Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

This book review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel also comes from the never-published Death Ray #22.


Kim Stanley Robinson/Harper Voyager

Part historical novel, part SF story set in Robinson’s Accelerando universe, Galileo’s Dream returns Robinson to his favourite topics: human failings, human potential, memory, being and truth (subjective and objective); set against an entertaining, science-fictional theory of multi-dimensional time.

Galileo is one of the most important men in scientific history, whose observational rigour helped usher in the modern age. He is also, according to the book, an important nexus in the braided histories of reality, one whom the denizens of the Jovian moons in 3020 hold in especially high regard, partly because of his discoveries, but mostly because they are convinced that by altering his life, then later taking him to the future, they can shorten the centuries of horror that mankind must endure before achieving a state of rational grace. (more…)

Five years after I started, and I’m very close to finishing my posting of my Death Ray archive online. I’ve got some large features and other bits and pieces left over from earlier issues, otherwise we’re now into matter created for the never published Death Ray #22. So, although I wrote this review of the film Pandorum over five years ago, it is in some respects, new material.

Any one who has read my book Crash will know that I love the “colony ship gone wrong” subgenre of SF, so I had a lot of time for this flawed film.




Director: Christopher Alvart

Writers: Travis Milloy, Christian Alvart

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le

Cinema’s first ‘colony ship gone wrong’ movie. Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers. Okay?

The generation ship that goes wrong is an SF classic. Usually the vessel at the heart of the story has been on a journey for centuries, and has overrun its target/broken down/gone mad, and whose ignorant inhabitants discover the shocking secrets behind their world just before real disaster strikes. They’re all pretty samey, but it’s one of those SF conventions that is traditionally narrow in scope. Like a ghost story, the pleasure comes not from the novelty of the ideas, but from how they are presented.

The Elysium is a craft with its crew in suspended animation, not a generation ship, but when our two leads Payton (Quaid) and Bower (Ben Foster) awake, they’re initially amnesiac, so we get the prescribed dose of ignorance necessary for a voyage of discovery through the ship’s rusting halls; much else that follows plays by the sub-genre’s rules, to our delight. As you’d expect, the Elysium’s not in a good way: the reactor is about to blow, and it is crawling with carnivorous mutants.

Pandorum‘s been slated elsewhere, but we liked it. Naturally, as we all suspected, the Orc-like mutants are devolved crew members. How that actually happened is, like most of the back story, nicely handled and is not the movie’s main twist. Only the ‘pandorum’ aspect of the film – a deep space psychosis, and the movie’s singular original contribution to the conventions of colony-ships-gone-wrong fiction – is fumbled, being poorly integrated into the rest of the movie.

The film sags for twenty minutes in the middle, but manages to keep the tension up the rest of the time. The numerous twists come announced, but even the one every fan of this subgenre will be expecting from the opening credits (the one regarding their destination and journey time, without giving too much away) has a spin on it.

We suspect bad notices elsewhere are the result of a lack of familiarity with and fondness for this staple SF story – take away that, and you have a somewhat hokey action film patched together from many others (Alien3, Event Horizon, et al), but as we said, generation/colony ship stories are derivative anyway, and Pandorum is a more than fair attempt to put it up on the big screen; that’s where the novelty lies this time out for the subgenre, in moving pictures. Regular audiences might be left cold, but we reckon hardened SF fans will have enough appreciation of the colony ship angle to get the most out of the film.

A great book, not so much for its multiple and mostly inventive twists, but for the wry observations Flynn makes of modern life and marriage. The mystery element of the story is compelling until about four-fifths of the way through, where Flynn has no choice but to begin wrapping things up. Once the final revelation has occurred, the story loses its compulsive impetus, and as usual with books that depend on such to engage, its finale is a little unsatisfying.

Nevertheless, this is fine read.

Four stars

The first Straub I’ve read (the wife has stacks of them) proved to be more or less satisfactory. Straub’s story of modern wizards presents a dark and intelligent interpretation of magic, mixing up fairytales, psychology, coming-of-age tropes and inter-generational distrust to good effect. A little too languid and dreamlike in places to generate intense engagement consistently, at moments it managed to enchant and horrify.
However, I believe that Voice of Our Shadow, by Jonathan Carroll, explores similar ground more affectingly.

Three stars.

This review of season one of The Clone Wars was printed after the release of the DVD. There’s a longer piece laying out my opinion of the show and of Star Wars here. From Death Ray #19.

 War in the stars, it’s – The Clone Wars! Er, hang on…

The first season of The Clone Wars is over, but don’t worry, there’s another four to go, or thereabouts.

Season one ends in true Star Wars style, with a big war in the stars. A three part story set on and around the Twi’lek home planet of Ryloth sees Asoka, Anakin and Mace Windu attempting to liberate the tail-headed aliens from the droid army of the Trade Federation. There’s a hint of the horrors of real war with our half-starved Twi’lek civilians huddled by artillery, coerced into being living shields, the ruins of their bombed out cities visible in the background. But mostly war is depicted as a big old lark. That the droid enemy is on top comedy form and the only real casualties half-humanised clones doesn’t really help. For all its spectacle, the Ryloth trilogy leaves an odd and not entirely agreeable taste. It’s fun to fight robots, but people get killed, you know?

Far better is the finale story, ‘Hostage Crisis’, which introduces the Neimoudian bounty hunter Bane. His successful attempt to bust Zero the Hutt out of jail brings us neatly back to the beginning of the series, when the space slug was incarcerated, and sets up the next season in which Bane is due to play a major part. This kind of small-scale caper where real characters are in peril is what Star Wars does second best (best of course being massive space battles). As usual success is guaranteed our heroes – though in this last episode it is deferred – and everything is reduced to the monochrome of a child’s morality. Whether this is a good thing, and actually such fare helps the kiddies work their way up to a more complex understanding of the world, is open to debate. But this show is fun and pretty, at the least.

I watched Lucy last weekend, primarily on the recommendation of The Week‘s mini-review, which called it “Ludicrous but highly entertaining.” I agree with the first part of that sentence.

Owing to the criminal machinations of stereotypically wicked yellow people and a stereotypically dastardly Englishman, a young white woman living in Taiwan (the eponymous Lucy, played by Scarlett Johanssen) absorbs a huge amount of drugs that allow her to unlock the 90% of her brain we don’t use. There are some unlikely fights, a car chase in Paris, and a soulful French gendarme as she is pursued by the criminal gang to France. Then there is some sketchy stuff about God. I think. And Morgan Freeman  (he’s not God in this one, okay? Okay).

I’ve seen very entertaining films with slimmer premises. This was poor on all fronts.

That we only use 10% of our brains is a myth that has become pervasive enough to be used in advertising campaigns. A beloved science fictional truth, it was the basis for the whole “psi” craze that gripped SF in the mid-20th Century. I can be a bit of bore about scientific veracity in SF, however, there’s nothing wrong with using bad science to create an action premise or for the purposes of allegory. We all like superheroes. Fair enough.

But Lucy does not do that.

Writer/Director Luc Besson has fallen in love with this idea, so much so that large, indigestible chunks of the film are taken up by Morgan Freeman (here playing earnest, gravel-voiced scientist) lecturing us about the Earth-shattering implications of this truth, which would be earth-shattering if it were true and not a fallacy, over footage of animals shagging. You sit down to watch an action flick, and find yourself instead being bombarded by some fringe New Age cult’s recruitment message.

The pacing of the film is lousy. The long, confused preamble segues into a muddy plot spiked with bad exposition and action sequences that are lacklustre and fake looking. Unlikely things keep happening to kick the moribund story along. Apparently one can wander into a Taiwanese hospital and shoot someone with no reaction from the authorities until it is narratively expedient (though, I hasten to add, this sort of thing is a problem in nearly all action films. Like Taken. Hang on, that’s also Luc Besson).

Lucy is also a fine example of geek culture’s odd relationship with girls. In geek land, when a woman becomes hyper-intelligent, she becomes yet another tedious Kick Ass Heroine™, a sex object who can break a man’s neck. Lucy starts off as a warm hearted tart (a tart nonetheless) but becomes cold and otherworldly. Compare this to the effects on men in movies with similar themes – the John Travolta vehicle Fire in the Sky or Limitless, with Bradley Cooper, for example. The men in that become warm and super-smart. Violence is a part of their repertoire, but not the larger part. To create their drama, I suppose these films go against perceived gender traits, adding emotion to men and removing it from women. Still, Lucy leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that empowered women are dangerous in the same way that scorpions are dangerous. Mixed into that is a kind of maternal weirdness. Once Lucy disappears and states via text message “I am EVERYWHERE”, the rest of the almost entirely male cast stand around looking sheepish, like their mother has caught them doing something they’ve been told not to a hundred times.

Bah. That’s enough. Bogus philosophy off the back of bogus science makes for a bad movie. Rubbish.