Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 1996 2/14
Now here’s a story where the dilemma feels far more palpable. Time travel when one is only allowed to watch and not to intervene is not a wondrous thing but an exercise in sadness. Like the previous story in Hartwell’s 1996 SF Best Of, Patricia A. McKillip’s Wonders of the Invisible World uses the SFnal concept more for exploring the human reaction to it instead of the concept itself, but unlike Think Like a Dinosaur, it doesn’t feel like the author is manipulating the readers to get the desired effect of emotional turmoil.
Another aspect of the story I really liked was how much the time travel isolated the traveler from her own people. Just like traveling the world can (not always, not even often, but the possibility is there) have the effect of seeing the grander picture, of becoming sensitive to issues that stretch beyond borders and local cultures, time travel takes the same position here. But seeing the grander picture, realizing that your time period is just a tiny piece of human history, maybe not even very important or all that great, isolates you from those who are fully integrated with the local view. Seeing the bigger picture doesn’t always set you free. Sometimes it just hurts.
Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 1996 1/14
James Patrick Kelly’s Think Like a Dinosaur conjures up comparison to The Cold Equation, thought falls far from doing either a good repeat performance nor injecting any good ideas of his own. The core premise is far-fetched to the nth degree and basically amounts to killing people to conform to some dinosaur-like alien tradition of harmony that is basically pointless. There’s no reason for killing the originals once copies are sent to the stars, apart from giving lip-service to the aliens, the moral dilemma is merely window-dressing for murder.
What’s worse, the story is well written and easily goes for the emotional jugular, bypassing critical thinking on the way and offering its manipulative and ultimately hollow plot twist. As flawed as the inspiration was, at least the moral dilemma felt real and not like some far-fetched problem with an easy solution (ditch the aliens and discover the transmission tech ourselves).
Think Like a Dinosaur makes you think there’s a deeper point, that it goes for a moral equivalent to “to survive you have to rely on your reptile brain, become something inhuman“. There’s a bit of it there, but Kelly’s entire story concept just doesn’t work. There’s no reason why multiple copies of one person shouldn’t run around, nor why the humans should rely on the dino’s tech in the first place. Which makes the murder that the main character commits even more pointless than he himself believes.
A 16bit-styled Gun’n Runner flashgame with beautiful pixel-graphics that plays mechanic-wise like a mix of Abuse (aim with the mouse) and Metal Slug where you have to survive various zombie-infested levels (occasionally deadly robots and skeletons turn up too). You can collect money and use it (as expected) to buy more deadly weapons, armor and med-kits. The game also has a physics-model that reminded me more of puzzle-platformers than typical actiony gun’n runners and which wasn’t the best thought-out aspect of the game, which occasionally gets you stuck and forces you to go for the suicide-option.
Sadly, once you’ve died a few times you’ll realize that death isn’t a big thing like in other games. All you loose is a bit of money and re-spawn nearly on the same screen where you died. Difficulty and in turn dying is such an integral element of games like this, that you’ll realize only what you’re missing when they’re gone. Not that Zombotron isn’t still fun to play through, at least the graphics are worth playing through once, but without even a modicum of difficulty the game becomes more an exercise in patience than actual platforming skills.
It’s not exactly a deep insight that we as individuals rarely perceive how much we change over the years. Often it’s others that show us just how different a person we have become. Good as Lily offers the same insight by allowing various selves of the same person to meet and live together for a short period of time. There’s also the lesson buried that we rarely become the person we planned to be when we were young, which to our younger selves might be a soul-crushing experience, but since most of us don’t meet our younger selves, they are spared the same fate as Gwen in Good as Lily.
But the possibility to change the future, considering you know how it might turn out and where it might have gone wrong (if you’re your younger self looking at the older ones), that’s a strong temptation to meddle. For both sides too, if the older ones aren’t exactly happy with how it all turned out.
Good as Lily is a convincing look at exactly that situation without trying too strong to get a point across and instead tell its tale. Like with Derek Kirk Kim’s other comic I read I found the main character(s) less sympathetic than I would like them to be, with their faults sticking out too much. Still, at the end I hoped that the tiny changes in Gwen’s timeline would accumulate to her older self being happier with how her life had turned out.
Eolomea is one of those examples of science fiction that seems to have been created (mostly) by people outside of the genre (and since we’re talking about an East German/Soviet/Bulgarian science fiction movie, that means the outside of the other side of the genre, so we’re a long way from home here) and yet managed to be just as pro-space exploration as most of the gung-ho examples. But Eolomea does this in a way that you’re, at least for a long stretch of the movie, not sure whether it criticizes exactly what it later upholds.
Due to a number of spaceships gone missing in solar space, space travel has been suspended. One lead to the solution of the mystery are morse signals from the far away Cygni constellation that constitute the word Eolomea. While this usually indicates that there’s a high concept at the core of the plot that explains both the signals and the disappearances, it turns out to be something different thought still entirely SFnal.
There’s no hastily mounted rescue mission for the missing spaceships, no daring action plan. It’s more a character study of two people who stand at the center of these events and how they experience human space activity. There are moments where you get the feeling the movie makers wanted to do anything else but science fiction, thought I think that’s more an artifact of the stuff they usually did (some scenes feel completely out of place in the movie).
The ambiguity about whether the movie calls for an end of human space activity is cleared in the end, but the movie still makes me wonder if there have been people on the stuff with widely different opinions on this, and all those opinions actually found their way in the end product. That Eolomea remains coherent and cohesive despite these contrary impulses is owed to its skill in showing these exact same contradictions in the characters it depicts, who manage to make decision without the need to fall down on either side of the equation.
If the movie shows anything, its that like all human endeavors space exploration is an extension of ourselves, guided by complex motivations and full of paradoxes under the surface.
Lifeforce is one of those cult movies that many fans say has to be seen to be believed it’s real. An odd amalgam of science fiction and well, whatever else got thrown into the mix. It’s easy to summarize (space vampires want to harvest human life force) but hard to convey what it feels like watching. The characters are manic and the plot progression entirely erratic, which the effect that you’re never sure just what will happens next or whether the characters on the screen will survive the next few seconds.
While this effect is often admirable in movies when it’s planned, it’s not when it feels like the movie is following the whims of a drugged director who can’t decide what his movie wants to be. At first Lifeforce pretends to be serious science fiction, then becomes a sort of police procedural, then things becomes unhinged and the supernatural elements take over completely and lead into a localized zombie apocalypse. The continual track change gives the movie an episodic feel, which is not helped by the different pacing of those segments.
Is it a good movie? Not by any definition of mine. Is it worth watching? Sure, just for the sake of curiosity. Beyond that, it’s probably a good party movie where your limited attention can latch onto the overly ridiculous elements and won’t be bothered by the structural problems nor by the overall lack of a good plot. It does help that all the actors keep it straight, even when it completely goes of the deep end, but it doesn’t really save the movie from being a mess.
Operation Rebirth, the first stint of Mark Waid on Captain America (444-454) is often hailed as one of the best runs in Caps history. While I’m more partial to Mark Gruenwald decade-long run (not because it’s the most original or clever, but because it managed to gave the Rogers a human profile few other managed), I can see why many are fond of Operation Rebirth.
Two story arcs that offer relentless action and tight pacing mixed with some cool comic-book ideas: the first about Captain America together with the Red Skull and an old love of his vs the Cosmic Cube with Hitler’s consciousness inside (yeah, really) and the second about Steve Roger’s in exile in Europe trying to clear his name after someone pulled secret information directly from his mind. It’s mostly action adventure plotting that doesn’t require sophisticated characterization, which doesn’t mean Waid doesn’t pull of convincing characters. They’re just not deep or overly complex, but they function for what they’re meant to be.
While the two story arcs don’t pull of any big changes, even the exile of the Cap is merely temporary and nobody ever believed this would be a new status quo for long, they’re fun for what they are. And since Waid doesn’t try to go for epic plots (in terms of sustained length and breadth) and instead opts for the diverting and fun, it works despite some rather eyebrow raising moments.
While Blood has become a franchise with its own TV-series and various novels, games and comics, the only other thing beside the anime I tried was the first manga, which is a direct sequel to the anime and a fine example for what not to do when making a sequel. The original anime was about a creature that looks like a teenaged girl and who hunts vampire-like creatures with a similar skill set as Blade (strength, speed but none of the weaknesses of vampires). The manga sequel was given to a guy who is mostly known for his hentai work (porn manga to those who don’t know what it means) which is of a slightly disturbing quality.
And when I need to use the qualifier disturbing when describing hentai, well, that means it’s really something else. Not that he’s outright incompetent, but his hentai stuff, which occasionally covers the range from the whimsical to the actual well-written adult porn, often turns to the outright creepy. Stuff that seamlessly mixes violence, abuse and death with all the sex and it’s the women who get the bad end of the stick most of the time. Not quite the best candidate for making a sequel to Blood.
So Saya the vampire-hunter, who easily subdued a bulky man twice her size in the anime and who clearly had the upper hand over her handler, has been reduced to follow the orders of a new handler who despises and verbally abuses her and keeps her bound and mostly naked when not on the hunt (which really does not make sense). Saya likewise shows none of the skills from the anime version. The first time in the manga Saya meets one of the vampires, she has to be saved by the helpers of her new handler, because she’s not up to something she easily managed in the anime. Benkyo Tamaoki managed to sneak all his pets peeves about abusing woman and mixing violence and sex into the manga, flipping the dynamic between Saya and her original handler from the anime into the old, generic disempowered female pap that we see everywhere else.
I’m not saying people who are mainly known for their porn work can’t do other stuff as well, but in this case letting Tamaoki write the sequel was definitely the wrong choice.
Silently and Very Fast is written by someone who comfortably moves through the entire idea space of AI-themed science fiction and at the same time manages to marry it with a command of prose that is a rare delight and rarely seen with such skill. The last time probably was Roger Zelazny and he’s long gone. Some of this came as a bit of surprise, not the prose per se, but that Catherynne M. Valente does high concept science fiction so easily, since her output so far was more or less fantasy.
I don’t think the overall thrust of her story is per se original, but then it’s been years since I’ve seen something original in that regard. The realization that creating AIs is more than just tossing some smart algorithms together, that problems once thought easy and simple might be much harder to solve. That creating an AI will take just as much or more work as raising a child, a lifetime or many generations to get something resembling a human-equivalent AI. That the process might change the humans involved just as much as the AI thought was an original detail I haven’t seen like this elsewhere.
I also immensely liked that Valente’s story deftly avoided the twin-specter of Skynet and Data, incorporated the overused singularity concept without looking stupid by doing so and gave us a version of the Turing test that did the same as Dan Simmon’s did with his Hyperion Cantos, only with less wordiness and by funneling meaning back into the metaphor instead of letting it look like a cheap Hollywood-cliche. Silently and Very Fast is a rare treat and I wish there was more science fiction like it.
Under the Garden, created in 2010 for the A Game by Its Cover competition on TIGSource is one of those rare platformer sandbox games (Terraria is the only other that comes to mind) where the goal is to play and mostly survive. The game’s graphics are old-school pixel-style and look quite beautiful and there are various things to discover about how to survive in the gaming world, but for me there’s a big reason why I lost interest very soon.
I love the idea of sandbox games, but once I’ve grokked the basic gameplay, most of the tasks you need to do to survive in these games (and which probably are the stuff that addicts a certain type of player to those games) becomes tedious to me. After I’ve cut down the Nth tree or smashed the Nth rock, collected various blocks to build makeshift bridges and so on, I became bored. There’s nothing worse than games that make you feel like you’re working and you don’t even get paid doing it.
I rather play the Nth game of saving the world if the gameplay offers some variety (if), than play an original game that forces me to do the same tedious tasks over and over again.