Charlie Stross’s “We’re sorry we created the Torment Nexus”

This is the text of a talk Charlie Stross gave today (November 10) at the Next Frontiers Applied Fiction Day in Stuttgart. He talks about how science fiction writers influenced many of today’s most powerful tech giants–in all the wrong ways. Entertaining and also a nice section of SF history, dating back to the late 19th century.

We’re sorry we created the Tormet Nexus

I watched Prometheus again

For the first five minutes, then I stopped.

I was trying to remember exactly how it opened, and now I have a newly-refreshed memory of it. Some weird albino dude chugs something weird, and it changes his DNA, and he dies and goes over a waterfall, then his magic DNA spreads out all over or something.

Shortly after, we’re introduced to the spaceship Prometheus (and why did they name the movie after the ship, anyway?) with its crew of 17 human drumsticks. The next few minutes are a sequence wherein the android, played by Michael Fassbender, does quirky android stuff, then the ship approaches some planet and Charlize Thereon wakes up early to do an extremely sweaty workout in her hypersleep skimpies. She asks the android if there are any casualties and he’s confused, so she clarifies and asks if anyone died and he says, “No, mum. Everyone’s fine.” And I thought, “OK, that’s enough quirky android for me.” But then I went back and replayed the bit with closed captions on, and he actually says, “No, ma’am, everyone’s fine.” But it sounds like he is saying “mum” and he’s a quirky android, see? So I think the closed captions are wrong.

Anyway, this was sufficient to sate my need to rewatch Prometheus again. For reference to my first viewing, see here.

For the best scene in Prometheus, see here.

Book review: The Between

The Between by Ryan Leslie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Between drew me in with something I’m always a sucker for: a portal to another world accessed through something mundane and ordinary. In fact, the previous book I read, Stephen King’s Fairy Tale, has the same hook, where the portal is inside a shed in a backyard. In The Between, the portal is behind a huge iron door buried…in a backyard! Reading these books may make you think backyards are way cooler than they actually are.

For a debut novel, The Between is pretty good. Author Ryan Leslie finds a tone and stays with it fairly consistently throughout–serious, but leavened by the characters reflecting on the unreal situations they find themselves in. The prose moves between macho pants banter between the main characters of Paul and Jay, and descriptions of the bizarre world of The Between and the rules that govern it, with the latter comprising the bulk of the novel. Leslie does a good job in providing enough detail for The Between to make it feel like an authentic place, while teasing details that suggest a lot more than what the reader sees.

But, as is often the case with a debut novel, it’s got a few flaws that bugged me. There are two that stood out. The first is The Between itself felt like a fusion of several different concepts the author had for the realm, and the inclusion of the ASCII computer game version seemed more a bit of a cheat for the author than something that added to the story, in that it allows a character to have a handy notebook/reference for The Between, but adds little else for the reader.

The other main issue I had was with the main character of Paul. He not only disappears for a large chunk of the story in the middle, but never seems to change at all, or have any real kind of arc, despite performing heroic deeds, especially near the story’s conclusion. The tense relationship that is fleshed out early on between Paul and Jay is also never revisited in a meaningful way once they enter The Between. There is some excellent work in showing how taking up artifacts in The Between confers powers and a specific role to the person wielding them, and can transform the person’s personality. This is used to great effect when Jay gets a knife that essentially turns him into an assassin with an insatiable bloodlust, but this never really gets followed up on at story’s end. Sure, there’s plenty of rousing adventure and the set pieces are full of action and derring-do, but if you take the time to create and explore relationships between characters and have them change in significant ways, I think it’s important to explore the consequences after all the gun fights and stabbings. By the end, I didn’t really know where Paul and Jay stood, except that I guess they were still friends.

Still, there’s a lot that works in The Between and I am confident Leslie will take what he has learned from writing it and incorporate it into future stories.

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Blockbuster burnout

I have a folder for blog ideas in Obsidian (my latest attempt to unify my note-taking with a platform-agnostic solution) and this is what I wrote for reference:

  • Jurassic World movies
  • Marvel movies
  • Star Wars
  • 16 Avatar sequels

Am I suffering blockbuster fatigue? Let’s find out!

One small pandemic changes everything

Another topic I pondered was how the pandemic cured me of going to the theatre to see movies. In early March 2020 a friend and I went to see Onward, which was a perfectly cromulent second-tier Pixar movie. A week or so later, all theatres shut down and by the end of March Onward was already streaming on Disney+. It would be a long time before theatres opened again.

Before that happened, I got a mirrorless camera (January 2021) and Nic and I substituted birding for going to movies. I find the birding a lot more enjoyable:

  • More exercise
  • We get outside
  • You don’t have to be quiet for multiple hours, which is a weird way to socialize when you think about it
  • Birds are neat! And real!
  • I enjoy going out and shooting photos in a general sense
  • Most stuff ends up on a streaming service or can be rented on-demand just a few months later (or even sooner)

Now that theatres are open again, I have no desire to go back, because birding is better and I’m fine waiting for big releases to come to streaming later (or skipping them entirely). Why is that? Let’s go through my bullet list in order.

Dinosaurs went extinct, dinosaur movies refuse to die

  • Jurassic World movies

I saw the original Jurassic World in 2015. To me, it felt like a basic retread of the original, albeit with the twist of adding “What if they actually opened the park, THEN everything went wrong?” but with unappealing or uninteresting characters. It also felt a bit mean-spirited and cynical. I had no interest in seeing the sequel Dark Kingdom, and even the usually faithful pull of nostalgia couldn’t convince me to see Dominion, either.

All three movies still made a ton of money. I just didn’t care about them anymore. They felt like product, not actual stories that needed to be told. Maybe I was becoming cynical!


  • Marvel movies

The fact that we have an abbreviation–MCU1Marvel Cinematic Universe to the one caveperson reading this and didn’t know.–to describe Marvel movies says a lot about how they are intended to be consumed: fully and completely. I did my part, watching all the movies as soon as they came out, starting with Iron Man in 1899 and going up to Avengers: Endgame in 2019 (I also saw Spider-Man: Far From Home in theatres, but this felt more like a dénouement to everything that came before). Then the pandemic hit, though the MCU movies still released in theatres, starting with Black Widow in July 2021.

With Disney+ arriving just before the pandemic, the MCU became even more of an obligation if you wanted to keep up on all the continuity. Now you had the movies (Phases 3, 4, 5, 297, etc.), plus Disney+ series that sometimes led directly to movie plots, with TV series WandaVision leading to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness being a prime example. I kept watching the movies (on streaming) and shows (also on streaming) but started to let things slide. I skipped The Eternals entirely. I have not watched Wakanda Forever, and I don’t give a flying fig about the new Ant-Man movie (which is apparently a not-uncommon sentiment).

At an undefined point, the fun of watching started to feel more like an obligation. I don’t want everything to be connected. I just want separate, entertaining stories. I don’t need Easter eggs, I want a self-contained plot that works without having to reference everything that came before it. I get that some people absolutely adore the continuity, but for me, it now feels more like a burden that gets in the way of simply enjoying the movies and shows. Also, it doesn’t help that a lot of the Marvel stuff has become fairly empty CGI spectacle, the formula well-honed and predictable.

I had to look up what the next film is (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) and it’s another that I will get around to watching eventually. Maybe.

I have a bad feeling about this

  • Star Wars

You could argue that Disney has cranked out too much Star Wars stuff–and there is merit in that argument–but the biggest issue is that after acquiring the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas, they started with a new trilogy of movies with no vision or purpose for being, other than to be more product and sell more merchandise. The first movie (a monster hit, showing the pent-up demand for more Star Wars) was a retread of A New Hope, but had some engaging new characters and held out some promise. The next two movies undid that promise, the first (The Last Jedi) by trying to deconstruct Star Wars a little too much, and the last (The Rise of Skywalker) by being a relentlessly stupid and inept piece of film-making. After that movie, I had no confidence in what Disney might do with Star Wars, so I’ve only dipped my toes in other efforts:

  • Rogue One. A standalone (!) story that serves as an immediate prequel to A New Hope. Pretty good.
  • Solo. Completely unnecessary and a mediocre movie. The first real sign that the Star Wars franchise had no firm creative control at the top.
  • The Mandalorian. Pretty good, actually! Set in the post-Return of the Jedi era, it riffs on the familiar, but has lapses into shameless fan service.
  • The Book of Boba Fett. Also known as Mandalorian Season 2.5. Just OK, really, and annoying that they tied the ongoing Mandalorian storyline into it (there’s that continuity thing again).
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi. Not bad, but a downer, despite the fact that I love Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Kenobi.

I’ve yet to watch Andor (which I hear is quite good, but also, understandably, also a downer). Overall, it feels like the TV part of Star Wars has fared better than the vision-free, fan service-heavy movies. Not all hope is lost, here, though I have to admit, I would still be reluctant to see a new Star Wars film in a theatre. I can’t imagine anything at this point that would spark more interest in me than, “hmm, interesting.”

James Cameron’s head in a jar to direct Avatar 17

  • 16 Avatar sequels

I saw an interesting line about how the Avatar sequel, The Way of Water, could gross $2 billion (as of this post it’s just under $2.3 billion worldwide) and still be culturally irrelevant, and I think that’s accurate. People will watch it and its inevitable sequels. They’ll make billions of dollars, but they’ll have no real impact otherwise. They’re just big movies with dazzling effects and technology, telling familiar stories in entertaining and, dare I say–crowd-pleasing–ways. And that’s all fine! But it’s not enough to get me into a theatre because I’m way past “dazzling special effects” being a draw. Good writing may not be something sexy you can market, but it’s a lot more appealing to me now that I’m not a hormone-boosted 15-year-old. But even good writing probably wouldn’t get my butt into a theatre seat.

It might get me to check out a film on streaming, though.

In the meantime, most of my current movie-watching has been a very specific kind of nostalgia, re-watching science fiction movies of varying quality from the 70s through the 90s. I started watching Independence Day again, which in many objective ways, is a bad movie. Heck, the disaster porn doesn’t even start until 45 minutes in (1996 was a simpler time). And yet, I watch because it’s dumb, but easy to digest, with no commitments. It’s anti-MCU.

And for now, at least, that’s enough.

Movie review: TRON

Technically, this is a re-re-review, because I saw this when it was originally released in 1982, then again in 2009 in anticipation of the sequel, TRON: Legacy, and again just now, in the year 2023.

It holds up! I’ve seen comments about how the plot is nonsensical or difficult to follow, but it’s really not. If you listen to what the characters say, they provide all the details you need. Basically, the programs need to blow up the Master Control Program (MCP) to clear the name of real-world Flynn, and to free all the programs being held under the MCP’s giant virtual thumb, so they can work for their users again. It’s basically a quest to defeat the Evil Wizard, but in a mainframe.

The dialog and exposition can be a bit clunky at time, and the religious references seem a little weird, like an idea not really fleshed out, and you really do need to just give yourself over to the whole system of metaphors they use to depict the inner world of the computer and programs. But if you get past these things, everything else holds up surprisingly well, more than 40 years later.

The good guys are earnest, particularly Bruce Boxleitner’s Tron character. The MCP is a complete bastard right from the start, gleefully blackmailing Dillinger in the real world and literally torturing his counterpart Sark to keep him in line in the virtual one. His dismissive “End of line” when he’s done speaking is awesome.

Jeff Bridges, who was in his early 30s, looks incredibly young and plays Flynn with the breezy goofiness that says this is Jeff Bridges.

The electronic score (with some orchestral parts done at the insistence of Disney) is perfectly pitched at capturing the otherworldly feeling of Tron. Its main theme is one I have been able to recall easily since first hearing it in 1982. The video game-inspired sound effects are also deployed to terrific effect, with buzzes, burbles and blips underscoring how different this world is, yet being perfectly suited to it.

And of course, the visuals. In 1982 CGI was new, expensive and labour-intensive. Stuff that can be rendered on a home computer today in minutes took hours for a single frame back then. And still, two things really stand out for me: The design of the CG world, and especially the vehicles, and how the simplicity of everything is actually a strength rather than a liability. Today, everything could be rendered in far greater detail, but in a way that would take away from the virtual verisimilitude. The simple clean lines and curves of the light cycles, or the minimalist design of the tanks makes them fit into this stark world of lines and shapes, pulsing with light. A denser, more sophisticated look would probably have been distracting. The people behind TRON had limited resources, but used them to great effect.

I give TRON 4 out of 5 glowing discs.

The Black Hole: Not quite a review

The Cygnus, full of surprises and murder bots.

I saw The Black Hole originally in 1979, when I was 15 years old. I thought it was great. I bought the novel!

I never read the novel.

I wonder if I still have it stuffed in a box somewhere?

Last year, I watched the movie again on Disney+. I think it was the first time I had seen it all the way through since 1979. It’s goofy and weird, very un-Disney in many ways. I suspect it got the green light due to the success of Star Wars, but at its core, it’s actually more of a horror/fantasy film dressed up in science fiction clothes.

Yesterday, I saw a YouTube video about it and thought, “I’ll just watch the opening sequence” and ended up watching the entire movie again and going to bed late. And it’s not even a good movie, really.

This isn’t a review, as such, but I wanted to collect some thoughts on the movie while it was fresh in my mind. This may be a bit scattershot!

  • The film starts with a black screen while music plays over it for about two minutes. I have no idea why. Are they trying to set the mood? Are they showing just how black a black hole really is?
  • They obviously had no actual visual reference for a black hole in 1979, but I like to think they could have come up with something better than what appears to be blue water swirling down a kitchen sink drain.
  • I like that they did some scenes in zero gravity, even if it looks a little goofy. There’s at least a pretense to realism here.
  • The cast is chock-full of big stars, very unusual for any Disney pic back then.
  • Maximilian Schell is great. I love his giant mop of hair and intense gaze. I also like that the killer robot also has the same name.
  • Speaking of the robots, it’s super obvious that none of them are made of metal, though they are obviously supposed to be. Vincent and BOB come off the worst here, each of them looking like painted wooden toys. With lasers.
  • And speaking of lasers they have this satisfying sound that is like a thunky pew-pew.
  • The scene with Vincent and BOB playing what amounts to a video game with the menacing former head robot is just weird. I’m not sure why it’s even in the movie. Maybe they felt they built all these cool robots, they were going to use them, dammit!
  • The Cygnus is an amazing ship design. It’s been described as a cathedral in space. If they ever did a remake, the ships need to be miniature models, not CGI. Get Chris Nolan to direct, he’s totally into that stuff.
  • The special effects are all over the place in terms of quality. The matte paintings (of which the film had roughly a billion) are for the most part excellent. The meteor tumbling down the interior of the ship could pass for an FX shot made today. But other stuff, notably most of the green screen work, is terrible, like they either ran out of money for those shots, or handed them over to an intern who never got hired on full-time.
  • The score (by Bond composer John Barry) is as weird as so many other things in this film. During action scenes, the score picks up, but it doesn’t really reflect the action, it’s just bombastic music.
  • I love how Schell scolds the robot like a misbehaving child after it slices and dices Anthony Perkins’ character. “Maximilian, you shouldn’t have done that!” Maybe this is where J.J. Abrams got the idea to name his company Bad Robot.
  • I love the initial mystery of discovering a ship that’s been missing for 20 years, hanging out next to a black hole without getting sucked into it. Alien (released the same year!) has the same kind of vibe in its early scenes, but with a lot more swearing.
  • The ending is still totally bonkers no matter how many times I see it. Schell and Maximilian appear to embrace while floating in space, then, uh, merge? So now Schell is inside Maximilian, his eyes looking about frantically from inside the robot’s visor as it stands on a rocky spire in…hell? Then there’s a long glass hallway (?), an angel (?) and suddenly the surviving members of the Palomino crew are A-OK and heading peacefully toward a shiny planet somewhere on the other side of the black hole. If they do a remake, I’d love to see how they’d handle the ending, though I suspect it would end up being a lot more conventional.

Is The Black Hole a good movie? No. It feels like it wants to be a bunch of different things–a fantasy epic, a horror film, a disaster movie, and the science fiction part is kind of bolted on. It’s an odd, uneven mix.

But the design is fantastic, the effects, though mixed, generally hold up, and the initial mystery is captivating. After that, the film gets a bit thin, and it’s only Schell’s scenery-chewing, the ever-present threat of what will Maximilian do, and Roddy McDowell making pithy remarks that really keeps you interested. And I’ll give a few points to the general destruction of the Cygnus as it drifts to its doom.

Why did I sit through the entire movie again, though? I really can’t say. I will ponder this.

Movie review: Deep Impact

Yes, here I am reviewing a movie a mere 24 years after release!

NOTE: Spoilers ahoy if that matters to you.

Deep Impact is the “emotional” (I’m using Netflix’s word here) giant space object threatening Earth movie that came out in 1998. The other one and the #1 movie of that same year was Armageddon, which I’ve only seen the last 20 minutes of for some reason (it did not inspire me to watch the previous 120 or whatever minutes). Armageddon takes a more hands-on approach to its giant space object destruction, while Deep Impact actually reserves the disaster porn for the very end (spoilers!)

My summary would be: This was fine, but the investment in the characters just wasn’t there for me. I mean, none of them seemed like horrible people or anything, I just felt no real connection to them because the movie jumps from scene to scene quickly and features a fairly large cast of characters. It also has these weird tonal shifts where it goes from a hammy TV movie vibe to something more grounded and sober.

The score was distracting and nearly ever-present. This was probably the best example I’ve seen (heard) in a long time of a movie telling you how you should feel. THIS IS SAD. THIS IS EXCITING. THIS IS SCARY. THIS IS SAD. If there had been a score mute switch, I would have used it. EDIT: I looked at the credits and the score was by James Horner, who I usually like! Or so I thought. Anyway, I stand by my assertion that the score was heavy-handed all to heck and back.

The cast was strangely unremarkable. No one stood out, everyone just blended in. I mean, you can’t top Morgan Freeman as the President (ten years before Obama would win), but he didn’t really do much other than make speeches on TV and look presidential (remember how high a bar that was just a few years ago?)

The opening sequence, with (spoilers) Charles Martin Smith’s character getting early warning of the doomsday comet, was completely unnecessary, since it has no bearing on the rest of the plot. It was cute watching him type “Connect to server” to try to email his findings, but the server was down, ono. So then he copied the info onto a floppy disk (all of this is lovingly shown as it’s so very hi-tech and all), tosses it into a manila envelope, then dashes off in his Jeep down the long, scary mountain road to deliver the news.

Why he never used a phone is not explained.

Anyway, he and a driver of a big rig both coincidentally become distracted at the exact same moment, there is a collision and the Jeep goes tumbling down the mountain, exploding like it was carrying several tons of TNT, and the information is lost.

Again, this has no effect AT ALL on the rest of the movie. The movie picks up a year later, they still have had enough time to build a spaceship (spoiler) to plant nukes on the comet and divert it (spoiler). I have no idea why the scene with Smith was included. It’s like someone wrote an early draft and this scene accidentally got left in the shooting script.

The movie does pick up as the comet nears and every plan to get it out of the way fails. It looks bad, and there are noble sacrifices to save babies and kids. The spaceship crew, led by crusty old Robert Duvall, sacrifices themselves in order to nuke the larger chunk of the comet. It’s not explained why this works perfectly and failed totally when they did it earlier and just split the comet into two pieces, a little one and a big one. But with only a little chunk, the death toll is reduced to mere millions instead of becoming an Extinction Level Event (ELE), life goes on, and President Freeman gets to make a speech at what appears to be a terrible matte painting of the Washington Capitol under (re)construction and the babies will go on to grow up and post reminisces on TikTok or something.

Also, Freeman’s second to last speech is a bummer because he says the US and Russian missiles failed to stop the comet (this was when Russia was almost viewed as a good guy–again, how times change!) but now they know where the pieces will hit, and the little one is going into the Atlantic, so goodbye US east coast! The effects here are perfectly serviceable and relatively restrained compared to, say, 2012, but the scene in which Elijah Wood, his new wife and his new wife’s mother’s baby are literally running up a hill to escape the massive tidal wave reminded me of people trying to outrun the deadly cold in The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a good comparison.

Overall, on a scale of 1 to 10 asteroids nuking the dinosaurs into oblivion, Deep Impact rates 6 asteroids.

Book review: So You Had to Build a Time Machine

So You Had to Build a Time Machine by Jason Offutt

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this more than I did. In the end it was a light, uneven parallel dimension romp that has tons of stuff in it, but doesn’t really hold together that well.

Also it is more about alternate universes than time travel, so the title is sort of a fib, too. 😛

On the plus side, the smirking, sarcastic tone is carried off well. The characters all seem to know how ridiculous everything is and more or less roll with it. This does mean that “serious” character moments tend to come off as maudlin or out of place. As the “Miller waves” that prompt shifts in time and space grow more frequent, the changes grow more dramatic, from small stuff like street names changing to Earth being overrun by orcs. Apparently.

And this is also where the story lost me. Look, I don’t expect hard science fiction in a work that is clearly filled with gonzo tech and lots of hand-waving on how or why it works, but I still felt there was no coherence and the author just started throwing in weird stuff for the sake of being weird, with one character, a hulking bakery owner known as Brick, tossing off a line about how maybe worlds filled with dragons and such actually exist because writers aren’t imagining them, but are somehow tapping into the cosmos and really seeing them. Sure. So this means you get (spoilers, sorry):

– Dinosaurs
– Orcs
– Zombies
– Giant insects
– The Devil (?)

All of these could still work, I just felt the explanation for them was too glib to buy in, and it hurt the story.

I also felt the characters were treated strangely. I swear Brick starts out as one character and ends as another entirely. Skid, the purported hero of the tale, is an ex-circus performer who specializes in throwing knives. She uses this skill in the story, which is good! But her character seems almost emotionally defective and needs to be bailed out by brick, like a powerless princess. I wanted to see her kick ass, and she does kick some asses, but (heh heh) the number of asses felt too low. Other characters disappeared for long periods of time, only to resurface later without explanation (or to any real effect), possibly to signal the randomness of all this parallel universe stuff, but it just didn’t click.

Finally, the ending was strangely anti-climactic. It just happened and was done. It literally involved pushing a button. You could make pushing a button exciting. This was not exciting.

Still, I do appreciate that the author went for something a bit tonally different from your usual alternate dimension fare, and I admire both that and the fairly consistent wise ass tone that is carried throughout (though it should be noted that if this tone is something that would grate on you, stay far, far away).

Overall, I can neither recommend the book, nor warn anyone away from it. It’s not bad, just flawed and falls short of what it could have been.

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Mini movie re-reviews: Star Trek: Into Darkness, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I’ve actually watched a few movies recently, perhaps finally feeling the pangs of not seeing a movie in a theater since March 2020 (it was Onward, which was on Disney+ by the end of the month as all movie theaters shut down for pandemic fun times). Now, I don’t actually miss seeing movies in theaters (hell is other people), but movies themselves? Yeah. And I’d been wanting to indulge in some science fiction. It didn’t even have to be good. Which leads me to my first mini re-review:

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013): I mostly remembered this one as being inferior to the 2009 remake origin story, and it still is. There is plenty of silliness to be had, from re-purposing bits from the original Khan storyline to no good effect (the Spock/Kirk death reversal, which lands with an utter thud), Khan now a supremely white Benedict Cumberbatch (though he is wonderfully slimy and weird in the role) and once again using improbable devices to propel the plot forward, like having all the Starfleet bigwigs conveniently meet in a room lined with huge windows and completely vulnerable to attack (guess what happens next?!)

Still, J.J. Abrams is adept at keeping the action rolling, and there is plenty here. This is basically an action movie in sci-fi clothing. There is also some nice interplay between the cast members (I could watch Karl Urban as McCoy all day long) and everyone just seems to be having a good time in their roles. The effects are big and loud and very Abrams.

In the end it’s not a bad movie per se, even though there are any number of weak points, but this is a case where Abrams’ approach of “more is more” somehow manages to hold together till the end.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Director’s Cut (1977): Spielberg wanted to fix some issues with the original film and asked the studio for money. They agreed with one condition–that he show inside the mothership. He reluctantly agreed, giving us the “special edition” of the movie. That’s also included on the Blu-ray I have, but I skipped it in favor of the Director’s cut, which is essentially Spielberg’s fixes, but with the mothership interior rightfully cut.

Some effects, particularly the matte work and the painfully obvious set that comprises the mountain road where the police chase a group of UFOs, do not hold up very well, but this movie is now 44 years old, so I’m willing to cut it some slack. Other effects still hold up decently and the mothership’s arrival at Devil’s Tower is still spectacular.

There’s a lot of very Spielberg stuff here–the camera dollying in to a character (or out), overlapping dialogue, quirky people who feel real, not out of Casting 101. There’s also something almost painfully authentic about the domestic scenes involving Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family. In one early scene, one of the boys climbs into the daughter’s playpen in the living room and starts bashing apart a doll on the rail. Why? Because that’s the kind of mindless, attention-seeking destruction kids engage in. It’s great.

You can quibble with some actions of the aliens–Spielberg is clearly more interested in setting a mood than being logical, but the moods he creates work so well–from the subtle horror of screws on a floor vent unscrewing themselves and toys coming to life, to the child-like wonder of watching the mothership interact musically with the scientists gathered at the Devil’s Tower landing site.

This is also a very 70s movie. The pace is deliberate at times. There is no build-up to a final big action scene. The story ends gently, and there are no real villains. It presents the idea of aliens wanting a kind of cultural exchange. It’s hopeful and just nice.

Also, despite coming only two years after Jaws, the fashions hold up much better than you might expect. Maybe the 70s have just become hip (or groovy) again.

Book review: I Am Legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This short novel, published in 1954, is another entry in the Richard Matheson collection of grim futures, pasts or presents. In this case the story is set about 20 years in the future, in 1976, although there are no issues with verisimilitude as Matheson largely steers clear of any references that would date the novel as another incorrectly depicted near-future. The main character of Robert Neville drives a car, not a flying car, and he listens to vinyl records, just like hipsters do today.

For those only familiar with the 2007 Will Smith movie, the story is the same only in broad strokes. Neville has survived a virus that has turned most of the world’s population into vampires, and is convinced that he is likely the last human alive. Hiding in his fortified house at night, he tries to stay sane while investigating possible cures for the virus.

Not counting the alternate ending on the DVD release of the movie, both book and 2007 film agree on Neville’s ultimate fate, though they differ significantly in the specifics.

I found the story curious. Matheson does a good job of unspooling Neville mentally, as he pounds back the booze, smokes like crazy, rages, then goes quiet and back to the work of surviving. He reminisces about his wife and daughter, both years dead as the story opens. He gets sloppy at times and nearly pays with his life as he scavenges the landscape under the safety of daylight. All of this is good stuff, but the relentlessly grim and humorless tone started to wear on me about halfway through. The occasional melodramatic flourishes don’t help, either.

Matheson does mix things up a bit, but the inevitable march toward what one surmises will have to be a tragic ending, seems more about Matheson making some clever, Twilight Zone-style reflection on how WE are the monsters, not the vampires. Well, they’re monsters, too, but MAN is the real monster. Admittedly, this may have been more a more radical statement for a science fiction novel in the mid 1950s than it is in 2021 (and especially as the world slowly pulls out of an actual global pandemic), but still, it left me unsatisfied. I almost felt like this was a first pass at what could have been a deeper, richer story.

It’s a quick read, though, and anyone who’s seen the 2007 movie may be interested in comparing how much it diverged from its source material.

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Book review: Exhalation

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories continues to demonstrate his ability to take “big idea” science fiction themes like time travel and parallel universes, and relate them at a personal level or present them in ways that are fresh and inventive. Long after reading them I am still lingering over the questions they raise, playing out various “What if?” scenarios in my head.

Two of the nine stories are originals and one, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is a perfect example of what Chiang does so well. Here, he imagines a near-future where devices called prisms allow people to communicate with others–including themselves–in parallel dimensions. The design of the prisms means each one eventually exhausts itself, forcing any communication to ultimately end. Around this Chiang weaves the stories of several characters caught at crossroads in their lives, hung up on actions or decisions in the past that have kept them from moving forward, and how the prisms help (or hinder) them.

The longest piece is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, a novella which imagines another near-future where “digients”, basically cute-looking AI pets that are capable of learning (and acting) like small children, are made as companions for virtual worlds people can visit.

Over a period of twenty years the main character of Ana Alvarado works to not only keep her digient and others like it alive after the company that created them shuts down, she works with others to get them to evolve past their child-like minds, to learn and become more. Chiang convincingly presents the idea that there is no shortcut available in doing this, that the teaching of the AI is slow and methodical, and has costs on the emotional and mental energy of its teachers. He also manages to create convincing relationships between Ana, her AI robot Jax and others that feels authentic without becoming creepy or weird. The people in the story are flawed, but smart and believable.

The other stories are just as entertaining and thought-provoking. If you enjoy speculative science fiction, this is among the best. Highly recommended.

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Book review: We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is ostensibly a YA science fiction story about a teenage boy who is given the chance to save–or end–the world by the cryptic aliens that abduct him. But it is really about overcoming grief, mental breakdown and the angst of being a teenager.

There is a lot of angst. A lot. A copious amount.

The protagonist is Henry Denton, a young gay man attending high school in the fictional Florida coastal town of Calypso. The story begins just under a year after his boyfriend Jesse committed suicide, leaving no note and no clue as to why he ended his life. Henry is still grappling with the suicide, while also dealing with his loutish older brother and the harassment of others at high school who mock him as “Space Boy” after his brother revealed the alien abductions stories to all.

Henry’s estranged best friend Audrey and the suave but mysterious Diego Vega enter the scene to complicate matters, as does the thuggish Marcus, who alternates between telling Henry he really likes him, and beating him.

Henry also lives in a broken home, his father having abandoned the family years earlier.

Surprisingly, given this backdrop of Everything is Horrible, the fact that Henry is openly gay is treated as not a big deal, and the worst he faces are juvenile taunts from other guys.

There is drama and angst and the beats of the story are predictable–I could almost see the plot structure leap out at me at times–and by the end (minor spoiler) the “Will he press the button to save the world?” plot point is almost forgotten as the real thrust of the story–Henry’s inability to get over Jesse–takes over. This is not a bad thing, but I almost wish the alien part had either been left out altogether or worked in more deeply. It exists in this weird middle space where it just pops in every now and again to remind you it’s there, until it disappears altogether.

This might be author Hutchinson’s way of suggesting that the aliens may have been manufactured in Henry’s mind. I give him credit for leaving me unsure.

I give less credit for the length of the story. For what happens, it felt too long, with too many scenes feeling like repeats, heading toward an inevitable conclusion. And did I mention the angst?

The story is told from the perspective of Henry. Henry mentions Jesse 351 times, which works out to a mention on approximately three out of every four pages of the book. And each mention is accompanied by Jesse wondering if he was responsible for Jesse killing himself and other dark thoughts. Again, Hutchinson has done a good job in capturing the self-loathing, doubting mind of Henry, but there were times I put the book down, wanting to simply get away from the endless angst. It is poured on like so many layers of molasses. But bitter molasses.

In the end, it was almost more a relief to be done with the story. This is not a bad book, by any means, but Henry Denton is the most dour character I have ever come across in some time and while he has an arc, it feels like a significant part of it is squeezed into the very end of the story, making it not feel unearned, exactly, but still unsatisfying.

If you can plow through the angst, there is some nice stuff in here about the value of friendship and love, of being there for someone, of finding the courage to seek help when you need it, but getting to these things at times felt like a chore. This could very much be a me thing, though, so if the general outline of the plot intrigues you, know that Hutchinson writes the characters well, and peppers the story with darkly humorous examples of how the Earth could end, among other things.

Recommended–with reservations.

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