Will we ever colonize distant worlds?

On first glance, that question seems absurd. Humans are an adventurous species, so the thinking is of course we’ll spread out among the stars, especially as word comes of more and more planets that may be close to Earth-like.

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)But Alaistair Reynolds, sci-fi author of great books such as Revelation Space, throws a little cold water on that idea in a new essay.

Reynolds is a strong proponent of space exploration. But he brings up a couple of interesting problems.

First, there’s the issue of time.TV shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars utilize faster-than-light technologies to travel among the stars. These technologies, however have yet to be created. Not only that, not one experiment has uncovered anything that can travel faster than light in nature. As Einstein theorized, it just may not be possible.

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That would leave us with daunting travel times just to reach the nearest stars. We’re talking at least decades for a one-way trip. How would that work, logistically? How could we assemble a flight crew willing for a life-long mission? Would this mission be simply exploration, since there may be no guarantee that there would be habitable worlds at their destination?

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Then there’s the issue of a target. As out science is refined, would we be blessed with an abundance of potential worlds to visit? How would we pick just one? It sounds like a silly question, but for such a massive undertaking, we might need to collectively focus on a single goal. That may not be an easy task. Look at our exploration of our own puny solar system. we have no lunar base. We have no Mars base. And the plans for manned exploration of the Red Planet are always being pushed back another decade.

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As Reynolds explains, the study of space may be the answer to the Fermi Paradox, which states that if there is intelligent life, how come we haven’t run into it? Reynolds speculates that maybe as other intelligent alien species surveyed the universe, they became less awed by creation, and more content with their own little corner. They’ve stayed silent and hidden to us.

I hope this last bit won’t be true of humans. Knowing our history, I doubt it. Maybe the answer is that humans are indeed unique in their hunger for more, always more.

In Praise of the Original ‘Mad Max,’ a Unique Masterpiece of Low-Budget Filmmaking

Kevin Singer:

mad max

With Max Max: Fury Road coming out this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the original Mad Max movies. I was young enough when The Road Warrior came out (the first one I saw) that it left a huge impression on me. I was maybe 12 or so when I saw it and it was raw and rough and unlike anything I’d seen. This blog post revisits the very first Mad Max, with an impossibly young Mel Gibson. It’s a great take on the novelty that was Mad Max. Give it a read.

Originally posted on Flavorwire:

The good-cop-gone-bad trope is such an overused one by now that it’s rare to see a film in which such a transformation is in any way shocking or emotionally involving. With the new Mad Max: Fury Road hitting cinemas this week, though, it’s a good time to revisit one film in which the portrayal of a man’s descent from well-meaning lawman to vigilante remains genuinely powerful: the original Mad Max.

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In praise of Neil Gamian

If you haven’t read any works by fantasy writer Neil Gamian, you should. The British-born writer is best known for works such as the comic series The Sandman and books including American Gods. I’ve reviewed American Gods and for anyone into fantasy or mythology, American Gods is a must read. It is sprawling and thrilling, and I can proudly say it has influenced my writing.

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Aside from novels and comics, he’s also had a long friendship with Tori Amos, popping up as a character of sorts in several of her songs. He’s written a glorious Doctor Who episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” and he also gave one of the best commencement speeches you’ll ever hear.

Now Neil Gaiman is taking on another role, one that would seem obvious for a writer: free speech supporter. PEN America, an organization of writers dedicated to supporting freedom of expression, is slated to give an award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which lost several members following a terrorist attack. Some PEN members pulled out of the awards gala citing concerns that the magazine was racist. And now, several writers, including Gaiman, Alison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman, have stepped in.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman was blunt in his reasons for joining: “…for f**k’s sake, they drew somebody, and they [al-Qaida] shot them, and you don’t get to do that.”

Freedom of expression is a bedrock principle of mine. I know what it’s like to be afraid to speak your mind, to express yourself, for fear of backlash in ways small and large. I know what it’s like to feel intimidated. I know what it’s like to feel that I have no voice. Writing has helped me find that voice. It’s given me the freedom to speak my mind and reveal who I am. And I am thankful that when it comes to my fiction, the only barriers in place are the ones that I choose to erect.

I understand the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo. But my support of the right to free expression is nearly absolute. And there’s no way I could NOT stand up against violence or government coercion against freedom of speech.

I’m heartened that Gaiman is claiming a spot at the PEN America awards gala. And I can’t wait for his next Doctor Who episode.

Tracking the zombie outbreak

Who doesn’t love a good zombie story? I know, not everyone does but I like to pretend they do. From George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to the AMC channel’s The Walking Dead, zombies have been a staple of the horror genre for half a century, with no sign of them being killed off anytime soon.

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But who knew that zombies could be a topic worthy of honest-to-goodness scientific inquiry? I sure didn’t. I was wrong.

A team of researchers from Cornell University used a combination of US Census data and statistical probabilities regarding disease outbreaks, coupled that with some zombie lore, and created an interactive map that allows you and me to watch our own little zombie outbreak as it filters across the US.

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The map, which you can find here, lets us control a few of the parameters to make it interesting:

–how easy or hard it is to kill zombies

–how fast the zombies move

–where the outbreak originates

I tried a couple of simulations, and watched as a chilling red crept across the map. for both simulations, I had the outbreak start in Miami, because all the weird stuff happens in Florida.

In simulation 1, I had slow-moving zombies that were relatively easy to kill. While the zombies zipped up the east coast of Florida, it took them a full 16 days to conquer Florida, and after a month, they were still bogged down in the deep south. The zombies2takeaway? Under these conditions humans would have a good chance of surviving — the threat could conceivably be contained.

Then I tried a quicker, nastier simulation, with faster zombies that were harder to kill. Again, I started in Miami. And the results were scarier, at least for those of us on the East Coast. By the second day Florida was completely overrun. After 4 days the south was gone. On day 5, zombies were attacking New Orleans and the Midwest. Day 6: Washington DC, Baltimore were decimated, followed quickly by Philadelphia, and as the day ended, New York City fell victim, with Chicago, Houston and Detroit next to fall.

The good news? The outbreak had a hard time spreading through the rural areas of the Western United States. So if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, go west.

Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

It Follows: hype and (no) story

I’m a sucker for a good horror movie. Give me some chills and thrills, but not too much gore, and I’m into it. but good horror movies are hard to find. Too often the thrills are just obvious and trite. Every scary story has seemingly been told.

it-follows-movie-posterThat’s why when I caught word of the new horror film It Follows, I was excited. io9.com, one of my go-to websites, called it absolutely must-see horror flick. They gushed over this movie so much (as did other media outlets) that I couldn’t wait to see it. So I forked over $14.50 and went.

First, the premise. Set in a typical middle America suburb (in Michigan), 19-year-old Jay (played by Maika Monroe) is dating a mysterious guy named Hugh (played by Jake Weary). After they have sex for the first time, he ties her up and tells her that he’s passed on a curse to her. A mysterious, slow-walking demon-like creature that can take the form of any human will follow her, and if it touches her, she will die. If she dies, then the curse will revert back to Hugh. The only way she can survive is to pass the curse on by having sex with someone else.

A killer premise, right? But premise doesn’t equal plot.

Before I deconstruct the hype, I’ll talk about what works.

It Follows is beautifully shot. It comes off like an expertly made indie flick. the imagery, from dull suburbia to decaying Detroit, are all lush and inviting.

–The soundtrack is both jarring and creepy. It Follows is scored by Disasterpiece, and it is filled with sudden electronic bursts, thumping synth beats, terror and pounding hearts gone ragged.

–The cast is generally appealing. This movie is not filled with the too-pretty Hollywood types we’re used to seeing. They’re good looking enough to be believable, and the actors all do fine jobs.

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–The pace of the movie is steady. I never felt bored or hurried.

–There were some genuinely creepy elements. The way the creature would stalk Jay was unsettling, and it stayed with me long after the movie ended.

–Early in It Follows, after Jay is first infected, she is scarred by the fact that Hugh attacked her and tied her up. The actor who plays Jay relayed the shame and horror of that all-too-real occurrence in a way that left me shaken.

it follows jay

But while watching the movie I was acutely aware of the fact that while the premise was strong, and the production was excellent, the plot was thin. Many horror movies fail when it comes to crafting a compelling narrative. Too often the movies simply turn into repetitive scenes of the hero trying to elude or battle the monster, a back-and-forth that just ends suddenly, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. It Follows fell into this trap.

Part of the problem was that the characters were underdeveloped. It took me a good 45 minutes before I realized that the blond girl’s name was Jay — and she’s the main character! There is no backstory, and the movie suffers as a result.

Then there’s the theme. All horror movies have a theme, a primal fear that the writer and director exploits. For It Follows, it was clearly sex. The curse is passed on through sex. But this is a well-worn trope that has almost become a cliche. In my opinion, the writers missed a great opportunity to offer a twist on this. As I said earlier, I was moved by Jay’s traumatized reaction to her attack. It was real and visceral. What would have It Follows been like if they explored the theme of sexual trauma?

Maika Monroe and Jake Weary in It Follows

One of the most compelling scenes is when Jay and her sister and friends track down Hugh, the one who passed the curse along to her. The group sits in the grass as Hugh explains what happened to him. Rather than a villain, Hugh came off as a tortured, terrified soul. I couldn’t help but wonder what this movie would have been if it had spent more time on the characters of Jay and Hugh, and explored the repercussions of their sexual/relational traumas. There were also hints of a Freudian/Oedipal undercurrent, as the creature takes the form of parents of two of the characters. But this was too fleeting to leave much of an impression.

I wish that the writers had gone through a few more drafts. This could have been a truly great horror movie. As it stands, I’m going to buck the hype. It Follows, while well made, is not a brilliant horror film, and not one of the best of the decade. It is well made, chilling, but ultimately unsatisfying. Watch it on Netflix, and save your $14.50.

Read this book: Rendezvous With Rama

The beauty of fiction is that when it’s done right, it is timeless. Think of books ranging from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled noir novels. Both writers are coming from very different worlds, yet their works contain a human element that transcends their eras.

Science fiction writers including Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Ray Bradbury also transcend not only their genres, but the times in which they lived and wrote.

RamaAnother writer to add to that list would be Arthur C. Clarke. I started reading him early, but somehow I missed Rendezvous With Rama.

This book is brilliant in the sense that although it was written in the early 1970s, it reads pretty fresh to someone living in 2015. What it lacks is the modern trend for hyper plotting (yes, there is too much of a good thing, in my view). What contains is a blueprint for hard sci-fi done right.

The basic plot: in 2131, an erratic asteroid is detected by astronomers, This asteroid, named Rama, turns out to be not an asteroid but a spacecraft of some sort. The manned ship Endeavour, helmed by Bill Norton, is sent to approach Rama with the intent of studying it. What they find is an immense, mysterious craft, mind-bogglingly large and packed with unexplained features.

If there is one fault with Rendezvous With Rama, it would be that the characterizations are on the thin side. But Rama is the main character, not Bill Norton or his fellow explorers. And Clarke makes Rama shine. What he gives us is a beautiful portrayal of a ship waking up. Clarke deftly describes the many facets of Rama, always giving just enough information to keep the pages turning.

rendezvous with rama

Surprisingly, Rendezvous With Rama doesn’t come off as dated in any significant sense. There’s ethnic diversity, though he never lingers long on any one character to develop this further.that seem even more ahead of our times. For instance, Clarke describes a stable three way marriage between two men and a woman.

Aside from rendering Rama beautifully, Clarke also shows us a human race that has colonized not only the moon and Mars, but also Mercury and the outer moons of Jupiter and Saturn. He explains these societies briefly, though complete enough to paint a vivid picture.

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Rendezvous With Rama is simple in the best sense. It is a timeless adventure tale that will fill you with wonder. Check it out.

Designer humans: the future is almost here

Some sci-fi tropes seem too far-fetched for reality, until science catches up. Take the film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, set in a world where genetically approved people were given a higher Gattaca Jude Lawstatus. When the movie came out, the idea of designer babies was bizarre. How could such a thing be done, technically?

But now we’re on the verge of designer babies becoming a reality, and not everyone is eager for this to happen.

What do I mean by designer babies? Manipulating DNA to either enhance favorable qualities, or delete some bad genes though a process called gene editing. This could be good. Think of all the heritable diseases we could get rid of. Once we snip them from the gene pool, they’d be gone from that genetic line forever. An embryo that had its genes for a deadly disease extracted would never pass those genes on to future generations.

But there’s the flip side. What could we do to enhance humans? Super strength? Super intelligence? Evolution works by filtering out the bad traits and promoting the good traits. With this gene editing technique, we could make humans a whole lot better. Evolution put in the hands of man. Think of Star Trek and the genetically enhanced supervillain Khan.

Benedict Cumberbatch

And that’s what scientists are afraid of, so much so that they’re calling for a moratorium on using these amazing techniques on humans. I suppose their thinking is that if we can manipulate genes, we can create supermen, or monsters.

Personally, I don’t see the problem. Not right now, anyway. The truth is there is a whole hell of a lot we don’t know about the human genome. Scientists have not found a gene (or set of genes) that correlate with intelligence. There’s also the problem of junk DNA — strands of genes whose function scientists don’t understand. And also epigenetics: the strange phenomenon where environmental factors can change your genetics, and pass down these changes to your children and grandchildren. Right now we wouldn’t be able to do much with this gene-editing technology.

I say let’s keep exploring. Welcome to the brave new world.