i saw it

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I don’t know why, but I sometimes feel inclined to spout out my opinions on movies to all two people who read dangblog.

Black Mirror

I had high hopes for this series due to the reviews, so it was big disappointment when I finally saw it. I watched many episodes because of an unfounded faith that it would get better. The acting was fine, the production and visuals were sometimes great – the stories were the problem.

One flaw that held for a majority of the shows was an attempt to stretch a 30 minute or even 15 minute idea into a excruciatingly long hour. After 15 minutes I got the point, but it kept going on, seemingly just to fill a time requirement.

Many of the shows filled this time with the following plot idea: start with a good or mildly bad situation and make it worse. If you think a particular future technology is bad at the beginning of the story, wait a few minutes and it will get even worse. By the end of the episode, it’s really, horribly, terribly bad and everyone loses. The end. Repeat this plan next episode.

I liked the one about the two lovers living a 1980s dream in a virtual reality. Personally I wish it would have addressed issues like, “Is a copy of you really you?” and “What happens if there’s a power outage?” But I was okay with it as is.

That’s it. Lots of other episodes had sparks of interest that just didn’t hold for an hour, were poorly handled, or just went for a predictable bad outcome.

Arrival

Better than average science fiction story. Go linguists! There are unexpected twists, and a fun unravelling-of-the-plot discussion to be had with friends afterward. You can’t ask for too much more from mainstream Hollywood products.

Sure there a things I could pick at. When the protagonists first approach the floating spaceship, the soundtracks lays on the weird dissonant sounds in a way that says, “You are supposed to feel like this is awesome and alien now, audience. Okay? Get it?”

There is other silly stuff, but overall it’s a win when the aliens aren’t people with plastic bumps glued to the forehead. Like “Sixth Sense,” “Inception,” and “Memento” there are twists that you may not be expecting.

Rogue One

This is a lightweight adventure film. Enjoyable, but nothing to get excited about. It may that because I was never a huge “Star Wars” fan that this didn’t provide a ton of thrills. One problem is that I never felt an emotional investment in the characters so it all seemed a little flat. We’ve got the required ingredients for the franchise – a Force-imbued character who disables opponents with a big stick, dozens of disposable storm troopers with armor that must be made of cheap plastic, for all the protection it provides (and the troopers still can’t shoot straight), and a wise-cracking robot.

The Expanse

Are you getting the idea that I’m a science fiction fan? Yup. I haven’t seen the second season, but the first one was good. There is relatively believable science, which is a nice change. No faster than light, no aliens, no ray guns. Gravity and momentum seem to work like the real world. The whole atmosphere and look of this show – set a few centuries hence in a colonized solar system — looks good and feels somewhat reasonable.

They have learned from other series like “Game of Thrones” that some gritty, realistic politics and believable human conflict make for better entertainment and believability in an otherwise fantastic environment. Hope that continues into season 2.

That’s all.

science fiction museum

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Thanks to Scot’s two-for-one ticket, I made my first visit to the Science Fiction Museum. I was prepared to say, “So what? There’s Capt. Kirk’s chair. Big deal,” but instead I really liked it. Sure, you might expect me to like it because I’ve been reading SF since my first comic book. Because I read the small number of SF books in my hometown library multiple times, watched the TV premiere of Star Trek in 1966, saw The Angry Red Planet at my hometown theater, and belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club when I was in high school. But I’m also pretty picky and critical about subjects I know, and I liked this.

(Could I have really seen The Angry Red Planet? Released in 1960? I think I did. I remember the survivors walking off the spaceship at the beginning. Seem to remember someone getting sucked into the sand and disappearing forever.)

Anyway, it’s a great museum. It’s bigger than I expected, with two levels of exhibits. It rightly pays homage to the 50s pulp magazines. I liked the tribute to SF fandom, including faded copies of fanzines, and even an old mimeograph machine. There is a beer can from “Red Dwarf”! There is a life-size replica of “Forbidden Planet’s” Robby the Robot. Nice presentation on Mars. The space-dock was nifty, with famous spaceships from SF history cruising by on a huge digital display. Then there is Harlan Ellison’s first typewriter. And of course, the zero-gravity toilet instructions from “2001: A Space Odyssey” are on the restroom wall.

Complaints? Sure. Why display interviews with movie directors when there are so many smart SF authors and experts out there? Less glamour, more substance. Why aren’t all of my favorite books and authors featured? At $13, the admission is more than the Seattle Aquarium, and you know it’s got to cost a lot more to keep all those octopi and fish alive. I’ll be waiting for another two-for-one opportunity for the SFM.

weeding out the dreck, part 2

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Two more science fiction books I like, as we continue to separate the good stuff from the crap.

The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars published in 1993, 1994, & 1997)
These novels combine sharply drawn characters with an extremely realistic portrayal of the colonization of Mars. Imagine an epic trilogy about the first three generations of settlers in America, only transfer this to another planet. The technology, the fight for survival, the political struggles, the revolutionary war, the business deals, the cultural changes–it’s a huge feat of very detailed imagination, and massively entertaining. One theme running through the books is the struggle between those who want to leave the planet’s landscape as it is, and those who wish to make it more earth-like. Powerful personalities collide, mix, exchange ideas, and bounce back again. The whole thing is made very believable. The books are some kind of landmark in the genre.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)
This short novel has it’s share of predictions about the future that seem silly now, but the book is an explosion of entertaining creativity. Characters and events are so larger than life that’s it kind of a wild comic book of a story crammed with surprises. It takes place in a future society where everyone has learned how to mentally teleport themselves around the earth. (See the “Let’s Teleport” blog entry for ironic real-life contrast.) The author starts with this premise, and takes off from there in a frantic story involving a circus, a doomsday weapon, corporate megalomania, and psychic power. The hero is a man who performs the first teleportation through space, and later uses his powerful will to gain money, then power, and then in a crazed stunt, wrests ultimate power from the earth’s elite and throws it into the hands of everyday citizens. Hard to describe. Hard to put down.

weeding out the dreck

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I like science fiction, but you sure have to wade through a lot of crud to find the good stuff. I’d really like to find a reliable source of reviews (in other words, reviewers who agree with me). In the mean time, I’m going to list some of my favorites, starting with:

Neverness by David Zindell 1988

The city of Neverness is a sort of frozen Venice, where citizens travel by ice skates and sleds. It’s also the home of a strange society of pilots who have to juggle abstract mathematical formulas and solve them in split seconds in order to navigate space-time without killing themselves. (The author makes math sound very cool and interesting.) The book follows the exploits of the son of one of these pilots, and this involves political power struggles, planet-sized thinking machines, people who have intentionally regressed themselves to neanderthals, and a mysterious character whose occupational title is Timekeeper. The book shoots ideas around like fireworks, covering philosophy, math, destiny, and consciousness–there are more interesting notions here than you’ll come across in a dozen other books put together.

There is one catch: the book could use some judicious editing. In my opinion, portions of the story drag on unneccesarily. Zindell wrote a series of sequels where this problem seems to get worse. In the sequels, he has more good ideas to unfold, but the price of finding them gets steeper as some of the books are much too long and some silly plot and character features start to creep through. The first one is well worth it, and the rest are OK for the serious fan.