Science Fiction Archive

0

The Expanse Will Fail if it Emulates Battlestar Galactica: A Mathematical Proof

Let’s talk about The Expanse.

Despite what you might think from the title of this post, I enjoyed the pilot episode of The Expanse. I’m happy to see contemporary science fiction trying to repatriate the interplanetary empire trope from the pie-eyed and often crackpot notions established during the Heinlein-era. The Expanse shows humanity’s colonization of Mars, Ceres, and presumably the Jovian moons, coming at the cost of our baseline humanity. Being a belter is not some romantic callback to the Jeffersonian frontier; it is a fundamental rejection of terrestrial humanity as a genetically engineered post-human.

Likewise, The Expanse comes by things like gravity in an honest way. Gravity is either the product of celestial mass, simulated through rotation, or a product of constant acceleration. There’s a bit of handwavium in terms of how humanity engineered itself to endure high/low gravity, but I’m content to let it slide. Magic gravity juice helps spacers endure 30G emergency accelerations? Okay, sure. I’ll bite. It’s an easier sell for the near-future than gravity plating a la Star Trek or inertial dampeners a la figuratively every space opera ever.

Cut to, space battles.

The Expanse’s first episode gets space battles completely, utterly, and miserably wrong. It gets space battles so wrong I might as well have been watching Star Wars. The likes of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda gets space battles better than The Expanse. Here comes the math.

In the pilot episode, a shuttle called “Knight” is 50,000km from its parent ship, the Canterbury. When a pirate ship appears, it is at a range of 12,00km from Knight. Put the two together and we have space battle occurring at a maximum range of 62,000km. The opening, and only, fusillade of the battle sees the pirate launch four nuclear-armed torpedoes at the Canterbury. Those torpedoes connect with the Canterbury a mere 60 seconds after launch. And this is the exact moment where I call bullshit.

Do you know how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to connect with a target 62,000km away after only 60 seconds? Very goddamn fast. Almost impossibly fast. Fast enough that the fuel they expend getting up to speed would make directed energy weapons a more cost-effective choice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have no idea about the acceleration and maximum velocity of a torpedo on The Expanse. So let’s take an Earth example and do a little extrapolation. The fastest contemporary anti-ship cruise missile I could find on the internet is the experimental BrahMos-II missile. It has a maximum velocity of 2.382km/s or 2382m/s.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the space torpedoes of the 23rd century can accelerate to 10x the speed of the BrahMos-II. In this case, that’s 23,820m/s, which is a little more than double the Earth’s escape velocity. Frankly, this seems a bit over-powered, but it’s 200 years in the future; I’m inclined to be generous.

Bearing this in mind, a torpedo launched from a ship at a velocity of 23,820m/s, assuming it launches at maximum speed – likely not possible but I don’t want to over-complicate this by factoring in an acceleration curve – would require 43.38 minutes of flight time before contacting a target 62,000,000m distant. This is also assuming the torpedo flies in a straight line, free of interference from gravity wells. It’s also not withstanding any Delta V bonus the torpedo might get from the pirate ship already being in motion. However, such a bonus would be negligible to this problem for reasons that will soon make themselves evident.

So now that science has killed the action buzz on the 60 second torpedo run, we can ask ourselves how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to have a 60 second time on target.

To cover 62,000,000 meters in 60 seconds the torpedoes would need to be travelling at approximately 1,033,333m/s. For context, the speed of light is 299,792,458m/s. Thus, The Expanses‘ torpedoes would need to be travelling at roughly 0.35% of the speed of light (C) to make the scene congruent to the laws of physics. And before you say that .35% of C is no big deal, consider that the fastest man-made thing ever was NASA’s Juno mission that hit 40,233m/s after executing a slingshot around Jupiter. Quite a ways to go before hitting 1,033,333m/s.

Given this ludicrously impossible speed, there’s really no need for a nuclear warhead on The Expanses’ torpedoes; a suitably dense piece of dog crap travelling at such speeds would have more than enough concussive force to blow up something as flimsy as a pressurized spaceship.

Now to answer the big question: what does all of this have to do with Battlestar Galactica? BSG has many strengths, but it’s depiction of warfare in space is cartoonish, at best – yes, I am talking about Ron Moore’s BSG. Vipers and Raiders engaged in dogfights driven by Newtonian physics look unbelievably cool. Likewise, fighter pilots make for accessible character archetypes. Both of these elements help make BSG an exciting and engaging piece of television (at least in the first two seasons). As a point of practicality, Vipers and Raiders are a brain dead way to wage space warfare. Recall your Douglas Adams: space is very big. Battlestars and Baseships using kinetic weapons and missiles would inevitably do better to wage war at long-range using math and thrust equations to generate shooting solutions. The ranges depicted in BSG (e.g. single digit kilometers) would result in little more than mutually assured destruction. As an audience, we forgive these things because BSG was concerned with providing spectacular looking space battles amid big political/philosophical questions. If BSG kept it real, then Adama ordering the ship to condition one would instantly cut to a team of junior officers pulling out their scientific calculators.

Unlike BSG, The Expanse is selling itself on the strength of its serious, thoughtful, and practical(ish) approach to telling a story in space. Yet in its inaugural space battle, it is very much taking the Battlestar approach. Such a choice subverts the very aesthetic the series is trying to cultivate. And frankly, I might be willing to give this utter physics fail a pass were it not for the fact that the 60 second battle becomes a setup for a broader plot arc.

The Canterbury’s navigator is about to tell something seemingly important to the ship’s XO, in command of the Knight, only to have the phone call interrupted when the Canterbury is nuked. Shenanigans!

Even if Knight and Canterbury were right next to each other when the pirate fired her torpedoes at a range of 12,000km, there should have been – working within the model explored in this post – 8.3 minutes of flight time before impact. This would be more than enough time for the navigator to say her piece and for the XO send her a final dick pic. What? He seems the type.

In no uncertain terms, the math of The Expanse’s first space battle is a joke. If the series wants to dedicate itself to showing the complexities of life in space, then it needs to abandon the Wing Commander elements of Battlestar Galactica and channel a lot more of The Martian. While I might be content to let the space battle faux pas slide once, frequent occurrences will take the shine off the series’ “hard” SF hull plating. Once that happens, they might as well give their starships FTL drives and inertial dampeners.


1

SFContario 4: The Aftermath – Part 1: On Genre and Entry-Level Fiction

Another SFContario has come and gone. Rather than bore everyone who wasn’t at the affair with every detail of my weekend, I’m going to use this post to reflect on two of my panels, both of which left me thinking about their discussion long after the session ended.

I had the pleasure of joining Sandra Kasturi, David Nickle, and Matt Moore for a discussion on politics and horror. The scope of this panel included both film and literature, leaving us with a lot to cover in our hour. After a few opening comments the discussion shifted, as it so often does when horror comes into the equation, into the divergent definitions of horror. Such discussions often leave me with more questions than answers and a considerably longer reading list.

As I said on the panel, I tend to classify horror, in either film or literature, as something that subverts the expectations of normality. One examples I cited is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. I view Contagion as a study in hubris, and a reminder that despite all the trappings of modernity and civility, humanity is not safe. We can be undone by things invisible and largely (i.e. without very specific scientific training) unknowable beyond their visible effects on a person. An additional qualification for Contagion as horror is in the inevitability of a viral outbreak as well as the psychological burden that comes with said knowledge before, during, and after the event. .

Sandra offered that horror requires a supernatural element. In that light Contagion, for want of a supernatural element, is best seen as a thriller. A good point. I wonder though, what happens if a story like Contagion’s is set in a pre-germ theory world? It probably becomes historical fiction and the point is moot. Assuming it doesn’t, I’ll ask what is more important to horror’s formula: the reader’s definition of supernatural or one that is most relevant to the story and characters at hand?

A panel called “Strength of Character” left me mulling over a seemingly tangential comment from Derek Künsken. During this panel I paraphrased this article, which frames John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War as entry-level science fiction. Derek quickly suggested authors like Ken Liu and Aliette de Bodard should serve as an introduction to science fiction for intelligent readers – or words to that effect. Ever the consummate moderator, Derek didn’t let the panel stray too far into this discussion on entry-level fiction.

Though I’ve only read a single short story from Liu and de Bodard, both of which I reviewed as part of a larger anthologies, there’s no doubting the impressive social commentary that drives their fiction. So why not use writers of their pedigree as gateways into the genre? Liu and de Bodard make perfect sense as ambassadors for the genre. At the same time, I’d also recommend de Bodard, Liu, and Scalzi, as excellent choices for those well versed in science fiction. This begs the question, what exactly is entry-level science fiction? After spending an hour in parking lot grade traffic on the way home from the convention, I decided that the term itself is problematic and I’m going to stop using it except when dismantling it.

As a descriptor, entry-level is almost always used as an antecedent for the word job. I don’t think I’ll get too much dissent if I generalize entry-level jobs as tedious and rudimentary. Even though the aforementioned writers have wildly different styles and approaches to storytelling, nobody in their right mind should see their work as anything less than sophisticated and well measured. Moreover, all three authors meet the essential litmus test for good literature, regardless of genre, in exploring complex contemporary issues through prose fiction. Do we really want to bandy about terms like entry-level when it might evoke comparisons to professional donkey work? I think not.

James Marshall once told me that “literary fiction” is little more than a synonym for quality fiction. Both science fiction writers and readers alike know that the label of genre is often heaped upon our body of work as a brand of inferiority. Calling something entry-level science fiction, even if the intent is benign, might further marginalize science fiction at a time when it ought to be held on even footing with lit fic.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where I’ll end this post. Even though I have a few more things to say about the weekend, they are hardly so time sensitive that I feel the need to impose upon the attention span of my readers.

To be continued…


0

Under the Dome is Doomed to Failure

At the time of this post Under the Dome is two episodes old. For that reason, I acknowledge that I may be doing the series something of an injustice in judging it after eighty-some minutes of story. But the more I think about this series’ current trajectory, the more I suspect its inevitable destination is cancellation and obscurity.

Critics better than I have already pointed out there’s a lack of momentum to the story of Chester’s Mill. The first two episodes seemed to lurch from one plot point to the next without providing the audience a tangible conflict beyond “Hey, it sure would be nice to get out from under this dome.”

At first, I suspected the meta-story would manifest as a reverse Battlestar Galactica. The tension between Duke and Big Jim certainly seemed a suitable breeding ground for a discussion on elected vs appointed power. Then Duke died, and now we’re on to a propane conspiracy. Fine, whatever. I’m not here to judge on those grounds. But it, along with the same-sex parents, psycho kidnapper, and mysterious stranger, speaks to the larger problem with this series: it’s a one trick pony that’s eventually going to collapse under its own potential cleverness.

Even though life in Chester’s Mill is continuing thanks to the aforementioned natural gas intrigue, eventually the cop who shot the dome in episode two is going to be proven correct. Food will run scarce. The gas will get used up. Wells will run dry. Septic tanks will fill to bursting. When that day comes, nobody is going to remember the time the town came together to put out the fire at Duke’s house. They’ll be too busy bartering the virginity of their daughters for a glass of water and a hunk of their dead neighbour’s leg meat. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Though it does raise the question of where a series can go from there. How can an audience relate to characters once their situation has reduced them to an atavistic state? And would CBS really have the nerve to pull the trigger on such a horrifying story?

This is why stories that essentially strand people on an island are such fickle creatures. Battlestar Galactica could safely play with this idea only through the contrivance of jumping the fleet. There was always another planet around the corner which would provide much needed food, water, fuel, or democracy. The writing could flirt with mankind’s inner darkness without ever committing to a total breakdown of social order.

Under the Dome doesn’t have such a luxury. The fact that a character has gone to the trouble of making explicit Chester’s Mill’s ticking death clock forces the writing to address this inevitable conflict. A protracted delay or outright failure to do so will make the story seem either lazy or stupid. Neither option is amenable to crafting a successful piece of television.

Then there’s the dome, itself. Though it’s a clever concept, the writers are turning it into a double edged sword without a hilt. On the one hand, you can never ever breach the dome. If the people of Chester’s Mill find a way out of captivity, the story is over. On the other hand if somebody finds their way into the town, be it aliens, the army, or Santa Claus, the series becomes Lost reborn and the audience will throw out the bullshit flag. Thus, the second Brian K. Vaughan and Neal Baer decide to swing this sword with any force they’re likely going to cut off their own hands, leaving the series unable to do anything but bleed to death for the audience’s amusement.

What to do in the meantime? Seemingly bore the audience to tears with endless ontological arguments/speculation about the dome. Who did this? Why are they doing this? Surely there must be a reason for this. Perhaps we can use science mumbo jumbo to figure out what’s going on. Except that if we get a cause that meets a means test of plausibility, it sets the story on a single track whereby it has to follow those clues to a natural end point where either A) Everybody dies or B) some/all people get out.

What then should the audience expect going forward with this series? Wanking, and lots of it. Amid the red herrings and hand wringing on the part of the central players, there’s probably going to be a doubling down on the short-term interpersonal conflicts that are the stuff of bad soap operas. Meanwhile Big Jim, Deputy Esquivel, and…Barbie (If I feel stupid typing that name I can only imagine how Mike Vogel feels saying it) can’t ignore the dome, because what sensible person would in their situation? Again, they can’t ever do anything to remove the dome, or cross a thin red line of knowledge about the dome, lest the series blow its load on one of the two aforementioned resolutions.

Perhaps this is why King’s novels are largely adapted for film and mini-series: his stories have endings. Television, unlike literature and film, can go on well past a natural conclusion so long as the ratings are there. If the first two episodes of Under the Dome are any indication of what’s to come, then this series should have been done in the style of The Stand rather than the slowly paced low-concept tedium that we’re seeing now.


4

Book Review: Fear the Abyss

In his introduction to Fear the Abyss, an anthology of dark horror and science fiction from Post Mortem Press, editor Eric Beebe asks, “What is more frightening than an unending unknown?” To answer this question, twenty-two authors present a variety of narrative insights into the relationship between curiosity’s call and the anxieties of discovery.

While these stories are well suited to the editor’s thematic mandate of exploring the science, knowledge, and fear, I believe another concept unites these stories. Almost all the fiction within Fear the Abyss probes the actual act of perception, be it visual, psychic, or something else, as both a reaction to and a means of comprehending the unknown. The tones of pessimism, nihilism, and, in a few cases, optimism which materialize out of these stories speak not simply to the construction of an imagined unknown, but how readily identifiable characters process that which is alien to them. Though the range of sub-genres is broad, from outright body horror to far-future science fiction, the experience is quite cohesive.

Honour Roll

Extraction by Jessica McHugh

Certain stories live on in a person’s memory long after they have been read. Extraction is not one of those stories. Rather, Extraction is the story that gives nightmares to all the other stories which keep a person up at night. Beginning with the phrase “I can’t stop jerking off at work,” what follows is an evocative piece of short fiction, dwelling in the cracks between body horror and contemporary science fiction.

It naturally follows that McHugh’s text is somewhat challenging to read. In exploring a literal form of human alienation, the story risks evoking a particularly sour taste from the reader. For me, the experience prompted equal measures of repulsion and fascination, akin to the first time I watched Hellraiser. Throughout the text, motifs of desire and addiction collide in what is quite rightly a reproductive grotesquery. Unsettling as the imagery may be, it’s not exploitative so much as an attempt to relocate the reader from a safe conceptual realm into a place where any pop culture preconceptions of the fantastic are stripped away. The remnant is a vision of reality which frames the great “other” as something genuinely horrifying to behold.

That Which Does Not Kill You by Matt Moore

Matt Moore offers a near-future war story that blends the best elements of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Though there are some aspects of body horror in the story, its raison d’etre seems to be an inquiry into the consequences of denying agency to its two central characters. A number of interesting questions emerge out of this denial of control. Should we have to confront the horrors of our world if there is an escape at hand? At what point do we accept our circumstances rather than trying to work around them?

There’s also a strong juxtaposition between the characters’ inner conflict and the war going on around them. It’s an almost MASH like quality which sees the grand questions of the war ignored. Instead, the story focuses on the war’s casualties, in both physical and psychological terms. In shining just enough light on battlefield apparati to avoid being bogged down in back story, That Which Does Not Kill You showcases the cheapness of life and death in a war where soldiers are adjuncts to military hardware.

The American by S.C. Hayden

I have been waiting for a story like The American for as long as long as I’ve been genre fiction. To me, there’s nothing more tiring than stories which try to shock me with the battle for Heaven as waged on contemporary Earth. We’ve all seen The Exorcist, and most everything that has followed after that, regardless of medium, has been variations on the theme. Moreover, stories of demonic possession often presume too heavily upon the audience’s ability to be moved by the Judeo-Christian legacy.

The American begins as a deceptively derivative story about demonic possession. And then with one perfectly placed knock-out paragraph, which can not be discussed without moving into the realm of spoiling, it takes a tired trope of Christian pseudo-mysticism and places it firmly within a post-modern context. It’s short, smart, and manages to double down on subversion in a genre niche which is firmly rooted in ignorance and superstition.

Life After Dead by Jeyn Roberts

Anytime a writer does something different with zombies, I’m going to pay attention. Though unique in its own right, there are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road within Life After Dead. Post zombie Vancouver is a bleak and desolate place. The heady thrill of immediate survival, as seen in so many zombie stories/films, has given way to resource scarcity and a profound existential void. The survivors are forced to reconcile their continued existence with the reality that modern city dwellers don’t know how to do anything when it comes to survival in the purest sense of the word.

Now if this story only worked with the above mentioned elements, it would likely still be doing enough to land on my honour roll. The mid-story transformation, however, really makes Life After Dead stand out from the horde. It’s a common enough thing to see a zombie apocalypse survivor putting down an infected loved one; the bio-political struggle between monster and sickie is pretty much standard fare in a post World War Z world. Rather than peeling away another layer of that onion, Roberts’ inverts the format. The result is unexpected and emotionally resonant. A survival narrative morphs into a story about love, and love is rarely handled with such adroit among the undead.

What We Found by Andrew Nienaber

When a writer frames a story around the question “Are we alone,” the answer is almost always yes; I call it the Sagan Doctrine. Answering one of science fiction’s most holy questions with a definitive negative invites not only the wrath of optimistic readers but also opens the door to fundamental questions about the purpose of the narrative itself. Through a survivor’s final words for a future that may never come, Mr. Nienaber imagines the psychological, as well as practical, consequences of terrestrial life as a cosmic accident.

The emerging story is simultaneously a commentary on the ever present isolation and dread of urban life, as well as a thought experiment on humans as creatures of hope. If humanity was confronted with absolute knowledge of our loneliness in the cosmos, would that realisation become a viral meme capable of flaying the humanity out of those who come in contact with it? Could we, as a people who strive to greater and greater heights, cope with a universe beholden unto ourselves? It is a troubling question, but one relevant to a world which pushes the frontiers of astronomy and quantum physics with each passing year.

Honourable Mentions

A Box of Candy by Nelson W. Pyles: A classic ghost tale focused through the lens of Quentin Tarantino style revenge.

Broken Promises by Jamie Lackey: My first thoughts after reading: this is what Prometheus should have been.

The Nostalgiac by Robert Essig: Hitchcock flavoured sci-fi horror focusing on working class characters.

The Bottom Line

Of the twenty-two stories contained within Fear the Abyss, there were only five which didn’t strike some sort of meaningful chord with me. The writers mobilize a broad range of styles and genres to plumb the depths of fear, knowledge, and perception. Would that The Outer Limits were reborn on HBO, freed from the conservatism of network television, I expect its first season would look something like Fear the Abyss.

Fear the Abyss

Edited by: Eric Beebe

Published by: Post Mortem Press


0

Book Review: The Book of Thomas, Volume 1: Heaven

To explore the first volume of Robert Boyczuk’s new series, The Book of Thomas, I think it is necessary to begin in the middle of the story. Therein, an orphan boy with eidetic memory makes a meta commentary on the novel as a medium. In reflecting on a world where the Church has banned all books save the Bible, Thomas says, “The novels I read…contained an idealization of truth. In real life, the truths are still there, but they are never quite so clear.” As I read those words, I pondered what truths Mr. Boyczuk was attempting to idealize within this novel. Thomas, as both protagonist and narrator, is witness to a world filled with murder, corruption, impiety, and the reduction of science to Jesuit oral history. Of course, truth is a tricky thing, particularly in a novel which seems to take pleasure in wholesale subversion.

In some ways, The Book of Thomas puts me in mind of another CZP book, James Marshall’s Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies. If the trajectory of these books were graphed on to a Cartesian plane, they would likely emerge as parallel lines albeit with a vast distance between them. Boyzcuk modifies the Aristotelian model of the universe to create a “planet” of many concentric spheres as a setting for his story – Hell being the innermost sphere and Heaven the outermost. He then installs the Catholic Church as the governing power of this purportedly pious but ultimately decadent and decaying world. And just so the reader knows Mr. Boyzcuk is serious in his deconstruction/appropriation, pederasty, persecution, and rape abound in the book’s first chapters – all of which can be blamed squarely on the various institutions of Catholicism. Despite this, the novel rarely preaches. Thomas, through his perfect memory, is a fair narrator. He recognizes is own sins as readily as he does those of others. And though it may seem like The Book of Thomas is subversion for its own sake, its methodology quickly becomes a mechanism for approaching the heroic epic without placing the narrative inside an idealized world of objective good and evil.

Though gifted with characteristics and history suitable to a heroic character, guilt, shame, and obligation inform Thomas’ quest. In this Thomas knows he will likely never find absolution for his misdeeds. Despite this knowledge, and a form of ironic self-flagellation which would put the best Greek poet to shame, Thomas embraces the hero’s journey. His voyage creates a delightful contrast in the duality of man as a creature of equal parts free will and determinism.

Further shading the non-idealized epic tradition is Boyczuk’s treatment of the characters essential to Thomas’ world. Clever nomenclature alludes to their roles within the story: Kite, Thomas’ shield, who like all shields will eventually break; Ali, the leader, who drives Thomas while himself being led by other powers; Meussin, the Pope’s illegitimate daughter, who embodies both sin and truth in equal measures. None of these characters have simple motivations or a trope driven nature which might lend to quick critical dissection. There’s a brilliant ambiguity to the players, which returns to Thomas’ meta discussion on novels and life; wherein literature streamlines the divergent demands of readers and writers into digestible packages. Only in this novel, the complexities of life and people are fully imposed upon the heroic journey.

The novel’s pace is another element contributing to its nature as a contemporary subversion of the epic. Much of the volume is bound up in Thomas’ journey from a lower sphere to Heaven. While there are many questions and conflicts within this sojourn, a grand sense of narrative only emerges in the final pages of the book. So yes, there is a lot of world building in The Book of Thomas, but it is a gorgeous world to behold. The Spheres of the Apostles are byzantine, flawed, and utterly beautiful. In his dialogue and narration alike, Boyczuk’s remarkable use of language hangs on the border of anachronism, serving to remove the reader from our world and fixing them upon the firmament of a sphere.

There is one possible point of contention I would deal with before wrapping up the review. To do so constitutes a very light spoiler; I apologize in advance. Still, I feel it necessary to discuss a particular rape scene within the novel. My first impression of this scene was that it was too matter of fact. It felt like a pulled punch for the sake of narrative convenience. Each time the story returned to the rape as a formative event within Thomas’ journey, I felt it to be a cop out which cheapened both of the involved characters. About 150 pages later (a guess as I read the book on my kindle) the book reveals certain details that, to my mind, wholly justified why this rape scene had to happen. Indeed the revelation drove home just how little personal agency there is within both a theocracy and Boyczuk’s preternatural world. So to those who approach this scene with some reservation, have faith that it is essential to the art of the story.

In a novel that dedicates so much of its efforts to framing a larger tale, the simplest benchmark for success is a reader’s desire to keep reading after the last page. To Robert Boyczuk I now say, “I want more.” The Book of Thomas’ first volume is as layered as the world in which it is set. A subtext of critical skepticism juxtaposed with deist belief in a higher power underpins a story which shamelessly and unrepentantly flirts with multiple genres. Ultimately this combination of opposing thematic forces produces a novel which frees the hero’s journey from idealism and infallibility, offering something that is, perhaps, closer to the Truth of those called to greatness.

The Book of Thomas, Volume 1: Heaven by Robert Boyczuk.

Published by ChiZine Publications.


2

Retro Movie Review: Krull

The poster makes this movie look so much better than it is.

Even by the standards 80s genre movies, Krull is one of the most derivative pieces of garbage that I’ve ever had the misfortune of seeing. On the surface, the movie is little more than a pastiche of tired fantasy tropes. Arguably, this movie might seem less offensive and more original in a world where Peter Jackson didn’t bring the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the big screen. Though I have to assume that even in the early 80s, with nothing other than the crudely rotoscoped Lord of the Rings movies in play, enough people had read Tolkien’s books to realize just how shamelessly Krull appropriates the ideas of its betters.

Seriously, Adam, we’re not going to read all of this review if you’re not going to do anything other than pick on a 30 year old movie.

Fair enough. Let me come to the point of this review. Despite the bad acting, worse writing, and even more terrible special effects, which make the Master Control Program spinning God that shows up in The Ten Commandments look state of the art, there is something of critical value within the five pointed turd that is Krull.

For those keeping score at home, I did just compare a cinematic interpretation of Yayweh to the bad guy from Tron.

Returning to the point at hand, Krull offers viewers one interesting take away message. That’s not to say it’s a particularly deep subtext, but it’s something that seems to have persisted within popular culture. From start to finish Krull is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the culture battle between fantasy and science fiction, and an odd forecast of the ultimate triumph of the former over the latter.

Krull’s antagonist is an alien called “The Beast”. He arrives on planet Krull, a world of magic, feuding human kingdoms, Cyclopes, and giant spiders, in a space ship locally known as The Black Fortress. Fearing some sort of prophecy (why is there always a prophecy?) the Beast busts up a wedding that would have united the two dominant human kingdoms of Krull. The Beast’s Slayers then kidnap the princess leaving the prince to find a magic weapon called “The Glaive” and rescue his lady love. In doing so the boy becomes a man, he meets some cannon fodder friends, he has some adventures, and ultimately kills the bad guy through the power of magic and…love. Yeah, love is the ultimate power that allows Prince Packing Paper and Princess Mostly-A-Prop to destroy the Beast.

Setting aside the fact the big bad’s hired goons ride (terribly) on horseback, for what were obviously budgetary reasons, The Beast and his Slayers are actually interesting science fiction creations. The Beast himself appears ancient, enigmatic, and able to take on any form that pleases him. He cares not for humans, save for the prophecy that says they will come to dominate the galaxy. Subject to the limits of 80s theatrical productions, the interior of the Black Fortress hints at a geometry that is beyond our three dimensional understanding of reality. In short, The Beast could quite easily fit into the canon of Elder Old Ones as envisioned by H.P. Lovecraft.

Slayers advancing on Prince Packing Paper

The Slayers are perhaps even more interesting. Armed with laser-swords, that is to say a weapon which offers a metal blade on one end and a directed energy weapon on the other, the Slayers look like the generic sort of storm trooper rip off that was ubiquitous among the drek of the late 70s and early 80s. It’s only when a Slayer is killed that they become unique. Upon a Slayer’s death, a slimy alien crawls out of the deceased’s helmet and burrows into the ground. So perhaps the Slayers are humanoids controlled by parasites. Maybe they are aliens piloting mechanical bodies. Being the nerd that I am, the Slayers reminded me of the Radamians from Tekkaman Blade: plant based alien parasites that convert suitable life forms into armoured foot soldiers.

Despite the obviously superior technology that the Slayers possess, never once does a member of Prince Packing Paper’s band trade in their sword and shield for a Slayer’s laser blade. To do so would offer a tacit admission that the ways of technology are better than those of fantasy. The movie’s third act further supports this supposition. Since the Black Fortress teleports to a random location each day, the heroes search out…magic flying horses (yeah, I know, I’m sure it hurts you to read it as much as it hurt me to write it) to confront their foe. During the final battle, the Prince uses the Glaive to wound the Beast. However, it is only pure love powered magic that ultimately fells the extra terrestrial foe.

The message is quite clear: magic always beats technology and consequently fantasy trumps science fiction.

What really galls me is that within Hollywood’s expectations of what people want, Krull gets it right. Even though Krull’s sub-textual bludgeoning makes it very obvious that science fiction and fantasy are opposite sides of the same coin, the thirty years that have followed this movie demonstrate a far greater dedication to fantasy than science fiction within cinema. Not to be labour the point, because I really do like his movies, but consider that Lord of the Rings gets the Peter Jackson treatment while the most recent Dune adaptation was a low budget Sci-Fi Channel affair.

Still not convinced? Ask yourself this, when a fantasy movie flops is the damage ever spoken about in terms that extend beyond the film in question? When a sci-fi movie pulls a Prometheus it’s something that spurs conversation about the future of the genre. Don’t believe me? I dare you to read this and tell me it’s the first time you’ve heard a conversation along these lines. Somehow one bad science fiction story has the power to invoke doubts about the prospect of science fiction as a genre so much so that studios are only willing to invest in proven properties. Drop a stinker of a fantasy movie, and life moves on without questioning the foundation upon which fantasy stories are told.

While Krull might offer little in the way of entertainment value, it’s marginal worth can be found in an ability to foreshadow the entertainment tastes of a generation. If that’s not enough motivation for enduring this ninety minute bowel movement, Liam Neeson is in it. I guess Battleship is less the exception and more the rule when it comes to Liam Neeson’s recent penchant for questionable movies.

Directed by: Peter Yates

Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony and Freddie Jones


0

Book Review: Torn Realities Anthology of Lovecraft Inspired Short Fiction

In his introductory essay, Paul Anderson, editor of Torn Realities: An Anthology of Lovecraft Inspired Short Fiction, states his intention to bring together a collection of stories that deal with H.P. Lovecraft’s “other” themes. He quite properly points out that the Elder God Cthulhu has become iconic to the point of cliché. Quoting now from Mr. Anderson,

I sought stories dealing with Lovecraft’s other themes – forbidden knowledge, the idea that we are essentially untethered from the workaday world, or lunacy-inducing creatures predating the dawn of man – or kept [Lovecraft’s] most famous theme (the idea of mind-boggling other gods) more general. I wanted stories that sought that grey area in horror…

Generally speaking, the eighteen stories that appear in this anthology fit that bill. Though they are drawn from a variety of genres (contemporary horror, detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy) most succeed in making a connection with the Lovecraftian tradition. About half of the stories manage to find a tangent within that particular body of work, and then chart a unique direction therein; those are the ones that I liked. The rest run a little too parallel to Lovecraft. As a result I found those stories to be dull, predictable, and perhaps too fixated on things that go bump in the night. Still, a .500 batting average is about what I’ve come to expect as a marker of acceptable performance within an anthology.

Before I get into the honourable mentions, I want to take a moment to speak on the editing. In my mind, Mr. Anderson made two significant mistakes in the way that he laid out this collection. The first was selecting JW Schnarr’s Opt-In as the lead story. While veteran readers may have no problem with second person narratives, anyone approaching this anthology as a relative newcomer to horror, Lovecraftian or otherwise, will likely find this story terribly alienating. It is never advisable to go Brechtian with the first story.

Schnarr’s tale, which sees the voice of the protagonist’s dead lover usurped as a marketing tool, is certainly clever and relevant to the modern reader. Yet its tone is, perhaps intentionally, jarring to the point that the message can be lost in the prose. Sufficed to say, this was not the story that hooked me into reading on within the book. That came in the anthology’s second story, Jamie Lackey’s What Waits Out There. More on that in a moment.

The other issue I take with the anthology’s editing is the placement of Clive Barker’s novella Rawhead Rex. It is ordered sixth in the book. I made a point of leaving it to the end if only out of fairness to the seventh story, The Midnight Librarians by Brad Carter. Though neither of these stories ended up impressing me, the latter being a little too predictable, and the former for its laughable invocation of menstruating women as kryptonite to a monster who eats ponies and babies, it struck as quite the aberration to make any up and coming author perform as the follow-up act to one of the genre’s living masters.

Honours Candidates

Among the few science fiction stories that appear in this book, Jamie Lackey’s What Waits Out There is the best. It takes space travel seriously, in the style of James Patrick Kelly, as an activity that is unfit for human beings on a strictly biological level. It then mixes in “The Unknown” as a true horror. At its core, empathy is what drives this story, rather than the insanity one might expect given the nature of the anthology. It’s also one of the few stories that dares to suggest that the Chaos Gods, or what have you, can be overcome by us mere mortals.

Kathryn Board’s The Troll That Jack Built is a magnificent piece of contemporary horror. It’s one of the few stories within the anthology that suggests the things which are known can be equally monstrous as those that are unknown. Said unknown fiend is then integrated into cyberspace, allowing for a “monsters around the corner” story that has real relevance to a modern tech savvy reader. If The Twilight Zone were still on television, this would make for a perfect episode.

Ankor Sabat by C. Deskin Rink is perhaps the most archetypically Chthonic story of the anthology. I suspect the story finds its spiritual roots in At The Mountains of Madness, yet its narrative structure is wholly unique. The writing is as detailed and lugubrious as anything Lovecraft wrote. At the same time, it loosely follows the patterns of a heroic quest. Though clever readers will likely see the end coming from a distance, the protagonist’s descent into despair combined with the presence of an actual “Elder God”, replete with a chamber of mortal horrors, is quite the thing to behold.

Matt Moore’s Delta Pi plays with geometry in the finest tradition of Lovecraft, himself. For anybody who has ever taken a physics course, the title tells the story before the narration even begins. In that sense, the payoff for this story is seeing what Mr. Moore does with a world where Pi is no longer a constant. Therein, perception is synonymous with protection, and Euclidean geometry is the thing that keeps humanity safe from the horrors that lie beyond the veil of comprehension. This may sound high concept, and it really is among the smartest offerings of the anthology, but it is completely accessible to any reader.

Should you buy it?

Ultimately the good outweighs the bad in this anthology. Yes, there are couple problems on the organizational level. While I’ve only named four stories as exceptional, there are at least four more that are worth reading. Only two entries, which shall remain nameless, bored me to the point that I didn’t bother finishing them.

As a $5 e-book via Amazon, there’s really no excuse not to buy Torn Realities. At the time of this review, Torn Realities is also available in paperback via Amazon for $13. Either way, it would be money well spent, even if every story in the collection fails to float your boat.


0

Fiction Friday: The Aurora Awards Edition – Part Five: Suzanne Church’s The Needle’s Eye

It is an interesting title to an equally interesting story. The possessive construction can mean both “the eye of the needle” or “the eye that belongs to the needle”. In this, the final post in the Aurora Awards Fiction Friday series, I expect the latter definition is the more relevant.

What it’s about

The Needle’s Eye falls somewhere between science fiction and horror. I’m inclined to say that it’s closer to horror, as I only managed to get two pages into this story before the intensity of the imagery forced me to put down my kindle and take a deep cleansing breath.

The story is about two Canadian doctors, Lise and Rideau, who work abroad inoculating people against a super-virus called retinapox. The inoculation process is possibly one of the most terrible trade-offs that a person can imagine. To decrease the chance of picking up retinapox by sixty-eight percent, a person sacrifices vision in one of their eyes. On the day that Lise admits to Rideau that she is pregnant with his child, Rideau accidentally breaches his hazmat suit. As you would expect from a story that says, “Hey, let’s cook up an epidemic that makes the bubonic plague look like the sniffles” Rideau contracts the virus.

Why it works

Remember when I said I couldn’t get through the story in one attempt? That’s why it works. But I suppose if you’ve taken the trouble to read this review I should offer a justification that is a little more substantial than the fact that the Suzanne Church managed to get inside my head, not easy to do, and rattle my cage for ten solid pages, even harder to do.

The key to this story is the presentation of that which we know, or at least that which we can easily conceptualize, as the most horrifying thing out there. Ghosts, zombies, and antediluvian chthonic space monsters are all well and good, but viruses, in this case mutated from biological weapons, strike a fear that hits far closer to home. Echoing the sentiments that I offered in my Contagion review, the question is never “Could it happen?” rather “How bad will it be when it happens?”

Other horror narratives offer a conditional safety to their characters, which a reader can then internalize as a sense of personal security. That is to say if a character/reader stays out of dark rooms and refuses candy from strangers, they will be safe. The Needle’s Eye eschews any such notions. The message therein: this could happen to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. And if the next big plague is anything like Retinapox, we are all in a lot of trouble.

The bio/geopolitical framework in which this story is set offers a lone threadbare safety blanket for readers. Retniapox is very much an “over there” virus. When Lise returns home, the narration comments on how few cases there are within Canada, which I will extend to the Western hemisphere at large. At first I was inclined to call this a weakness in the story, given the ease with which viruses can travel in our globalized world. Yet a healthy Canada within this story invited me to think about the rather draconian immigration measures that the West could enforce, as well as the biopolitical nightmare that would come in its wake, as a means of keeping Retinapox a thing that happens in other countries. To some extent, those things happen right now. If they didn’t Peru’s 2010 outbreak of Bubonic and Pneumonic plague would have been bigger international news.

The most memorable part

When I was in grad school, I did a course on epidemiological history. It was a challenging experience. Yet nothing I read in the primary sources of late renaissance physicians who experimented in viral inoculation, based on two-thousand year old Greek medical treatises, compared to the Retinapox inoculation that Suzanne Church crafted in this story. There’s no way I’ll ever purge my mind of the image of a double pointed needle scraping away at the retinas of countless people willing to trade depth perception for a better set of odds against a virus.

The Bottom Line

The Needle’s Eye is the kind of story that could be successfully visited upon any reader. Some, no doubt, would be scared, perhaps even alienated, by the nature of the text. But I can’t conceive of anyone with any taste in literature turning their nose up to this story. It was originally published in the Chilling Tales Anthology by Edge Publishing. This story, as well as all the others I have reviewed in this series, are available to voting members of the CSFFA.


0

Fiction Friday: The Aurora Awards Edition – Part Four: Susan Forest’s Turning it Off

Part four of the Aurora Awards Fiction Friday series peels back the layers on Susan Forest’s Turning it Off. I honestly don’t know how Susan Forest does it. Every time I read one of her stories, I think to myself, “Damn, she can’t get any better than this.” Then I read another and she manages to raise the bar a few inches higher. So without further ado, let’s get into it.

What’s it about

Turning it Off is speculative fiction of the highest order. The story looks at a technologically sophisticated nanny state as seen through two teenagers and their families. And while teenage hormones play a part in this story, I’d be loathed to call it a “coming of age” story.

Carter and Samantha live in a world where people, cars, and anything else you can imagine are surrounded by protective energy shields called “safeties”. Safeties have made things like insurance, physical pain, and unplanned death a thing of the past. On the Saturday in which this story is set, Sam spends the day at Carter’s house when their respective fathers go out for a round of golf. As Carter’s mother prepares to leave the two to their own devices, Sam reveals to Carter that she’s stolen a remote control that will let them do the unthinkable: turn off their safeties.

Why it works

Sex. Well not actual sex, but some symbolism and accidental contact that sees Carter and Sam taking their first steps into sexual maturity through an act of rebellion. However, that’s only the surface level of the narrative. The subtle ways that Susan Forest builds this world really makes the story a fantastically layered piece.

Running parallel to the safeties is a networked computer system that is simultaneously interconnecting and alienating. Everybody in Turning it Off is equipped with a cerebral implant that projects images and data directly into their fields of vision. It’s facebook and google taken to the nth degree. With those innovations come changes in language and the decline of spoken English in lieu of texting or thought transmission. On that point, “hurt” takes on an unexpected context. With safeties making humanity impervious to everything, physical pain is such an antiquated concept that the only hurt that Sam and Carter are able to conceptualize is emotional. Simple changes like that offer endless depth at an almost negligible word count.

Then there’s the criticism of the nanny state itself. In a world without risk, where death is a planned event rather than a tragedy, what’s to motivate a person to strive for great things? What happens when somebody grows bored with a life devoid of risk? The story portrays daredevil antics, such as manually driving a car without a safety in use, as an act of social deviance. Therein the text evokes serious questions about how we protect ourselves. I’m reminded of a recent news story that saw a school ban the use of balls on the playground as a means of reducing scraped elbows and other sundry childhood bumps and bruises. It’s quite obvious that Turning it Off takes safety to the point of absurdity, but in doing so it reminds readers just how slippery a slope regulating common sense can be. Not to mention it illustrates an essential truth that some people are always going to see rules as a thing to circumvent, rather than respect.

The Most Memorable Part

One of Carter’s first actions after Sam deactivates his safety is to touch a hot stove. It’s a quintessential childhood experience from which most of us learn abstractions like pain. In that moment Carter discovers a part of his humanity that society had hidden in its attempt to protect him, and everybody else, from the dangers of being alive.

The Bottom Line

Without any heavy world building, Turning it Off creates a fully realized environment, and then populates it with characters whose actions are sci-fi inspired extensions of our society’s current obsession with interconnectivity and safety. If you haven’t read any of Susan Forest’s other writing, then this is a fine place to start. Turning it Off was first published in the December 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Next week, I wrap up the Aurora Award short fiction nominees with a look at Suzanne Church’s The Needle’s Eye.

Remember that you too can have a voice in deciding who goes home with Aurora glory. Membership in the CSFFA gets you a voting ballot and access a veritable library of high quality fiction.


0

The Daily Shaft: The 2012 Prix Aurora Nominees

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of the year again. The nominees for the 2012 Prix Aurora Awards have been announced. Voting opened up on April 16, 2012.

Any Canadian citizen or permanent resident can join the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association whereby they will get a voting ballot for the Auroras. This year, however, the ten dollar registration fee buys you more than a franchise. Members of the CSFFA get e-book access to a voter’s package that contains excerpts and some complete editions of the nominated titles.

So if you fancy yourself a literary critic or just want to have a hand in supporting your favourite author, then there’s really no excuse not to get yourself registered.

Here’s the list of the nominees and here’s a link to the Prix Aurora Award homepage. Deadline for all ballots is July 23, 2012.

Best Novel – English

Enter, Night by Michael Rowe, ChiZine Publications

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism by David Nickle, ChiZine Publications

Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy, ChiZine Publications

The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet, ChiZine Publications

Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley, EDGE

Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer, Penguin Canada

 

Best Short Fiction – English

“The Legend of Gluck” by Marie Bilodeau, When the Hero Comes Home, Dragon Moon Press

“The Needle’s Eye” by Suzanne Church, Chilling Tales: Evil Did I Dwell; Lewd Did I Live, EDGE

“One Horrible Day” by Randy McCharles, The 2nd Circle, The 10th Circle Project

“Turning It Off” by Susan Forest, Analog, December

“To Live and Die in Gibbontown” by Derek Künsken, Asimov’s, October/November

 

Best Poem / Song – English

“A Good Catch” by Colleen Anderson, Polu Texni, April

“Ode to the Mongolian Death Worm” by Sandra Kasturi, ChiZine, Supergod Mega-Issue, Volume 47

“Skeleton Leaves” by Helen Marshall, Kelp Queen Press

“Skeleton Woman” by Heather Dale and Ben Deschamps, Fairytale, CD

“Zombie Bees of Winnipeg” by Carolyn Clink, ChiZine, Supergod Mega-Issue, Volume 47

 

Best Graphic Novel – English

Goblins, webcomic, created by Tarol Hunt

Imagination Manifesto, Book 2 by GMB Chomichuk, James Rewucki and John Toone, Alchemical Press

Weregeek, webcomic, created by Alina Pete

 

Best Related Work – English

Fairytale, CD by Heather Dale, HeatherDale.com

The First Circle: Volume One of the Tenth Circle Project, edited by Eileen Bell and Ryan McFadden

Neo-Opsis, edited by Karl Johanson

On Spec,published by the Copper Pig Writers’ Society

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, edited by Julie Czerneda and Susan MacGregor, EDGE

 

Best Artist (Professional and Amateur Nominations)

(An example of each artist’s work is listed below but they are to be judged on the body of work they have produced in the award year)

Janice Blaine, “Cat in Space”, Cover art for Neo-Opsis, Issue 20

Costi Gurgu,cover art for Outer Diverse, Starfire

Erik Mohr, cover art for ChiZine Publications

Dan O’Driscoll, “Deep Blue Seven”, cover art for On Spec magazine, Summer issue

Martin Springett, Interior art for The Pattern Scars, ChiZine

Fan/Volunteer Award Nominations

Best Fan Publication

BCSFAzine,edited by Felicity Walker

Bourbon and Eggnog by Eileen Bell, Ryan McFadden, Billie Milholland and Randy McCharles, 10th Circle Project

In Places Between: The Robin Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest book,edited by Reneé Bennett

Sol Rising newsmagazine, edited by Michael Matheson

Space Cadet, edited by R. Graeme Cameron

 

Best Fan Filk

Stone Dragons (Tom and Sue Jeffers), concert at FilKONtario

Phil Mills, Body of Song-Writing Work including FAWM and 50/90

Cindy Turner, Interfilk concert at OVFF

 

Best Fan Organization

Andrew Gurudata, chair of the Constellation Awards committee

Peter Halasz, administrator of the Sunburst Awards

Helen Marshall and Sandra Kasturi, chairs of the Chiaroscuro Reading Series (Toronto)

Randy McCharles, founder and chair of When Words Collide (Calgary)

Alex von Thorn, chair of SFContario 2 (Toronto)

Rose Wilson, for organizing the Art Show at V-Con (Vancouver)

 

Best Fan Other

Lloyd Penney, letters of comment

Peter Watts, “Reality: The Ultimate Mythology” lecture, Toronto SpecFic Colloquium

Taral Wayne, Canadian Fanzine Fanac Awards art