Tag Archives: science fiction

Book review: The past is so bright in Robert Charles Wilson’s “Last Year,” you have to wear shades

Robert Charles Wilson does one of my favorite things that science fiction writers do — takes a shopworn old theme and makes it new. In this case, the theme is time travel.

“Last Year” amzn.to… takes place in 1870s America, in the City of Futurity, a resort outside Chicago built by time travelers from the 21st Century. These future Americans are a strange breed, carrying mobile phones, with women, blacks and homosexuals as equals — even electing a black man as President of the United States. The hero of the novel is the 19th Century’s Jesse Cullum, who grew up in a San Francisco whorehouse and now works security in the City of Futurity. Cullum foils an assassination attempt against visiting President Ulysses S. Grant (and in so doing loses his beloved Oakley sunglasses). The assassin is using a Glock, indicating the attempt is an inside job from the future, and so Cullum teams up with a 21st Century woman to find the assassin and the plot behind it.

Wilson’s gimmick is that in his world, you can travel to the past and make whatever changes you want, and it won’t effect your present.

Wilson’s strengths are realistic worldbuilding and compelling characters. He takes us through 19th Century America that has been altered by years of contact with the 21st. Cullum interacts several times with the 21st Century American businessman behind the City of Futurity; like today’s real-life tech entrepreneurs, the founder of the City of Futurity initially professes the most noble motives, but the reality doesn’t work out like he said he planned.

Wilson just keeps on turning out one gripping novel after another, and his themes are frequently about time travel, or the past colliding with the future in some other ways. In “Julian Comstock: A Story of 22d Century America,” amzn.to… we see America more than a century from now, after fossil fuels have run out — after the “Efflorescence of Oil” — when both society and technology have regressed back to the 19th Century. “Julian Comstock” is an adventure story in the spirit of 19th Century dime novels.

Wilson’s “Spin” amzn.to… and its sequels tells the story of a half-century of world history starting in a time much like the present, when the Earth is surrounded by an impenetrable shell by some invisible alien superpower; “Spin” is a rarity among tales of super-science in that the explanation of how the miracle occurred turns out to be satisfying.

By the way: There’s a running joke in one of the early chapters of “Last Year” that’s made even funnier by the change in men’s fashions between the time Wilson wrote the novel, its publication in 2016, and my reading it last year. I shall say no more about that for fear of spoiling the gag for you. On the other hand, the gag in the marketing blurb for the book would have been better if Cullum has been wearing Ray-Bans — I had no idea until I read this novel that there is a brand of sunglasses called Oakleys.

Seven characters you meet on science fiction/fantasy TV

The leader: Buffy

The scientist, who uses a lot computer screens: Willow

The one who knows the lore, who handles a lot of dusty old books: Giles

The comic sidekick: Xander.

The outlaw who’s allied with the good guys: Angel and later Spike

The muscle: Buffy, once again.

And of course, the Big Bad: A sympathetic villain whose story arc spans a full season or more. Examples: the Mayor in Buffy Season 3, Bulshar on Wynonna Earp.

A good Big Bad steals every scene he or she is in.

Roles of individual characters change over time, and are often combined in a single character. In Stargate SG-1, O’Neill was both the leader and the comic sidekick. Teal’c was both the outlaw and the muscle. In Buffy, Willow became a powerful witch. Doctor Who is leader, comic sidekick, outlaw, scientist and loremaster all in one.

Star Trek shows have similar but different roles. No Trek is successful without the Alienated Alien – for example, Spock, Data and Odo. Voyager was flailing until they brought on 7 of 9. (Credit goes to a friend on the Alienated Alien observation.)

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“Sandkings,” by George R.R. “Game of Thrones” Martin, is one of my favorite stories, and I loved the TV movie. It stars Beau Bridges, who is a national treasure.

“Sandkings” tells the story of a man who adopts a colony of alien insects as pets. Like an ant farm. The insects worship the man as a god. This works out well for the man. For a while.

And now “Sandkings” is available on Hulu, part of their streaming the 1995-2002 run of “Outer Limits.”

Comic-Con

I decided to sleep in this morning and did not even try to buy tickets. I get most of my Comic-Con enjoyment from going downtown and people-watching.

My earlier Comic-Con post makes me sound disgruntled. I’m not. Sure, I’d prefer that Comic-Con made it easier for me to buy tickets. But it’s not my business. I’m happy they’re here in San Diego, doing the work they do.

Claire North unmasked! Why one life isn’t enough for “Harry August” author

Charlie Jane Anders interviews the pseudonymous author of “The First First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” which Julie and I both loved.

The author’s real name is Catherine Webb, who write her first book when she was 14, and who wrote seven more successful young-adult novels and a series of fantasy novels for adults using the pseudonym Kate Griffin. Pseudonyms keep a writer from being pigeonholed, but they have their own pitfalls.

Webb made the protagonist of “Harry August” male because a female protagonist would have inevitably made gender more of a focus of the novel than Webb wanted it to be.

The biggest reason for writing a male protagonist was the history of the 20thcentury itself. When Harry August is born, women still don’t have the vote; by the time he dies, the women’s rights movement is a loud voice fighting battles across the world. The change in society in that century is massive, but women were – and are still – discriminated against. Knowing what I do of my own politics, it seemed unlikely that I’d get through the book without being drawn massively into the world of gender politics and the changing battle for women’s rights throughout the century, and while this is vitally important and a story that must be told, the story of the kalachakra didn’t feel like the right way in which to tell it. Writing a male protagonist, therefore, allowed me to focus on the story of the Cronus Club that seemed most appropriate to the narrative.

Webb has training as a historian, and says writing a historical novel requires a mind-trick:

 A great deal of the history wasn’t about big events – Harry August spends a lot of time dodging World War Two, for example – but about zooming in on little things that made the time come alive. Thus, 1936 would not be described by someone living in it as ‘a year when war became inevitable’ since in 1936, war wasn’t inevitable and no one without the burden of retrospect would think of it in terms of war, whatever history has to say on the subject now. Rather, it is a year of jazz, economic recovery and the rise of ‘talkie’ movies. A generic knowledge might point to Charlie Chaplin as being active in this era; a quick internet search reveals the movies he made; a look at the movie of the year (Modern Times) shows that by then talkies were well underway; another click through gives the names of rival ‘talkie’ movies and fairly quickly, from just a general sense of what was happening in a decade, you have the kind of details of leading actors and popular musicians that can bring a year to life.

Book review: “The First 15 Lives of Harry August.”

The opening of the “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North,  finds the main character dying of cancer in his old age in 1996, when he’s accosted by a seven-year-old girl.

“I nearly missed you, Dr. August,” the girl says. “I need to send a message back through time. If time can be said to be important here. As you’re conveniently dying, I ask you to relay it to the Clubs of your origin, as it has been passed down to me.”

I tried to speak, but the words tumbled together on my tongue, and I said nothing.

“The world is ending” she said. “The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it . So now it’s up to you.”

I found that Thai was the only language which wanted to pass my lips in any coherent form, and the only word which I seemed capable of forming was, why?

Not, I hasten to add, why was the world ending?

Why did it mater?

She smiled, and understood my meaning without needing it to be said. She leaned in close and murmured in my ear, “The world is ending as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

That opening pulled me in like jerking a leash. And the rest of the novel pays off on the promise.

Soon enough, Harry August finishes up dying and, just like the other ten times he died, he finds himself reborn as a baby in 1918 England. Quickly, all the memories of Harry’s previous lives come back to him. He’s an adult mind in a child’s body, until the body grows to adulthood in the usual way. He’s immortal, but it’s a peculiar kind of immortality, bound to repeat over and over the same swathe of the 20th Century. (One time he makes it all the way into the 21st Century. He decides he doesn’t care for it).

The novel wanders pleasantly for its first half, as Harry goes through his first few lives, learning how to be an immortal and exploring the world of the 20th Century. In the second part, Harry confronts the cause of the oncoming end of the world, and devotes several of his lives to preventing it.

“Fifteen Lives” is a thrilling, thoughtful, and well-written science fiction novel that explores moral responsibility and the 20th Century. I hope you love it as much as Julie and I did.

George RR Martin’s “Wild Cards” books are coming to TV

The “Game of Thrones” author’s Wild Cards series are set in an alternate history where an alien virus in the 1940s gave superpowers to a tiny fraction of humanity. Martin worked on the books with Melinda Snodgrass and a team of about 30 collaborators, each writing individual stories in the larger universe.

I loved the first dozen or so volumes of the series, and I’m looking forward to the TV show.

Dalya Alberge at The Guardian:

It is a sprawling fantasy featuring deformed humans, superheroes who can read minds and fly, and plot lines exploring issues such as bigotry and raw political ambition. Like the blockbuster TV hit Game of Thrones, it is also based in part on the work of the cult fantasy writer George RR Martin.

Now Hollywood is betting that a major TV adaptation of Wild Cards, a series of science fiction books grounded in gritty realism that Martin began writing 30 years ago, can emulate the extraordinary worldwide success of the HBO show. If it does, it will fulfil the dreams of Martin’s collaborator on Wild Cards, Melinda Snodgrass, who has struggled in vain for 12 years to interest film and television producers.

The US writer and editor was praised by executives, only to be given excuses about why the books were not for them. She refused to be bowed by rejection and her determination has finally paid off. She is now heading an ambitious TV adaption of the series backed by Universal Pictures.

 

“Her”

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I’m a science fiction fan and I’m interested in AI. People who know these things about me were surprised that I hadn’t seen “Her,” a 2013 movie starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence who lives in his phone.

I finally did see “Her” recently. The reason I didn’t see it before, and did see it then, actually relates to the theme of the movie.

“Her” is not really a movie about AI. Like most AI movies, it’s really about humanity — what makes us human.

What makes us human, according to “Her,” is physical reality — having bodies that exist together at the same time and place and talk to each other, even if we’re not even touching. There is very little human-to-human contact in “Her,” and very little touching, and what touching there is — between Phoenix’s character Theodore and a blind date played by Olivia Wilde — is bizarre and unsatisfying and sad.

People in the world of “Her” are dehumanized in ways that are recognizable extrapolations of today. Before we meet the AI that Theodore falls in love with, we see Theodore at his job. He works alone, dictating to a computer. He’s a futuristic Cyrano, ghost-writing personal letters on behalf of clients to families and friends — love letters, thank-you letters from a grandmother to her grandchild. The letters are incredibly personal, authentic sounding, and fake. You wonder if the recipient knows the letters are ghost-written, and if they do know it, whether it bothers them.

Later, Theodore, still alone, goes home and gets into some phone sex with a stranger, which starts well, but quickly turns hilarious, unsatisfying, and weird.

Theodore already does most of his interactions intermediated by machines, which is something we’re already seeing today, in the real world, so it makes sense that he falls in love with Samantha, a consciousness that exists in the machine.

Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, makes a point several times that the difference between herself and a human person is that she, Samantha, doesn’t have a body. And that’s a big deal, leading to an ending that’s ambiguous and bittersweet.

Despite Samantha’s bodiless condition, it’s possible that she is more human than the human characters of “Her.” Just a thought.

There are all sorts of other things going on with “Her” that will probably pop into my head from time to time. What’s the significance of the relationship between Theodore’s co-worker and his lawyer girlfriend? What does the movie mean when Theodore says, several times, that he and his ex-wife grew up together? The scene with the sex surrogate is priceless.

And now I’ll tell you why I didn’t see “Her” until now: Julie didn’t want to see it. Movies and TV are something I almost exclusively watch with Julie, which means I almost always only see the movies and TV we both want to see. If I’m going to do something alone I’d rather it be something other than watching a TV show or movie.

I do watch TV and movies alone when Julie is out of town and I’m home alone. That’s rare: usually I’m the one who travels. But it happened recently. We went to visit Julie’s family in Columbus, and I returned home two days before Julie. Alone in the house, I watched “Her,” and talked with Julie over Apple Messages, and talked with my friends and family on the Internet, experiencing nearly two days of nothing but relationships mediated by machines.

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Not as good as the original, but “charming.”

I’m failing to understand the controversy behind this movie. The original was very entertaining. It’s still just as entertaining even if the new one stinks.

The Foundation as the villains of the Foundation Trilogy

Non-violence is one of the biggest themes of The Foundation Trilogy. Other space operas are filled with space battles and thrilling hand-to-hand combat. There’s very little violence onstage in The Foundation Trilogy. Mostly, the novels consist of people sitting around and talking.

The Foundation explicitly shuns violence. It’s founded on a planet without natural resources, by a colony of academics. They don’t fight their enemies because they can’t; they have to out-think their enemies instead.

One of the major characters of the trilogy is Salvor Hardin, a politician whose motto is, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

So the Foundation Trilogy is, on the surface at least, an extremely ethically advanced series. Forty years before the publication of the original stories during World War II, we had a president, Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war. TR embraced combat; he though war was essential to making nations great, and he said so publicly. In The Foundation Trilogy, we a philosophy of war as something to be avoided wherever possible, and avoidable by any competent person.

And yet the Foundation trades war for deceit, trickery, and cooperating in oppression.

The opening sequence of Foundation deals with Gaal Dornick, a young man from the provinces come to the capital to study mathematics under the great Hari Seldon. Once he arrives at the capital, Dornick learns that Hari Seldon has arranged to have him arrested. Any sensible person would have nothing to do with Seldon afterwards, but Dornick doesn’t seem to have much sense, because he becomes one of Seldon’s loyal acolytes.

Dornick and Seldon are on trial together, and they manage to escape imprisonment, but only by agreeing to leave the capital city, along with Seldon’s 100,000 followers, to the remote planet of Terminus. Seldon remarks that this was exactly what he wanted; his followers would never have gone willingly, so he had to force them to come with him.

Does this sound like the behavior of one of history’s good guys? Apparently so, because the Foundation reveres Seldon. They continue to revere him even after learning that the mission of the Foundation was another lie. Seldon had said he wanted the Foundation to prepare a great Encyclopedia of human knowledge to shorten the dark age following the fall of the Galactic Empire. Fifty years after the founding of the Foundation, Seldon comes back in a recorded message to reveal that, too, was a lie. He was only interested in getting all those academics isolated from the main body of the empire, unarmed and helpless, so they could use nonviolent means to start the climb to the second Galactic Empire.

The Foundation continues in the tradition of its lying founder. Faced with hostile neighbors with more military power but much less advanced technology, the Foundation gives its neighbors the secrets of atomic power. But the Foundation also starts a fake religion, with the premise that its technology isn’t the result of science and engineering but of miracles and magic. Thus, the Foundation perpetuates the ignorance and oppression of billions of its neighbors so that it can strengthen its own power.

So who, exactly, are the villains of this series?

Re-Reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy”

I just started listening to the audiobook of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, which I last read when I was a teen-ager. I got a bug in my ear to re-read it after a review by Jo Walton.

First impressions, based on my memory of the books and my having listened to about five minutes:

The Foundation Trilogy retells Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as space opera, with a Galactic Empire replacing the Roman, and the entire Galaxy — millions of inhabited worlds — standing in for the Earth.

It really helps to know something about Asimov, the period in which the stories were written, and how they were written. The trilogy was written during and just after World War II. This was the period when America was at its greatest power, and we often compared ourselves to Rome.

Asimov was an American, an immigrant, and a New Yorker who didn’t travel or even go outside when he could help it.

As Walton notes, the planet-sized city of Trantor is New York in the 30s, where Asimov was a teen-ager, writ large. Back when Asimov was writing, technology meant that things were going to get bigger and faster — the Hoover Dam! Skyscrapers! Airplanes and cars! Today, technology means things get smaller — iPhones! Genetic engineering! So it was reasonable to assume, in Asimov’s day, that cities would one day grow large enough to encompass whole planets.

The Foundation Trilogy assumes that the Roman Empire was good. That’s a supportable position. But the people Rome conquered might disagree with it.

I love that thing Asimov does where he starts each section with a quote from a made-up history book, the Encyclopedia Galactica, supposedly written a thousand years after the action of the novels.

The first few minutes of the book spend a lot of time talking about how travel through hyperspace works in getting starships around the galaxy. That would all be completely unnecessary today, it’s just a given in science fiction.

The viewpoint character of the first section is a young man on his way to Trantor (New York, remember?) to participate in the Seldon Project. I’ve also been listening to Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann, a spoken-word memoir of the physicist Richard Feynmann, who was Asimov’s contemporary, and also a New Yorker. Feynmann traveled from New York to participate in something called the Manhattan Project. It’s hard to avoid seeing parallels.

That’s a lot to get out of five minutes of listening. I hope I enjoy the rest of the book as much.