Review of Blindsight by Peter Watts

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I enjoyed The Freeze Frame Revolution, so I thought I’d try a couple of Watt’s older novels. Blindsight is Book #1 of the Firefall Series. It was released by Tor in October 2006 and runs 294 pages. It is seriously hard SF and was a finalist for the Hugo Award in 2007. This review contains spoilers.

In 2082 a mysterious array circles the Earth and flashes, seemingly taking readings of some kind. Then an old space probe picks up a signal from a distant comet. Earth sends out fresh probes, then mounts an expedition, sending a live crew of transhumans on the ship Theseus to investigate. They include a super-intelligent vampire recreated by paleogenetics, a linguist with multiple personalities, and a combat specialist, a biologist and a synthesist augmented with electronic implants. There are other crew in ship’s storage in case of loss. The ship’s AI bypasses the comet and follows the signal to the Oort Cloud, where the crew wakes from hibernation to find a gas giant too small to ignite into a star, orbited by some massive artifact under construction. They board the artifact and take “samples” of the alien life forms, bring them back to Theseus and try to analyze their biology, intelligence and use of language. Quickly they find themselves under a terrifying counterattack. Can they destroy the alien artifact? Get word of what they’ve found back to Earth?

I’ve been asking for science fiction with more ideas. So, here it is. The plot in this novel mainly serves as a vehicle for theme and discussion, and the main theme seems to be alienness. Our protagonist is Siri Keeton, the synthesist, who lost half his brain to a childhood illness and had it replaced with electronics. He experiences no emotion and has no feel for real social interactions, mimicking behavior patterns instead. The other crew members are also radically different from baseline humans, and the aliens on the artifact are orders of magnitude different. We get some character development as background for the crew, but this serves mainly to point out the pressures and results of transhuman advancement. There is also an ongoing discussion on the nature of intelligence and consciousness.

Negatives: The worst problem here is with readability. The plot is actually very thin for the length of the novel, and Watts fills up the pages mostly with description and discussion. This makes the narration very dense and the story hard to get into. There’s no fun or adventure here; it’s all very cerebral, nihlist and disturbing–I had higher hopes for the future of humanity. Watts tends to belabor the points, too, forcing the characters to come to them in successive stages. As he points out in the acknowledgements, these are hardly warm, fuzzy characters, either, which makes it hard to care about what he’s saying. He gets points for brilliance in the ideas, but loses audience on the execution.

Four stars.

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Review of Aquaman (2018)

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This film is from the DC stable of comics, with Aquaman already introduced in the recent Justice League films. Here he has his own movie. This was released November 21, 2018, by Warner Brothers Pictures, and it’s the 6th installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) films. It was directed by James Wan, and stars Jason Momoa as Aquaman, with Amber Heard, Willem Defoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Nicole Kidman. This review contains spoilers.

Princess Atlanna of Atlantis washes up during a storm and carries on a romance with lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry that produces a son, Arthur. Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, leaving her son behind. However, she sends her advisor Nuidis to see that he is trained in underwater arts. Although Arthur is Atlanna’s firstborn and has a claim on the kingship, he is rejected by Atlantis for being a half-breed and makes a life on the surface instead. Arthur fights off a group of pirates attacking a Russian vessel and makes an enemy of David Kane (Black Manta). Orm, Arthur’s younger brother and current King of Atlantis, contracts with Kane to attack Atlantis as a pretext for war with the surface world. Orm’s bethrothed Mera refuses to accept the idea of war and goes to the surface world to find Arthur. Reluctantly, he sets out with her to find the symbolic Trident of Atlan, which will allow him to depose Orm and claim the throne of Atlantis. Can Arthur find the trident and defeat Orm to prevent the war?

This film has done really well at the box office (currently $1.1 billion worldwide), maybe just because people like to watch Jason Momoa do his thing. It’s CGI heavy, as you could expect from the heavily underwater setting, and it moves right along, without any slow spots where you might fall asleep. There are some thrilling fight scenes. The ending is emotionally satisfying, and the audience at my showing actually applauded at the close.

However, as often happens with high-budget action movies, the special effects here take a toll on what the movie can accomplish. I wasn’t thrilled with the script, or the vision of Atlantis as a high-tech underwater city. If it’s that scientifically advanced, then why are its social and political structures so backward? I got the feeling that the CGI displaced the human storyline here, which ended up being pretty thin. There was something of a whiplash effect at the beginning as the director tried to quickly lay out the background, jumping from Princess Atlanna to the pirates without any transition. Plus, the editing was really poor, where in one shot Arthur is bare-chested and in the next he’s got his shirt on. This budget was actually on the low end for DC, so maybe they didn’t have enough money to reshoot scenes like that. And last, I gather that Mera and Curry are supposed to develop a romantic relationship, but instead we get a sort of annoying-kid-sister vibe from the two of them. Atlannta and Orm are cold fish. There’s just not a whole lot of chemistry anywhere in this movie. And who came up with that hair color for Mera? It’s a sort of hot, hot, hot pink. Ick. This is watchable and maybe satisfying, but actually pretty messy.

Three and a half stars.

Militant progressives take aim at “brown” authors (a.k.a. more on author bullying)

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It’s been a little while since I checked in on the author bullying scene. A quick review of articles this week shows it’s an ongoing problem, and that the environment for young adult novels is currently well into the toxic range. Here’s a Vulture article that names Twitter and Goodreads as a source of much of the problem, where a certain militant group uses social media to police upcoming or newly issued books that might “harm” teens through what are deemed inappropriate social justice messages.

What’s actually going on here? Censorship? Book burning before the fact? Jealousy? Experts seem to think it has to do with ongoing culture wars. YA continues to be mainly driven by white authors, despite calls for more diversity, and some people of color continue to report rejection due to a sort of quota system. So, looking at the specifics of this, mostly the authors (and their publishers) being attacked this way are white women. That suggests a certain “mean girls” culture could be involved, but still, the attackers use progressive clubs to beat their victims. The Vulture article quotes a NYTimes Best-Selling author as saying there is, “a sense shared by many publishing insiders that to write outside one’s own identity as a white author simply isn’t worth the inevitable backlash.” You could think that this backlash might be an effort to shut down white authors so publishers will have to publish more acceptable POC writers, but interestingly, the community sometimes turns on authors of color who don’t toe the line, as well. For example, I’m curious about what Jamaican author Nicola Yoon did to get lambasted. Is the YA community really trying to shut her down?

So, you must be thinking something happened recently to provoke another blog from me on author bullying. You’re right. This week’s victim is Amelie Zhao, a young Chinese immigrant to the US who recently scored a three-book publishing deal with Delacorte. Her debut book Blood Heir was due for publication on June 4, 2019, but she has pulled it from publication due to attacks from the YA community. Apparently this has to do with a slavery theme where “oppression is blind to skin color.” Here’s a comment by “Sarah” from Twitter: “I’d love it if somebody who looks critically at what they read would write a detailed review that proves all the bigotry in this book so white people and Asians finally start listening because I’ve seen a lot of systematic shutting down of any brown person who brings up concerns with this book.”

This is an interesting comment because of the expectations it reveals. Sarah is soliciting bad reviews of the book? How does she know it’s “bigoted”? It’s not even published yet, so has she actually read it somehow? And what’s wrong with Zhao’s theme? Do people with a particular skin shade now own the rights to oppression? Also, notice that Sarah has lumped whites and Asians together on this in opposition to “brown persons.” Sorry, I missed something here. Are Asians not considered “brown” any longer?

Well, apparently not. Asians are apparently successful enough that they’ve got white backlash now.

Review of Bumblebee (2018)

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This film is the 6th in the Transformer series and a prequel to Transformers (2007). It was released December 3, 2018, by Paramount. It’s directed by Travis Knight, and stars Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1987. On Cybertron, the Autobots are losing the war against the Decepticons, and Optimus Prime sends B-127 to Earth to set up a protected base of operations. It crash-lands on Earth, disrupting a military training exercise. The humans attack, followed quickly by Decepticons. Badly damaged, B-127 transforms to a yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and hides out in a junkyard. Meanwhile, Charlie Watson is turning 18. She is having adjustment problems, as her father recently died and her mother has remarried. She wants a car, and her Uncle Hank gives her B-127 from the junkyard. Charlie accidentally activates a signal that alerts the Decepticons that B-127 is active again, and two of them arrive on Earth. They convince the military that Bee is a dangerous criminal on their world, and obtain cooperation to find and destroy it. Charlie repairs the Volkswagen and manages to partially restore Bee’s voice and memory. Can Charlie, her friend Memo and Bumblebee defeat the Decepticons and save Earth?

So, the first Transformers film was pretty decent, but then they got sucky. When you sit through one, you can tell right away that they’re action flicks aimed at 14-year-old boys, pretty much to the exclusion of everybody else. This film dares to do something else, which means it’s pretty good as a stand-alone film. It’s about Bumblebee finding a couple of friends in a hostile world, and about how that friendship helps all of them to adjust and find their way forward. There’s great chemistry between Charlie and B-127, and the animation style makes Bee sweet and endearing, regardless of its hugely destructive capabilities. These show up briefly as the action line rises, but in the end, Bee manages to make peace and get on with its mission for Optimus Prime.

On the negative side, this is a pretty simple plot without a huge amount of depth—mostly about friendship, helping your friends, and how a warm, winning personality can prevail against unreasonable prejudice. The beginning sequence was a re-run of the kind of battle action that makes the other Transformer films sucky and boring, but once that’s done and we’re into Bee’s adventures on Earth, then the film picks up interest.

Recommended. Four stars.

Review of Raph Breaks the Internet (2018)

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This is the second movie of this series, a sequel to Wreck-it Ralph (2012). It was directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and opened on November 21, 2018. It stars the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Ed O’Neill, Gal Godot, Taraji P. Henson and Alfred Molina. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature for both the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe Awards. For anyone who is confused by the scenario, Ralph and Vanellope are characters from obsolete arcade video games. This review contains spoilers.

Wreck-it Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz live in neighboring games at Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade. After the previous film where Ralph tries too hard to become a hero, Ralph and Vanellope become best friends. However, Vanellope is bored with her racing game. Ralph tries to help out with a bonus track and Vanellope is thrilled, but the diversion results in a broken steering wheel on her game’s cabinet. The part only seems to be available on Ebay, so the two of them take advantage of new wi-fi in the arcade to infiltrate the Internet in search of the part. As ingénues, they accidentally bid up the price, but win the auction, then have to raise the money to pay for it. After a couple of false starts, they find Yesss, an algorithm for BuzzTube, who helps Ralph make a lot of money from silly videos. Meanwhile, Vanellope finds friends among the princesses at the Disney site and is attracted by hazards in the game Slaughter Race, where she meets champion driver Shank. Horrified that Vanellope might leave him, Ralph looks for help in damaging Slaughter Race. Spamley introduces Ralph to Double Dan, who gives him an insecurity virus that will replicate flaws. The virus replicates Vanellope’s glitch and forces Slaughter Race to reboot, which will delete Vanellope. Can Ralph save the day? Can he keep Vanellope as his friend? What will happen if he can’t?

This is one of those wonderful kids animations that works on multiple levels. There are the bright, colorful characters for the little kids and important, serious themes for older ones. In addition, this seems to be light satire. The serious themes here are about the importance of friendship, about letting your friends grow and follow their own paths, and how your insecurities and need can sabotage relationships when you double down and don’t let them grow. The animators’ vision of the Internet as a huge, busy city with blue twittery songbirds is clever and entertaining—Disney must have recouped their costs just from the product placements alone. The sequence where Vanellope realizes she’s a real Disney princess that needs her own song is both ironic and priceless. Then Ralph makes the right decision at the end and everybody grows up a little bit.

I really couldn’t find any negatives in this. It was cute and heartwarming, and carries a great message. Awww.

Don’t miss the post-credits scene with the rabbit. Five stars.

Review of Artemis by Andy Weir

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I’m going to pronounce this novel hard science fiction. It was published by Broadway Books on November 14, 2017 and runs 352 pages. Artemis won the 2018 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. This review may include spoilers.

Jasmine Bashara is the daughter of a master welder and lives in Artemis, the moon city. Jazz is smart and capable, but because of poor life choices, she has ended up working as a low-paid porter and supplements her income with a sideline of smuggling. She is approached by local businessman Trond Landvik, who offers her a huge sum to sabotage Sanchez Aluminum’s harvesting equipment so he can buy the company. She accepts his offer, and the sabotage effort is nearly successful. She gets caught, but talks her way out of trouble for the time being. However, Lanvik and his bodyguard turn up dead, and Jazz is next on the killer’s list. Can she figure out what’s going on and turn this into a victory somehow?

This novel has a lot of great points. It’s entertaining; it has a fast pace, a great plot, plenty of action and tech-based problem solving. Artemis has a frontier feel and law enforcement and administration are very small-time. The setting and the characters really come alive as Jazz moves through the dingy corridors of the moon city and interacts with her friends, acquaintances and enemies. Weir has turned a few usual expectations upside down, as the moon-city is established by an African businesswoman and the crime syndicate behind Sanchez Aluminum is Brazilian. Bashara is a Saudi Muslim, but clearly not very much in touch with her roots.

On the not so great side, there are some questionable issues in the execution. First, it seems like Weir might be trying to send a message here about teen rebellion and poor life choices, but he doesn’t follow through. Jazz knows she’s made poor life choices, but instead of trying to fix this, she doubles down on fast talking and just gets in deeper with worse decisions. It seems unlikely that local management would overlook all her transgressions, and the deal she offers Ngugi to avoid deportation at the end doesn’t hold water. Until this point, Jazz has come across as a small-time, low-income smuggler, but now she represents herself as being completely in control of Artemis’ smuggling trade? How and when did this happen?

Regardless of these little niggles, you have to hand it to Andy Weir for revitalizing the hard SF genre. It’s a fun read.

Four stars.

Review of “The Island” by Peter Watts

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This work is a novelette, originally published in The New Space Opera 2 by Eos, 2009, and now available on the author’s website. It’s science fiction about space exploration and runs 40 pages. Watts is a multi-award winner and in 2010 received the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for this story. This review may contain spoilers.

Eriophora is a black hole starship, an asteroid form with a singularity in its belly. It’s operated by a limited AI called Chimp, and has a human crew of several thousand people carried in a state of suspended animation. The ship explores the galaxy and builds wormhole gates in suitable locations. The mission is expected to extend until the ship runs out of resources, billions of years into the future. Chimp reanimates human crew units for short periods of time when it needs higher intellectual capability or human judgement. Sunday Ahzmundin wakes to find she has a son Dix, and that her old lover Kai is dead. The problem Chimp has run into is a signal from a red dwarf star they are approaching. Dix and Sunday identify this as a signal from an intelligent alien that directs them to another area of space to build their wormhole gate. Sunday and Chimp are in adversarial positions for this awakening, as she is angry about it raising her son without her knowledge, and because of past dealings. Taken by the idea of an innocent organism in space, she negotiates a change in course. Will this fix the problem, or will it make things worse?

Watts’ strong point is the heart that he puts into his stories. At this point in time, Sunday and Chimp have a lot of history (i.e. grudges) that have turned their relationship into a battle. Dix, as part of a new generation Chimp is planning, suffers from lack of socialization and complete inability to deal with his mother. Meanwhile, the alien organism has an agenda of its own.

On the negative side, Watts doesn’t give much background and is way into the story before he identifies his protagonist as Ahzmundin, so again, I’ve wasted tons of imagination in thinking this might be someone else. Also, there are plot issues this time, maybe from having a work that’s too short. First, how has Sunday produced a son she didn’t know about? Because she and Dix’s father Kai were lovers, I’m assuming the child was conceived the usual way. So how did Chimp get the embryo, fetus or child? Does it make a habit of violating the sleeping crew? Then why wait until someone is pregnant? Why not just inseminate? Or is Dix a hostage just because he’s Sunday’s son? Hm. Also, the ending is unclear. As I read this, there are actually two alien organisms out there at the red dwarf, but given the text, I wouldn’t swear to it.

Four stars.

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