Rec: “The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner

The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner, Nature (2017-02-22), science fiction short story

A woman has a task which makes her contemplate beginnings and endings, yin and yang: terminators. And she does this in a system of a tiny cool star and three habitable planets.

I’ll grant that this story may be a little lacking in the dramatic/fictional departments and some of this is just excitement over the timely topic but this is a brilliant evocation of the possibilities of the system. No, it is almost certainly not like everything described in the story and it’s not even very likely it’s much of anything like it (though the author does address some of my concerns about the effects of tidal locking on temperatures and atmospheres and the effects of strange suns and their radiation fields on close planets and so on). Still, one of the strengths of real science fiction is its ability to make genuine possibilities imaginatively concrete and this story concisely achieves that.

For the non-fiction behind the fiction:

* At the time of this post, this article is inaccurate (or at least makes a wildly optimistic, unreasonable, and unnecessary overstatement): “All of them orbit at the right distance to possibly have liquid water somewhere on their surfaces.” Only three do (if three can be described as “only”).

** Ditto: “all of them may be capable of supporting life as we know it…”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Complete Series (DVD Box Set)

I’ve never gotten a complete box set of any show before but, because I loved Deep Space Nine and the individual seasons were ridiculously expensive (even used) and previous complete sets were insane, when I saw this new edition of the complete series for less*, I ordered it from an internet dealer you may have heard of. The set arrived with one disc off the hub, which was scratched very badly. After I complained, they sent me a new set (they couldn’t send a single replacement disc) and a mailing label (so I could send the other set back without paying postage) and the replacement set isn’t exactly perfect but seems okay. Hopefully it’ll play properly.

*Edit: Wow. I just checked the current listing of that dealer. Pre-ordering can be a good idea. Sometimes the product you pre-order never materializes (which is why I don’t usually do it) but sometimes you save over fifty bucks.

As long as they do work, I’m really happy to have them and look forward to watching them but, as a warning to anybody considering buying the set, the packaging is truly horrific. There’s a single cardboard box which holds three clear plastic cases. Two large cases hold seasons 1-3 and 4-6. The third mid-thickness case holds season 7. The labels on each of the cases looks like someone screwed up the graphics on their home computer, washing them out and making them look somewhat cartoonish, and then printed them on their home printer or something. Point is, they look pretty bad. There is no booklet or anything like that. Just an episode list printed on the inside of the paper that is obscured by the DVDs on the backs of two of the three cases (see below). Worse still, each of the large cases holds a giant thing of hard plastic (liable to break) with pages like a book with two overlapping DVDs on each “page” or each side of the “sheet.” I hate overlapping DVDs (if you want disc B you have to take out disc A to get to it) and I didn’t think they even made them anymore. And these things aren’t even attached to the cases. The cases’ inner spines are just smooth and blank and the “pages” just come right out of the case. But worse still the DVDs do not come right out of their hubs. Again, the hubs and teeth are very hard plastic and sharp and grip so hard that it’s very difficult to get the DVDs out, causing them to bend in most cases before they’ll finally snap free, despite applying cutting pressure with the thumb on the teeth. (Is there a trick to this?) And there are only two teeth, meaning if one breaks, you’re completely screwed. The second and third cases both contain an odd number of discs, meaning there’s one disc stuck on the back of the plastic cases (which are at least somewhat softer and less prone to break). The third case is unlike either of the first two in that the pages are attached to the spine and the discs are not overlapping – there’s one on each side of the three plastic “sheets,” though the seventh is on the back of the case like the last disc of the second case.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Complete Series DVD set

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Complete Series DVD set

So the physics of the thing just flat sucks. It’s an inconsistent, inconvenient mess that is several kinds of accidents waiting to happen. I assume the version released several years ago that cost an insane amount came in better packaging. Seems like it’d be cheaper and easier and better to just re-manufacture all the individual seasons (assuming they were any good) and stick ’em in one big box rather than specially designing and manufacturing this crappy packaging. But enough of that.

As far as the video itself, based on “Emissary,” it looks okay. I’ve seen better, but I’ve definitely seen worse. There are four episodes to the disc unless there aren’t four left for the last disc, in which case there are also some special features – I don’t usually care about those too much, but many do).

I guess that about covers it: an expensive but reasonable price for this 2017 edition (I guess… at least compared to what they cost before) but horrific packaging. But decent DVDs, which is the most important thing.

In the coming days, I may occasionally write up my impressions in some posts as I rewatch the series, somewhat (very somewhat) as tor.com did.

Movie Review: Arrival

This has been a weird month – I rarely see as many theater movies in several months as I’ve seen in this one. So here’s another of my cutting-edge movie posts. Not only has everybody probably already seen this one, also, but even I saw it last weekend and am only writing it up now. Arrival is based on the brilliant Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and I wanted to re-read that before talking about the film. It just took me a week to do so. It doesn’t really change much of my impression of the film, except to underscore how expanded, yet thinned, the adaptation is. (This post covers all sorts of thematic issues from both the story and the movie and focuses on all sorts of details but I don’t believe any climactic plot elements or big surprises are spoiled.)

(Edit: Actually, to be on the safe side, if you haven’t read the story, then I guess maybe this is a spoiler of a review. If you haven’t read the story, it doesn’t spoil that because there’s no “big twist” and, if you have read the story, then the film can’t have any “big twist” to spoil but, I guess, if you aren’t familiar with either, then the movie is supposed to have that twist. Again, I don’t think it helps to treat it as a twist but, still, to be on the safe side, maybe skip this review until seeing the movie (which this review does conclude is worth doing).)

Arrival begins with the aliens arriving, naturally enough, and it is a remarkably well done sequence taken by itself. The sense of strangeness colliding with normalcy has a feeling of, “Yes, this is how it might happen. How it might feel.” I don’t know that the sequence is really necessary, though. It certainly wasn’t to the story as it wasn’t in it. Further, while it is fascinating in its way, it is also a slow moving sequence which sets the pace for the whole film. I don’t know why science fiction movies seem to come in almost nothing but two flavors: popcorn-movie action and speed using science fantasy and comic book elements and “the proverbial good science fiction movie” which somehow manages to be somewhat slow and boring. You’ve got your Star Wars movies, your Marvel movies and whatnot and then you’ve got 2001, Contact, and others, including this. So that’s one thing the movie gets quite wrong in an adaptive sense and in an intrinsic sense. Chiang’s story is quiet but not really slow. This movie is, despite sometimes being flashy and noisy. Chiang’s story is quite focused and small in a character/scenery sense, while it’s gigantic in a conceptual sense. The movie preserves some of the concepts but adds a bunch of international politicking and intrusive soldiers and generally spends a lot of time on things outside the main core of ideas.

Another thing that’s odd about the movie is that it actually demands quite a bit of an uninitiated audience in the sense of playing with time and the narrative in a way that may not be readily understood. Yet part of the core of the story was the linguistics and that is basically heavily abridged for cinematic convenience, especially in a key part when the protagonist and the aliens basically start talking like they’re native to each other.

A final small, but severe, problem is that, while many participants may be up for awards, I sure hope the sound editor is not (unless it was a problem with my theater). Much of the movie’s dialog was very hard to hear.

Aside from those two or three gripes, however, the movie does at least keep its eyes on the story’s prize. The movie is about language and time and causality. It is about a man, a woman, and a child. It is about humans and aliens. It keeps at least hints of all the essential things. The things it adds, while sometimes somewhat “Hollywood,” are somewhat plausible and not entirely at variance with the core. The things it modifies stay essentially true to the story. It’s hard to say without spoiling but one thing the movie modified actually tremendously improved on the story: let’s say the specific reason for why deciding whether or not to have a child might have been difficult. Other modifications, such as the barely different heptapods and their slightly different writing and the interface between the humans and aliens, are quite interesting and look really good. Even if the alien ships and the method of entry is kind of silly, I felt a genuine thrill and sense of wonder at that point. And the actors are quite good. It amazes me when I recollect that I probably first saw Amy Adams in a bit part on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer – look at her now.

In sum, I didn’t quite love the movie and I don’t quite understand what seems to be the overwhelmingly positive response its gotten from out-of-genre circles but it is worth seeing. I would still prefer to read and re-read the story, though. And there is something extremely… I’m not sure if it’s ironic or apropos… but something odd about this story being the first thing of Chiang’s to be adapted to film. The story (like all literature) is very much like the Heptapod B language: you can read its last line before its first, skip around within it, focus on any part of it. Whereas movies are very much like ordinary human languages (and lives), moving in time from point A to point B with little certainty of what’s to come next and little ability to catch up with anything you’ve missed (unless you get it on DVD). So, in a sense, the story is about translating into the worldview of Heptapod B and uses a congenial medium and the movie sets itself the audacious task of doing that in an antithetical one. Given that, it does a pretty good job.

Rec: “Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold

Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #219 (2017-02-16), fantasy novelette

Jeone Serrica is climbing what seems to be a world entirely of mountainside or cliff-face when, after scaring off a giant lizard, she encounters a village of strange women. After being somewhat ambivalently welcomed and despite being told to remain in her guest quarters, our intrepid explorer sneaks a peek at the villagers’ rites. What she sees mystifies and horrifies her but, before she can even try to come to terms with it, she’s snatched by a giant bird and taken off to an even stranger realm and an encounter that requires much more from her than even facing down giant lizards.

There’s a joke to the effect that, if you want to get published in The New Yorker, you just need to throw away the last three pages of your story. A similar joke could be made about BCS but it would seem to take more work: just extract the middle third of your tale and send that off. This story, as many BCS stories do, implies backstory so strongly that it feels like there must be a prequel story and, while its particular action is completed, it ends with an intimation that there must be a sequel story yet to come. Also, the style of this story is peculiar. Tunnels twist beguilingly, light is pearlescent, and gazes are chatoyant. (I had to look that one up. Very—almost too—precisely chosen.) Referencing them together like that makes the style sound better and more consistent than it actually is because the bulk is strongly written and these words seem like coruscating excrescences. A final relevant quibble could be that the action-oriented climax is too talky and slightly awkward. Also, probably irrelevantly, this story was fundamentally fantastic but kept making me want to try to read it as science fiction and to force it to make more sense. But that’s probably just me. Point is that, all that aside, the imagination brought to bear in conceiving this doughty protagonist and this amazing world and the entities she interacts with was extremely impressive and I thought the mix of conflicting social and individual perspectives and desires was handled very well. The main thing is that it was fascinating throughout and will live in the memory for quite some time.

Rec: “Tav” by Dustin Kennedy

Tav” by Dustin Kennedy, Compelling #5 (Feb/Mar 2017), science fiction novelette

This story takes place in the near future when VR is quite advanced. William and Tav have been the primary movers behind a company that has gotten phenomenally large and powerful. After a celebration party for William at his home, Tav (the viewpoint character) is invited downstairs by the host of honor where William’s very special VR, and an entity in it, is revealed. The three then tour the realm and have a psychologically and existentially loaded conversation that creates a remarkable degree of tension and even spookiness. It leads Tav to make a radical move.

Between the VR and the existential question of “is it live or is it Memorex?” that occupies a good chunk of the story, it’s not the most original thing I’ve ever read but it takes an unusual approach in terms of its viewpoint character. It is also not unusual in being mostly conversational but, as I mention above, it makes that conversation unusually dramatically effective. Also, it doesn’t use its VR basis as an excuse to write a fantasy in SF’s clothing, hewing to merely “enhanced” reality, and provides fairly detailed descriptions of the VR tech and the entity, which were deftly exposed mostly via the subjective experiences of the viewpoint character and only minimally via the conversation. The one serious criticism I might have involves the finale but even though it feels a bit easy, it’s in keeping with both William’s and Tav’s characters and seems plausible in that sense. The story maintained my interest, was sharply delineated and, unlike much other webzine fiction, felt like genuine science fiction, and I definitely enjoyed it.

Rec: “The Perfect Porn” by Carl Franzen

The Perfect Porn” by Carl Franzen, Terraform 2017-02-14, science fiction short story

This is a tale of a company (and particularly an employee who is also our narrator) creating an AI which, in turn, creates specially tailored porn. The product is initially so compelling that their hit rate goes through the roof and they get richer as intended but it becomes more and more irresistible and its influence becomes much more significant.

I have to appreciate the cynicism or sense of irony or whatever it is that goes into making the special Valentine’s Day story a story about porn. It’s reminiscent, in a limited sense, of part of Steven Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays” though, strictly in terms of fiction, it’s perhaps only adequate. In terms of content, it says what it is right in the title, so shouldn’t surprise anyone and it should be redundant to say that it may not be suitable for all audiences. However, if you’re willing to try it, you may be as impressed as I was at the bold commitment to the story and the extrapolative vigor which, in the end, carries the satire regarding its “Satyr” to absurd lengths. Certainly not a run-of-the-mill story.

Review: Great Science Fiction by Scientists, ed. by Groff Conklin

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Mike Brotherton’s anthology, Science Fiction by Scientists, for Tangent. This inspired me to read Groff Conklin’s Great Science Fiction by Scientists, which I’d had laying around for awhile. It’s a 1962 anthology from Collier which includes sixteen stories (mostly post-WWII, including two original stories, but going back to 1926) written by people ranging from those with scientific training to those who actually  practice science. The stories themselves are sometimes surprisingly unscientific, though most of them are science fiction and some are pretty typical hard SF. Conklin makes the odd editorial non-decision to present them alphabetically by author which leads to a rather random feel and some odd streaks (for instance, the first story is a fantasy and the last six are fairly weak). It does have several strong stories, though.

Only two primary clusters really struck me, though there are another two lesser clusters. One is of surprisingly melodramatic stories which are, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J. B. S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is probably the strongest of these, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining. Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” may offend modern sensibilities, though it’s actually somewhat ahead of the curve of its time of writing (1926). It’s set in darkest Africa and deals with a scientist manipulating the tribe that has captured him, initially for self-preservation and eventually for more grandiose reasons. A couple of Europeans happen upon this situation and get involved. “The Ultimate Catalyst” by Eric Temple Bell (John Taine), is another jungle tale, this time in a South American dictator’s realm and is a sort of “Jungle of Doctor Moreau” tale which creaks and clunks a bit with its exotic horror trappings involving strange fungi but is fairly readable. Norbert Weiner’s “The Brain” is another mob tale involving a brain surgeon. It’s odd that scientists, being especially interested in causality and probability would write so many stories in which the plotting is markedly contrived or convenient but there are several such tales here and this is one of them.

The second group involves entities coming to wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence or other issues, sometimes with the “crackpot” with the “crazy theories” really being a misunderstood genius and the only one who’s even close to being correct. The best of these is the excellent “Learning Theory” by James (V.) McConnell. It focuses on confirmation bias and turns the table on a psychologist by having him get abducted by aliens and put through his paces in accordance with their pet theories, so to speak. Very clever and with a sound critique of a scientific problem. On the other hand, Leo Szilard’s “Grand Central Terminal” just has some aliens, on earth after we’ve blown ourselves up, trying to figure out why metal disks were placed in excretion chambers and trying to save a crackpot’s reputation by shooting down its crazy theories. Finally, “John Sze’s Future” by John R. Pierce (J. J. Coupling) is a rather weak piece original to this book which uses more confirmation bias and linguistic ambiguity to poke some fun at John “C”ampbell and his love of “psi.”

While the last two of those touch on humans doing bad things with the atom or otherwise going extinct, handling that subject isn’t their primary objective. It is the primary objective of Ralph S. Cooper’s fiction article “The Neutrino Bomb,” Louis N. Ridenour’s “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” (a “playlet in one act”), and Chan Davis’ more conventionally narrated “after the bomb” story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug.” None of these are particularly successful as fiction though Davis’ is the best of them.

Other than the interior of a ship in “Learning Theory,” we only leave Earth twice and move to a supposedly alternate Earth once. That’s disappointing in itself but perhaps the most disappointing story in the book for me was “A Martian Adventure” (aka “At the Perihelion”) by Willy Ley (aka Robert Willey). I was excited because: it’s Willy Ley; it’s Mars; it’s a long novella. It does have some good discussions of orbital mechanics and such but, alas, to call its plot “picaresque” would be kind and even I, who usually ignore “social datedness” as irrelevant, was struck by the approach to (even low level) native life and the human woman. On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke’s tale of “man against the elements” with “Summertime on Icarus” was superb, being strongly plotted and making me feel like I was on Icarus myself. Both stories, oddly, deal with extreme heat in space. The alternate world story is Miles J. Breuer’s memorable “The Gostak and the Doshes,” which tells of a guy slipping into an earth in which people madly emote over senseless slogans rather than using reason. (These days, this earth feels like the alternate one.) It’s rather lazily plotted but makes up for it with its other excellences.

Of the remaining tales, Conklin bizarrely selects Isaac Asimov’s fantasy, “What If…” which involves a married couple seeing alternate paths presented to them by a weird guy with a hypnotism ball. Conklin defends the selection by saying it’s “completely charming” and that it’s “by Asimov.” Well, everything by Asimov is by Asimov and I don’t pick up Great Science Fiction by Scientists to read even completely charming fantasies. It is a fine story, of course, but not a great choice. Then there’s “Kid Anderson,” an android boxer tale from R(obert) S. Richardson which has another contrived plot and isn’t very good, and the sociological “The Mother of Necessity” by Chad Oliver which is okay, but not particularly compelling.

To recap, I particularly liked:

  • “Summertime on Icarus” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Learning Theory” by James McConnell
  • “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Miles J. Breuer
  • “The Gold-Makers” by J. B. S. Haldane
  • and perhaps “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley

If you have a particular interest in the anthology’s subject, I mildly recommend the whole thing but, if not, hopefully you can find some of the recommended ones elsewhere because you probably wouldn’t care for the anthology itself.