Movie Review: Annihilation. H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ updated with a lot of Unnecessary Emotional Baggage.

Annihilation (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

At the beginning of Paramount Pictures new Movie ‘Annihilation’ we witness a meteor streaking through the atmosphere to wind up crashing into a small lighthouse. A little while later we learn that the lighthouse has become the center of an unearthly ‘shimmer’ that is slowly growing and that anyone who enters the shimmer never returns.

After several failed expeditions a team of five women enter the shimmer to discover that the plants and animals are all mutating. It was at this point, not quite halfway into the film that I said to myself: ‘this is the Colour out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft’. Actually ‘Annihilation’ would have been better if it had just stuck to being an update of Lovecraft’s story.

For those who haven’t read Lovecraft, in the ‘Colour out of Space’ a meteor lands on a New England farm and a strange unearthly colour (Lovecraft was thinking of something like Ultraviolet or Infrared light but somehow alive) begins to spread. The colour proceeds to suck the life out of every living thing on the farm.

O’k so in ‘Annihilation’ the meteor lands in a lighthouse instead of a farm, it generates a shimmer rather than a colour and causes mutations instead of sucking the lifeforce but those are just details. It’s really the same story plot.

Some of the Mutations in Annihilation (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

The only part of ‘Annihilation’ that is different is an idea that gets mentioned along the way that anyone who volunteers for a suicide mission must have something terribly wrong with their life. The main character Lena, played by Natalie Portman certainly does. Her husband joined an earlier mission into the shimmer because he found out she was having an affair and now she feels guilty about him so she volunteers for the next mission. Much too much of the movie is taken up with this pointless subplot.

Oh, I know. Nowadays when you tell a story you simply have to have well-developed characters that your readers or viewers can care about. You can take it from me however, there’s no one in this movie to care about. Also you can add the fact that the ‘surprise ending’ simply wasn’t.

Now Annihilation wasn’t all bad, the special effects were good and the basic idea of something really alien coming to our world on a meteor is intriguing. In fact it is revealed later in the movie that the shimmer isn’t causing mutations so much as mixing the DNA of different creatures.

Then when Lena finally reaches the lighthouse we see things like glass trees along the beach. Since glass is made out of sand I started to wonder if the shimmer is now mixing life and non-life! That would have been cool but nothing is done with the concept!

Glass Trees that nothing is done with! (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Really, eliminating the trite infidelity subplot and putting a lot more thought into the Science Fiction elements would have made Annihilation a much better film. As it is we never learn anything about why this ‘Shimmer’ came to Earth or where it came from or what it is trying to do.

Annihilation is based on a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer (who also wrote the screenplay with director Alex Garland) and is the first part of a trilogy. Maybe in the other novels we get some of the answers but frankly I don’t know if I’m interested. I think I’ll reread ‘The Colour out of Space’ instead.

The Colour out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft (Credit: Classics Illustrated)


Book Review: “Artemis” by Andy Weir

‘Artemis’ is the highly anticipated second novel by the science fiction author Andy Weir. Following the enormous success of his first novel ‘The Martian’ Weir found himself under considerable pressure to prove that he was something more than a one hit wonder. He needn’t have worried; ‘Artemis’ is every bit as meticulously detailed, imaginatively described and fast paced as ‘The Martian’.

Andy Weir author of ‘The Martian’ (Credit: Andy Weir, Crown Publishing)

Artemis is mankind’s first, and at the time of the novel only city on the Moon. (Artemis is the Greek Goddess of the Moon by the way) With a population of 2,000 and an economy heavily dependent on space tourism, the Apollo 11 landing site is only 40 Kilometers away; Artemis is a frontier boomtown with resemblances to both Tombstone Arizona and living on board a nuclear submarine.

It’s in the descriptions of Artemis and the surrounding area that Andy Weir is at his best. A dozen pages into the novel and you really feel as if you’re right there on the Moon. The way Andy does this is simple, like the engineer that he is before he wrote a single word he made certain that Artemis worked. In his mind everything from the design of an EVA suit to where the city’s air and water come from. Hey, he even drew himself a map of Artemis and it’s surroundings that is provided at the very front of the novel.

Map of the Lunar city Artemis (Credit: Andy Weir, Crown Publishing)

Just to give you an example of how much thought went into the way things work the city is composed of five pressure domes that for safety are all doubled walled with lunar material in between for packing. The inside pressure is 21 kilo Pascals, that’s only a fifth of Earth’s pressure but with pure oxygen it’s all you need and the lower the pressure the less air you lose because of leaks. Outside is a vacuum and Andy makes the pressure between the walls only 20 kilo Pascals so that if a pressure sensor detects a drop in pressure then you know the problem is with the outer wall but if the pressure goes up the problem is with the inner wall. Figuring out things like that is called engineering!

The main character in ‘Artemis’ is Jasmine Bashara, a young, and rebellious Saudi woman who was brought to the Moon by her father at age 6. Jasmine’s, Jazz for short, legitimate job is as a porter delivering goods to the various businesses in Artemis. Jazz is also a small time smuggler bringing in cigars and other contraband, although she draws the line at guns or hard drugs. It’s when Jazz gets involved in a big time criminal conspiracy that the novel’s plot gets going with murder and mayhem aplenty.

Now I have to warn you. I grew up watching so many crime dramas; my mother loved them, and I’m sick of them. To me the weakest part of ‘Artemis’ is the crime related plot, but once again that’s just me. However, at the same time I must admit that Weir packs in so much action that the crime aspects became a background issue.

All in all I certainly recommend Artemis. The novel is clever, beautifully detailed and described and packed with plenty of action. Andy Weir’s second novel is undoubtedly a worthy successor to ‘The Martian’.

Front Cover of ‘Artemis (Credit: Andy Weir, Crown Publishing)

The movie rights to ‘Artemis’ have already been sold although I don’t suppose production has started yet. Since so much of the story depends on how the conditions of living on the Moon differ from that on Earth it will be interesting to see how they manage the special effects. Still, in a year or two I hope to be reviewing the movie version of ‘Artemis’.



Frankenstein: First Published Two Hundred Years Ago

Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster (Credit: Universal Studios)

It was two hundred years ago this month (Jan2018) that the novel Frankenstein was first published and has in that time become one of the best known stories ever written. So famous is the tale of the man who made a monster that I’m going to skip describing the plot in order to discuss less well known aspects of Frankenstein.

Most people know that it was a woman, Mary Shelly, who wrote this tale of horror. However few people know that Mary was only nineteen years old at the time she wrote Frankenstein, nor that the novel was written in Switzerland, the home country of it’s protagonist Victor Frankenstein (Nope, Doctor Frankenstein is not a baron and he’s not even German).

According to Mary’s original introduction, she and her husband the poet Percy Shelly were spending a rainy, dreary evening with their friend the poet Lord Byron when Bryon suggested that they should each of them write ‘a ghost story’. I’ve heard that Byron also completed his tale but I’ve never read or even seen it, only Mary’s story went on to become a cultural icon.

Engraving from 1831 Edition (Credit: PD)

Literary scholars have argued endlessly about the possible inspirations for Frankenstein but I think there were three, two mythical and one scientific. The first myth is the Greek story of how the Titan Prometheus created the first men from clay (that’s right the Greeks didn’t believe that God made man, it was his uncle who made us!). The connection with Frankenstein’s bringing to life a creature of his own creation is obvious.

Not quite as obvious is the connection to the legend of Faust but I think the influence is more important. Now I agree that unlike Frankenstein, Faust explicitly knew that he was making a deal with the devil and that although Faust gained many powers by that deal he never used them to bring anything to life. However it is clear that Frankenstein, as portrayed by Mary Shelly, gives up his humanity in order to acquire knowledge and power. It is this idea of a scientist who creates the instrument of his own destruction that makes Frankenstein the Faust metaphor for the age of science.

The final inspiration for Frankenstein was the rapid advance of science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In particular the discovery by the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani in 1791 that the leg of a dead frog will twitch when poked by two different metals which led to the idea of ‘animal electricity’, a connection between life and lightning that is used in both the novel and every Frankenstein movie ever made.

Mary Shelly’s novel quickly became a sensation and so it was no surprise that one of the very first movies ever made was a version of Frankenstein. The first film version of Frankenstein was made by no less than Thomas Edison the inventor of the motion picture.

The Monster as seen by Thomas Edison (Credit: PD)

It was the film version by Universal studios starring Boris Karloff as the monster that remains the Frankenstein in popular culture. Indeed, Karloff’s performance was so iconic that he succeeded in shifting the emphasis from the maker to the monster. Since Karloff there have in fact been numerous movies made that have the monster as a character but no Doctor Frankenstein. For many people today Frankenstein is the monster, not the man who made him.

Mary Shelly’s novel has also had an enormous influence on other writers in the years since it was first published. In his play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’  (R.U.R.) the Czech author Karel Capek described how a scientist manufactures an army of artificial workers who turn on and destroy humanity. Robot is the Czech word for worker by the way. The link to Frankenstein is obvious. Many of the B-grade movies I saw when I was young had a similar plot with a scientist’s invention becoming a threat to the world.

A Scene from R.U.R. by Karel Cepek (Credit: PD)

There were also authors who saw thing differently however. One of these was Isaac Asimov who realized that if we learned how to build a Frankenstein’s monster we could also learn how to make it safe! Asimov wrote many stories and novels with robots playing an important role, and every one of Asimov’s robots were designed and manufactured to obey the three laws of robotics that made them both useful and safe. As much as I love Frankenstein I agree with Asimov, if humanity’s inventions threaten us then it is our fault, not our creation’s. I will leave you today with the three laws as composed by Isaac Asimov.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (Credit: Isaac Asimov, R.A.Lawler)


Science and Science Fiction: Top Stories and the Year 2017 in Review

We’re down to the last few days of the year 2017 and all of the news outlets are doing special reviews of the ‘Top Stories’ that they covered during the past year. With this in mind I’ve decided to use my final post of the year to review some of the stories I’ve written about in 2017.

First of all let’s look at some of the numbers. Over the past 52 weeks I’ve now published 102 posts so it hasn’t quite been two posts a week. Of those posts 88 have dealt with topics in one of the many fields of science while 13 have been reviews of science fiction novels or movies. (Looking at these statistics I realize I need to do some more SF posts.)

Starting with the science we’ll begin by looking at some the events that took place in man’s continuing exploration of space. A lot happened both with robotic probes throughout the Solar System as well as preparing for future manned mission beyond low Earth orbit. In my opinion however the big story in space has bee the continued success of Space X corporation. (posts of 8Mar, 1Apl, 17May, 7Jun and 14Oct)

Space X, the Hawthorn California based commercial space launch company, succeeded in launching 18 of their Falcon 9 rockets in 2017 placing a variety of satellites into orbit including two resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

In addition to launching 18 of their rockets Space X also able to land 16 of the rockets. (The two that were not recovered were not failures but rather missions requiring so much fuel that a recovery was not possible.) Indeed one of the Falcon 9 rockets that flew this year had already flown in 2016 and represented the first reuse and re-recovery of the Falcon 9.

With these successes Space X has proven beyond doubt its ability to reliably reuse the Falcon 9 and hopefully this will soon lead to a considerable reduction in the cost of getting into space. The image below shows the last Space X launch of 2017, one from Vandenberg Air Force Base and which gave the southern half of California a spectacular show.

Space X launch (credit: Art Brown)

On the interplanetary exploration side of space the biggest news came from the arrival of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter (19Jul) along with the Cassini Spacecraft’s ending its mission to Saturn with a final plunge into the atmosphere of the planet itself (15Apl, 13Sept and 14Oct). Juno has already given us the closest views ever of the biggest planet in our Solar System and has allowed scientists to study phenomenon like the great red spot in greater detail. The image below is the Great Red Spot from the Juno spacecraft.

Great Red Spot (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major)

The Cassini spacecraft had already been orbiting Saturn for more than a decade sending back breathtaking images of the Solar Systems most beautiful planet (My opinion) and its mission was coming to an end due to lack of fuel. Because the data sent back by Cassini had indicated the possibility that two of Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus might harbour life it was decided to send the probe to burn up in the giant planet’s atmosphere rather than risk contaminating those moons. The image below is one of the last from Cassini.

Saturn by Cassini (Credit: NASA-JPL)

For manned space flight the year 2017 was more a waiting year as the ISS continued to be manned by Russian spacecraft but America is still hoping Space X and Boeing will begin test flights of their new manned capsules in 2018.

In the political / budget front President Trump ordered NASA to plan on a return to the Moon but there was no mention of money so no bucks, no Buck Rogers (16Dec).


In the science of Paleontology this has been a year of new discoveries along with the resolution of some long standing mysteries. New dinosaur species included the Patagotitan (16Aug), the Kayentapus (known only from its footprints) and the Sinosauropterys (both 28Oct). See images below.

Patagotitan mayorum skeleton (Credit: Museo Egidio Feruglio)
Footprints of Dino (Credit: Reuters)
Sinosauropteryx Fossil (Credit: Jacob Vinther)

For those of us who love Trilobites, and who doesn’t, we had the most detailed description ever of the digestive system of a trilobite (29Nov). There was also a paper examining the earliest known eye that was found on a fossil trilobite (9Dec). The image below is the fossil trilobite with the earliest known eyes.

Trilobite Fossil with earliest evidence of Eyes (Credit: Gennadi Baranov)

To me however the biggest news in paleontology came from a paper examining the anatomy of the ancient extinct creatures called hyoliths, small conic shaped fossils whose taxonomic place among living things had been a mystery for almost 200 years (15Jan). After studying and dissecting, yes they can dissect fossils, the best specimens of hyoliths it was found that hyoliths belonged in the same group of animals that contained the brachiopods. The image below shows an artist’s representation of a hyolith.

What a living Hyolith looked like

Now I’m a physicist by training so in the past year there were a lot of posts about new developments in that field. The detection of gravity waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitywave Observatory (LIGO) probably being the most noteworthy (14Jan, 7Oct and 22Oct). In fact the observation of gravity waves won the Nobel Prize for the chief scientists at LIGO Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) along with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Now the first two observations of gravity waves both came from the merger of two black holes and as you may guess aside from the gravity waves there was little else to see. The third detection on August 17th however was caused by the merger of two neutron stars resulting in an explosion so huge that it produced enough radiation to be picked up by a Gamma Ray satellite along with optical and radio telescopes. The fact that we can now integrate gravity wave observations with the observations of other astronomically instruments opens up entirely new ways of studying the Universe.

I also wrote two posts about new experiments to study the sub-atomic particles called neutrinos, the ghost particle of the atom. In particular I wrote about the design and construction of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) (30Jul and 2Dec). Now the DUNE experiment will use the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermi-Lab to produce large streams of neutrinos that will travel beneath the Earth to a huge neutrino detector in an old gold mine outside of Lead, South Dakota. (Neutrinos interact so rarely that hardly any will be absorbed). The way the neutrinos change during the 2000km flight will tell us a great deal about this most mysterious of elementary particles. The image below shows the setup of the DUNE experiment.

DUNE Experimental Layout (Credit: Fermilab)

Oh, and before I forget there was the post about my trip down to Sweetwater Tennessee to view the ‘Great American Eclipse of 2017’ (24Aug). It really was an awesome sight that I’ll never forget. The Image below is one of my pictures of the eclipse.

Total Eclipse of the Sun (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

Now as I said earlier most of my posts have dealt with science but during the past twelve months I did get to review three SF movies and six novels, I even spend four posts describing what Science Fiction is in my opinion.

The three movies I reviewed were: Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 (20May), Blade Runner 2049 (25Oct) and Thor, Ragnarok (15Nov). All of them were interesting but all of them had their faults as well. To my mind a really good SF movie is that rarest of gems that only comes around once a decade or so. Oh well, I guess maybe I’m just asking for too much.

The same is pretty much true of the six novels I reviewed. The novels were: Dark Secret by Edward M. Lerner (18Jan), New Moon by Ian McDonald (1Mar), Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein (12Apl), Death Wave by Ben Bova (31May), the Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (30Aug) and Galactic Satori Chronicles Book 1: Earth by Nick Braker and Paul E. Hicks (27Sept). Each of these novels would appeal to some but the one I found most interesting and best written was The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. The image below shows the cover of the Three Body Problem.

Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Tor Books)

Well this has been quite a long post but then it’s been a long year and a lot happened. I’m sure that next year will be just as interesting; I hope you’ll stop by on occasion to check out ‘Science and Science Fiction’.










Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

The Fenris wolf fights The Incredible Hulk!!! In my opinion that alone was worth the price of admission. The new movie Thor: Ragnarok from Marvel Studios is a nice mixture of ancient and modern mythologies.

Back when I was in grade school I much preferred the Marvel Comics to DC, Superman was especially lame and Batman was a joke. Then in high school I got interested in Norse mythology so I guess I was predisposed to like the new Thor movie. The image below is a poster for the movie Thor: Ragnarok.

Poster for Thor: Ragnarok (Credit: Marvel, Disney)

For those who aren’t familiar with the ‘Fate of the Gods’ or ‘Twilight of the Gods’, we’re not quite sure which Ragnarok means, let me give you a little background. In Norse mythology Ragnarok is the final battle between the forces of good and evil. Most mythologies predict some such conflict in the future but unlike the Christian myth of Armageddon where the good guys just win and Satan in cast into the bottomless pit the battle of Ragnarok is a lot bloodier for both sides.

Three winters without a summer herald the attack on Asgard, the home of the Gods by the Giants (Jötnar) of Jötunheimr. The giants are led by Surtr the fire Giant. The Fenris wolf breaks free of his bonds and devours the Sun while Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent rises from the depths of the ocean causing violent storms. Even Loki breaks free of his chains to join the war on the Gods.

The Aesir assemble for battle led by one-eyed Odin (Germanic Woden which is where we get Wednesday), his sons Ty’r (Tuesday) and Thor (Thursday) along with a fertility God named Freye (Friday) and the ever faithful guardian of the bifrost bridge Heimdallr. Below is a woodcut by the artist Otto Spamer of Odin in his full splendor.

Odin by Otto Spamer

In the battle the wolf swallows Odin alive but is killed by Ty’r, Freye and Surtr kill each other. Thor slays Jörmungandr but takes only nine steps before dropping dead from the monster’s poison. In the final act only Heimdallr and Loki remain to face each other, faithful against faithless and die by each others sword. A later Christian addition has a new world being reborn out of the ashes as Odin’s dead son Baldr the beautiful rises from the realm of the Goddess of the Dead Hel (Who gives us the word Hell) and rules a world without evil.

So much for the ancient myths, Marvel studios has now given us a new take on the myth in their current movie Thor: Ragnarok. Unlike the original myth Thor: Ragnarok is a part of the ‘Marvel Universe’ so the good guys have to win without too many losses. Obviously they aren’t going to let Thor die because he has to appear in the next Avengers movie. Nevertheless there is plenty of mayhem on both sides.

Most of the original cast is here. Hel, now called Hela and played by Cate Blanchett, is the chief evildoer but she’s joined by Fenris and Surtr. The images below show Hela the Goddess of Death and the Fenris wolf.

Hel (Cate Blanchett) (Credit: Marvel, Disney)
The Fenris Wolf (Credit: Marvel, Disney)

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is joined by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Heimdallr (Idris Elba). In the movie Loki has his mischievous moments but in the end becomes a good guy probably because Tom Hiddleston has done such a splendid job with the character that Marvel doesn’t want to lose him, or make him into a real bad guy. (Hint to Marvel studios: What about a Loki movie. Of course he’d have to be an anti-hero but how about a Marvel remake of something like a fistful of dollars?)

An addition to the story from elsewhere in the Marvel Universe is The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who gets to fight the Fenris wolf as I mentioned earlier. A five minute long cameo is also provided by Doctor Strange played by Benedict Cumberbatch that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the movie but which introduces Thor to Doctor Strange.

Now I’m not going to give away any of the major plot points, O’k I did mention that the Hulk fights the Fenris wolf, but I will make a few criticisms. I do think that Hela (Hel) could have been more effective if she’d actually had fewer lines. As death personified she should have been something more like a walking plague, killing by simply a thought or glance. Also the section on Jeff Goldbloom’s landfill planet either needed to be explained better, or reduced, and less Jeff Goldbloom is always a good thing to me.

Another thing before I forget, Hela uses Odin’s eternal flame to animate a lot of dead warriors to be her Zombie army but then Thor and the Hulk just knock’em all over like bowling pins. I’ve seen this before, the good guys have to fight their way through a big mass of nobodies before they face the real bad guys. It’s really just padding the film and it’s boring. Try using a little more imagination.

Nevertheless I certainly enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok although you may have noticed that the serpent Jörmungandr didn’t appear. Since he the one who kills Thor in the ancient myth I guess Marvel is saving him until Chris Hemsworth is tired of the role and they start planning on a reboot. Below are a few images of artwork that have been inspired by the myth of Ragnarok.

Thor and the Midgard Serpent by Emil Doepler
Ragnarok by Otto Spamer

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049, the Original was more Original.

Based upon the Philip K. Dick science fiction novel ‘Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?’ the first ‘Blade Runner’ movie was one of those films that under performed at the box office back in 1982. Even at the time however the film had a large number of genuine admirers both for the originality of the novel’s plot and director Ridley Scott’s gritty vision in filming it. Today Blade Runner has achieved much better reviews and a growing number of fans.

Original Blade Runner Poster (Credit: Warner Brothers)

For those who don’t know or remember the original movie, in the post-apocalyptic year 2019 humans are busy developing “the outer worlds” and are using ‘replicants’, human appearing androids as a slave labour force. Some of these replicants have escaped and come to Earth where they are hunted down and eliminated by ‘Blade Runners’ like Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford in both the original and the sequel. The original film ends with Deckard and a replicant named Rachel leaving together as lovers. The entire film, and the novel before it were a comment on what it really means to be human. Blade Runner was just one of those movies some people loved because it was so different, while others just didn’t understand it for the exact same reason.

So it was inevitable that sooner or later someone would get around to making a sequel and we now have Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve with executive producer Ridley Scott. The fact that Ridley Scott had a major role in the sequel ensured that ‘Blade Runner 2049’ has much the same gritty feel as the original.

Blade Runner 2049 Poster (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Without giving too much away the sequel’s plot concerns the hunt for a child that the human Deckard and the replicant Rachel had after the end of the original. It’s the job of the new Blade Runner ‘K’ played by Ryan Gosling, to hunt down this impossible child. By the way ‘K’ is himself a replicant!

That’s one problem I had with “Blade Runner 2049′. In the original film replicants were eliminated just for being on Earth but now there are replicants everywhere, replicants are even hunting other replicants. As an explanation we’re informed that most replicants are a newer, obedient model. I might have accepted that explanation if at the end of the movie we weren’t introduced to a waiting rebel army of ‘obedient’ replicants. In other words the movie changed its own rules in the middle of the story and that’s never a good thing in science fiction.

The bigger problem however is simply a lack of anything really new. If the original Blade Runner was so original that many people couldn’t accept it, the new Blade Runner 2049 certainly doesn’t have that problem. In fact Blade Runner 2049 just a rather obvious take off on the first film.

So much for the bad parts, this film does have a few good things in it as well. As I already mentioned the new Blade Runner maintains much of the same feeling, the same atmosphere as the original but with improved special effects. The effects themselves are very good being a nice mixture of real sets and CGI images. (I think some films just use too much CGI and end up looking like a cartoon.) The two images below allow a comparison of the design of the two films.

Los Angeles in the Original Blade Runner (Credit: Warner Brothers)
Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049 (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

My favourite part of the film however was that of K’s computer generated girlfriend Joi, and not just because the actress playing the role, Ana deArmas was quite pretty. To me the technology of Joi, both hardware and software were the most original part of the film. When we first meet Joi her image is being generated by a projector in K’s apartment. The projector runs along a railing mounted on the ceiling allowing Joi to move around but only inside the apartment.

K brings Joi a present, a handheld projector that enables her to go outside, even with him on his missions. In terms of hardware that made me wonder how a handheld projector could generate a stable image, especially when K kept putting it in his pocket. More interesting however was the idea of a computer program, however sophisticated, developing a truly individual personality, and Joi had as much personality as any character in the film.

What I would have liked to have seen would have been a couple more computer generated people like Joi. Since these image people would all be developed from the same program could they really be individuals, really be different from one another? Exploring that idea could have been original!

On the whole Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t a bad movie, but with all the money and effort that went into it, it could have been better.


Book Review “Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH” by Nick Braker and Paul E Hicks

This post is going to be a little bit different from my usual literary critiques because the novel “Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH” (which I will refer to as GSC1E from now on) is a self published work that as far as I know is only available at Amazon or from the authors themselves. As it happens I met Nick Braker in Sweetwater Tennessee when I was there for the eclipse back in August (see post of 24Aug17), bought the novel and finally got around to reading it. The novel’s cover is shown below.

Cover, Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH (Credit: Nick Braker, Paul E Hicks)

Let me start by saying that GSC1E is pretty much written to appeal to the fans of “The X Files” or UFO conspiracies in general. There are three distinct alien species, one good and two bad, men in black along with secret sites around the world where alien technology is being studied. All three alien species abduct humans, the good aliens do so to ‘augment’ four woman and four men, the bad aliens either swap minds with humans in a plot to destroy mankind while the other bad aliens are harvesting our organs!

The heroes of GSC1E are the eight augmented men and women and one man in particular, Asher. Together the eight have to learn to use their enhanced powers to stop bad aliens number one before they can kill us all. We’re not talking about thought provoking Science Fiction here; the plot of GSC1E is actually more like a Wild West shoot’em up. There are in fact plenty of flight scenes, with both fists and guns, along with almost as many chases.

The problem is GSC1E isn’t really very well written. In many places the plot and descriptions border on the juvenal. For example all the women in the novel are absolutely ravishing, every single one of them. Even the head of the World Security Organization the WSO is breathtakingly beautiful. The WSO is the official name of the men in black by the way. On the other hand the men are all filled to the brim with testosterone, so much so that after a while I wanted to yell at them to grow up. Really, people insulting and threatening each other all the time is not a sign of affection, it’s just bad dialog.

At the start of the story bad aliens number one have murdered Asher’s fiancée Beth and he swears revenge. For the rest of the novel we’re reminded every four or five pages of how much Beth meant to him, how no other women will ever take her place and how he will avenge her. Despite these reminders Asher still manages to hit on every, and I do mean every women in the book. It just doesn’t work, not very well anyway.

Then there was one episode, about three quarters of the way through the book where they just lost me completely. The four augmented men are now full fledged members of the WSO and they’re on a mission to France to investigate a series of murders by aliens in that country. A computer analysis of the murders points to a suburb of Paris and so they decide to drive around until they find someone who’s been abducted by aliens. Seriously, they decide to drive around in order to find an alien abductee, and the worst part is two paragraphs later they just find one! Now I know every novel has it’s ‘Oh, Come On’ moments. The moments when something happens that’s a little hard to believe and you say to yourself ‘Oh, Come On’ but for me that moment was just too much to take.

I tried to be generous, after all not everybody has my taste and if I think anyone might like a book I’ll try to point out it’s good parts for them. However ‘Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH’ had a high school plot along with writing that could really have used some serious editing, maybe that’s the penalty for self-publishing. Still, if you think you might be interested in reading ‘Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1: EARTH’ click on the link below to be taken to the author’s webpage.

Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu is the most popular science fiction author in China today and his books are finally becoming available in English translations and having just finished ‘The Three Body Problem’ I think that’s a good thing! ‘The Three Body Problem’ was the most intriguing novel I’ve read in quite a while and I’m looking forward to reading more of Mister Cixin’s work. The first installment in a three part series ‘The Three Body Problem’ is being published by Tor books here in the United States along with ‘The Dark Forest’ and ‘Death’s End’. The pictures below show the novel’s front cover for the original Chinese edition by Chongqing Press along with the edition by Tor Books.

Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Chongqing Press)
Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Tor Books)

The novel begins during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, the violent suppression of all opposition that Mao Zedong used to reassert his absolute rule in China. The main character of the novel, Ye Zhetai is an astrophysicist and the daughter of China’s most famous physicist. When her father is beaten to death during one of the ‘struggle sessions’ Madam Ye is sent to a labour camp only to be denounced herself and left to die in a prison cell. She is rescued when her special knowledge is needed for a top secret military program, the ‘Red Coast Project’.

The novel bounces back and forth between China in the 60’s and 70’s and modern times but the changes are handled smoothly. This way we learn some of the consequences of Madam Ye’s before we discover just what exactly it is that she has done.

Now the Three Body Problem of the title is the famous gravitational problem still unsolved from Newton’s time. Using the calculus he developed Sir Isaac was able to find an exact, closed, analytic solution for the motion of two bodies under their mutual gravitational attraction. However, as soon as a third body is added to the problem there is in general no exact solution, only approximate, numerical solutions that require a great deal of arithmetic to solve. (It should be acknowledged however that with modern computers those numerical solutions can yield fantastically accurate results as demonstrated by the recent eclipse across the USA.)

Now the three bodies that make up the problem in the novel are three suns around which an alien planet orbits. The civilization on this planet has progressed through periods of stable orbits, and suffered through periods of chaotic orbits when their planet is either baked or frozen by being pulled too near or too far from one of its suns. Because of the harsh conditions these creatures have endured for millions of years the only creed by which they live is survival, the only goal they possess is to find a new world to inhabit.

I suppose you can guess that the plot of ‘The Three Body Problem’ is the trite old story of aliens from a dying world coming to conquer Earth but Cixin Liu really manages to inject a lot of fresh ideas into his version. One of the most interesting ideas is a virtual reality game developed here on Earth that simulates human cultures trying to survive on the alien’s world.

Now ‘The Three Body Problem’ is only the first part of the trilogy, I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the story. Before I leave however I think I’m going to go out on a limb a little bit. At the front of the book there’s a list of characters; one of whom is Yang Dong, the daughter of Ye Zhetai and a string theorist! The problem is that Yang Dong has committed suicide before the modern day part of the story begins and although she is mentioned several times, and appears as a baby in the past sections, she never says a word! What is it that makes me think she’s not quite dead yet!

I’ll let you know if I’m right after I read ‘The Dark Forest’.




Book Review: Death Wave by Ben Bova

Anyone familiar with Science Fiction knows that Ben Bova is SF royalty. Author of over hundred fiction and non-fiction books Ben Bova has received six Hugo awards, been the editor of both Analog and Omni science fiction magazines as well as a being a former President of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I need to take a breath after all that.

Death Wave is Bova’s latest title; actually he’s so prolific I may already be wrong about that. Death wave is a sequel to his earlier novel New Earth so I’ll have to catch you up on what happened in that story.

Death Wave by Ben Bova (Credit Tor Books)

Jorden Kell is the leader of humanity’s first expedition into interstellar space. The expedition finds the dead remains of alien civilizations, their planets sterilized by a wave of gamma radiation that has erupted out of the black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

Only a race of machine intelligences has managed to survive and they warn Jorden Kell and his crew that the Death Wave will reach Earth in 2000 years. The machine intelligences also give Kell the necessary knowledge to produce a force field type technology that can protect us from the Death Wave. In exchange for this assistance humanity is to send space missions to six nearby intelligent but pre-industrial alien species in order to protect them.

All that is back story to “Death Wave” which begins when Jorden Kell and several other members of his expedition have returned to Earth and try to convince the governments of the World of the danger to Earth and the nearby civilizations. But 200 years have passed since the astronauts departed on their mission and the World is not the one they left.

In particular Anita Halleck, the Chairwoman of the World Council is too busy trying to bring all of the Solar System’s bureaucracies under her control to concern herself with a threat to humanity 2000 years in the future, or any threat to alien civilizations at all. What does concern Halleck is her suspicions that Jorden Kell is trying to use his notoriety to supplant her, something she will prevent at any cost.

Add in terrorists who believe Jorden Kell is actually paving the way for an alien invasion, security personnel who do the Chairwoman’s very dirty work and a trip to an orbiting habitat for 200,000 humans and you get a pretty wild escape story. The problem is that most of the science fiction is actually left over from the first novel leaving “Death Wave” with little more than political machinations and a good chase sequence.

I don’t want to give away too much but I think that even Ben Bova felt that way because the ending comes as a bit of a letdown. The bad guys get the drop on the good guys then good guys turn the tables and it’s over!

I’m not saying “Death Wave” wasn’t good. In fact it was quite exciting. It just wasn’t as interesting as “New Earth”. There is a third novel coming in the series, “Apes and Angels” which may already be available. This third novel is going to follow one of the expeditions to rescue the alien civilizations and I think there will be more SF in it. I’ll be certain to let you know after I read it!


Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2

I know, I know, Guardians of the Galaxy is really more of a roller coaster ride than a science fiction movie but it does have spaceships and aliens and while it may just be a distraction from the real world it is a well made distraction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 (Credit Marvel Studios)

Guardians of the Galaxy is a part of the “Marvel Universe” produced by Disney and which includes Iron Man, Captain America and etc. and which may very well become the most successful movie franchise in history. Disney / Marvel is building this universe by combining individual superhero movies like “Doctor Strange” with ensemble movies like “The Avengers” and now “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

In vol.1 of Guardians we were introduced to our group of heroes as they were introduced to each other. Peter Quill is a Earthling who was kidnapped by alien “ravagers” as a child, the ravagers are a collection of outlaws / pirates. Quill is joined by Gamora, an alien woman who was raised to be an assassin but to wants to escape that life along with Rocket, a genetically engineered intelligent raccoon and his friend Groot, a semi-intelligent tree-man. Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters. The final member of the Guardians is Drax, a powerful fighter.

For a moment can I just stop to ask why our culture at present seems to connect to the idea of pirates and assassins and bounty hunters as being saviors of galaxies??? Seventy to eighty years ago the heroes were like Superman or the Lone Ranger, so perfectly upstanding and morally virtuous that they were boring!

Then, when I was a kid there were superheroes like Spiderman, a typical teenager who didn’t really want to be a hero. Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four also did not want his superpowers. Nowadays it seems like you had to have been a bad guy before you can become a good guy. This may make for more interesting characters but to my mind it doesn’t make them any more realistic. I’ll stick with the Spiderman type, just a normal person who is a reluctant hero.

Anyway, back to the Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2. In this story Peter Quill meets his mysterious and very powerful father EGO. I don’t want to give away any of the plot but let’s just say that EGO’s desires for his son’s future are not quite paternal.

That’s just the main plot, there are complications aplenty. With a race called the Sovereigns pursuing the Guardians because Rocket stole some of their batteries while Gemora’s sister Nebula is trying to kill her, to say nothing about the mutiny of Yondu the Ravager’s crew there are fights galore. There are several times during the movie when it’s hard to keep track of who’s on who’s side or not but you know that in the end Quill, Gamora, Rocket Groot and Drax will all stick together.

During the fights there are more than a few “Come ‘on” moments, like when Gamora picks up a cannon from a broken spaceship and starts firing it at her sister or when Drax ties a rope around himself and jumps out of the Guardian’s ship to shoot at an enemy.

Despite it’s drawbacks the movie is well made with easy to like characters. Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 isn’t thought provoking science fiction, it’s a roller coaster, but it is a good one.