Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre

It’s been a good year for fans of science fiction on the large and small screens, aside from the death of Leonard Nimoy, of course.  It was a good year for movies in particular from the return of beloved franchises like Star Wars and Mad Max to new hits like The Martian and Ex Machina.
Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

I've made lists of my favorites, my least favorites, and my "okays" in movies released in 2015.  They're in three separate lists: best good movies, worst bad movies, and most mediocre mediocre movies -- all in my opinion, of course!

I spent a lot of time at the movies this year, but I didn't see everything, so please feel free to give your recommendations in the comments for anything I missed (or to offer your rebuttal to my rankings).  I've limited myself to movies that I reviewed on the blog, so while Kung Fury was an insanely hilarious homage to the 1980's, Jurassic World was a lot of fun, Pixels was one of the worst movies ever made, I'm not including them.  I'm not discussing Avengers: Age of Ultron (which was fun) or other comic book movies (seriously, Ant Man?  Another Fantastic Four?).   I don't really like superheroes, and even if I did, the whole comic book movie genre has been completely over-saturated in recent years and is well covered elsewhere by almost every other nerd on the internet.

And now to the movies!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rebooting Humanity: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is really two or three books.  The first part begins with a great opening sentence: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason" (p. 3).  The rest of part one details the dystopian realization that this event will cause worldwide devastation in a few years and the actions taken by the human race to get a portion of itself into space.  Part two covers the first few years of the survivors' activities in space, which leads, after 500 pages, to the first really philosophically interesting moment of the book (more on that later).  Part three begins with another nice line: "FIVE THOUSAND YEARS LATER" (p. 569).  I have to imagine Stephenson chuckled to himself as he wrote that.  This part deals with the descendants of (some of) the humans in part two and their return to Earth.

The radical break between parts one and two on the one hand and part three on the other hand seems to have annoyed some reviewers.  They really do feel like different books.  Part three reads like a distant sequel that happens to be set in the same universe rather than a third part of a single book. Unlike most reviewers, I liked the last part of the book a great deal more than the first two parts, because it gets more into wild Big Ideas SF, whereas the first two parts are much more bogged down in the technical details of Engineers' SF (more on that distinction here).  Perhaps if Stephenson weren't already a famous writer, the publisher would have insisted he publish this as a duology or trilogy instead of a mammoth single volume (and it is mammoth where, to play on the ice age metaphor, a mere giant sloth would do).

This is only the second Stephenson book I've read, the other being Snow Crash.  I don't really understand Stephenson's extreme popularity within and without the genre, but perhaps I lack a large enough sample size to make that assessment.  Seveneves is a very different book than Snow Crash, but I still get the sense that Stephenson is the kind of nerd who secretly thinks he's cool.  He's a nerd for the Silicon Valley crowd.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Interstellar Epistemology: Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit is one of my favorite books of the year.  It's also one of the most epistemological novels I've ever read.   (Epistemology is the part of philosophy that deals with knowledge - What is it?  How do you get it?  Do we have any of it?)  Knowledge is the central issue of Dark Orbit, specifically whether the senses and empirical scientific methodologies are giving us the full picture of the universe.  It's no surprise that Plato is mentioned at least twice (p. 39, 141).

Our story begins far in the future.  We're never told exactly how far, but it has to be at least a few thousand years.  We first meet Sara (short for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and learning).  Sara is a Waster, or a person who regularly makes interstellar trips via light beam (sort of like a long range version of Star Trek's transporter).  This means that while she's disembodied information traveling at the speed of light, her planet-bound friends, colleagues, family, etc.  are aging at a normal rate (this also brings up plenty of issues of personal identity from page one).

Sara gets a job on a mission to a newly discovered habitable planet, Iris, where she's supposed to keep an eye on one of the crew, Thora.  Once they get there, there's a murder and a disappearance.  Without giving any major spoilers from here on, I'll just say that one of the brilliant things about this book is the mirrored structure between a native Irisian learning from the crew and a member of the crew learning from the natives.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

One Year, 100 Posts

I made my first post on this blog, "Philosophy as Science Fiction; Science Fiction as Philosophy," exactly one year ago today.  A few weeks ago I noticed that I was getting close to my 100th post, so I thought I might engineer an auspicious convergence of my one year blog-iversary and my 100th post!

I also thought this might be a good chance to do some meta-blogging and to reflect on my experience of the past year.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Five Reactions to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Non-Spoilery Non-Review

I’ve now seen StarWars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens twice, so I’m finally ready to say something about it.  Since there are plenty of good reviews already (see a bunch on Rotten Tomatoes), since reviews always carry the risk of spoilers, and since people are taking Star Wars spoilers extra seriously, I thought I’d try something else. 

Rather than a review that explains specific elements of the film and my opinion about them, I’m giving my general reactions.  Five of them to be precise.

1. This feels like a Star Wars movie.

From the look of the film to the John Williams score, from the lack of everything that made Episode I so terrible to the presence of most of what made the original trilogy so great, this is a real Star Wars movie.

2. It’s fun to see old favorites.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Getting Ready for Star Wars!

It's the most wonderful time of the year!  Like many fans, I have a ticket to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens tonight!  To prepare for this blessed holiday, I have been watching the original trilogy.

In watching The Empire Strikes Back, I was reminded of this post from several months back: "The Dress: Episode V - Han Solo's Jacket."  It turns out that science fiction fans have their own version of that dress that destroyed the internet in February of 2015.  In the Hoth scenes, there is some dispute about whether Han's jacket is brown or navy blue.  On my TV last night it looked brown to me, but now in this picture it looks navy blue.  Go figure.

But as I argued about the dress, this brings up interesting issues about philosophical skepticism.  Why do people get so dogmatically attached to their beliefs, especially when those beliefs often seem so precarious?  Why do people get so worked up about whether Han shot first or whether Jar Jar is a Sith Lord?

Whatever the answers to these philosophical quandaries might be, I am extremely excited to see what dogmatic beliefs people will get worked up about after watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Dystopia, Death, and Relationships: Todd by Adam J. Nicolai

Post-apocalyptic dystopian stories have been all the rage lately  (The Hunger Games, Mad Mad: Fury Road, etc.), but readers familiar with Adam J. Nicolai's other books will know to expect something beyond normal in any genre he works with whether it's ghost stories, demonic possession, or high fantasy.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that the author is a good friend of mine.  Let that influence how you take this review if you must, but I can say that I genuinely loved this book).

The mystery of Todd begins when almost all humans and animals abruptly disappear, all that is, except for Alan and his son Todd.  Things are creepy right away, and the creepiness increases exponentially as the novel goes on.

Alan’s inner monologue is great.  I feel like I really know him after reading this.  Too often characters in these types of stories turn into steely-eyed Rambo survivalists over night.  It’s nice to see someone with plenty of self-doubt, regret, and real fear.  It’s far more realistic, but then readers familiar with Nicolai's thorough characterization will not be surprised.  Fans of Stephen King will note King's pervasive influence on that count and many others.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Visionary Fiction: Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha)

"Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice.  ... Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless." 
- Introduction, Octavia's Brood (p. 4)

I love Octavia Butler, and I share the notion that science fiction can be helpful in thinking about social justice, so I was keen to read Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.  The editors, adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, have coined the term "visionary fiction" to describe the focus of the anthology.

I became slightly worried, however, when the Introduction went on to say that some of the contributors have never written fiction before, much less science fiction.  This definitely shows for many of the stories.  It's not so much that they're bad, but many aren't all that original or interesting as science fiction (or fantasy or horror).  For instance, Bao Phi's "Revolution Shuffle" is okay, but feels more like Walking Dead fan fiction than anything innovative in the genre.  With a few exceptions, like brown's "The River," I admit I was disappointed with most of the first third of the book.  If the first 100 pages were indicative of the whole, this anthology would be just okay.

Luckily, things took a turn for the better starting with Gabriel Teodros's "Lalibela," a fun alternative history/time travel story in which Ethiopia developed advanced technology in the 1100's.  Other highlights include Anderson's "Sanford and Sun" (a trippy take on an old TV show), Betts's "Runway Blackout" (genetically engineered supermodels take on racialized standards of beauty), and Vagabond's "Kafka's Last Laugh" (government enforced love of capitalism turns well, Kafkaesque).

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Review of The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix is a 2015 prequel to Okorafor's 2010 book, Who Fears Death.  The Book of Phoenix would be perfectly accessible without having read Who Fears Death, but having read Who Fears Death does add some interesting dimensions to the prequel.

With some framing that connects this to the world of Who Fears Death, the plot of The Book of Phoenix focuses on young Phoenix who lives confined to the ominiously-yet-generically-titled Tower 7 in a future New York City that's partly underwater.  Phoenix is the result of genetic engineering on the part of Big Eye, a shadowy agency that seems to delight in ethically reprehensible treatment of their creations.

Phoenix's powers unfold as the story moves along.  Her powers initially include advanced maturation (she is two years old but looks 40) and the ability to generate tremendous heat from her skin.  The fact that her name is "Phoenix" may give some hints about her other powers (although it could also mean that she has a connection to the capital of Arizona).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Like Avatar, but Not Stupid: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

Kinda like Avatar, but not stupid.  
- My bumper sticker slogan for The Word for World is Forest

Okay, Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest is actually not that much like Avatar, but there are similarities.  Some militaristic Terrans come to steal resources from a forest planet inhabited by small, furry humanoids called Athsheans.  The Athsheans end up fighting the technologically superior but numerically inferior Terrans.  There's a Terran anthropologist who comes to almost understand the Athsheans (but he doesn't quite go full Avatar).

One of the villages of the furry guerrillas fighting an imperial power is called Endtor.  Maybe George Lucas owes Le Guin some royalties, not just James Cameron.

But as an American book published in 1972, the real background seems to be the war in Vietnam.  At one point one of the characters even alludes to the war for the sake of its historical lesson.  Le Guin has said in an interview that she doesn't create villains, but some of the Terrans here are unequivocally nasty.  One guy is even a white supremacist among Terrans in addition to hating the furry green Athsheans.  Does all of this represent the feeling of many Americans about the war in Vietnam, but cast onto a distant planet far into the future?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mars Trilogy Coming to TV: KSR by JMS

According to Variety, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is coming to TV.  The Spike channel has ordered a 10-episode season with J. Michael Straczynski at the helm.  Stracynzski is the co-creator of Sense8 and the creator of Babylon 5.  If anyone can make a Mars Trilogy TV series that isn't completely watered down and lame, Straczynski can.

I'm a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) and his Mars Trilogy (see my reviews of Green Mars and Blue Mars).  As for J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), I loved Sense8 and I've been slowly working my way through Babylon 5 (somehow I never got around to watching it in the 90's).  KSR and JMS may be a winning combination.

I don't do a lot of newsy type posts, but this has me excited, or at least cautiously optimistic.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Being Martian: Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

"Mars is free now.  We're on our own.  No one tells us what to do."
- Opening lines of Blue Mars

Blue Mars confirms it: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy has ascended to my personal pantheon of science fiction series.  It's up there with Frank Herbert's Dune series, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Octavia Butler's Earthseed DuologyUrsula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, and the Culture series of Iain M. Banks.  Like these other masterpieces, the Mars Trilogy is not just something you read, it's something you live, something that stays with you and changes you long after your eyes pass over the final sentences.

As I noted in my review of Green Mars, the genius of the trilogy is that Kim Stanley Robinson combines hard SF, literary writing, and philosophical rumination to produce something beautiful -- maybe even something as sublime as Mars itself!

Red Mars is about settling on Mars, while Green Mars is about becoming Martian (hence, the title of my review: "Becoming Martian").  Blue Mars is about being Martian.  Once humans have completed most of the terraforming of Mars, and once Mars has had time to areoform humanity, what next?

What to do once some of us have become Martian?  That's the question of Blue Mars.

This question has multiple dimensions: political, biological, ecological, cosmological, artistic, mathematical, sociological, philosophical.  The depth with which Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) plumbs these dimensions is astounding.  I can't possibly do justice to this depth in one review.

Nor can I do justice to the literary beauty of KSR's prose.  Here are some of my favorite examples:

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Random Thought

(Warning: Some strong language was required to describe an intense thought.  If you're sensitive about these things, get your internal bleeping ready.)

Have you ever been walking home enjoying the sunset behind Lookout Mountain when your mind boils over with the thought of how fucking amazing, how heart vaporizingly beautiful, the universe is, how lucky you are that for a cosmic nanosecond you have become a speck of the universe striving to understand itself ...

... and what a colossal shame it is that we spend so much of these minuscule, effervescent lives being complete assholes to each other?

Me, neither.

(Just kidding.  I had exactly this thought.)

Lookout Mountain at Dusk, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA (