Why Watch AD ASTRA? Five Reasons…

  1. Meaningful story that unfolds with a tense, creepy vibe
  2. More family friendly than a lot of current scifi
  3. If you happen to be a Brad Pitt fan, he’s pretty much in every scene of this film with a lot of closeups. Has to be on your bucket list.
  4. The science fiction fan will enjoy a number of zero gravity fist fights, a vehicle chase/ambush on the moon, raging space baboons, and a more gritty portrayal of space travel and space tech for the science geeks.
  5. Nuanced performance by Pitt. His character is non emotional with flat affect, but this film is about his growth toward engaging his emotions. I thought Pitt pulled it off.

Longer Review…

I recommend AD ASTRA for the whole family. It’s worthy of a watch party. AD ASTRA is rated PG-13, I’m guessing for its few gory scenes. I don’t think the gore will disturb most viewers. If you need warning, write to me via comments section and I can warn you when to walk out of the room.

There are no sexually explicit events in this film and very little offensive language. It’s a quiet film in portions, much of it narrated by Pitt in voice-over journal entries/reports…The vibe felt similar to Space Odyssey, monotone and spare. However, unlike Space Odyssey, AD ASTRA gives its audience a few exceptional action sequences.

AD ASTRA, directed by James Gray, written by Gray and Ethan Gross, follows one character’s odyssey into space to save the world. Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is contacted by SpaceComm, the military’s space command, for a special assignment.

Power surges are wreaking havoc on Earth. These surges seem to be coming from an old space station, the Lima Project, the station run by Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). That station went as far as Neptune. In Roy’s youth, the station stopped communicating with SpaceComm and all its inhabitants were presumed dead. At least this has been the public’s assumption. Roy’s included.

Now, the military reveals they believe Roy’s father is still living on Lima. The want Roy to communicate with his father, but Roy can only do this from an underground Mars station. (For some reason it cannot take place on Earth). Thus begins his odyssey to Mars and beyond.

The audience knows Roy has more than a few daddy issues. He’s serious, non-emotional and disconnected from others. Roy describes himself as someone who compartmentalizes for the sake of survival. Roy does have a wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), but that relationship is failing. They have no children.

So, in saving the world, Roy McBride will journey to save himself and if possible, his father. The interior journey that parallels the exterior journey to salvation is not so subtle in the film, but it is still a fun ride.

 

 

 

Cover Art

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN Part 2 hit comic book stores in December. It’s over a month old and I have been delinquent in reviewing it, until today. This story is appropriate for just about all readers. Rated PG.

For a review of Part 1, see this no spoiler review

Warning: This review will have spoilers if you have not read the first installment.

Inspired by the 1940s radio series Clan of the Fiery Cross, Gene Yang picks up the cliff-hanger from part 1. In part 1, Tommy Lee, a Chinese-American boy has been abducted by a white supremacist group, Klan of the Fiery Kross.

Yang does not sugarcoat the violence of the Klan

The aim of the Klan is to tar and feather Tommy, therefore teaching his parents a lesson. They resent the Lees moving out of Chinatown and into their white neighborhood. The Lee family has made this move because Dr. Lee, Tommy’s father, has been offered a job in a nearby lab.

All the storylines ratchet up a notch in Part 2.

Worth noting:

  1. Superman backstory: Superman continues to have flashbacks of his parents, aliens who look very different than humans. He is grappling with his own “alien” identity. His journey parallels the journey of the immigrants and their children in the story
  2. A little bit of romance: Yes, it’s a bit comedic and fun to see the budding affection between Superman and Lois and a little flare between Jimmy and Roberta, the main character in the story, the Lee’s spunky daughter.
  3. A community undergoing change: Yang captures an aspect of American life that rings true…especially, second generation immigrants moving out of the inner cities, out of enclaves and integrating into white America, changes that have historically led to tension. As in Part 1, Yang treats the “bad guys” fairly, always grappling with their feelings and their perspective. Not excusing their views or actions, but giving all his characters humanity.
  4. Another history lesson/bio on race relations in the US: At the end of the comic, a memoir section called Superman and Me describes Gene Yang’s childhood relationship with Superman and other comic heroes. Underneath Yang’s love affair with comics is the power of story and how they provided a sense of identity and empowerment for the author. In case you’re enamored by the history lesson, consider Yang’s early graphic novel masterpiece, American Born Chinese Definitely worth owning and passing around to friends, especially young teens.

Overall, this is a great middle to the story. I look forward to reading the finale, Part 3 when it is released on February 19, 2020.

Superman’s Flashbacks

A note on the art: The art in the series, created by Gurihiru, is colorful, capturing a blend of retro and anime. It seems apropos that this Japanese female duo would create the artwork for a comic grappling with some of the first Asian-American characters portrayed in a sympathetic way in the American Comics Universe.

To buy Part 1, click here

To buy Part 2, click here

The star of the show

So, yes…our family is following the trend. We viewed the much talked about THE MANDALORIAN this past holiday vacation. If you count the fact that we (my husband and I and our two kids in their twenties) actually plunked ourselves down in theater seats and watched the new Skywalker film, our eyeballs were largely captivated by the Star Wars universe.

A big win for Disney because I’m guessing we weren’t the only family doing this.

THE MANDALORIAN is a PG-13 show. Don’t let cute child Yoda-like character charm you into thinking this is for little kids. Many of them will be terrified by the series, in part because the cute little character is often in danger.

There is also graphic violence in the series. The main character, Mando, is a bounty hunter in the spirit of Jango/Boba Fett.

First, The Short Review: Five Reasons to Watch THE MANDALORIAN

  1. Similar to Stranger Things, this series is turning out to be an international phenomena. If you don’t watch it, you’re bound to miss about 1 out of every 5 late-night tv jokes and tons of cultural references.
  2. The production is well done overall, including the special effects.
  3. Each of the 8 episodes are action packed and tension filled.
  4. Baby Yoda (this isn’t actually baby Yoda, but a child of the same species as Yoda) is adorable.
  5. The story helps to expand and fill out the Star Wars universe and that is kind of fun if you have enjoyed the previous stories.

The Longer Review…

The story and the main character evolve in this production. I was a little bothered by never being able to see the face/read the face of the hero, but the Star Wars film folks have genuinely figured out the best possible way to convey feeling even when a character is a robot or wears a helmet that covers the face. Speaking of helmets…one of the most delightful interactions took place between two storm troopers. At one point, they are alone and commenting on their superiors’ orders and interacting over a creature/prisoner in their possession. It’s funny and humanizing to hear their banter, though the two of them still seem bent on serving their evil overlords.

As is typical of our most beloved Star Wars tales, the protagonist adores his ship and seems to have a particularly affectionate relationship with it. Star Wars writers do a good job of making machines, like ships and droids take on personality. Droids are a sore subject with our hero. He mistrusts all of them and the story arc grapples with this view. The teaching character introduced in an early episode is called Kuiil. He not only assists Mando when our hero is in need, he represents the gentler and more peace-loving side of the universe. Where Mando can seem brutal and hard, his moral angle on the universe is expanded as the audience sees him interact with the child first and second with Kuiil.

As usual, Star Wars writers are good about villains and rogues, some of whom are weird looking aliens. Yes, there is even a bar scene right at the getgo in episode 1. In addition, the audience visits new planets, sees new creatures and encounters cultures not previously shown in any Star Wars film. This happened organically and it didn’t feel like overload to me. I appreciated the universe getting filled out in more details for the fans, all while telling a story that I cared about. Moreover, the new planets and creatures kept each episode action-packed and visually interesting.

Mando is a loner, but eventually the task of caring for the child becomes bigger than him. He needs allies and those allies are an interesting group as well, gritty and loyal to the cause. Mando’s willingness to team up with others, including a droid, reveals the character growth he has undergone.

Timeline Note:

This story takes place a few years after the Empire has fallen (post Return of the Jedi, 1983), but 25 years before the the rise of the First Order, the authoritarian regime that is firmly in control of the galaxy when Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) begins.

DisneyPlus Streaming Note:

If you want to watch THE MANDALORIAN, you might be able to access it illegally…these things I try not to know, but I realize it happens. If you want the legit way to watch, you’ll have to obtain DisneyPlus. Google search DisneyPlus deals and see what you can find. Our family found that our carrier, Verizon, gave the service free for a year because we have unlimited data. After one year, we pay $6.99 per month. This article in Business Insider will fill you in. We obviously took the deal.

Free is awesome, but will we re-up at the one year mark? We might, but it depends on the overall content value. Right now, our family subscribes to Netflix and now DisneyPlus. We are Amazon Prime Members and we use YouTube/Roku/Apple TV combo for lots of other content.We do not subscribe to HBO or Hulu or other subscribe options. I do try to watch Hulu shows when I fly Delta, which I do often, so I haven’t felt like I’ve missed that service. HBO would be nice, but there are only so many hours in a day and I still want to read! So…that’s it for us, for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louis Hoffman as Jonas Kahnwald

Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, co-creators of DARK, sold their masterful production to Netflix sometime in 2016-17. It began streaming in December 1, 2017. Rated PG-13 (a couple of sex scenes more than graphic violence). This series is dubbed in English. It’s done well, you’ll likely not notice after watching for a few minutes.

Here are 5 reasons to check out DARK…

  1. DARK is part mystery, part scifi and part thriller…in a similar way that Stranger Things draws in the viewer, so does this tale.
  2. Yet…DARK is smarter than Stranger Things. Throw in human angst, religion, time travel, Goethe and Nietzche and you’ve got a jumble of ideas that provoke any viewer.
  3. Perfect for binge-watching over Christmas vacay.
  4. The casting was done well and there a number of brilliant performances, including those of the child actors.
  5. If you like a good soundtrack, this one is pitch perfect, utterly creepy and poignant.

 

Longer Review:

Black holes are considered to be the hellmouths of the universe. Those who fall inside disappear. Forever. But where to? What lies behind a black hole? Along with things, do space and time also vanish there? Or would space and time be tied together and be part of an endless cycle? What if everything that came from the past were influenced by the future?

H.G. Tannhaus

 

There are a number of reasons why DARK has been compared to Stranger Things. The main one is that it features a small town where an unnatural mystery is unfolding within its boundaries. Other ways in which it feels familiar: A couple of the main characters are policemen and youth are important to the story. DARK is “dark” and may not have the charm of the funny and sweet tween friendships at the heart of Stranger Things, but the narrative takes on the isolation and claustrophobia of small town life. It features a number of disaffected teens and adults, not often friendly toward one another, all living in Winden.

Winden is the fictional German town where a tunnel under a nuclear power plant holds mystery. The story opens with the suicide of one of the town’s people in current time and unravels from there. Tidbits of the mystery are revealed. Various families and their histories who live in Winden are revealed. Within a few episodes, the audience begins to see the tangled mess. Not only are these folks relationally connected, they are connected by a society of time travelers, who go by the name Sic Mundus, meaning “thus the world was created”. By the end of the first season, the audience understands that fate, individual choice and the agency of those who understand the dynamics around time travel, will continue to hinder or help Winden restore some semblance of order to their community.

The first season was much acclaimed and the second (I have not watched yet) apparently did not disappoint. A third season is under production as I write. I can’t speak highly enough of DARK, the story, the performances, the music and visuals. There is much artistry in this production and it is a welcome reality for story consumers to see another brilliant tale come from a place beyond Hollywoodland.

Congrats to these filmmakers and I look forward to viewing and reviewing season 2 in the coming weeks.

ALL THAT WE DESTROY is a Hulu original written by Sean Keller and Jim Agnew, directed by Chelsea Stardust.

The series, INTO THE DARK, is a Hulu concept, a horror anthology series in the vein of The Twilight Zone, though each production is as long as a feature film. In the show’s first season, Hulu released one episode per month, for a total of 12 episodes. All of the episodes were tied thematically to a holiday that falls within that month.

The 8th episode was released in May under the title: ALL THAT WE DESTROY. The story is inspired by Mother’s Day.

ALL THAT WE DESTROY is horror, but with a scifi twist. It is a tale in the vein of Ex Machina, the drama unfolding around a brilliant scientist who runs a lab in a remote location. It’s a story as old as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a trope that will please both the science fiction nut and the horror fan. In other words, this HULU original does not disappoint in terms of revealing a monster or two…

I would rate this film R for violence and language. Trigger warning to those who might be disturbed by violence perpetrated against the vulnerable. This is a monster movie.

Short Review: Four Reasons To Watch INTO THE DARK

  1. Lots of edge-of-your-seat suspense and mystery.
  2. The characters surprise, yet for all their weirdness, they are relatable.
  3. Strong female leads, with themes around motherhood and life-creation.
  4. The story takes place in a desert hideaway where the sun shines brightly. I found it refreshing to see this setting for such a dark and troubling tale.

Longer Review:

Point of View determines how a story like INTO THE DARK will unfold. In the case of this film, the POV primarily rests with the supposed monster, the creation. In the opening scene, the audience watches her wake up out of a tub of black sludge. The audience learns within the first 20 minutes of the film that this young woman is a clone. The clone is lovingly washed and dressed by the scientist, whose hands the audience sees, but does not meet until later. Instead, we meet the scientist’s son. His mother is the scientist and she is a woman fixated on solving the dilemma of her son. She’s doing this in the only way she knows how, by using her science in what is clearly an unethical way.

The twist in this story, as you might imagine, is that the clone may or may not be the true monster.

Ex Machina was on my mind during much of the viewing of INTO THE DARK

In the case of Ex Machina (which I loved, but still haven’t reviewed on this site), the point of view is mostly held by the visitor who enters the lab. Mystery about what the heck the scientist has created drives the plot, ramping up tension as the visitor discovers (therefore, we the audience discover) the horrors of the scientist’s experiments. This tension culminates as the visitor understands that in order to survive, he will need to escape from the lab before the monster overcomes him. This is where a story such as Ex Machina, science fiction in its vibe, follows the haunted house script. Think Poltergeist, Amityville Horror, The Shining. Survival equals escape. Will the hero make it out?

INTO THE DARK gives the audience a twist on this haunted house trope. The point of view starts with the clone, but moves to the scientist and to the son at various points in the film. The clone is innocent in her birth and clueless about the dangers that lurk. The audience understands those dangers and strongly empathizes with her, is rooting for her.

Part way into the film, a visitor enters the action. It’s a chance meeting, but reveals the vulnerability of the scientist, her son and the ghastly experiment she has been conducting. The finale brings all the characters together. I liked the ending. It was packed with symbolism, but not overdone. A true Mother’s Day tale.

So…I’m on an airplane and thinking it’s my chance to watch something new. Yay! I turn on my personal tele, flip through the film and television options. I see a TV series called ALMOST HUMAN. It looks scifi enough and I see JJ Abrams’ name attached to it. I decide to try an episode. I imagine I am watching something new, but apparently, I’m not.

ALMOST HUMAN aired in the late 2012 and early 2013s (in the media world. 7 years is a lifetime). JJ Abrams, Bryan Burk and JH Wyman produced this series.

The premise of ALMOST HUMAN is not so original. It’s basically a cop drama. The unique aspect to this story is his AI partner. Dorian is a humanoid AI, often referred to as a “synthetic” in the series. John Kennex, the main character, is a cop who frequently bends/breaks the rules. Typical cop drama trope. He also carries a lot of emotional baggage. Also typical. Some of that baggage is introduced in the first episode. What is unique about this cop drama is that his partner Dorian is an AI programmed to be empathetic and does not hesitate to tell Kennex when he sees him making poor choices. Those moments are both poignant and funny. Watching their unlikely friendship develop makes for an interesting story. In a way, both are helping the other to become better humans.

ALMOST HUMAN was cancelled at the end of the first season. Thirteen episodes is all that is available to the viewing audience. However the four episodes I watched were entertaining and would interest most scifi fans, especially if your second love after scifi is cop shows. In case that doesn’t sound gripping enough, here are three more reasons you might want to check it out…

  1. The series puts forward a robocop-type world. In this well-drawn urban landscape of Earth’s future, human cops team up with Artificial Intelligence cops. That’s a nice twist on the typical cop drama.
  2. The series explores a lot of possible future tech for law enforcement like instantaneous DNA identification. Some of how the cops do their work and the ways the criminals try to outsmart or subvert the new tech is fascinating.
  3. There is a satisfying “solving of the crime” in each episode, like many typical cop dramas.

While I do recommend this series, it will cost you money. Amazon Prime and YouTube dangle the fruit of the one season in front of us…for $20. Each episode is $1.99, so if you’re doubtful, rent one or two episodes and see if you like it…or fly Delta sometime in the next few months. I liked episodes 2 and 3 more than the first, so try to watch more than the pilot.

 

Almost Human Trailer

 

Blade Runner, The Original

I rewatched BLADE RUNNER last night in a friend’s home-theater with a group of folks in their 20s and 30s. For some, it was their first time viewing the film.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have seen the original BLADE RUNNER on the big screen during its first weekend release. I was a young highschooler at the time, a huge sci-fi fan and living in Burbank, California. I remember my older brother and I driving west over the Hollywood Hills, as we did often in that era, to make sure we were getting the biggest bang for our buck. Our theater of choice that night was The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

It’s not easy to describe to a new generation of filmgoers how important this film was at that time. Most folks in the film industry, especially directors point to BLADE RUNNER as ground-breaking. Ridley Scott made BLADE RUNNER after finishing the film, ALIEN. He also made it after his brother had died of cancer. The dark setting of BLADE RUNNER reflects a dark state of mind. Don’t expect cheerfulness here.

YET…you don’t have to be a filmmaker to appreciate BLADE RUNNER.

 

Here are 10 Reasons Every Sci-Fi Fan Ought to Watch BLADE RUNNER

Oh, and watch the FINAL CUT. 2007 version. There are seven versions of this film. Kind of crazy, I know.

  1. Cult classics happen for a reason. Following its meh release in 1982, a slow-building respect, awe and cult following emerged.
  2. BLADE RUNNER influenced the next generation of filmmakers, especially dystopian and sci-fi writers/directors.
  3. This is a brilliant screenplay (especially once R.Scott took out the clunky voice-over narration), though there are many fans of that version of the film.
  4. Take pleasure in watching a young Harrison Ford perfectly embody the main character, Richard Deckard.
  5. You like The Man in the High Castle? Philip K. Dick wrote that novel. BLADE RUNNER is an adaptation of his weird classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  6. You’re a Battlestar Galactica fan? Here is a chance to see Edward James Olmos (Captain Adama) in a role you would not expect.
  7. Complicated villain. Rutger Hauer…what a performance!

    Hauer as Roy Batty

  8. The sequel is excellent and makes a lot more sense if you watch the original first.
  9. This is not a movie for the weak, nor is it for the mindless. You will have to think and process the experience after viewing.
  10. Because of number 9, it’s a great film to see with a group of friends. At the very least, the post-film discussion won’t be boring.

 

If you want to totally nerd out on BLADE RUNNER, I recommend this very long and thorough article in Cinephilia & Beyond

BY NNEDI OKORAFOR

BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a novella about a young woman from a desert tribe on Earth. Her people are called the Himba people and they make a vital piece of technology on Earth called an astrolabe. Binti is the name of the main character. The story, told in first person, begins with Binti climbing aboard a transporter that is taking her to a launch port, then onward to Oomza Uni. Oomza Uni is a university on a distant planet where Binti will have the opportunity to study mathematics with the best and brightest from all over the universe. She is the first of her people to be admitted, so there is the sense of her achieving a great honor. However, she and we (the reader) clearly understand how high the cost is as she leaves her tribe and family behind, potentially forever.

Binti is a 16-year-old, but this book is not a YA book according to the author. However, the back cover of the paperback calls it a “coming of age story”, which might put it in that genre for some. I believe it will appeal most to the middle grade and YA audience, with some degree of PG-13 gore (one incident).

The Novella, BINTI, won the Hugo award in 2016 and the Nebula in 2015 for best novella.

To order BINTI, click here.

What I enjoyed about BINTI.

  1. Sometimes, a novella is just right. There aren’t many around, but novellas can be a satisfying reading experience. To get through a story in one long sitting or two or three short sittings is a lovely thing. Also…light-weight, perfect for a 2-hour plane ride.
  2. The main character is unique and different than a typical caucasian protagonist. Her culture will feel different to many readers. Okorafor has ties to Nigeria and I am guessing that her place of origin impacts the writing of this world. That world is powerful in many respects in how it anchors the character’s identity. For the sci-fi reader who loves to enter into new cultures and worlds, this story will scratch an itch.
  3. Decent tension to keep the reader going.
  4. A satisfying introduction to an author’s burgeoning world. (two novellas follow this one)

It’s a bargain to order the complete trilogy. To do so, click here.

What annoyed me about BINTI and makes me hesitant to give it the highest review…

  1. Somewhat shallow character development. This is the negative of the novella format…it’s a challenge to develop the characters deeply.
  2. The conflict is resolved too easily.
  3. There are wonderful characters here, but I found the writing a bit underwhelming. My exposure to literary fiction makes me a snob sometimes…the writing won’t be a problem for most readers.
  4. The tech is more like magic in this story than science…or might as well be. I’m wondering if it will be explained in the next novella in a sciency way or not?

The Hive Brain Alien (Spoilers Galore)

Writing non-humanoid aliens who don’t speak a human language is no easy task. This post is preceded by three others. If you want the earlier insights, link to to Part 1,  Part 2, and Part 3. It occurs to me that I ought to define dynamic. That word is in all four titles.

In terms of a dynamic literary character, I mean a character who is neither pure good, nor pure evil…a character that can change its/his/her mind, can act morally or immorally, and can find its way into the audience’s heart.

Alien, of Ridley Scott fame

This post will be a study of ALIEN, BATTLE STAR GALACTICA, ANNIHILATION and ENDER’S GAME.

Hive brain aliens (or A.I. in the case of Battle Star Galactica) differ so much from human beings, in part because their societies resemble what would be perceived by humans, as dictatorships or slave states. Hive communities, though a perfectly reasonable way of life for many of Earth’s tiny creatures, when translated into human terms, feel unpalatable. All hive individuals think alike. All live for the queen. All work for her good and the good of the community, often at the expense of the individual. So, how does an author drum up empathy for these characters? In the case of Ridley Scott with his Alien creature…almost none. The exception would be in Alien Resurrection, the third film in the franchise, when the newborn hybrid alien is killed by its own mother, Ripley. The audience knows this is necessary, but still…it hurts to see that cute (not cute) little spawn (not little) sucked out of the spaceship.

Mommy?

So, these aliens in the Alien franchise are not sapient. They do not make tools and have no technological civilization of any kind.

They are predators, with one goal…survival. Not only will they eliminate other lifeforms that may pose a threat to them, they will impregnate those who remain and use them to feed their young. Yeah…not a pretty picture, but still, that moment when Ripley turns her back on her offspring…it tugs our heart for a brief moment.

My husband and I have been re-watching Battle Star Galactica (which, by the way is fantastic; the writing, the acting and the overall production hold up to any tv series produced ever after). In BSG, the Cylons are the worker bees of a hive mind (an A.I. computer searching for meaning). The Cylons have destroyed human civilization and are chasing down the remnant who are fleeing in space vessels across galaxies to find a place where they will be able to survive/start over. The Cylons are called “toasters” by the humans who shoot them dead (otherwise, they will likely die by the hands/guns of those Cylons). The Cylons are non-human with little or no individuality…until, the computer brain figures out how to create machines that are VERY human-like. Those Cylons infiltrate the human remnant and take on unique personalities. One even falls in love and is impregnated by a human. So…it all becomes complicated. Including, the episode we just watched which chronicles a Cylon called Scar. The episode is the 15th of the second season and is titled, Scar. It is free for for Amazon Prime members as is the entire series.

This particular Cylon is not only named by the human fleet (naming a hive member changes the way the audience sees this character), it is feared by them. The fleet’s fear of Scar also puts it in a unique category. No longer is Scar a worker bee.

Scar has been able to kill more human viper pilots by learning. The implication put forward by one of the human-like Cylons (the pregnant one) is that each time Scar has been destroyed, its failure in battle remains in its brain. As that brain is downloaded into the new Cylon body, a new pilot is born, only it does not forget. Scar is able to access the lessons of its battle failures and grow more adept at fighting human pilots. In a previous episode of BSG, the human fleet has destroyed the Cylon “resurrection ship”. Therefore, this battle with Scar is to the death. Scar will not be coming back in a new body if it is destroyed this time.

Cylon. Battle Star Galactica

In BSG, the writers want the audience to grapple with a morphing understanding of the Cylons. Cylons start out all evil, but don’t stay that way. Various human-like Cylons enter into human community and help it, many step in with critiques of human society, acting almost like prophets. The Cylons are monotheists, who believe there is a purpose to their existence. The human remnant is polytheistic, worshipping the gods of the Greek Pantheon. Wonderful fodder for philosophical ponderings within BSG.. Through the many episodes of BSG, the audience begins to feel more compassion for the Cylons. The entire series is worth watching if you are a writer who cares about humanizing characters that fall into the category of enemy or other.

In ANNIHILATION, the enemy is mysterious, hive-like in that it reacts en masse and not as individuals…In fact, it can’t be categorized as a hive-brain alien exactly. There is little clarity that the anomaly in Area X is actually an alien takeover. What emerges is the notion (at least in the novel) that the changes taking place in Area X are inevitable and may be good for Earth. The anomaly, however, is impersonal. The alien impact, or whatever it is, is spreading and seems to have no consciousness in the way we think of consciousness, but is more like a fungus or a virus. It has power to change its environment, but any actual “brain” that would become a military target, allowing our government to remove the anomaly is unclear. Lots of mystery, but the writer, Vandermeer, makes it work, especially in ANNIHILATION, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy.

Area X is frightening because it consumes and/or changes all who encounter it. As a writer, ANNIHILATION is worth studying for the utter strangeness of the alien anomaly. There is no verbal communication with it, only physical and psychological encounter. The biologist character in the novel (Lina, in the film) helps the audience see the mystery as beauty. However, the ambiguity remains and is never truly resolved. It’s good to see an alien like this. The presence of it pushes the human characters to their limits and reveals aspects of our humanity that are important to recognize. Really great sci-fi ought to do this.

Lastly, ENDER’S GAME. The Formics are the enemies, (the Buggers) that Ender eventually destroys. The novel is about how he is trained to perform this act. Ender commits xenocide without knowing it. It’s worth reading or re-reading ENDER’S GAME to watch how Orson Scott Card pulls this off. The Formics are all evil until very close to the end of the novel. The turn takes place when the innocent, but talented Ender realizes how he has been manipulated and how his power has been used to “save Earth”, but while doing so, he has destroyed another species. His grief is immense. Ender will bear this guilt into subsequent novels. The audience, once it realizes that the Formics have been destroyed, enters into Ender’s regret. A young boy’s conscience has been scarred. The novel then portrays the Bugger queen communicating with Ender, giving hope to him that there might be a path to redemption. The audience wants this for Ender. The queen reveals that the Formics had initially assumed humans were a non-sentient race because they lacked a hive mind. She/they realized their mistake too late. In other words, the war was a BIG misunderstanding. The queen requests that Ender take a dormant egg that has not been destroyed to a new planet where this species can thrive anew and Ender agrees. Suddenly, the audience is rooting for the Formics.

That is a turn around worth studying! The audience goes from hating Formics and seeing them as a monolith, to empathizing with them and hoping for their rebirth.

Make sure you pick this novel up next time you’re at the bookstore or you can order it here.

 

 

SPANISH DANCER, EMBASSYTOWN

Today, I look at China Miéville’s, EMBASSYTOWN. Beware of spoilers. This won’t be a review of the novel, but a study of the Ariekei, the aliens indigenous to the planet Arieka.

First, a little advice…If you have the opportunity, consume EMBASSYTOWN via audiobook. To buy EMBASSYTOWN via Audible, click here. To buy the physical novel, EMBASSYTOWN click here. Language is central to the story, but the Ariekei language is best experienced when heard rather than read, therefore my encouragement to read via Audible. The Ariekei (also known as the hosts) speak from two mouths at once. One mind, but two words emerge from the creature when it vocalizes. In the audio reading, the sound producers overlay two words spoken at once, like hearing two notes played at the same time. The effect is marvelous and strange.

For a synopsis: One human culture, the Bremen, has adapted and figured out a method of speaking with and listening to the indigenous population of Arieka, a planet on the edge of the known universe. Their motivation for doing so is to maintain a colony on Arieka. Like a typical colonial power, the Bremen dig for metals and also trade with the Ariekei, whose biotech is advanced and valuable across the known universe. The Ariekei are advanced in many respects, but their language does not allow them to lie or even speculate.

Conflict arises in EMBASSYTOWN when one Bremen ambassador introduces lying into the Ariekei language. He does this in the hopes of taking control of the host population, but chaos ensues. The main character, a woman named Avice Benner Cho, steps in to save those living on the planet, both human and Ariekei.

How does Miéville give the aliens, the Areikei, personality and tap into audience empathy?

  1. Similar to the film Arrival (see post 2 of 3), point of view is key. POV rests in one human character who is relatable. Avice narrates this tale in the first person. Not only is she human, she was raised on Arieka and is known by the indigenous population. She is returning to her home after many years of traveling through space. Avice is the “in between” character. She describes, interprets and translates for the audience.

    The sea creature also known as the Spanish Dancer

  2. Miéville finds colorful shorthand ways of describing the physical and personality attributes of particular Ariekei. Miéville, through his narrator, Avice gives the aliens nicknames, like  Spanish Dancer. It’s genius because this shorthand gives the audience color, shape and depth to individual Ariekei and is so much better than than referring to all of them as “insect-horse-coral-fan things” another set of descriptors Avice muses on in the novel. An artist’s rendering in the top image is not necessarily what I had imagined when I pictured the Spanish Dancer, but Miéville doesn’t need me to have that specific picture in my mind. The broad brush strokes are there in the nickname and not just any nickname…calling the creature a dancer implies grace and dignity. The name takes an alien that might be perceived as monstrous and draws our attention to its beauty and gentleness. Maybe this is why ocean scientists call the sea creature (pictured above) a Spanish Dancer. The moniker is descriptive and if I’m visiting an aquarium staring at this thing through glass, if I am thinking of dancers instead of monsters, my eyes are drawn to its beauty. Miéville is doing the same thing when he has Avice call one particular Ariekei, The Spanish Dancer. 
  3.  The Ariekei have known Avice since she was a child. Avice has a positive association with the Ariekei. She was raised on their planet and thrived. Humans and Ariekei have lived together for many years in peace. This underlying truth makes a difference in how the audience feels about the Ariekei.
  4.  The Ariekei are vulnerable to human abuse. The narrative of indigenous people groups used and abused by empires and greedy civilizations is not an uncommon story for the current sci-fi reading audience. Miéville dips into that narrative in this novel, portraying the aliens as complex, but also also as innocent, in large part because their language makes it impossible for them to lie. The audience empathizes with the vulnerable indigenous population. The narrative of “empire” taking over the “innocents” and using them for its own gain is familiar. That story taps into the audience’s empathy and our empathy lies with the Ariekei in this case.
  5. Avice relates to individual Ariekei, Miéville’s way of showing the audience that the Ariekei are not a monolith. Spanish Dancer is the most important Ariekei to the story, but there are others. As Avice relates to her and describes her and other Ariekei, the audience recognizes that though they are different from humans, the Ariekei are not all the same as one another. They are distinct in appearance and personality just as human beings are distinct from one another. (contrast this reality with the hive mind aliens, like the Formics in the Ender’s Game series, or the big computer brain of the Cylons “toasters” in Battle Star Galactica television series. I will tackle hive mind aliens in my final post on this topic.