Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Life Imitates Art #3,045,772

Someone is now marketing something we proposed in In the Shadow of Ares:  robotic solar panel cleaners.  I received information on these via an email brochure from Sentro Technologies USA (unfortunately information on theses robots is not available on their website).  These devices are certainly something my employer, a significant developer and owner of renewable technologies, would consider for our larger solar arrays.  Here are two images from the brochure:

 

 

 

 

The first runs on a rail, much like we envisioned when we had Amber engaged in her chores, cleaning dust off solar panels because the robot wasn’t functioning.  I find the second autonomous, mobile unit more interesting.  The engineering challenge would be to get it to move from array to array, especially where those arrays have tracking systems and vary in tilt and orientation relative to one another.

 

 

 

Alistair1918

Alistair1918 came up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, a found-footage movie with a science fiction (specifically time travel) theme.

The story concerns a social work student making a video on homelessness for her master’s program, who encounters a strange man who claims to be a British WWI soldier. At first she and the friends helping her film dismiss the guy’s claims (quite understandably) as the delusions of a mentally ill man. But there is something about them that compels them to dig further and to help him out. Ultimately they come to the conclusion that he actually did travel through time, and set about finding a way to help him get back to 1918.

An interesting SF premise. And the writer (and lead actor) Guy Bartwhistle actually does a somewhat decent job with it. But…there were a few problems that I saw with the genre elements and the storytelling:

  • Alistair is a compelling character mainly because of Birtwhistle’s portrayal, but as written simply wasn’t believable as an Englishman transported from 1918 France to 2018 Los Angeles. He was entirely too matter-of-fact about a situation that would have been bizarre bordering on incomprehensible to someone actually in that situation. He doesn’t marvel about plastics or aluminum or television or assorted technologies that we take for granted with which a man from 1918 would have been completely unfamiliar. Even modern versions of technology like telephones and cars and Google Maps he accepts and uses without wonder or confusion – indeed, from the very beginning he’s completely at home with the film crew pointing modern digital cameras and microphone booms at him, with an anachronistic understanding of what they’re doing and how it might help him. One could on the other hand focus too much on the fish-out-of-water aspect of the character’s situation, but that element needed more explanation than simply stating that he’d been 2018 for 30 days already to account for his easy acceptance of the strange new world around him. I don’t recall him even once responding with wonder to any of the infinite number of things that to him should be marvels verging on magic.
  • Likewise, his manners and views were jarringly anachronistic. A randomly-selected middle-class Englishman from that time ought to have been openly religious, especially one freshly plucked from the front line of the Second Battle of the Marne. His telephone etiquette would have been more formal than was shown (think of how different it was before cellphones, when one actually answered the phone with a greeting rather than a grunt). When one character (inevitably, because Hollywood) casually reveals that she is a lesbian, he has no reaction to that revelation at all, nor to the fact of that same character (platonically) sharing a bed with another character who is pining for her. Nor to the fact of that same character inviting him to sleep on her couch. For an ordinary middle-class Englishman of that period, such things should have seemed inappropriate, but Alistair accepts them without comment (apart from not wanting to impose) exactly as a contemporary man or woman would be expected to respond. It’s not that he’s biting his tongue, or cautiously withholding judgment of these future-people and their unfamiliar ways – it’s that he doesn’t appear to notice them at all.
  • The science fiction element of the wormhole is handled poorly (and, this being a low-budget flick, the special effects involved are terrible). I liked the concept of naturally-occurring wormholes moving around unseen and waiting for the right conditions to be opened, but the technobabble tried too hard to explain things and ended up cringe-inducing. A better appreciation for the genre conventions would have kept the exposition to a minimum and left more to the imagination. It would have made things a little more believable had the scientist in question already been aware of the wormhole that brought Alistair to 2018 through sensor data or the like, and that this natural occurrence serendipitously confirmed and corrected elements of her theory, allowing her to finally understand the phenomenon well enough to manipulate it.
  • I did not like the first attempt to manipulate the wormhole phenomenon. If it was going to fail, it should have failed utterly with no visible effects at all, making the scientist look just as delusional as Alistair appeared to be. Like Alistair with modern technology and mores, the modern characters accept this holographic blob appearing above a swimming pool far too readily. There is no wonder or apprehension at this unfamiliar apparition before them. Far better for us and them to see nothing, Alistair makes his leap based on blind faith in what she thinks she is seeing based on instruments alone, and the whole thing fails as shown and they’re all disillusioned. Then later, when they try again and it actually works, then you give the characters and audience some sort of visual indication as confirmation that this time she got it right. And because this is a low-budget film using the found-footage gimmick, that visual indication can occur partially or wholly off-screen, with the characters backing away in awe and caution from the wormhole that’s just materialized before them, the steadycam whirling around as they flee and only getting a fleeting, overexposed shot of the phenomenon itself and Alistair disappearing/having already disappeared into it.
  • The French scientist was a missed opportunity for some brilliant writing. She should have been an older woman, perhaps in her early sixties, whose grandfather (vs. great grandfather) fought in WWI, told her his stories personally, and introduced her to his war buddies. She would then have had a personal connection to men with direct personal experience of the war, allowing her to more believably recognize Alistair’s shell-shock and other subtle tells. Being from the area where Alistair fought should have been milked for clues that he was telling the truth (at least about having been there) – she could have served as an unexpected confirmation of details of his story that he couldn’t possibly have fabricated.
  • Related to this, one detail that I didn’t see exploited correctly was the distinctive cut on Alistair’s wrist. This injury was presented as a Chekov’s Gun early on in the film, a clue prominently set up for later use, but never (that I noticed) delivered on later in the story. Imagine the scientist, at first doubting Alistair’s story of time travel, but gradually growing suspicious over the subtle, uncanny details that remind her of her grandfather and his friends. She comes to recall a hazy memory of an elderly Englishman, visiting her grandfather when she was small…a man with a distinctive scar on his wrist, who told her one day she would meet a man with an incredible tale and help him return home. (I should note here that we do something similar to this in Ghosts of Tharsis, inspired by my tripping over a ladder and not by this movie.) This would also have been a more effective way to twist the plot, with the moderns seeing him up to that point as a fascinating lunatic whose deep and detailed delusions have as-yet-unrevealed mundane explanations (he’s a history buff/reenactor, for example), and after that point accepting that he was telling them the truth all along. As presented, though, the ambiguity of whether Alistair’s predicament was real or delusion was drawn out well past where the story called for it to be decisively resolved.

It’s not the greatest movie, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking despite its many flaws. At worst, it’s another entry in the long list of genre movies whose script I wish I had been asked to review before filming started. So much potential right there, already in the mix, just not realized.

New Short Story: “He Has Walled Me In”

He Has Walled Me In - Cover ImageTired of waiting for the sequel? Wondering when or if we’ll ever be done with it? (We will, still working on it.) Well, here’s a little something to tide you over: “He Has Walled Me In”

Leon Toa sets out on what for any other Martian settler would be a routine drive to Port Lowell. When unseen forces interrupt his trip, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out.

To give a bit more detail, our protagonist’s trip is as much a business necessity as it is a personal one, meant to rebuild his self-confidence after he survives a disabling illness.  A static discharge damages his rover en route, and he is lured into a life-threatening mystery he must think his way out of.

The story takes place in the Ares Project universe at the time of In the Shadow of Ares, and was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx” (no spoilers – the two are quite different). At 15,000 words it’s a fairly long short story, so you get your money’s worth at $1.50.

 

The Aliens are Coming! Again…

Fans of big budget, cheesy Sci-Fi will be glad to learn that the first trailer is out for Independence Day: Resurgence.  It’s due in theaters June 2016, and picks up 20 years after the initial attack.  My personal hope is for something more serious than the original.  Roland Emmerich returns to direct, although he and Dean Devlin only get a character credit.  The screenplay is by Carter Blanchard,  James A Woods and Nicholas Wright, all with paper-thin writing credits so it’s hard to know what to expect.

Anyway, the official site has some interesting backstory details that had me intrigued.  First is the alternate timeline.  Picking up in 1996, and anticipating an eventual return by the invaders, the surviving Earthlings have adopted the aliens’ technology and have been preparing.  Apparently we have a Moon base and also bases on Mars and Saturn’s moon Rhea.

Additionally, there is also a reference to the impact of alien technology on consumer gadgets.  That sounded particularly intriguing at first, until I read the details that mention “breakout consumer products that were inspired by alien weaponry – including the touchscreen smartphone, bladeless fans, drones, and airport security scanners”.  OK, that’s as stupid as it is disappointing.

Still, I’ll try to reserve judgment for the final product.  As much as I am hoping for more realistic science fiction like what we were recently treated to with The Martian, I don’t mind the occasional alien shoot-em-up.

Review – The Martian

I finally got to check out The Martian this afternoon.  I thought it was fantastic, as did the family members with me, young and old.  It has all the great imagery and action sequences that I go to the movies for.

It’s a while since I read Andy Weir’s book, but based on my recollection I felt the movie was true to the story in all the right places, and better in some.  Mark Watney is MacGyver on Mars.  The detailed technical exposition is largely gone, but that would have bogged down a film that was already 140 minutes long.  For the most part the profanity was limited, probably another good change to increase the broad appeal of the film.  Drew Goddard’s screenplay also did an adequate job of fleshing out the secondary characters, something on which I felt the book fell short.

As far as accuracy goes, just as in the book the effect of winds on Mars was completely unrealistic.  The author admits as much, using it as a necessary plot device.  I was a bit disappointed in the surface suits.  They are visually appealing, and they look more like a next generation suit than a standard pressure suits, but they were clearly not as tight fitting as a true mechanical counter pressure suit (as we depict in In the Shadow of Ares) would be.

For a couple of extra space-centric reviews you can check out Keith Cowing’s review here (with a NASA-focused perspective) as well as Sarah Lewin’s review on Space.com here.

As for my previously expressed concerns regarding what kind of a message The Martian would have, those were put to rest.  By necessity the movie focuses on the hardships of living on Mars, and surviving in space in general, but it’s also a celebration of exploration and challenge.  In one scene, while resigned to his own death, Mark Watney asks that his family be told that he died doing something he loved, for a cause that was bigger than himself.  Amen.

Movie Science: Does it Matter if It’s Wrong?

Thursday I attended my second presentation in as many months at the Lunar and Planetary Institute near the Johnson Space Center south of Houston.  It was part of their Cosmic Explorations lecture series, titled “Movie Science:  Who Cares if It’s Wrong?”, and consisted of a talk by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director at the SETI Institute.  He is also host of the Big Picture Science radio show and podcast.

Dr. Shostak gave an entertaining presentation on scientific accuracy in film, from the perspective of a scientist asked to provide guidance on Sci-Fi scripts.  Provided and often ignored.  We were given humorous insight on the creative process, where Hollywood gets it right sometimes but often not.  It was ultimately left up to the audience to decide if it ultimately matters.  Of course with In the Shadow of Ares, and the sequel, we’ve taken the position that it does.

It is anticipated that the series will pick up again starting in the fall.  Those living in the Greater Houston area and interested in attending should check the LPI website in August/September.

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar - GargantuaI’m posting this review of Interstellar, belatedly, because I felt I had to see it again before commenting on its greatness as well as its few shortcomings. There was just too much to absorb and appreciate in one viewing. I’ll be careful with my wording to avoid spoilers.

Knowing the basic premise— explorers are searching for a habitable home for humanity to save them from a dying Earth, helped by unknown, advanced “bulk beings” who have opened a wormhole near Saturn for our use—I had initial trepidation that I was in for a Climate Change lecture. That notion was dispelled on the first viewing. Sure there’s a dust-bowl type blight that is wiping out crops and threatening what’s left of mankind; but this is just the impetus—the McGuffin if you will—to provide the urgency that drives the action. Some elements leading up to the climax were a bit too contrived for my taste, but overall it’s a great story with a strong cast, tension, and visuals that won’t let anyone down.  The script is excellent, with the exception of one criticism I’ll go into below.

Unlike so many recent Sci-Fi films, this one consistently makes a case for space exploration and advancement. A particularly powerful and effective scene involves a parent-teacher conference where Cooper has to process the absurdity his daughter’s suspension. Murphy’s transgression? She got into a fight after bringing a non-sanitized textbook to school; one that hadn’t been “corrected” to show that the Apollo landings were an elaborate hoax.

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?

Teacher: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…

Cooper: Useless machines?

Teacher: And if we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.

Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI, and if we had one of those left the doctors would have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain, before she died instead of afterwards, and then she would’ve been the one sitting here, listening to this instead of me, which would’ve been a good thing because she was always the…calmer one.

Wow, not the kind of thoughtful dialog you expect in a film like this, but most welcome and expertly delivered.  It’s something we were keen to include in In The Shadow of Ares, and what is so often missing from the anti-human, Luddite drivel we’ve come to expect.  The humor is also excellent, particularly the interaction between the humans and robotic character TARS.

Where I was a little let down by the dialog was during the climax where Cooper solves the mystery of the bulk beings.  Cooper works out the details in a conversation TARS that is perfectly set up to avoid exposition, yet ends up feeling like just that.  Complicated conclusions end up being stated more than worked out. This important scene, and the accompanying dialog, could have been extended slightly and improved greatly.  I have my fingers crossed that this is addressed in the Director’s Cut.

While Interstellar is brilliant on so many levels, it’s the human element that really surprised me.  Ultimately it’s a story about our relationships and obligations to those we love, particularly our children.  Two scenes in particular, between Cooper and Murphy, are perhaps the most powerful I have ever seen.

Review: The Martian

I recently finished The Martian by Andy Weir.   I knew little about it, hadn’t read any reviews, and wasn’t expecting much.  In fact, I was ready to be disappointed. 

When we decided to write In the Shadow of Ares, we intentionally set it on a developed Mars.  For my part, I thought the story of a few astronauts and a dead planet had been done to death, with predictably mediocre results. 

I’ve never been so wrong.  This book is fantastic. 

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when the rest of the Ares III crew have to evacuate for Earth shortly into their mission.  He is thought to be dead, and with no functioning communications and almost no food, his prospects are bleak. What he does have, though, is a mountain of ingenuity and a great sense of humor that give him a fighting chance.

The Martian is highly technical, but so funny and suspenseful that it should be accessible to nearly anyone (the language is genuine—and salty—so it’s not for all). Despite the bulk of the story consisting of the narration of the protagonist, the voice of that character is more than strong enough to carry the story along, and it doesn’t hurt that the pacing and suspense are outstanding.  I did have a few technical and editorial criticisms, but they are too insignificant to describe in detail here.

This is one of the most creative and enjoyable books I have ever read, and I recommend it highly.

And the Award Goes to…

This year’s winners of the Prometheus Award are Ready Player One, by Edward Cline, and The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman.  Given annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society, the award recognizes the best in libertarian fiction.

We are honored that In the Shadow of Ares was a finalist, and wish the winners a hearty congratulations.