Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Beautiful Monsters

Call it the anti-Cloverfield.

Monsters was released in 2010, on a frayed shoe-string of a budget with two unknown actors (Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy) and an intriguing premise. Six years earlier a NASA probe returned from space with some sort of fungus sample. These fungoid life-forms grow to prodigious size and wreak so much havoc in Northern Mexico that the entire border is eventually sealed, half of the country turned over to the 'monsters.' Andrew Kaulder, a photojournalist, is ordered by his boss to escort Samantha Wynden (boss's daughter) from Mexico before the "migration season" starts. Andrew, a selfish, self-involved bohemian takes a fancy to Samantha during a bender on the night before they leave. This leads to some poor decision making and the eventual loss of his and the daughter's passport. The rest of the movie follows this pair as they travel north, hoping to cross over into America through the enormous wall built to keep the monsters out.



I don't want to give anyone reading this review the wrong impression. There are monsters in this movie and they're fairly important to the overall message but do not watch this with the expectation of seeing buildings knocked over and tentacled creatures blown up. It's not that kind of movie. This is a small independent travel/romance movie that just happens to include some monsters.

Any other movie and I would have to describe in tedious detail the gun-fire, explosions, and spectacular CGI forming the bulk of the story. Instead, I can simply talk about the story. Because ultimately, while this movie isn't exactly Days of Heaven or anything it does tell a good romantic tale between two well-drawn characters. Andrew is kind of a train-wreck, an estranged father and all around cynical human being using his camera as a way to cleave himself from his own life. Samantha is also on the run, taking a tour through Central America to postpone her impending marriage. 

At one point, a guide takes the characters into the jungles of Northern Mexico (geography not one of this movie's strong suits) to see the 'extraterrestrials' living in the trees. What they find are phosphorescent mushrooms ringing the trees, living in a silent communion with the life already there. It's a strangely beautiful moment,  alien light shining on both characters, while menacing whale moans fill the jungle behind them. You get the sense of this being a kind of metaphor for love itself: intrusive, unexpected, but also part of the natural order. 


Monday, July 29, 2013

Three stories

This summer I set myself the goal of finishing five new short stories and as the end of July approaches I'm halfway there. I haven't updated Ancient Logic in a little while so I thought this was a good time to record some progress on the writing front.

The first story is called "Drop-ins" and it's my attempt at a 'realistic' time-travel story. Realistic because it doesn't involve paradoxes and crazy flux-capacitors but rather a bunch of people using a neurological hack to fast-forward through their lives. Okay, semi-realistic. I don't think this story is the last word on this concept but I think the central metaphor, of sleepwalking your way to the future, is a strong one. I submitted that story this week, I'll see how it works out.

The second story more less showed up, fully formed sometimes in May.  Seeing as how I was still elbow deep in the process of bringing "Drop-ins" to life, I couldn't really stop and figure out what this new story was all about. The story's called "Correspondent" and is about a child soldier trapped within a virtual world. I don't think the concept is so high-minded but again I like the idea of someone trapped within something meant as a game. The ending is one I'm particularly proud of and most of my editing has revolved around getting the rest of the story to live up to the voice of the last third.

The final story might take a few more drafts before I get it. I've been fascinated for some time about drones and wondered if these machines could be used to explore the idea of war-zones and just-causes. Why are some places on the map free-fire zones where we can indiscriminately fire one Hellfire missile after another and others off-limits? What would happen if you gave a machine the discretion to use violence when it deemed it appropriate? I like these questions better than I like the story so far but I find the more times I start from the beginning on the story, the closer I get to what the story is trying to say. I still have a month to get it right.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Reading List

One result of going to a convention devoted to the love of speculative literature is you wind up collecting a few titles to read. Let's say more than a few.

Most of these were mentioned in panels that I attended, and where appropriate I'll mention what interested me about the book. Others are just titles recommended by people I met or book descriptions I found interesting. If you've read any of these, feel free to endorse or warn me away!



I'll start of by a list of books I wrote down from the multiple panels on Utopian fiction. First I have two classics of the genre: "Modern Utopia" by H.G. Wells and "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy which sounded surprisingly readable from John Crowley's description of a class he taught to undergrads. In that same class, students read "Pacific Edge" by one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson and in looking for that book on Amazon I discovered it was part of a trilogy on Southern California which also contained "Wild Shore" and "Gold Coast."

The next few books I'm lumping together by sub-genre: Space Opera. This includes near-space epic  "Leviathan Awakes" by James S.A. Corey which I really should have read already, "Dragon's Egg" by  Robert L. Forward, and "Prison Planet" by William C. Dietz. One of the panelists on a panel on their favorite parts of novels mentioned that last book and it sounded really cool. I'm not entirely sure I got the title and author right, though but during my research this book popped up which also looked great.

I'm also going to track down two classic horror novels Scent of New-Mown Hay by John Blackburn and "The Green Man" by Kingsley Amis. This former's so old I'm having trouble finding a digital copy, or any copy whatsoever except for used copies on Amazon.

In attending the Frederick Brown panel I got the names of several novels that seemed interesting: "Go Home, Martians" and "The Lights in the Sky are Stars." The description of a hard-working craftsman of science fiction was very appealing. According to one of the panelists the closest author in that mode working today is Michael Swanwick whose collection of short stories, "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" I purchased.

Next I spoke to someone busily making his way through all of the Hugo nominees for this year and got a host of books to try: "Year Zero" by Rob Reid, "Wool Omnibus" by Hugh Howey a collection of dystopian novellas collected together in a single volume, as well as Existence by David Brin. I also heard The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is good so I'll plug that here even though it was already on my list.

Finally, I'm going to put down a few more books from authors that I either met or listened to during the conference. One of the things I'm most pleased I did was sign up for a pair of Kaffeeklatches, small gatherings to listen to one of the many writers at Readercon. The first was hosted by Elizabeth Bear and  Scott Lynch. Elizabeth I've read some short stories from so I'm going to check out her collection Shoggoths in Bloom (great title that), but Scott Lynch I confess was unknown to me. I intend to correct that oversight as soon as possible ad Republic of Thieves seems a good place to start. I think I'll throw in some old Peter Straub novels I haven't gotten to yet: "The Mystery" and "The Throat." Lastly, I was greatly impressed by John Crowley calm and humane contributions to each panel I saw him on, so I'm hoping to read "Little, Big" and "Engine Summer."

This post has already gone a bit longer than I thought so I'm going to wrap up here. Hopefully in the next few days I can put together my thoughts on the conference itself.


Anthologies:
Feeling Very Strange: A Slipstream Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelley and John Kessel
Digital Rapture: A Singularity Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelley and John Kessel
Re-Wired: A Post-Cyberpunk Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelley and John Kessel
The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

Non-fiction:
Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer




Saturday, July 13, 2013

These are the Ends

Certain types of movies are really hard to review or even offer opinions about. Gross-out comedies, for example, are meant to shock you into laughing. If you find them funny then you didn't waste your $11, if you don't laugh at that kind of thing, don't see them. Action spectacles, for another example, are an excuse for cheering and saying, 'hell, yeah!' These are not complicated ambitions for movies to have, not too difficult to appreciate, and I mostly watch them and forget them. However, because I just watched two excellent examples of these kinds of movies, I'm going to lump them together in a single review.

"This is the End" and "Pacific Rim" have some weird similarities and some glaring differences. This is the End is a comedy about the end of the world where famous comedians play versions of themselves behaving very, very badly in front of impressive CGI. Pacific Rim is a sci fi spectacle about the end of the world where not so famous actors play versions of action heroes behaving very, very heroically in front of impressive CGI.

This is the End is completely unpredictable and really funny. One of the first things that happens in the movie is someone recognizing Seth Rogan in LAX and demanding he give his 'Seth Rogan laugh.' I felt this was the movie's way of telling us that all bets were off. Seth Rogan, James Franco, Craig Robinson, and Jay Baruchel and many, many other young comedians appear in the film and play some slightly off version of themselves. Michael Cera, hilariously, appears as a nerdy, coked-up douchebag, the kind of person you'd most like to see die horribly in the end of the world. When the end of the world actually happens (decent folks being whisked away first in blowtorch blue light beams) all that's left behind are these rich, unhappy, unpleasant, jerks. Basically the last people you'd want to have trapped together without much food or water in James Franco's trendy LA mansion. Hell may be other people, but that also makes for good comedy. I kind of expected that the movie would either degenerate into gross-out parodies of other apocalypse movies or sag into genre tropes like Pineapple Express but curiously the movie finds a third way. The situation is played deadly serious, with a bunch of way-too self-aware comedians attempting to survive a sulphur drenched hellscape. And that's what's so funny about it. The fictional versions of themselves are awful people who never get the joke of the situation.



Pacific Rim, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of movie you'd expect from the trailer. Maybe a little bit less robot-punch-monster than you might suppose but still firmly a movie about enormous mechanical walking death hammers going toe to claw with neon-splattered Chthulu beasts. 



We are told in the first few minutes of the film that Earth is being overrun by transdimensional kaiju, or giant monsters, that are crawling into our world via a rift somewhere in the Pacific. Over several years the world realizes that each creature will be more powerful, more adapted, and appear more rapidly than the one before it. To combat this scaly apocalypse, the nations of the Earth pool their resources and talents to advance the Jaeger program, basically recreating Japanese Mecha in order to pummel the kaiju into submission. This is all immediately familiar if you've ever seen any Japanese anime or Godzilla movie, and from the names of the characters (Hannibal Chao, Stacker Pentecost, etc.) all the way to the rock-em-sock-em fight scenes Pacific Rim delivers pretty much what it promises. The plot fitfully lurches between exposition and subplots, but hits all of its marks. Lines like, "Don't you feel it? We're drift compatible," tread choppy water between mock serious and unintentionally funny.

About the only complaint I have about this movie is one I really don't like to make, which is the physics of the movie are really bad. Wait, a movie about twenty story monsters plays fast and loose with science? I know, shocking, right?! But seriously the movie goes through a lot of trouble to set the scale of the Jaegers, to make them believable machines and then it does dumb stuff like having them survive a drop from near orbit from a flying pterodactyl.



Then there's the nuclear bomb episode. It pulled me out of the story, is all I'm saying.

But when all is said and done I recommend you watch both of these films. They are both extremely entertaining and spectacular. Pacific Rim is the kind of movie that knows what you want and gives you precisely those things. This is the End is a movie that gives you things you never knew you wanted.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Where'd All the Aliens Go?

The first night of Readercon was a special, abbreviated (and free) program. After getting a few reading suggestions from the "The Bit I Remember" panel, I made my way to the "Endangered Alien" panel.

The premise of the discussion centered on the notion that contemporary SF has avoided the theme of aliens in recent years. Whether following the near-future ethos of William Gibson and Neil Stephenson, or embracing the near-earth space opera mode favored by Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds, science fiction hasn't had a lot of alien races in the past few years.



I couldn't dismiss this idea out of hand. After a few moments of consideration, I could only remember a handful of novels in the past decade that described truly alien aliens. There have been plenty of virtual aliens (Charles Stross), transhuman aliens (Ian Banks), and human aliens (many examples but 'Shh! It's a Secret which I reviewed earlier this year, sticks out), but precious few truly alien aliens.

The best example in recent years of a novel investigating the idea of a truly different extraterrestrial life is Blindsight, the first-contact story by Peter Watts, which advanced the idea of a highly intelligent, non-sentient life-form inseparable from its own creations. Other than that, it may be true aliens are on a down swing.

The panelists and audience members offered a few ideas why this might be so. First off, the role played by aliens in speculative fiction may have been usurped by more palatable alternatives. Aliens offer a chance for writers to talk about the 'other,' beings different from perceived norms of human society. From sparkly vampire to outsider werewolves and transgressive mutants, stories that once may have used aliens to address social problems and concerns now use metahumans.

Secondly, one of the panelists mentioned a movement among younger SF authors, the 'Mundane Manifesto,' that considers the use of interstellar space travel, alternate histories, time travel, and aliens to be unlikely considering present understanding of science. Because these themes aren't likely, they serve to distract readers from the consideration of our most probable future, life on Earth and the most hospitable worlds within our own solar system. Personally I've never heard of the 'Mundane Manifesto,' but I've read an awful lot of fiction in the past decade which, upon reflection, follows these guidelines. I think Kim Stanley Robinson was keeping this world view in mind when he centered 2312, his most recent novel, on the work to save and restore the planet Earth.

Lastly, and this is my own thought on the matter, it might be the case that all of the low-hanging fruit have already been picked as far as aliens go. We are long, long past the time when bumpy-forehead aliens and cat-aliens can be taken seriously by any one with knowledge of biology. Our own world contains too many examples of bizarre extremophiles and unlikely habitats to serve as inspiration for aliens. Perhaps authors have been humbled by what science had discovered about the adaptability of life, and unwilling to dream a little deeper, as suggested by a member of the audience.



For myself, I've included aliens in my writing almost exclusively of the 'too advanced to be comprehensible' variety. If nothing else, this panel has encouraged me to consider what the use of aliens in speculative fiction might offer the world. Is it just a distraction or will one of the central themes of Science Fiction once more emerge with new value in today's stories?

Currently Watching: Kids in the Hall
Currently Listening to: "Beautiful Way" Beck
Currently Reading: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf/Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku (on CD)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Readercon 24

Today and for the next few days, I will be attending the Readercon Science Fiction and Fantasy convention in Burlington, MA. This convention was started 24 years ago and brings together authors of various speculative fiction genres to discuss topics in panels, sign autographs, and just generally advance the understanding of the medium by bringing together the great minds of the field.

Last year, I caught up with an old friend and saw a number of literary heroes of mine (Peter Straub, Caitlin R. Kiernan, John Langan, among many others). This year contains fewer authors whose work I've read, but it does have John Shirley, who is incredibly great, profoundly influential.

Other than a previously mentioned excursion tomorrow to see the opening of Pacific Rim, I intend to be there until Sunday attending panels, collecting autographs, and buying stacks of books. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

To Buy a Ticket

In two days I'm going to see Pacific Rim, a movie I've talked up a little bit here at Ancient Logic. I'd see it anyway, but ever since the first trailer depicting epic robotic/kaiju mayhem showed up a few months ago, it's been an article of faith that I'd see the thing with as many of my friends together as possible. Call it a pre-planned field trip.

Now a few days ago, one of my friends, currently trapped in the internet bereft wilderness of Maine, asked me to get a ticket for him. No problem. This friend has gone to bat for me numerous times and, in any case, it's a movie ticket - not a big deal.

Or so I thought. What follows is the saga of buying a ticket for a movie that hasn't opened yet at the Jordan's IMAX theater over the phone.



First off, I myself was on a trip this weekend, having gone back home to Upstate NY for a few days to see my brother. Not a big deal, except my grandparents' ranch (and yes, that's what we call it) is sheltered snuggly in a deep valley on the border between New York and Pennsylvania. Pure cell tower dead-zone and I had to head up to Corning before I got more than one bar on 1G. Still, I said I was going to pick up a ticket, and pick up a ticket I would.

Figuring it would take a me few minutes at most to make the transaction, we stop at Wegmans (single greatest contribution of Upstate NY to world civilization IMHO) and over a cup of coffee I open up Fandango and look for Jordan's furniture. Oh wait, you can't buy tickets for Jordan Furniture through Fandango and in any case, this movie hasn't opened yet so it's not even listed.

No worries, I press the link to the telephone number, deciding I'll just do it over the phone. If you've ever called Jordan's phone number you know that it is heavily automated. Do you want to buy furniture? Press 1. Do you want to confirm a delivery? Press 2. Do you want to hear about the new sofas we are currently showing in our main display area? Press 5. And on and on until you get whichever number takes you to the theaters. And then do you want to go to the number for IMAX or MOM? Imax? Well, do you mean Natick or Reading? Do you want to hear about the showings today? Press 1. Do you want to buy tickets for school groups or special events? Press 2. Would you like to go back to the Jordan's Furniture sales department? Press 5. Would you like to buy an individual ticket for a movie using our automated ticket purchasing system Teletix (I can't remember what it's actually called)? Press 8.

So I press 8 and maybe because I was calling from another state or maybe because the system sensed I wanted the ticket too much, the call gets dropped from their end.

Having had enough with Jordan's automated phone tree (and really I'm sparing you a great deal of description already) I call a random number from the first option to get someone with a pulse. "Hello, financing department for Jordan's Furniture." "Oh, sorry, I pressed the wrong number, would you mind transferring me to the IMAX ticket office?" I feel enormously pleased with myself for short-circuiting Jordan's precious phone service in this way.

"Sure, please hold."

Another person picks up the phone and I quickly tell them that I was just dumped out of the automated ticket purchasing system and would it be possible to just buy the ticket from them. "Sure, no problem," the person says and then transfers me back to Teletix. I hang up and fume for a minute or two.

I call again. This time I tell them that I am having a problem with the automated service, maybe because I'm calling out of state. "Could I please just purchase the ticket from you?"

"I'm sorry, sir. We can't handle credit card information over the phone. You can either go online or I could transfer you to Teletix, our automated..."

I hang up.



Sensing my mounting frustration, my brother suggests I just go directly to the website. We go on his tablet and find that sure enough, future sales for tickets for Pacific Rim are clearly marked and we start going through the process of entering ticket numbers, dates, credit card information. I start to feel really foolish that I hadn't just done this in the first place. Then we get to the screen where we have to prove we are a human and suddenly my brother's tablet can't handle the load. It starts scrolling to the top of the screen, refusing to display a keyboard, and just generally pitching a fit.

"Could we just go to a library and use a desktop?" I wonder.

"Maybe you're being too impatient," my brother says. "Just give the phone system another try. Don't try to rush the system."

I nod, listening to his advice, admitting to myself that I had been a little preemptive with the automated service. I hadn't even really listened to all of the options. I had, in fact, been a little rude to Teletix.

I breathe out slowly, punch in the number to Jordan's Furniture and mentally will myself into serenity, calmly letting it enumerate each of my many, many options before I carefully selected the correct number. And it works. I'm making progress through Teletix. Teletix begins to make sense, as if intuiting that I am now willing to meet it halfway. It guides me to July 12th, and to the correct time, and then it begins to ask what sort of ticket I'd like.

"If you want to purchase a $10.50 ticket for a child," Teletix intones. "Press one. Your credit card will be charged a $2.50 convenience fee, bringing your entire bill up to $13.00."

It's not going to read out the whole thing for each option is it?

"If you want," it continues and maybe it's my own impatience at this point, but Teletix seems to falter here, its monotone slowing down, pauses lengthening.

No.

"To purchase."

I can't believe this, just tell me what to press for 'adult.'

"An eleven."

Just say two for adult.

"Dollar."

Two for adult.

"And fifty"

I know it's two. Say two.

"Cent."

Two for adult.

"Ticket for-"

I jab the number two on my phone.

"-Senior: press Two."

Epilogue: Eventually I did buy a ticket for my friend to Pacific Rim and patience was, ultimately, the solution. After waiting a few hours, a more sympathetic person answered the phone and smoothly punched in my credit card number without complaint.

Also, I'm really excited to see Pacific Rim.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Upstream Color

Hypnotic, beautifully filmed, disturbing, and incredibly frustrating, Upstream Color by Shane Carruth is also my favorite movie this year. A number of reviews compared it to Tree of Life by Terrence Malick but I'd say you'd have to throw in Videodrome by David Cronenberg and Scanner Darkly by Richard Linklater as obvious influences as well. This is a movie with less of a plot than an order of events that make a kind of stark, emotional sense when viewed together.



Shane Carruth was the director of 2004's Primer which remains one of my absolute time-travel movies. Part of the problem of describing a movie like Upstream Color is that the film is intent to dissolve such boundaries. Upstream Color is no where coherent enough to describe in terms of a genre but it is the superior film simply by being the more personal artistic statement.

So while I can't really tell you what the film is about, there are certain things I can describe. A woman named Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) is attacked by an identity thief, fed something that appears to be a mescaline worm and falls into a deep, highly susceptible trance for a period of days. During that time, the thief commands her to turn over all of her money and assets. Having taken what he needs, the man abandons her to the increasingly agitated worm and her own attempts at self-surgery to release it. While extremely disturbing, the scenes are also strikingly beautiful, gentle washes of color and ivory follow the woman as she goes through elaborate, mindless rituals of self-destruction.

Once free of the worm, her life in ruins, Kris runs into Jeff (played by Shane Carruth), a similarly damaged individual. They fall in love, attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and gradually realize that their identities may have fused somehow and that the mystery of what had happened to them may revolve around a pig farm owned by an amateur found-sound musicologist.

In the final section we learn that the worm may be a part of the complicated life cycle of a parasite that progresses from human being, through the guts of pigs, to orchids growing in a stream. We see that all of the miseries of Kris and Jeff are related to an entire cottage industry revolving around the bluish secretions of the parasite infested worms.

But none of this is spelled out exactly, and the ending, in particular, is masterfully ambiguous. There is a way to take this film as simply an elaborate metaphor for the insanity of falling in love with another individual, feeling one's own memories bleed into someone else. However, there are clearly aspects of the film that are happening, that are real. The miniature economy surrounding the cultivation of the plants and their worms is too specific and detailed to be dismissed as fantasy. I was left with a sense that the worm has left the personalities of the characters in the film mutable, intermingled, even as the larger world around them burbled around them in an indifferent stream.

I'm not sure a second viewing would make this any more comprehensible, but that isn't why I'm recommending this movie. You will want to see this for how it bases an entire visual poem on the discarded bits of science fiction.

What I'm reading: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf
What I'm listening to: The King is Dead by Decemberists
What I'm watching: Kids in the Hall (Season 1)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Variations on a Theme: Review of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

More difficult than portraying technologies of the future, or alien worlds, or even of believable alien species, is that of creating human societies and customs of the future. The uncanny valley is in full force once a writer sets as his or her task creating the beliefs, motivations, and prejudices of human beings. One of the biggest complaints I hear about science fiction in general, and far-future hard SF in particular, is that the characters are not fully developed, not convincing.

Perhaps the reason is that most writers, when looking at the future, fall into one of two traps. The first trap is of changing human life too little. The future, these writers suggest, will be exactly like today only with more/less technology. Examples of this are not hard to recall, think of Vonnegut's many social commentaries, or 1984, or even SF greats like Clarke and Asimov. People in the stories basically behave as though they were contemporaries of the author, not children of future societies.

The second trap is to exaggerate the impact of some technological, or social development. A new invention radically distorts the customs of the future, so that each character's life is warped in reaction. A lot of science fiction movies are like this, even good ones like Gattaca, where each 'weird' aspect of future life stems from the emergence of X.

Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, released appropriately enough last year, is a great example of how to do truly futuristic social commentary. While the book is not without problems, I would say that one aspect of the story works phenomenally well - pointing out the ways future societies might be radically yet believably different from our own.



The novel is essentially a political thriller, beginning with the untimely death of the Swan Er Swan's mentor Alex on Mercury. Alex provided a message to Swan in the case of her death detailing some of her ongoing projects. In the wake of her death, acquaintances of Alex begin popping up, looking for their own posthumous instructions. Swan comes to understand her mentor was involved in a number of plots with system-wide implications.

Basically these plots center on two issues facing human civilization in the 24th century: the emergence of truly artificial intelligence in the form of qubes, or mininature quantum computers and the still miserable conditions of the citizens of Earth, beset by a witch's brew of the ancient inequities of fractured nation-states, climate change, and poverty.

Working with two of Alex's partners, a Saturnine politician Wahram and a diminutive detective Geller, Swan begins to piece together the entwined threads of these twin dilemma,  her efforts increasingly dangerous as she comes to understand the fates of worlds literally hangs in the balance.

If you've read Robinson's work before, you might suspect that I am paraphrasing the plot of the novel considerably. Which is true. While not exactly embracing a cast of thousands, 2312 has over six hundred pages of political machinations, ruminations on future space colonization and chapter-long expositions. Lots and lots of details to discern.

A reader of 2312 will either be entranced by these periodic interruptions detailing the way asteroids might be hollowed out and turned into terraria orbiting the solar system, Venus becomes terraformed, or the topography of Saturn's moons or else, he or she might skip through them. Personally I find this vision of a solar system gradually altered for human life enormously compelling and, even stirring. Robinson has always been at his best, as a writer, when drawing connections between history, sociology, economics, psychology, technology and astronomy. His vision of the future is not easily reducible, embracing a tremendous variation in life styles, physiologies, and philosophies of the future.

Just as the planets and moons surrounding the sun are altered and embroidered by human creativity, the human body becomes malleable and hackable. The predominant obsession of 24th century society is longevity. True immortality has not been accomplished but the life-spans of the characters have been greatly extended, one and two centuries in most cases. Much of the physical variation in the characters, extremely tall people versus extremely small, elective gender modification comes from a desire to make longer lives possible. This makes for a pluralistic society but also one just as suspicious of the margins of human life.

Swan, for example, is an artist, terraforming entire asteroids into living installation pieces, an impulse she carries towards her own body. In addition to giving her self male genitalia, she's also imbedded a near-sentient qube into her own skull, song-bird neural tissue grafts, and the alien bacteria discovered on a moon of Saturn. All of these experiments have made her suspicious to other characters in the stories, untrustworthy. This is an aspect of Robinson's world I found extremely believable. While the definition of human identity is broader than it is today, the compulsion to define is still present.

On a craft level, the book is not without flaws. The plot I sketched above is far from propulsive. It takes until the last quarter of the book before all of the various plots begin to coalesce into an actual crisis, something approaching action and conflict to appear. Most of the book is occupied by a strangely coy romance between Swan and Wahram, one conducted across a multitude of worlds and planetoids, accompanied with a virtual playlist of classical pieces Robinson basically recommends you read the book by. WHile he dialogue between the lovers is not without charm and sophistication, there are some real leaden scenes in the middle of the book. Some sections of conversation are so laughably fake, you wonder for a second if Robinson might be getting ready to reveal that all of the characters are actually quasi-sentient quantum computers. None of this is exactly a surprise if you've read Robinson's Mars Trilogy, and long-time readers have no doubt made their peace with the author's reliance on Big Ideas to move stories forward.

All in all, I recommend 2312 to fans of hard SF, and the under-represented genre of near-utopian speculation. This isn't a bad book for first-time readers of Robinson, either although Red Mars probably has a better balance of characters, plot, and technological explanation.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Teacher wakes up after a beautiful dream of arriving at a new world, the destination of an immense generation ship finally reached, a beautiful blue world hanging below, ready for colonization. The dream ends abruptly, leaving him to confront a very different reality. As a small girl insistently tugs him away from his hibernation (?) pod, they begin to run, chasing receding light, the air already lethally cold.



That is the promising beginning of Greg Bear's 2010 novel Hull Zero Three, a thrilling, if somewhat opaque hard SF thriller. The protagonist of the story, Teacher, has no memory of his identity or knowledge of his purpose, only slowly learning that he has been reborn on an immense ship, a ship that appears to be doing its level best to kill him and all other humans.

"It's a ship," one of the characters he meets pronounces, "A sick ship."

Bear's best work combines a naturalistic touch for characters with speculation on truly epic scales. His early novels Blood Music, Eon, and Eternity, slip easily from straight-forward human drama to contemplations of phenomena stretching to the ends of time and the transcendence of human civilization. He wrote some of the earliest stories addressing the nanotechnology and a coming singularity (although he's never called it this, as far as I know). 

Here, Hull Zero Three pulls the reader in two directions: outwards with a consideration of the staggering scale of the generation ship Teacher journeys through and inwards with a rumination on the nature of identity. Nothing in the book is terribly original; many, many authors have explored generation ships and the slippery nature of identity and duplication detailed in this story reminds me of the movie Moon. Bear has a talent for details: bewildering, bizarre, and strangely specific descriptions of water tanks the size of asteroids, monsters like crabs with lawnmowers for mouths, and the starship itself, which is on a scale difficult to fathom, let alone sketch out without having the plot bog down in an avalanche of explication. 



Bear's careful husbanding of details and facts can become maddening. I'm currently rewatching LOST with my wife and its bread-crumb approach to revealing mysteries reminds me a lot of this book. People speak enigmatically about dark truths they assume the listener already knows or couldn't possibly handle learning about. Clues are left behind in tattered books and drawn on walls. One gets a sense very early on that no one can be fully trusted, not even the narrator. Framed narratives abound, as well as tricky flash-backs. Unfortunately, just like LOST, this is doubly true given the sense that the mystery, once solved, isn't going to be anywhere near awesome enough to justify the time spent investigating it.

While I think the book overall was a quick fun read for fans of hard sci fi, I wouldn't recommend to anyone except genre-fans. The story is well-told and engaging, but the ideas here have been better explored elsewhere, including in previous work by Bear.

Monday, July 1, 2013

With the title World War Z

Early on in the mostly disappointing zombie epidemic thriller World War Z, UN Investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) hides out in a Newark apartment, trying to convince a family living there to flee with him from the hordes of sprinting, chomping maniacs infesting the city. The phrase he uses, drawing from years of experience in the world's troubled war-zones is "movement is life." Ultimately he's unsuccessful, the family barricades their door behind him and they join the ever-swelling ranks of the undead.



As far as a guiding philosophy goes for a pop-action thriller like World War Z, 'movement is life,' isn't bad. And for the first half of the movie or so, it follows its own advice. Similar to other recent zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead) the warning signs of what the rest of the movie will bring are subtle and buried until all hell is ready to break through. The television mentions 'martial law,' Philadelphia traffic snarls, and an increasing number of police ride past in motorcycles and helicopters. The first wave of the zombies washes over the crowd, viewed from above in a dramatic grand-scale fashion. I don't like the idea of speed zombies generally, and the transition from human to spasm-wracked undead happens with silly rapidity, but it's hard to argue with the jolt of watching thousands of people run directly at you.

I've tried to explain what I've liked about the zombie genre and basically I think it boils down to this: while two or three ghouls are easily dispatched and rather ridiculous, there is no quick solution to a zombie plague. You can shoot them in the head or burn them, but ultimately each member of the horde must be dealt with individually. There is no quick fix, no easy solution. Some find this rather depressing, past a certain point any rational person would take a look at the ruin of a world overrun with zombies and opt out. What makes zombie movies compelling is that it strips people down to the basic will to survive. Zombie movies are about resolving the question about which is stronger, life or death.

This is exactly the reason the book World War Z was so compelling. It asked again and again what individuals and governments might be willing to do in order to survive. By grounding the near-destruction of civilization in the themes of environmental destruction, global migration, globalization, and militarism, the book found something compelling to say about the present world.

World War Z has the same title as the book, just like I, Robot has the same title as a famous Isaac Asimov short story. If you can't forgive the movie for its original sin of having basically nothing to do with the book, than you probably don't need me to tell you stay away. If on the other hand, you're willing to judge the movie on its own separate merits, I would suggest renting this one. The big epic scenes aren't going to suffer too much in a home theater and the smaller claustrophobic ones might work better.

Perhaps inspired by the book, the movie trots out a few possible solutions to the zombie plague, searching for a cure, walling a city off from the invasion, or evacuating out into the ocean. But ultimately we see that the plague creates hordes of zombies too fast, determined, and numerous to be dealt with by old strategies. Your interest in the first half of the movie will depend on how much you can tolerate big scenes of rubbery CGI zombie tsunamis washing through alleys and streets of major world cities. The momentous sweep of these parts of the film mostly subdue natural disbelief, and quibbles about standard stupid action tropes (inopportune cell phone rings, squeaky doors, major speeches right in front of scenes of impending disaster).

Then things change.

The last third of movie and I'm going to try to avoid spoilers here, represents a severe departure from the tone and energy level of the preceding reels. After a mid-air zombie encounter, Gerry Lane finds himself stranded in a bio-medical research facility, the answer to the zombie plague close at hand but surrounded by zombies. Having followed the development of this movie, I know that it's about this point in the film that the original shoot went off the rails. The first version of the script had Pitt's character trapped behind lines in Russia, joining an anti-zeke militia, and eventually fighting a climatic battle in the snows of Moscow. For various reasons, this version of the movie was considered unsatisfactory and a completely new ending was filmed. The results aren't bad precisely but are incredibly derivative and disappointing considering what lead into them. It's as if Avengers had ended with Thor and the Incredible Hulk stuck in New Jersey, looking for a missing anti-cosmic cube lost in a government installation while catching glimpses of the Chitauri invasion on the overhead monitors. 

Movement = life, and this movie decides in closing moments to play it safe, barricade its doors, and hope it will all work out.