Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Us

Posted: March 31, 2019 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker.

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In 1986 Adelaide Thomas holidays in Santa Cruz with her parents. One evening she wanders away from the boardwalk and enters a hall of mirrors where she encounters her doppelgänger. The experience is so traumatising that for a time she becomes mute and has to undergo therapy.

In the present-day Adelaide (Nyong’o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Duke) daughter Zora (Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Alex). Adelaide is nervous, still haunted by events that happened as a child, but she tries to put these aside and enjoy the trip. Once there they meet up with their friends Kitty and Josh (Moss and Heidecker) and their twin daughters.

When Jason gets lost on the beach Adelaide panics. That night she explains to Gabe about her childhood trauma. He’s convinced that all she saw was her own reflection, but then the children tell them there’s a family standing in the driveway. It soon becomes clear that the family in the driveway are their doppelgängers, and they’re very, very angry…

 

In 2017 Peele’s Get Out took everyone by surprise, a smart satire that was made for peanuts yet made millions. It was Peele’s directorial debut and it immediately cemented his reputation as both a writer and director. It was clear he’d have no trouble securing the green light for any kind of follow up he wanted, and people were eager to see what he’d do next, certainly I was. I had a few issues with Get Out, it was smidgen too funny in places underscoring the dread, but on the whole it was great; original and with something to say about race.

us-movie-1553126874.jpgSad to say therefore that I came out of Us a little disappointed. If Get Out was a taut, clever film that mostly balanced scares and laughs, Us is a sprawling mess that often veers too far towards comedy and was rarely as creepy as it could have been, worst than this though, where Get Out had a great central idea and ran with it, Us feels too much like Peele has thrown as many ideas as he can against a wall, and whilst some of them stick, too many slide down to the floor.

One can’t fault the cast however, and each of them is excellent in dual roles, especially Nyong’o and Wright Joseph, with Nyong’o doing most of the heavy lifting as the leader of the ‘Tethered’. She’s superb, and they really do feel like different people, a loving mother and a malevolent attacker.

Some of the funniest moments in Get Out came courtesy of Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent Rod, and in Us, Winston Duke takes on a similar role. He’s very funny, of course its debatable whether he should be quite as funny as he is, and that’s part of the problem with the film, because at times its so funny that it does kind of undercut the tension. Take the moment the family start comparing kill scores for example. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need that in horror, it’s just here it’s all very broad, and much like Rod in Get Out, at times it feels like Gabe is in a different film.

As a side note if they ever decide to gender swap the Joker, Elisabeth Moss has to be considered!

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Peele has a good eye, and there’s some good imagery at work here, lots of reflections and use of shadows to reinforce the notion of duality, he directs humour very well and he does direct some creepy moments; that said it says something when probably the creepiest moment in the film is in the first ten minutes when young Adelaide visits the hall of mirrors. Peele can also clearly write well, his dialogue and characterisations feel real. The problem is the plot, and whilst it’s a curious thing to say, this is a film that gives us too much information, but at the same time too little. Peele’s said he has a whole mythology created for the world of the Tethered, and this clearly shows, but in trying to show off some of this mythology, whilst maintaining an air of mystery, the film falls between two stools.

There’s some disturbing imagery on view in the world of the Tethered, but by showing it Peele prompts more questions that he then provides answers for (where do the jumpsuits and scissors come from, how can people survive just on rabbit, how do the Tethered know exactly where to find their above ground doubles?) and the longer the film goes on the more preposterous it becomes and the more you have to suspend your disbelief. Suspending disbelief is something I do quite well, I’m a sci-fi/horror fan so it comes with the territory, but Peele demands too much and the final act really did have me saying “seriously?” That said one of the central twists is nicely done and does work.

jordan-peele-us-movie-first-trailer-01-320x180It is intriguing, and Peele does clearly have something to say about the American underclass rising up—and it’s surely no surprise that they wear red, there’s a clear allusion to Trump supporters here, and Us also means US, but whilst this might have worked well as a 45 minute Twilight Zone style episode (and I’m still looking forward to Peele’s TZ reboot) that gets in and out before you have time to consider the ramifications, at almost two hours this film gives you far too much time to think and notice plot holes.

I didn’t hate it, and I will watch it again, knowing what kind of film it is going in might mean it goes up in my estimation, but on first viewing it’s ok but nothing special. There could have been a creepier, tauter film here. Less is more, but in the case of Us I’m afraid More is less.

 

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indexAbridged by James Goss from his original novelisation of the 1979 episode by Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

The Doctor and Romana arrive in Paris 1979 in hopes of a relaxing, cultured holiday, but all too soon they’re drawn into a plot to steal the Mona Lisa concocted by the mysterious Count Scarlioni. Throw a gritty British detective with a tendency to punch first and ask questions later, and a captive scientist working on time travel into the mix, and if the last of the Jagaroth have their way life on Earth won’t just be wiped out, it’ll have never existed in the first place!

Back in the day there was no Netflix, no iPlayer, no DVD boxsets and episodes of Dr Who were rarely replayed, so unless you were fortunate enough to have an early video recorder you had two options, the first was to make a sound recording of the episode, the other was to get hold of the novelisation, and from 1973 to 1991 Target books published practically every classic era story.

In recent years the BBC have resurrected the Target brand to release novelisations of modern Who episodes, including Russell T Davies writing an adaptation of Rose, and Steven Moffat with a novelisation of The Day of the Doctor. One of the few classic stories never to get the Target treatment (until now!) was City of Death.

It’s a lean novel, but no less fun for this. Of course Goss had great subject matter to work from, because the original script is a fun and frothy adventure (which depending on your view may be a good or a bad thing—some people don’t like the silliness inherent in this story, whilst others see it as a very early forerunner of how the modern show was able to marry the serious and the silly at the same time).

The dialogue sparkles, and because I’m so used to the serial it’s easy to hear the voices of Tom Baker, Lallla Ward, Julian Glover et al. So classic lines such as: “I say, what a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” are as much a joy to read as they are to watch. Goss doesn’t just rely on the script however, and he fills in a lot of gaps, for example it’s made clearer here that Scaroth is only vaguely aware of his other splinters, in fact it seems Scarlioni doesn’t even realise he is a Jagaroth until the reveal at the end of part one which isn’t how it comes across on screen.

It isn’t perfect, but in the main what failings there are come from the source material, and to be honest the trope of aliens being responsible for human development is something that annoys me in far more Who stories than just this one.

I don’t know how this would read if you were unfamiliar with the source material, but as a fan I found this a fun read. Now I really must dig my DVD out!

By Alastair Reynolds

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It was a real honour to be declared runner up in the National Space Centre’s short story competition last year, but it was just as awe inspiring to meet Alistair Reynolds, and to learn he’d read and enjoyed my story! Part of my prize was a book signed by the man himself, a huge collection of short stories the size of which, to be honest, put me off at first, but I finally set a few months aside to work my way through it and what a treat.

As with any anthology some stories are better than others, some stories hit an emotional note with me and some didn’t, but all demonstrate a master of his craft. Anyway here’s a brief review of each of the stories within…

 

The book opens with Great Wall of Mars, a tale of enhanced humans and Martian terraforming that it took me a little while to get into, but once I had intrigued me greatly.

It’s followed up by Weather, a story set later in the same universe. It’s an interesting tale of space farers menaced by pirates, and the extreme measures they need to go to in order to escape, relying on an augmented human who they’re not sure they can trust.

The titular Beyond the Aquila Rift is next up, an unsettling tale of lost travellers that merges the Twilight Zone with the Matrix.

Minla’s Flowers is a neat tale of political expediency and features a character trying to save a less advanced civilisation, popping himself into cryogenic storage for a few decades at a time in order to monitor their growth. It’s a story that starts out quite sweet and winds up somewhere rather dark.

Zima Blue is probably the first story not to grip me, there’s an intriguing idea at its heart about an artist who’s now more machine than man, and his obsession with a particular shade of blue, but I’m glad it was one of the shorter stories in the collection.

Fury is about an incredibly old robot who serves as the personal protector of an equally ancient galactic emperor. When an attempt is made on the emperor’s life the robot goes in search of those behind it, but discovers secrets about himself and his emperor in the process that will change their relationship forever. It’s a story that didn’t remotely go where I expected it to, and the end is nicely done.

The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice is a gloriously gory story about cybernetically enhanced space pirates. It’s bloodthirsty and just plain bloody, but if you have a strong stomach it’s fun too.

The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter is more of a fantasy tale, albeit one with clear science fiction overtones. Set in a future Northumbria trapped in a mini ice age it features a young woman struggling to avoid the machinations of a vile suitor, and an old woman who may or may not be a witch. It’s an interesting mix of genres, and if I had a problem with it it’s that it feels like the prologue for a more epic story, rather than a self-contained story.

Diamond Dogs is a very long story, and another quite gory one, merging Steven King with films like The Cube as a group of explorers try and get to the top of an alien spaceship through room after room, each of which contains tests of increasing difficulty and penalties of increasing severity. It goes on a bit too long, and I found the eventual end a little unsatisfying, but it was delightfully devious for most of its length.

Thousandth Night was a bit of a joy, featuring as it did the characters of Campion and Purslane from House of Suns. I was already au fait with the characters and their world, and an enjoyable murder mystery ensued.

Troika is an evocative tale of a soviet cosmonaut who escapes from a hospital to try and reach an old scientist in order to tell her she was right in her theory about a mysterious alien artefact. It turns out he is the only survivor of a Russian mission to explore the artefact, but the story has an unexpected twist in the tale. I liked this one a lot, especially in its depiction of a snowbound Second Soviet. Very Quatermass.

Sleepover is the one story I didn’t read, because I read it a few months ago in The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF!

Vainglory is another story about art, and oddly another one I couldn’t quite engage with, although it’s central theme of people chiselling asteroids and creating rings around planets wasn’t uninteresting.

Trauma Pod, like Diamond Dogs, is another one that relies heavily on body horror, as a wounded solider is kept alive inside a robot which goes to increasing lengths to keep him safe. It’s very unsettling.

The Last Log of the Lachrymosa is another story featuring characters risking death to explore an alien artefact, in this case something buried in a cave system on an uninhabited planet. There’s a rough and ready piratical edge to the story I quite liked.

The Water Thief is okay, but only really interesting in that it doesn’t go where you expect it to as we follow the story of a refugee barely earning a living as a teleoperator remotely controlling robots, who eventually ends up involved in a political struggle on the Moon!

The Old Man and the Martian Sea has some wonderfully evocative imagery, and winds up being quite sad as a young girl runs away from home and meets up with a grizzled old man who takes her to one of Mars’ original settlements, now a city sunk beneath a lake.

The final story, In Babelsburg, has an interesting premise, that of a sentient space probe, but I feel it didn’t really go anywhere so it wasn’t one of my favourites.

All in all though a wonderful, if somewhat impenetrable at times, anthology that I’d recommend, maybe I should have interspersed it with other books in between every few stories though because it was like reading three novels bound together in terms of sheer size.

The Predator

Posted: September 25, 2018 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed by: Shane Black. Starring:  Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane.

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Someone asked for one retake too many!

During a hostage rescue mission sniper Quinn McKenna (Holbrook) and his team encounter a crashed spacecraft and are attacked by a predator. Quinn manages to incapacitate the predator but only after his team is wiped out. Realising that the government will cover it up and pin the blame on him, he mails some of the predator armour home to his autistic son, Rory (Tremblay) and estranged wife, Emily (a criminally underused Yvonne Strahovski).

Quinn is captured and, due to the incredible nature of his story, is treated like he’s suffering from PTSD. As such he’s placed on a bus with a group of other former soldiers, each of whom is suffering from mental health issues.

Meanwhile evolutionary biologist Casey Bracket (Munn) is recruited to study the predator that Quinn encountered. The only trouble is, the predator isn’t quite as incapacitated as everyone thinks.

As Quinn and Bracket’s paths cross, and the predator causes havoc, Rory has managed to activate the predator’s armour, drawing the alien to his small town, but also attracting the attention of a second predator who’s far more dangerous than the first.

Suddenly Quinn and his rag tag group of misfits not only have to save Rory, they might well have to save all mankind.

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When news of a new Predator film was announced I was vaguely excited, whilst I loved the first film it’s definitely been a case of diminishing returns. Predator 2 has its moments, but it’s dated far more than the original has, and whilst Aliens Vs Predator is a far better film than it has any right to be, AVP: Requiem is a disaster, arguably not only the worst Predator film but also the worst Alien film into the bargain. That leaves 2010’s Predators, which I’m actually a fan of, for me it’s probably the second best film in the franchise, though this isn’t a view held by all. When it was announced that the new film would be written and directed by Shane Black my interest ratcheted up significantly. Not only is Black an accomplished writer/director (who’s had a hand in a whole heap of great movies, going back to Lethal Weapon in 1987 (which he wrote) and right up to just a couple of years ago when he wrote and directed the superb The Nice Guys) but he also starred in Predator as one of Schwarzenegger’s ill fated men. It was a winning combination that suggested the next Predator film might well be a joy.

It isn’t.

It really, really isn’t.

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A film so bad even the predator has his head in his hands!!

Instead it’s a confused mess.  Tonally it’s all over the place, and it’s hard to tell just what kind of film Black was trying to make, on the one hand he’s talked about ET and Close Encounters from an awe inspiring perspective, and at times there’s an almost family friendly comic book sensibility of the kind you’d find in Ghostbusters or the Goonies, yet married to this is an R rated attitude to violence and profanity quite at odds with a family audience.

Black is clearly trying to emulate the testosterone fuelled banter of Predator, and Quinn’s band of PTSD sufferers do have their moments, but several are instantly forgettable (especially Alfie Allen who vanishes for long swathes of the film—maybe because he couldn’t keep his ludicrous Irish accent going) and even with those who aren’t there are issues. Thomas Jane’s Baxley has Tourette’s, which is played for laughs initially, and then which seems to vanish entirely as the film goes on! I can almost accept that once back in combat Baxley is too focused for the condition to affect his speech, but what’s more ridiculous is the fact that, as the film progresses, Jacob Tremblay’s Rory seems to get better from autism! It’s ridiculous, and a shame as, initially at least, the character is dealt with quite sensitively, but it soon becomes apparent that rather than choosing to make a point about inclusivity, Black just wanted a plot point. Autism as the next stage in human evolution!

As the lead Holbrook is a trifle bland, and whilst Munn does her best to rise above the material she’s hampered by having to go from serious scientist to an ass kicking gun wielder in about 24 hours, not to mention go through the wince-inducingly contrived scene where she has to get naked, for, you know, plot purposes. Keegan-Michael Key has a nice antagonistic buddy/buddy relationship with Jane, but really no one comes out of this film with too much credit.

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Black is famed for his wise cracking dialogue, and the film is genuinely funny at times, but it all gets a bit wearing when every character essentially sounds the same, to the point where even a small boy with autism becomes a foul mouthed wise cracker!

The script is all over the place and the plot makes little sense, there’s a ‘good’ predator who seems to kill as many people as the bad one, and the film’s clearly been attacked by a crazed editor with some scissors. Early on the misfits escape from military custody, and the next time we see them they’re driving a Winnebago and have amassed a small armoury of weapons, with no explanation! And late on one of the main characters is killed, not that you’d notice because it’s so badly handled.

An eleven foot super predator is stupid, but maybe not as ridiculous as the predator dogs that look like the dogs in ghostbusters and have, I kid you not, dreadlocks! Throw Predator subtitles and a Predator talking (rather than just aping human speech) and it’s just one bad decision after another.

It isn’t all bad, and at times it comes close to so-bad-it’s-good territory, just not often enough that it will ever become a cult classic. Too beholden to homaging(lampooning?) the original, and too confused about what kind of film it wants to be to have any hopes of success, this is a dire film. For 20th Century Fox it’s back to the predator drawing board, as for Black, please eschew the blockbusters and just give us The Nice Guys 2, Shane!

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I know how you feel, mate, I know how you feel…

Dogs of War

Posted: August 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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dogs-of-war-16By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog.

He’s also a 7 foot tall canine/human hybrid killing machine. A bioform bred for war by a private security firm, he leads a multiform combat team that also includes Honey, a heavy weapons toting bear, Dragon, a serpentine infiltrator come sniper, and Bees, a distributed intelligence in the form of, well, a swarm of bees.

Loyal to his Master and his inbuilt hierarchies, Rex just wants to be a good dog and fight Master’s enemies, but when he and his comrades are deployed in Mexico to battle insurgents, the lines between friend and foe blur, and when his Master is charged as a war criminal, Rex’s whole existence is up for grabs. Are he and the other bioforms mere things, or are they sentient creatures worthy of rights?

*****

If you read my review of Children of Time you’ll see I absolutely loved it (still the best book I’ve read in years) but this left me with something of an odd conundrum, on the one hand it encouraged me to seek out more from Tchaikovsky, but it did make me worry that whatever I read next wouldn’t be as good as Children of Time.

Well if I’m being honest Dogs of War isn’t as good as Children of Time, the good news is that it’s still an enjoyable read.

On the surface it’s a very different kind of book, less expansive, and a much leaner read, and yet there are similarities. Again Tchaikovsky excels in writing sentient, non-human characters, and where Dogs of War works best is in the shape of its central character, Rex, who feels completely three dimensional, and Tchaikovsky never feels the need to fully anthropomorphise the character. Rex isn’t human, and Tchaikovsky never cheats the reader by pretending he is, yet still makes him a character we can empathise with.

And you have to applaud the sheer chutzpa of making your lead characters a sentient dogman, a surprisingly eloquent bear, a lazy reptile and an intelligent swarm of bees! Really, you’ve never read anything like it, and the sheer imagination of show here’s is amazing.

It isn’t perfect, after a strong start the middle portion of the book feels somewhat disjointed and meanders a little before the pace and the plot pick up again, and given there are so many big ideas at play here (sentience, distributed intelligence, cloning, private security firms doing governmental dirty work etc.) at times I wanted it to become more epic in scope, but then again we’d have lost the intimacy we have with Rex and the other characters if the author had gone down that route, so swings and roundabouts and all that!

All in all a though provoking and enjoyable read.

Rex is a good dog, and this is a good book!

trainsJust a quick note to tell you I have a new book out! It’s available to buy from Amazon as a download now. Here are the UK and US links

UK: Buy for just £1.99

US: Buy for just $2.58

It’s an anthology of tales, each of which relates to time in some fashion. From countdowns and deadlines, to travelling through time itself, there’s something for everyone. Here’s more detail on each of the ten stories inside…

Do the Trains Run on Time?

An England that could be today, could be tomorrow, or could even be yesterday, has been invaded by a faceless, implacable enemy, and for a lucky few the only escape is via refugee train, but time is running out for one group of evacuees waiting at a lonely railway station when they find themselves menaced by a monstrous creature.

Irreconcilable Distances

Long distance relationships can be challenging, but as humanity heads for the stars things will only get harder!

The Delicate Art of Deep Space Negotiation

When a labour dispute on a far flung mining colony threatens to bankrupt a galaxy spanning corporation, one senior executive embarks on a desperate mission to resolve the issues, but time is of the essence.

Tempus Stultitia

When a student takes radical action to get a good grade, he imagines he’s thought of everything, but he may have made a very big mistake.

Folding Back the Years.

The place is London, the year is 1970, and Soviet backed forces are on the verge of taking the city. As the evacuation begins only one man knows that this isn’t how things were supposed to be…

Temp Agency

It’s the ultimate part time job, but is there a catch?

Mr Dweeb Comes to Town

The young man who wanders into a bar on a distant planet looks like an easy target for local thugs, but why does he keep checking his watch?

The Astronaut’s Son

Growing up is hard enough without your dad being an astronaut who’s aging slower than you are.

Habeas Corpus 

All new technologies get misused, and time travel is no different as some disreputable academics plan a very unique heist.

Ulrik Must Die!

It is another place, another time. Lady Maryam is far from home and heavily pregnant, with only her wits to rely on she must fight to ensure not only her own future, but the future of her unborn child. One thing is clear, for them to survive, Ulrik must die!

Embers of War

Posted: June 11, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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30748899By Gareth L Powell

It’s the future, and a devastating conflict known as the Archipelago War is bought to a shuddering conclusion by a heinous war crime that devastates large swathes of a planet. One of the perpetrators of this attack, albeit under orders, is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. In the aftermath of the conflict Trouble Dog develops a conscience and resigns her commission, signing on with the noble, if underfunded, House of Reclamation, an organisation whose purpose is to provide aid and rescue to those in distress. The ship has a minimal crew and is captained by Sal Konstanz who was on the opposite side during the war.

After a tragedy, Sal imagines she might lose her captaincy, but when a pleasure liner is attacked in a mysterious solar system known as the gallery—where an alien intelligence carved planets into giant sculptures—the Trouble Dog is the only ship that can speed to its rescue in time.

Meanwhile, on a distant jungle world Ashton Childe, a burned-out spy, is given new orders. He’s to also make his way to the Gallery, and he’s to rescue one particular passenger from the downed liner, the renowned poet Ona Sudak.

Sudak isn’t quite who she appears to be however, and the Trouble Dog is heading towards more danger than she realises, which given this particular dog has had most of her fangs removed, could mean trouble!

There’s some ship to ship combat towards the end of this book that’s almost worth the cover price alone. It’s like the very best Star Trek battle transferred onto the page. Beyond this there’s a lot else to enjoy here, though this isn’t a perfect book by any means.

Powell’s world building feels a little sparse at times, but on the whole he does a good job of imagining a conceivable universe. I’m sure people might say it feels a bit derivative, but while sentient starships are nothing new, I liked the idea of a ship with a conscience, a ship that regrets what she was ordered to do and wants to make amends, and I loved the fact that, despite her noble aspirations, this is a ship that still enjoys a good fight!

If I had a problem with the book then it’s the use of first person, or more specifically the use of first person to cover multiple points of view. This would be fine but, despite Powell’s obvious talent as a writer, too often it was hard to tell one voice apart from another, and if it wasn’t for the handy aide memoir that each chapter is named for the character, it would have taken a while to determine which character’s POV we were with at any given time, especially once most of the characters are on board (or are!) Trouble Dog. Ironically the one character whose chapters do feel different is the alien engineer Nod, though it’s chapters are kinda superfluous, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

Yes it’s a tad lightweight in tone, never quite managing to hit the epic sweep it clearly wants to, but it was a fun read, with an interesting central conceit, and Powell writes well, especially scenes of combat, and it’s certainly a way better sci-fi novel than the last one I read.

So long as you don’t go in expecting Banks or Reynolds this is an enjoyable book, I’m certainly on board for any sequels and I’d really like to see Trouble Dog get into a few more scraps!