the subset of science fiction I enjoy most, but man, oh, man is this a subset that can be (and often is) done poorly. Fortunately that doesn’t happen with this book. James S.A. Corey (pen-name for the collaborative duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) knows the pitfalls of the genre better than most.
Star Wars. Yes, I’m a fan. Not an obsessive, obnoxious fanboy. Not someone who can’t see the flaws or critical failings of certain aspects of various media and, er, films… But I am someone who’s read my share of tie-in novels, and comics, played the video games, reveled in the Robot Chicken and Family Guy episodes. I’ve even tracked down and watched the Star Wars Holiday Special. As an adult. Sober.
And there’s this:
The photo you don’t see here (because I don’t put the kids’ photos on the blog) features the two of them along with us in their jedi gear to, you know, complete the theme.
Despite this, I haven’t pushed the movies or even the Clone Wars show on the kids. In fact, I haven’t let them watch the movies all the way through yet because I wanted them to be old enough to appreciate it (and hopefully realize that Jar Jar ain’t cool).
Kids love Jar Jar, though. Lucas wasn’t wrong about that.
I’m also torn on the whole question of sequencing. Do you start with the original or do you go in Episodic order? Seriously, this is an important decision. See here for more wisdom on this.
Thanks to the Lego Star Wars video games, the sequencing question is sort of moot now. So too, any concerns about enthusiasm or pushing my own geek agenda on my kids…