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Marvel and NewSpace

Anyone else notice the cameo by SeaLaunch’s command ship in the new “Captain America” flick?

Maybe I missed earlier reports of it, but it surprised me. But yet it didn’t, given the Iron Man franchise’s habit of cameoing actual aerospace companies and personalities.

Makes me wonder if the Marvel Cinematic Universe people have a “thing” for space.

Re-Reading Some SF Classics

I just finished re-reading Dune for perhaps the fourth time, and am about two-thirds of the way through Footfall for I think only the second time. Both are good, of course, but they seem to have held up in different ways over the years.

I think the last time I read Dune was around 2003, and for whatever reason it seemed like a different telling of the same story this time around. I hadn’t noticed before that most of what seems to make Paul seem like a “super being” is the result of native intelligence and agility maximized through Bene Gesserit training. There is a Nietzschean element to it, of course, in the sense that twenty millennia of selective breeding seem to have re-centered the bell curve of native abilities a bit to the right among the elites (thus the recurring discussions over who is “human” or not). But what impresses is not some inborn advantage over the ordinary mass of humanity (talent or natural gift) but the various avenues through which they train themselves to apply the small statistical advantages they have (skill). Even when Paul obtains prescience, it seems to be more of a curse than a useful tool, and doesn’t really impress one with its exotic or godlike nature. It simply makes Paul fairly good at extrapolating where his actions in the present will lead in the future.

All of which actually makes the book just as interesting as the “superbeing brings corrupt galactic empire to its knees” story I had remembered reading – it’s more nuanced and sophisticated in this take, because unlike a cliche superbeing Paul can actually fail, and the story hinges on his application of understanding and skill rather than unlikely magic superpowers.

—–

I don’t think I’d re-read Footfall since I first read it in 1986 – the summer after Challenger, whose loss dated the book before I even got to read it. The story was published in 1985, and the bulk of the action appears to take place around 1994-1995, which means the world situation and technology are remarkably out of synch with what happened in reality over that span of time.

Rather than make it hopelessly dated, these things make the book an interesting window on how the world looked back in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s of the novel, the Soviet Union (and with it the Warsaw Pact, the Iron Curtain, etc.) was still seen as a permanent feature, having not disintegrated over the period 1989-1991 – yet concern over the loss of the satellite countries and buffer republics in the chaos of the invasion haunts the Soviet characters, and anticipates the disintegration that actually happened (albeit peacefully and under far different circumstances) in that period.

Computers were still at the IBM PC level, and the internet is not an (overt) element in the book at all – which is amusing, since even if they couldn’t be expected to foresee its privatization in 1993, the internet existed in 1985 among the very defense institutions featured prominently in the book, and was designed to survive the sort of communications disruptions inflicted on Earth by the Snouts.

What are particularly interesting, though, are the relationships between and actions of the various characters. One forgets when surrounded by the fruits (and nuts) of modern feminism and Progressive identity politics and such what fiction was like before those ideologies became ascendant in the late 1990s and early 2000s…and more to the point, before those ideologies corrupted so much of mainstream science fiction and turned it into a hackneyed propaganda mill grinding out politically-correct stock heroes and stock villains and box-checked tokens in place of realistic characters with realistic mixtures of virtue and fault who respond to the situations of the stories based on who they are (individual natures) rather than what they are (identity group membership).

Warning: Humans

It’s an amusing concept, but it suffers from an annoying voiceover and the sense that there’s just a bit too much earnestness behind the attempts to be clever.

What if the rest of the alien universe was terrified of humans?

 

Coffee-Table Mars

NASM has what looks like a fascinating exhibition of select images from the MERs: Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars

I’d love to see NASA eventually issue a series of Full Moon-style coffee-table books, giving the highlights of each of the rovers.

“Oblivion”: More Clever Than I Expected

Like many Tom Cruise vehicles of late, Oblivion seems to have come and gone with little fanfare. Indeed, I was surprised to see the DVD on a stand at the grocery store last week – I didn’t know it had already come out and been (ironically) consigned to its titular state.

Which is unfortunate, because it’s actually one of the better movies I’ve seen in the past year. I won’t describe it in detail so as not to give away the numerous Serling-level twists in the story, but suffice to say that it’s entertaining and worth watching. The special effects are impressive, as is the futuristic creative design (the “tower” sets in particular). The bulk of it appears to have been filmed in Iceland, which amused me – anyone who has done the Laugavegur hike or visited Jökulsárgljúfur National Park will recognize much of the post-war New York City. The story premise and various gimmicks were clever and believable, and the leads (Cruise, Riseborough, and Kurylenko) delivered respectably layered performances (particularly Riseborough as Victoria, with her tragic subconscious dread of discovering the truth).

There were shortcomings, including Morgan Freeman as Morgan Freeman’s Usual Character, the typically improbable Armageddon-refugee-chic costumes, the colorful but unlikely depiction of the Moon, and the oops-we-forgot-about-lightspeed moment near the end. But on the bright side, unlike Elysium  and pretty much any movie of late, Oblivion is pleasantly free from obvious political preaching and product placement. No, really…there’s no blaming humanity for the war, no contrived subplots about racism or homophobia, no moralizing about the environment or capitalism, no anti-human ruminations on just how depraved and awful and evil humanity really is, no risible rodberrification of contemporary social issues, no tendentious illustrations on the dangers of technology. Which is nice. For a change.

Overall, Oblivion has the same feel as far as production, performance, and writing quality as the similarly-ignored Looper, which I was also surprised to have enjoyed.

Movie Review: “Elysium”, “Europa Report”

Sharlto Copley is a South African actor who first came to prominence in 2009, in director Neil Blomkamp’s excellent District 9, a tour-de-force of relatively low-budget, indie science fiction film-making. This weekend, Copley came to American theaters in two new films: Blomkamp’s big-budget follow up, Elysium, which stars Matt Damon, and in the indie film Europa Report, in which Copley’s is arguably the most well-known name in the cast. Both films delve into science fiction to explore important themes and ideas, and each film relies on its own distinct visual style.

That, however, is where the similarity ends.

In District 9, Neil Blomkamp burst upon the scene as a visionary new director of science fiction. In it, he told the story of Wikus, played by Copley, a hapless bureaucratic dweeb who finds his conscience torn, challenged, and tested, due to his involvement with the “Prawns,” a stranded race of insect-like aliens restricted to a shanty ghetto in Johannesburg. The film is a thinly-veiled allegory for the horrors of apartheid, and with it Blomkamp proved his willingness to use the trappings of science fiction to draw stark moral challenges to the economically and politically privileged.

In his new film Elysium, Blomkamp plays on many of the same themes, though this time he has shifted targets from the apartheid government of South Africa to the modern United States, embroiled in the question of illegal immigration. Though one might think that the more topical theme would enhance the film’s impact, over-broad performances and simplistic writing sabotage the film from the start. As so many critics of America’s immigration policy do, Blomkamp unwisely conflates the “Haves vs. Have-nots” narrative of the Occupy movement with the question of Hispanic immigration, throwing in a healthy dose of “Free health care” polemics for good measure. The result, philosophically, is a mess, aiming for populism but falling far short into caricature.

In this regard, he is not helped by the performances of his actors. Matt Damon shambles through the role of Max, a semi-reformed criminal trapped in a 22nd-century Los Angeles that is now one big slum. William Fichtner plays a smaller role, providing a regrettable caricature of a spoiled, wealthy industrialist, and Jodie Foster turns in her worst performance to date, overacting her way through the role of Delacourt, the scheming Defense Minister for the wealthy denizens of Elysium. Sharlto Copley does some of the most interesting work in the film as Kruger, a soldier of fortune whose barely contained, homicidal rage propels him to his conflict with Damon.

Stylistically, Elysium carries forward the torch from District 9, relying on the same shaky camera work that lent the earlier film much of its documentary realism and intimacy. Here, the technique simply seems jittery, unfocused, and has the unfortunate effect of making some of the sequences harder to follow. The sole redeeming note from a production standpoint is provided by the spectacular special effects depicting the orbital habitat, Elysium, and the launch and low-orbit flights of the shuttles carrying passengers to and from the space station.

Thematically, though, the film is disastrous.

Rather than engaging in any meaningful exploration of the questions being considered, Blomkamp chooses to paint the issues in the most simplistic, one-sided terms you can imagine. The wealthy  of Elysium, hoarders of seemingly cost-free,  miraculous health care that can cure any disease or injury, exclude the impoverished Earth-bound rabble more from “Dog in the Manger” pettiness than from any practical reason. In this world, there are no material limitations to explain unequal distribution of goods; some people are just selfish and hateful, and that’s that.

As compared with Elysium‘s heavy-handed, barely disguised metaphors, Europa Report uses the tropes of science fiction—in this case, a near-future exploration of our solar system—as an opportunity for character study.  The movie portrays the way that different individuals respond to fear of the unknown, and the sacrifices we are sometimes called upon to make in service to our own ideals. It’s a far subtler approach, though there is plenty of drama, and as such it does a more effective job of using a fantastic scenario to thoughtfully delve into its themes.

Directed by Ecuadorian Sebastián Cordero, Europa Report tells the story of a privately-funded mission to explore Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, host to perhaps the only other liquid-water oceans in the solar system, and thus, potentially, another home for biological life.

Stylistically, this film is striking: adhering to the “found footage” sub-genre of films, its contents are derived from on-ship cameras which record the story of the mission, and the tragedies and difficulties they face both en route to, and upon their arrival on, Europa. Despite the fact that “found footage” films are nothing new (The Blair Witch Project famously launched the sub-genre in 1999), the film manages a fresh, intimate tone, presenting realistic portrayals of the stresses and high emotions that can accompany such a mission.

Despite (or perhaps because of) having almost no marquee names in the cast, this movie boasts a roster of subtle, understated performances. As in Elysium, Sharlto Copley offers a well-crafted performance, though he plays a very different character. His James Corrigan, a technical specialist and engineer, provides one of the most emotionally wrenching moments of the film. Modestly-known actress Embeth Davidtz gives a quiet performance as the earth-bound mission controller, Dr. Unger. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a set of skilled unknowns and barely-knowns, including Michael Nyqvist, Dan Fogler, Anamaria Marinca, and Christian Camargo, whom Dexter  fans might recognize as Dexter’s murderous brother from the first season. Each works solidly within the ensemble, contributing to a strong story without indulging in showy or hammy performances.

In telling a story like this, the obvious temptation for a more cynical filmmaker might be to posit some conventionally selfish, narcissistic, or short-sighted flaws in one or more of the characters which bring doom upon the rest. Certainly this is a theme that has been well-explored in modern science fiction: the recent film Prometheus was pretty well done in by this temptation. To Cordero’s credit, he engages in no such ploys; though his characters are not perfect, and each struggles with his or her own frailties, each crew member exhibits heroism and dedication to his or her own highest ideals, right up to the end. In an age of cynical movies and cheap, overblown heroics, it’s a brave choice, and it rings true.

Some have expressed disappointment in the “big reveal” of the ending; to those I would say: You missed the point.  Even though the format presents a conventional “What is it?” sort of mystery  to be solved, that answer is not ultimately the point of the story; rather, the movie delves into the important question of how we as frail, imperfect human beings strive and achieve greatness in pursuit of our own individual ideals.

At its best, science fiction uses the plausibly fantastic as a canvas on which to paint the most timeless of human themes. At its worst, it can fail at any number of points: by extending what is imaginable so far into what is not, as to strain plausibility; by rehashing tired, too-well-explored themes; by sacrificing storytelling to technical accuracy. In the final analysis, Elysium fails because it relies on the conventions of the genre to hide its flaws, which are themselves born of a certain intellectual laziness. Europa Report stretches itself beyond the limitations of its small-budget production and indie film constraints, in order to tell a well thought out story that touches on the timeless.

Elysium: 76% — C/C+

Europa Report: 91% — A-

NASA Space Colonization From 1975

They believe the huge space colony could be built before the year 2000.

 

Yeah, if you could build that space colony already, that would be great.

 

It’s 2013, Where Are Our Space Colonies?

From Gizmodo:

Back in the 1970s, a handful of artists drew up intricate renderings of said mind-bending super space stations for NASA. They make the International Space Station look like a flying tin can—which is essentially what it is. In these concepts, the space stations are big enough not only to support suburban-looking neighborhoods with houses and blonde-haired dudes in polo shirts but also entire farms with livestock and everything.

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I hope that in my lifetime space colonies will become a reality. Like Carl Sagan once said to future space settlers, “Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there – the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

“The Drift”

One of the defining characteristics of the human race is our profound alienation from one another. What if a new technology promised to blur, or even erase, the lines that divide us? Director Guillermo del Toro’s new movie Pacific Rim poses that challenging question, and it is perhaps this otherwise-magnificent popcorn movie’s greatest failure that it never really explores that question.

In the world of Pacific Rim, mankind is under attack from enormous (think Godzilla-sized) alien beasts called “kaiju,” and has responded by constructing enormous robot warriors—”Jaegers”—to combat the menace. We are told that piloting a Jaeger is too much for a single human brain, that the power would overload and kill the pilot, and so each Jaeger is piloted by two human beings whose minds are connected in a technological bridge called “the Drift.” While engaged in the Drift, Jaeger pilots share thoughts, and can experience each other’s memories directly, as if both are reliving the moment.

If we as human beings were to develop such a technology, it would have the potential to fundamentally change human existence. Humans do not communicate directly (via telepathy, for example), and must rely instead on the imperfect, error-prone medium of language. This fact determines many facets of human culture: morality, religion, social taboos, and the various artistic media we employ as alternate means of more emotional communication. The misunderstandings that result from our less-than-perfect communication are perhaps the single biggest determinant of how we interact with one another.

Imagine, then: what would change if we could communicate simply by inviting another human being into our thoughts, sharing them directly? How different would day-to-day life be if every one of those potential misunderstandings could be erased, literally at the push of a button?

The short answer, of course, is “Nearly everything.” At a bare minimum, any such contact with the mind of another would tend to instantly create the sort of emotional and psychological intimacy usually shared by couples who have spent many years together. Taken to its full extent, one can imagine that such technology could create a “hive mind” within the species that would render religious and cultural differences almost entirely moot. At that point, any meaningful definition of humans as individuals—along with the whole package of individual rights posited by philosophers from John Locke onward—would vanish, irrelevant.

It’s a terrifying prospect, and one which del Toro would have done well to at least consider, if not explore, even to a minimal extent. Doing so could have vaulted Pacific Rim from the ranks of solid, well-executed summer popcorn movies, into the realm of the most important conceptual science fiction ever produced.

The Next Moral Crusade

…will be against Orson Scott Card: Why I’m (Proudly, this Time) Boycotting Orson Scott Card

Indeed, this is just one not really especially noteworthy example of what’s already been going on. But expect it to heat up as the release date of the Ender’s Game film approaches – it’s an irresistible opportunity for grandstanding moral scolds on the left to bring attention to themselves their assorted causes.

Sounds cynical, I know. But I’m right. I’ve seen enough of lefty activists over the past eight years to recognize the tactics at work: proportionality and perspective always take a back seat to the propaganda utility of an enemy’s exploitable utterances.


2012 Prometheus Award Finalist


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A young girl sets out to prove herself by resolving a long-forgotten mystery. But when she gets close to the truth, what she thought was a harmless adventure becomes a threat to the future of the independent commercial settlements on Mars.

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