Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Blade Runner 2049

Posted: October 21, 2017 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.

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“Aren’t you a little short for a Blade Runner?”

After concerns about Nexus 8 Replicants rebelling against their human masters, such artificial lifeforms were outlawed, only to be replaced by the far more compliant Nexus 9 models. Still many Nexus 8, and earlier models, still exist and must be hunted down. K (Gosling) is a Blade Runner working for the LAPD and specifically for Lt. Joshi (an excellent Robin Wright). After tracking down a rogue Nexus 8 named Sapper Morton (the always great Dave Bautista) K stumbles upon a thirty-year-old mystery, and investigating this mystery will lead him towards a former Blade Runner who’s been in hiding. A man named Rick Deckard…

Ok first things first. This will be, as much as possible, a spoiler free review.

Secondly. I found the first half an hour or so of this film hard going. On the up side this left another 2 ¼ hours that I loved (and I suspect on second viewing it’ll be the whole film I love.)

The notion of a sequel to 1982’s cult classic has always seemed a shaky proposition, especially once you factor in Ridley Scott’s involvement and the fact that his attempts to reinvigorate another film franchise he started have been somewhat ropey to say the least (the best things you can say about Prometheus and Covenant is that they look pretty, and that Michael Fassbender’s a good actor working with terrible material).

What gave me hope was the presence in the director’s chair of Villeneuve. His last two films were Scicario and Arrival, and if you’ve read my reviews you’ll know I loved ‘em both.  Villeneuve is a very good director, and in partnership once more with cinematographer Roger Deakins (whom he worked with on Scicario) and working with a script cowritten by Hampton Fancher (one of the original’s screenwriters) he has achieved that most rare of things, a decades later sequel that’s actually very good.

Be under no illusions, Blade Runner 2049 is better than it has any right to be. The filmmakers have crafted a visually stunning masterpiece here that feels utterly like a continuation of Blade Runner, whilst telling a much broader story.

The scope and attention to detail here are amazing. Earlier in the year Ghost in the Shell looked pretty, but it was hollow, little more than painted facade. Blade Runner 2049 is the real deal, portraying a fully rounded future world that utterly convinces as an evolution of LA in 2019.

Which is not to suggest that the film is all style and no substance. It’s true the script may not quite live up to the visuals, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure, and the film has a lot to say about the nature of humanity, about belief, truth, memory, sacrifice and specifically about slavery.

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La La Land 2049 took everyone by surprise.

 

Ryan Gosling is superb, initially playing K very enigmatically (much like his eponymous Driver) gradually he lets the walls come down as time and truths break down K’s psyche. He’s a very different kind of Blade Runner to Deckard, although they share the same melancholic loneliness, only in K’s case it’s mitigated somewhat be his “relationship” with Joi (Ana de Armas) his holographic AI girlfriend. It’s testament to the script and de Armas’ performance that Joi feels more human than some of the human characters, but it’s never forgotten that she is as much a slave as any replicant.

Of course K isn’t the only Blade Runner here, because there’s the return of Harrison Ford (hardly a spoiler unless you’ve managed to avoid any poster or trailer in the last few months!). Harrison’s enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately is fair, and it is odd that he’s returning to franchises he had distanced himself from for so long, but it’s great to see him back here, even if it isn’t quite as lump in the throat inducing as his return as Han.

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“That’s not how replicants work!”

If there’s an issue with Ford it’s mainly down to him not being in the film as much as you might have hoped, although it’s way more than a fleeting cameo appearance and he is integral to the plot. He takes grizzled to a whole new level and he and Gosling bounce well off each other. He also gets the chance to properly act when…well, that’d be telling.

Rounding out the cast are Jered Leto, who isn’t terrible, but is saddled with a somewhat two-dimensional villain role. Thankfully he isn’t in it much. Much more present is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) an unstoppable replicant enforcer who makes Roy Batty look like a fluffy bunny. Hoeks is superb, scary and menacing yet capable of charm as well, though it’s a shame a certain emotional affectation is never really explained.

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“All right, Luv, no need to get angry. You can have another drink.”

I won’t go into the plot too much, except that to say this is a film that did manage to surprise me a couple of times, and one rug pull in particular I did not see coming.

There have been complaints that the film is misogynistic and objectifies women, and whilst I can see where these arguments are coming from, I think the film is far more nuanced than initial appearances suggest. There are multiple strong female characters, and whilst in many cases they’re slaves lacking true free will, it can be argued that pretty much every character in the film, from human to replicant to AI hologram, is a slave to something, be it only an idea, and even Leto’s Niander Wallace is enslaved to the idea of progress.

The notion of free will is prevalent throughout, and whilst the film obviously riffs on the original Blade Runner, these riffs are expertly done, and echo the past without plagiarising it. The film also owes a lot to other sources, from obvious ones like the story of Pinocchio, to more left field influences; there’s more than a passing nod to Dickens here, especially in the form of an orphanage owner played by Lennie James who evokes Oliver Twist’s Mr Bumble, even down to his outfit.

It’s a long film, but I can honestly say that I didn’t want it to end, so immersed in the world had I become. Quite possibly one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen, and the sound design is equally impressive, with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score again evoking Vangelis without copying him.

Beautiful and heartrending, Blade Runner is a triumph and easily one of my top three films of the year. Go see it!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a wasp crawling on my arm…

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By 2049 you’ll have to go a long way to find a parking space.

 

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Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup.

 

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“I am NOT Groot!”

The colony ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6. It carries a crew of fifteen plus 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos in stasis. Acting as caretaker is a synthetic named Walter (Fassbender). Disaster strikes during a routine maintenance stop and Walter is forced to awaken the crew, with tragic consequence. In the aftermath the ship picks up a strange transmission coming from an unexplored planet nearby. Further investigation shows a planet with a lush, earth-like environment and the ship’s acting captain, Christopher Oram (Crudup), decides that the colony has a better chance of survival there than in continuing on to Origae-6. Daniels “Dany” Branson (Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert feels it isn’t worth the risk, but Oram overrules her.

Most of the crew take a shuttle to the surface and find that the planet is indeed inhabitable. All too quickly several crewmembers are exposed to alien spores that gestate inside them, eventually releasing vicious creatures that wreak havoc with the landing party. The survivors encounter another synthetic named David (Fassbender again) who arrived on this planet in the aftermath of the previous film with Dr Elizabeth Shaw. David can fend off the vicious neomorphs, but is there a deadlier monster still to make an appearance?

 

As anyone who’s read my review will know, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Prometheus, so I was initially hopeful about a new Alien film that promised to get back to basics. After I saw the trailer I started to worry again, and I’ll be honest I expected Covenant to be bad. The odd thing is whilst it is bad, it isn’t necessarily bad for the reasons I expected it to be bad.

Prometheus wasn’t enough like an Alien film (though that was hardly its sole flaw) and to be honest I thought Covenant would go too far the other way and be too much like an Alien film (I know, some people are never happy, right?) and whilst it is guilty of this, it’s Alien greatest hits medley is accompanied by a side order of “You know, Prometheus wasn’t that terrible, we should do some of that again” ensuring this is a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be.

For all its failings at least Prometheus had a clear tone, whereas Covenant is just a messy mashup of B-movie monster flick and pretentious “thoughtful” sci-fi.

Ridley Scott provides fair warning of what’s to come in a 2001-A space Odyssey inspired flashback where Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce sans makeup this time) has a conversation with a newly online David. They talk about creators, the nature of God, and immorality and…the whole thing is about as subtle as a brick that has BRICK written on the side in neon green paint.

The film then segues into something more reminiscent of the older films, with a space ship and a crew in hibernation. And then there’s a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. If this all sounds familiar it’s clearly supposed to because the call-backs in this film are not subtle. Now don’t get me wrong, harking back to previous films in and of itself doesn’t make a film terrible. I’m a huge fan of The Force Awakens but I can see it’s blatantly riffing on A New Hope. Thing is with TFA it works because what’s new is so well done that you just enjoy the call-backs. Covenant fails so badly on its own merits that the call-backs just seem really jarring. And there are a lot of call-backs. Crew of grousing space jockeys? check; express elevator to hell, going down? Check. Fight in a cargo bay: Check…and I haven’t even listed them all because some would be blatant spoilers. And when the film isn’t harking back to Alien films, it seems intent on stealing from others. The opening space scenes feel like Sunshine, there are some echoes of Blade Runner here, and even Covenant flying through the clouds whilst a storm rages just made me think of Event Horizon. Pretty much everything in this film will make you think of something else. Probably something better.

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“Where we’re going we don’t need quarantine procedures.”

The script is flimsy, and whilst Scott is clearly still a great director (The Martian was just a few years ago) he seems incapable of being able to salvage a ropey script, and the pacing is off throughout. Using a Goldilocks metaphor, when it’s slow it’s too slow, and when it’s quick it’s too quick (seriously, if you thought AVP sped up the Alien Lifecyle you ain’t seen nothing yet!).

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“Don’t call me Ripley. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ripley.”

Cast wise there are a lot of people in the ship and down on the planet, but most of them are cardboard cut-outs and they’re stupid in much the same way most everyone in Prometheus was stupid, and they’ll be dead soon so you don’t have to worry too much. Part of what made both Alien and Aliens good was a cast of easily identifiable characters, but here the cannon fodder just merge into the background. Initially Waterston is very good as Dany. She makes for an engaging protagonist. Until the midway point of the film where she’s shunted to one side so that Fassbender can have pretentious existential chats with himself about Shelley and Byron and talk about flute playing in a way that’ll make your adolescent-self snigger. Don’t worry, Ripley will come back to the fore in time for the finale. Sorry, I meant Dany. It’s shame as when she has something distinct to do she’s very good. Fassbender is always a joy to watch, and seeing David and Walter interact is nicely done, it’s just that their conversations are a trifle ponderous to say the least. Crudup’s acting captain is given a potentially interesting character trait as it’s awkwardly shoehorned in that he’s a man of faith. Once done this will barely be referenced again and certainly won’t seem to inform many of his actions. Of the rest only Danny McBride makes any impression as (do you) Tennessee (what they did there?) but this might be down to him wearing a cowboy hat.

One of the things I found so annoying about Prometheus was it’s need to explain where the Xenomorphs come from, completely missing the point that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re terrifying and unstoppable (mostly). They work best as creatures of mystery lurking in the shadows. Explaining their origins is like pulling the curtain away from the great and powerful Oz, and when you have them leaping around in broad daylight they’re just another CGI monster. Captain America could have turned up at the end and wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

If you found the Engineer origin of the Xenomorphs annoying, prepare for that annoyance to be dialled up to eleven as the franchise lurches in a new direction that makes little sense, and frankly I have no idea how they’ll get from this point to the beginning of Alien.

Oh, and if you don’t twig a certain plot point early on, well I envy you your cinematic naiveite!

After The Martian I thought Scott was back on form, but it seems he is only as good as the script. Covenant looks good, has a few nice ideas bubbling around, and features good performances from Waterston and Fassbender, but in the end it’s a dull mess, and whilst I was always slightly wary of the idea, I really want to see Neill Blomkamp do Alien 5 now, because it just has to be better than what we’re getting from Scott and co.

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I guess he didn’t like the cornbread either.

 

Directed by James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Kurt Russell.

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Warning: no spoilers for Vol.2, but by necessity I will give away bits about vol.1 (if you’re one of the small number of people never to have seen it).

 

Its just a few months after the Guardians saved Xandar from the threat posed by Ronan, and the group of renegades have become famous. They’re hired by the golden hued Sovereign Race led by Ayesha (a wonderful turn by Elizabeth Debicki) to protect her planet’s precious batteries from an interdimensional beast. The team prevail and in return Ayesha turns Nebula (Karen Gillan) over to the team so they can take her back to Xandar to stand trial. Unfortunately Rocket (the genetically engineered racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) decides to pocket some of the precious batteries, leading to a Sovereign battle fleet hunting the group down.

In the short term they’re saved by a mysterious stranger named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains he has a link to Peter Quill (Pratt) Whilst Quill returns to Ego’s planet, along with Gamora (Saldana) and Drax (Bautista), Rocket stays behind with Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Nebula while he repairs their ship.

With the group divided, threats come at them from multiple directions, and if they’re going to prevail they’ll need to work as a team, and possibly even co-opt the odd enemy into becoming an ally if they want to save the galaxy for a second time.

 

It’s fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit back in 2014. It was heralded way in advance as the Marvel film that’d be the first to fail. It didn’t, quite the reverse, becoming one of the brand’s major successes. There’s no hint of surprise with volume 2, this film comes with a whole heap of preconceptions and expectations, which is a lot to live up to.

With this in mind I have to state an opinion that might go somewhat against the grain. You see I think I enjoyed volume 2 more than the original film, and I really like the original.

In an era of generic/interchangeable blockbusters there’s something very different about both Guardians films. It’s a perfect storm of talents, both in front of and behind the camera.

As writer and director James Gunn seems to understand the balance between action and character perfectly, and its testament to his skill that he juggles such a large cast so effortlessly, giving everyone their moment, and even elevating secondary characters from the first film into something approaching main cast members, with both Gillan and Michael Rooker (as ravager captain Yondu) getting a lot of meat to sink their teeth into, and Rooker in particular threatens to steal the show on occasion.

The thing is though, quite a few characters threaten to steal the show on occasion, testament to a wonderful cast. As Peter Quill/Star-Lord Pratt is effortless. I’d still like to see him add some strings to his bow, but there’s no denying he has the cocky pirate with a heart of gold shtick down pat, and he utterly convinces as the groups de-facto leader. Zoe Saldana has a tougher job as Gamora, and she gets less to do than the others, which isn’t to denigrate her skills, because she has the hard job of being the sensible straight woman surrounded by idiots, and much like a tough defensive midfielder who does the hard work so others can play pretty football, she’s more important than you realise, and the films would be lessened by her absence.

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Don’t rile the raccoon!

The partnership of a superb CGI realisation and Bradley Cooper’s snarky delivery again pays dividends in the form of Rocket, and not once do you ever doubt that he isn’t a real, fully formed character, hell I believe in Rocket more than I believe in most human characters in many films!

Almost the star of the show however is Bautista, and Drax gets the lion’s share of great lines, with Gunn supplying the ammo and Bautista hitting the bullseyes with practically every shot. It still annoys me that the Bond producers hired a guy with such great comic timing, then turned him into a mute, but here the ex-wrestler shows yet again that, given the right role, he has genuine star quality.

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“I am Groot?”

I say almost star of the show because we really need to talk about Baby Groot. The sapling, all that remained of Groot after he sacrificed himself last time out, has grown into a small child who, let’s be honest, doesn’t appear to be the sharpest tool in the box, but this naiveite, married to an adorable character design, makes Baby Groot incredibly loveable. Seriously, if you don’t instantly fall in love with Baby Groot then you need to seek professional help, and he provides many of the film’s funniest bits, from the opening titles through to that scene with the bomb you probably saw in the trailer. Once again Vin Diesel manages to imbue each recitation of ‘I am Groot’ with subtle differences in inflection so you know he’s saying something different every time.

And I haven’t even mentioned Kurt Frikken Russell yet, an actor who was doing the kind of effortless cool Pratt does when Pratt was in nappies. In the unlikely event that I ever meet Mr Russell, rest assured my reaction will be something akin to Wayne meeting Alice Cooper.

The only real bum note acting wise is probably Stallone, who feels oddly out of place, but he isn’t in it much so don’t worry.

If I had to pick a flaw with the film, then I’d say the retro soundtrack isn’t quite as instantly cool as vol.1’s, but that’s about it. Funny, exciting, heart-breaking, with a cast to die for and a an ethos of family that’s even better than the Fast & furious franchise, this is a damn fine follow up to a damn fine original and I can’t wait to see it again!

Final tip, stay right to the end of the credits. It’s worth it!

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“And then I had to go into New York to rescue the President…”

By Harry Harrison

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Arch criminal turned ace secret agent, ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz is taking some well-earned R&R. Of course for the Stainless Steel Rat this involves robbing a series of banks. He’s soon reeled in by Inskipp, the head of the Special Corps, who Jim now reluctantly works for. The Corps has something big to contend with. In the future invasion of another world should be impossible, but somehow the inhabitants of the planet Cliaand have managed to invade multiple planets with ease, and Inskipp wants to know how.

Recently (and somewhat reluctantly) married, Jim leaves his heavily pregnant wife, Angelica (one of the few people are smart and deadly as him) behind and heads for Cliaand, but with no gadgets and only his wits to rely on, and with an entire planet full of soldiers to thwart, has the Stainless Steel Rat finally bitten off more than he can chew?

And so my (very slow) re-read of the Stainless Steel Rat books reaches the second novel. There’s actually quite a gap between them, given than Harrison published this around 1970 and the first book (which I reviewed here) came out almost a decade before.

Very little has changed in the intervening time, and much like the first book this is a slender volume very much in the pulp space opera mould. Again it’s a product of its time, although in fairness Harrison does give his female characters a degree of agency (if anything Angelica is smarter and much more ruthless than Jim, he is the more cunning however) and although painted with very broad brushstrokes, he does provide a matriarchal society of Amazonian women to help Jim out.

As before this is a lightweight, non-too serious adventure.  diGriz is smarter than any opponent, so even when he’s captured you know he won’t stay incarcerated for long. That said the Grey Men he finds himself up again are somewhat creepy, and this book does feature a truly shocking event that, when it happened, made me sit up and take notice because I didn’t remotely see it coming. Suffice to say it was a trifle Game of Thrones!

As science fiction goes this is about as hard as brie, and the era it was written in makes for some anachronistic aspects of a so called future society at times. But it’s amusing, well-paced, and if the use of smoke bombs becomes a trifle repetitive, don’t worry there’s usually a surprise or two waiting around the corner.

Something of an admission however, is it wrong that I find Jim’s criminal escapades just a trifle more exciting than his life as an intergalactic James Bond?

At the current rate set your alarms for a review of book three coming sometime in 2019…

Directed by Rupert Sanders. Starring Scarlett Johansson, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche and Michael Pitt.

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Cue bionic woman theme tune…

It is the near future and the majority of humans have been enhanced with cybernetics. The leading cybernetic company is Hanka Robotics, and they have taken such augmentation one step further by placing the brain of a human inside a completely mechanical body, or shell. The test subject is a young woman who is apparently the sole survivor of a terrorist attack. With little memory of her life before the new hybrid (Johansson) is renamed Mira Killian and assigned to Section 9, an anti-terrorism organisation led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi).

A year after her rebirth Killian is now a Major in Section 9 and a trusted, if sometimes unpredictable, officer. She has been experiencing glitches however, flashbacks from her previous life. Dr Ouelet (Binoche) one of the team who created the Major, assures Killian that these are nothing to worry about, and with the Major’s consent she deletes them.

When a mysterious hacker known as Kuze (Pitt) begins killing Hanka scientists Major and her partner Batou (Asbæk) begin an investigation, but the closer Major gets to Kuze, the more and more Major learns about her past life, and realises that not everything she was told was true…

 

The first thing to say about Ghost in the Shell is that I’ve never seen the original, so I have no Amine axe to grind. The second thing to say is that the film looks gorgeous, but I’ll come on to that later.

As I said, never read the Manga or seen any of the Anime but one can only hope it’s better than this. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a terrible film, it’s just very forgettable.

I don’t want to get into the issues around whitewashing, about why Hollywood felt this needed Scarlett Johansson rather than a Japanese actress, frankly I’m not sure that would have made it any better as the problems are in the script and realisation rather than in the performances, which vary from very good to a trifle average but are never awful.

Johansson is a good actress who’s proven before (Under the Skin, Lucy) that she can convince as someone who’s not quite human (or in the case of Under the Skin someone who’s note remotely human!) I think she’s acted better than she does here, but I do think the material she had to work with didn’t help. The main problem with Ghost in the Shell, and it seems odd to say this given the increasing prevalence of the internet, of hacking and technological enhancements, is that it feels dated. We might be on the verge of a real-life cyberpunk world, but cyberpunk films have been around for quite some time now, and one can’t shake the feeling that this might have played better in the nineties. As it is it feels derivative of things like The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days etc. Now you could argue a lot of those earlier cyberpunk films were themselves derivative of Japanese Manga and Anime, but that’s irrelevant when this film just brings nothing new, nothing interesting to the table.

Watching it you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen it done before, and done better. Want a better future city detective story, watch Blade Runner, want a better examination of what it means to be human/sentient, watch Ex Machina or Under the Skin, want a better action film, well watch quite a few things, several of them this year alone.

The storyline is pedestrian and the film provides zero surprises, if you haven’t figured out what’s going on inside the first ten minutes you need to see more films. Of course, plenty of films can make a predictable storyline work, and not every film needs twists and reveals, but likely those films would have had something else to say. For a film about a woman whose brain is stuck in a robot body the film doesn’t have enough to say about the nature of humanity. It tries, but for the most part attempts at addressing this are superficial at best, or speedily got past; classic example is when Major wakes up for the first time and Dr Ouelet just flat out tells her. “Hi there was an accident but we saved your brain and stuck it in a metal shell.” Way to break it to her gently!

Which is another thing, just how many times the words “Ghost” and “Shell” are used. Seriously, we get it Hollywood, no need to whack us over the head every ten minutes.

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Batou’s laser eye surgery wasn’t what he was expecting!

On the plus side the cast is good. Johansson imbues the role with a curiously appropriate physicality that takes a little getting used to, but Major isn’t remotely Black Widow. Asbæk makes a great foil for her, and their partnership is one of the best things about the film, and whilst he doesn’t do a whole lot, Beat Takeshi has an iconic cool about him, as if Dirty Harry got old and became the police chief.

Oh yes, and the film looks gorgeous. The cityscapes are magnificent and the costume and character designs are exceptional (you can see where the time and money went, and it wasn’t on the script) but even here the film is flawed. The city never feels real, it certainly doesn’t have that lived-in look that LA had in Blade Runner, and for a sprawling metropolis I kept wondering where all the people were? No street scene seems to have more than a handful of extras and the roads seem surprisingly clear. You could say the same about Blade Runner but at least there’s a reason for that, in that most people have buggered off off-world.

In the end this film is well named, because it’s a beautiful shell that, sadly, only contains the ghost of anything interesting.

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“What did you just say? How very dare you!”

The Thinking Man’s Bastille

By Paul Starkey

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Today he would escape from prison.

Jack had to, because incarceration was slowly killing him. Not in a physical sense, but it was slowly sapping his will to live. Already, just six months into his sentence, he saw signs of the ennui that would eventually claim his life if he didn’t break out. He slept more than ever before, yet was always tired, lethargy bordering on paralysis, and his appetite was fading like the libido of an old man. He didn’t wash very often, and sometimes went days without even brushing his teeth.

He spent most of his time on his bed reading books downloaded onto his wafer, or watching the wall mounted scroll, though he minimised the screen resolution; rather than it filling the entire wall it was shrunk to the size of a television set from the cathode-ray era. Sometimes it still seemed too big. When he did leave the bed to wander the confines of his prison, he did so with the shambling gait of a zombie.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

It was one of many homilies his father had regularly uttered. Like “Ten men play harder than eleven” or “Always back the outsider in a three horse race”. Archaic wisdom from another age—after all there were no horses anymore outside of a zoo—but sometimes there was a kernel of some greater truth ensconced within those words, but even if there hadn’t been he would still have missed them, still have missed his dad.

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time might have been the wisest of them all though, and maybe the one Jack should have paid closest attention to whilst growing up, but children rarely pay enough attention to their parents, and boys especially to their fathers, and he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the consequences when opportunity arose.

They ended up being called simply the October Riots, the third instance of spontaneous civil disobedience that year. People became almost blasé about them.

The cause was never fully explained. Maybe it was down to the undertrained constable who hit some old biddy with a plastic bullet as he tried to disperse a group of stone throwers. Certainly the rioters claimed that was the spark, but everyone had an angle; the Tories blamed the increase in numbers claiming welfare, mainly Scottish migrants, whilst Democratic Labour blamed the Tories for cutting the value of the welfare stipend. Socialist Labour, meanwhile, blamed Democratic Labour because they always did, and as usual the whole thing descended into a DL/SL slanging match which allowed the Conservatives to push another welfare cap through parliament.

None of this mattered to Jack, he’d only ventured out because of curiosity. He wanted to see what was occurring, and he’d taken any excuse to venture outside back then, he hated feeling hemmed in, loved fresh air and wide open spaces, even rain rarely deterred him.

He wasn’t completely stupid however, like a sensible tourist at Pamplona he was content to watch the action from the side-lines; he had no intention of actually running with the bulls.

He hadn’t been alone in this, around the periphery of the violence a curious, carnival atmosphere sprang up. People brought their drinks out from the pubs, street vendors relocated from other areas and started doing a roaring trade. Even when a police sweeper exploded it didn’t dent the mood, instead people treated the flames cast into the air from the detonation like an impromptu firework display.

Gradually the lines between rioters and riot-watchers blurred and, like a sailor hearing a siren song, Jack found himself tantalised into drawing closer to the rocks. One minute he was downing a bottle of beer and dancing with a cute redhead, the next he was clambering in through a smashed storefront along with several others, passing more who were already clambering out the other way, clutching stolen booty tight to their chests.

The shop had been one of the few still operating on the high-street, and the irony was that if he’d been caught up with the crowds who broke into the empty shops either side his sentence would have been lighter, because he wouldn’t have actually stolen anything. As it was when the police nabbed him he had a rolled up scroll under each arm. Irony number two was the fact that they were last year’s model, barely worth anything second hand, inferior even to his cheap Brazilian import.

The stupidity of his crime didn’t serve as any kind of mitigation, and neither did his previously spotless record. Messages needed to be sent, examples made. All the fact of this being his first offence brought him was the option of something called “nuanced incarceration”. An option he jumped at because the idea of going to an actual prison scared the hell out of him.

Idiot.

It was odd to put shoes on; he mostly went around barefoot, and though they were old and well-worn they pinched tight as new shoes now. He’d taken a shower for the first time in days, already invigorated by the thought of freedom the hot water roused him further. He ate his heartiest breakfast in weeks.

As he walked towards the door his mind wandered. Where would he go, how long could he stay free, what would the authorities do when they caught him? He already knew they would, he had no money, no identification, and wasn’t remotely suited to the life of a fugitive. To stay free would entail either becoming an actual criminal, and taking what he needed from others through guile or force, or else dropping out of society altogether. Neither option appealed. He wasn’t tough enough for a life of crime, and he liked comfort too much for the life of a downout, and even if he could bear it, downouts were becoming scarcer all the time, so he’d stand out like a sore thumb unless he ventured south to the Cornish Wastes.

And why on earth would anyone choose to do that?

No, he would be caught quickly, but his hope was that by virtue of escaping his incarceration the authorities would send him to a real prison. Odd that suddenly a life of locks and lags didn’t seem so bad.

He’d turned these thoughts over and over a thousand times before, and nothing new came of today’s cogitations, but that hadn’t been the point, he’d just wanted to distract himself from the feelings of dread that crawled over him like ants as he neared the door.

It didn’t work. Each step was a struggle. The urge to turn back, to just curl into a ball on the floor, was strong. Palpitations started. His heart began to pound and his chest seemed to tighten around it. But he fought on until he reached the door to his prison.

Except it wasn’t really the door to his prison. It was the door to his flat. The door to his prison was buried deep inside his mind.

He got as far as putting his hand on the latch, but he couldn’t bring himself to disengage the bolt. Dark terrors were pulling hard against him now: the fear was rising as panic threatened to overwhelm him.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even open the door, let alone step… outside. He knew it was irrational, but he was convinced that if he did all would be lost. The world would swallow him, he’d be engulfed within its vast emptiness like a single drop of rain within an ocean. He needed to stay safe, needed comforting walls around him.

He stepped back. The panic eased, and his heart began to calm. By the time he reached his bedroom he felt himself again, though this was no benefit. In the absence of fear there came only shame.

Nuanced Incarceration. In a time of austerity, of quadruple dip recessions, it was the latest thing. Cheaper than prison, more humane too, if you believed the hype. Jack didn’t, not anymore. What was the American term; cruel and unusual.

The particular punishment strand of Nuanced Incarceration Jack had volunteered for was called ICA; Induced Custodial Agoraphobia. Induced initially in Jack’s case by several hypnotic sessions and reinforced by regular, mandatory injections of a benzodiazepine derivative.

They said it was reversible, but somehow Jack suspected his three year tariff as a prisoner in his own home might turn out to be a life sentence.

He wanted desperately to cry, but sobbing required energy, and just getting to the front door had left him frail and weak, so he crawled under the duvet and let himself drift off to sleep, even though it wasn’t yet three in the afternoon.

In the instant before consciousness faded he took comfort in a tiny spark of defiance buried deep inside him that, despite lacking the oxygen of hope, somehow continued to burn.

Tomorrow he would escape from prison.

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Proxima

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Stephen Baxter

proxima

In the late 22nd Century mankind has begun to colonise the solar system, but also has its sights set on the nearby dwarf star of Proxima, or more specifically a planet orbiting the star, Prox-C. On Mercury two ships are launched, one is an artificially intelligent solar sail, bound for Prox-C, the other is a more prosaic craft, powered by ‘kernels’, mysterious sources of energy discovered beneath the surface of Mercury.

A few years later and Yuri Eden, a relic of the 21st Century’s ‘Heroic Generation’ defrosted on Mars where he’s treated as a criminal, is gathered up along with a number of other undesirables and placed in a kernel powered UN transport ship heading towards Proxima. Once there the passengers are shuttled down to the planet’s surface. Split into groups they’re advised that they are the colonists who will claim the planet before the Chinese can. Left to fend for themselves Yuri and his group face all manner of challenges, not least their own petty squabbles.

Meanwhile the solar system is divided by a new Cold War, between the Chinese and the UN. Each side is distrustful of the other, and the UN’s refusal to allow the Chinese access to kernel research is just another added point of contention.

When a mysterious artefact is discovered on Mercury alongside the kernels, there is the promise of a new form of travel that will make the UN’s hulk ships obsolete, but as tensions begin to increase can diplomacy prevent the Cold War between the Chinese and the UN from turning hot, and just how is Mercury connected with Prox-C?

 

Baxter is a science fiction writer of long standing, and sits more towards the hard end of the sci-fi spectrum, although he has a knack for explaining big concepts in an understandable way. Proxima is a curious book in many ways. There’s a neat idea at the heart of it, in fact there are probably three neat ideas at play here, the trouble is that whilst they all intersect at times, they still don’t seem that interconnected and all could do with fleshing out. Of course what I didn’t realise until after I finished the book was that this was the first in a series. This isn’t made clear in the blurb on the back of the book. I’m not saying it’d have put me off, but it might have made me more forgiving when my interest dipped.

Maybe.

Of the three elements, the bits dealing with Yuri and his fellow colonists is perhaps the most interesting. Baxter has clearly put a lot of effort into his world building, and Prox-C feels like a genuine place. The logic of dropping undesirables on the planet to fend for themselves obviously has some resonance with Earth history (think Australia) but also feels a little bit of a logical stretch.

Still, the battle to survive on a planet where the sun never sets is intriguing, especially once Yuri’s group encounter the native life forms, and other groups of colonists. The trouble is that even here Baxter’s focus seems to waver, and the pacing of the book is erratic to say the least. He’ll spend several chapters dealing with a single event, then skip over years and multiple milestones in the space of a paragraph. It’s a trifle jarring. It’s as if he couldn’t decide whether to write an intimate account of brave pioneers, or a sweeping epic spanning decades, so in the end decided to do both.

The other storylines are less engaging. The kernels are intriguing initially, as is the artefact on Mercury, but various threads of the story just don’t tie together, in fact in the latter stages of the book the narrative just seems to meander. Maybe Baxter was setting things up for the next book, but I couldn’t help feeling that he just wasn’t sure where to take his story.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters are a trifle bland (often a criticism of Baxter’s writing). Yuri has potential, and is probably the most interesting human character, but his backstory is too sketchy. The Heroic Generation is namechecked, and it’s implied they did terrible things, but we never get more than a brief idea of what these things were. We’re told early on that Yuri Eden isn’t his real name, but this plot point is left dangling for far too long (and when it is addressed it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, and in fact I’ve read a few reviews where readers did just that.) There are several other elements of the story jettisoned early on which don’t reappear till near the end when you’ve almost forgotten about them.

Mardina Jones verges on three dimensions, but she sadly fades out of the story late on. Kernel expert Stephanie Kalinski is never quite feels real, and Australian businessman Michael King is only there to drive the plot on occasion, similarly the smug AI Earthshine.

It’s slightly worrying when the most interesting character in the book is ColU, a sentient robot dumped on Prox-C with Yuri, but it really is, and of all the characters it’s the one you’ll probably most warm too.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. Baxter is a talented writer, and I was rarely bored, just annoyed when the story meandered off on yet another tangent, and the ending provides a WTF moment you won’t see coming, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing; for some reason Baxter seems to be leading the book towards the territory of the Long Earth series he wrote with Terry Pratchett.

An interesting book rather than a great one, I’d say it’s worth a read, if only for the Prox-C segments, just don’t be surprised if you feel a slight lack of satisfaction at the end.