Mars Alive!

If I had a hundred lives and the corresponding years, I’d spend a chunk on space travel. Can you imagine the disorienting feeling of stepping foot on another planet? I can’t but I would like to.

Mars is one of the planets on that list. Well, there aren’t that many viable options right now. Venus is a hot mess, Saturn and Jupiter are too gassy, and who would ever want to go to a place named Uranus? Mars is the best bet of a bad lot. But it is dry and barren. As it turns out, it might not always have been the case for the Red Planet.

Mars ocean

Those brilliant scientists at NASA have determined that Mars once had an ocean — a deep ocean — that covered nearly half the planet. This means it was warm enough for life (meaning us), and it may have actually been home to life.

I’m not one who thinks that Earth alone is the be-all and end-all of life. I do believe that life is special and rare, though. Could this mean that our next door neighbor was teeming with life?

Possibly. If the NASA scientists are right, then there was liquid water—a prerequisite for life—and time enough for life to develop. What that life on Mars would have looked like is anyone’s guess.

A quick and dirty guide to the YA novel

My friend Angela sent me this link some time back and it cracked me up. A young, enterprising writer named Randall Knox broke down the YA novel. His post, How to Write a Shitty YA Novel, is a classic.

Katniss_EverdeenNow don’t get me wrong. I love YA. The Hunger Games was great (even though book 3 faltered, with Katniss continually running to the closet to hide) and Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is one of my favorites. Ness created a vivid, unique world.

But Knox’s list takes sharp aim at the tropes that plague YA novels. For example, of the protagonist, he says:

“Your main character needs to be flat and uninteresting. Save your really good and compelling quirks and nuances for your side characters, because you’ll need those in order to justify their existence in the story.”

As for plot, he writes:

“Along the way, show your protagonist going from childish to slightly less childish. That’s what we call character growth. It’s not actually, because the protagonist isn’t taking stock of his or her life, looking at the world through any lens but his or her own, or really showing any semblance of self-awareness, but the act of becoming slightly less annoying will stand in for that reasonably well.”

And he touches on the beauty of emotional manipulation:

“The world must be on the brink of destruction, every love must be the greatest love of all, and every character must be willing to pay the greatest sacrifice–except for the protagonist, because he or she is a boring, selfish asshole, remember?”

Check it out. It’s a fun read. Now I have to get back to rewriting my YA book.

Taking on time travel

Time travel is the thorniest of plot elements. By nature, it’s full of flaws. Take the Grandfather Paradox — watch Futurama for the best example of that. Time travel is difficult because it doesn’t fare well under the light gaze of logic.

But lets push logic aside — whether time travel is or is not possible. When I read fiction (or watch movies or TV), I often want to escape. And what better way to escape than to leave the time period entirely?

Time travel as a plot device offers infinite possibilities. When you’re no longer constrained by time itself, the plot permutations are endless. The imagination can run wild. And for that reason most of all, I love nothing better than a great time travel story.

One of my favorite websites, io9.com, recently ranked all the time-travel-related movies, from best to worst. The article, and their reasons behind each ranking, is worth a look.

For a quick rundown, here is their top five:

5. Time Bandits

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4. Back to the Future 2

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3. Groundhog Day

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2. Primer

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And their top time travel movie of all time is….. Back to the Future (the first one)

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It’s an impressive list. I applaud the effort that went in to compiling it. My take? For the most part I agree, with some reservations. I’m not a Groundhog Day fan, and that barely qualifies as a time travel movie in my mind. And I disagree with the low rating for Ashton Kutshcer’s Butterfly Effect. Sure it was hokey, but what was great about it was how it showed the accumulated futility of trying to alter time.

As far as my own personal list, my favorite time travel movie ever, which made the top ten, has to be The Terminator. It was a brilliant sci-fi/thriller that established a mind-bending franchise. Arnold is great, and both Sarah and John Connor are now pop culture icons.

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Are ancient aliens ignoring us?

We’re obsessed with life beyond Earth.

For a while, we thought we might find it close to home. Venus turned out to be a hellish bust, and Mars is turning up nothing but red rocks. SETI has been beaming a hello for decades, but no one has greeted our call. So, unless you believe that Roswell is indeed the site of an alien vacation community, we’ve come up with nothing.

SETI

That hasn’t stopped us from making it a focal point of sci-fi and pop culture, from HG Wells’ vicious War of the star trekWorlds to the community of agreeable, and sometimes sexy, aliens embodied in the Star Trek series and movies.

And, the research to identify life supporting planets is going full steam, with hundred potential candidates identified to date. Now, we may be able to expand our time frame as well.

First, the title of this io9.com article — Freakishly Old System of Planets Hint at Ancient Alien Civilizations — is misleading. Nowhere does the writer, or the research, state that we’ve found any kind of proof (or even a hint) of alien life.

But what we’ve discovered—that rocky planet systems are billions of years older than we first thought—is intriguing in its implication. And what is this implication? That life, and advanced civilizations, have had several billions of years in which to develop.

Our universe is considered to be about 13.8 billion years old, and according to the article, scientists have detected a planet system that is about 11.2 billion years old. Before this, scientists didn’t believe that rocky planets capable of sustaining life could have formed that early in our universe’s life span. Now they know different.

But this leads to the inevitable question: if there are so many planets that could potentially support life, and if these planets have existed for at least 11 billion years, then why isn’t our universe teeming with life? Surely there would be ONE advanced civilization that would have colonized the stars. Was there NEVER a planet capable of supporting life? Or, did they ALL fail to advance to the point we have?

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)One of my favorite sci-fi writers, Alastair Reynolds, explored this very topic in his book Revelation Space. His world view was bleak: advanced civilizations destroyed each other, leaving behind a higher power that would snuff out advanced civilizations whenever they reached the point of breaking their planetary bounds.

If that’s true, then we’re in danger.

Or, maybe there are tons of aliens out there, and they don’t find us interesting enough to return our calls.

Watch this movie: Predestination

Time travel story plus great performances minus a creaky plot equals a stylish, though flawed, film.

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It took me about 20 minutes into Predestination, the new sci-fi film starring Ethan Hawke, to figure it all out. Predestination is a movie that tries to shroud itself in mystery, but that mystery is pretty evident to anyone who pays attention. If it wasn’t for the stylish visuals and strong performances by the two main actors — Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook — Predestination might have ended up being nothing more than a silly time-travel flick that falls apart too quickly.

But it’s not.

The plot, or as much as I can share, is this: Hawke plays a time travel agent who has been hopping around the latter half of the 20th century in an effort to stop the so-called Fizzle Bomber. When he’s on a stakeout as a bartender in a NYC dive in 1970, he meets a surly patron who proceeds to tell him a wild tale.

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That’s about all I can say without giving anything away. Predestination, based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein, brings one huge thing to the table for me: time travel. I love the conceit. I don’t care that time travel stories are inherently unstable, full of logical paradoxes. They’re fun. Predestination isn’t especially groundbreaking in its use of time travel. But at least they didn’t spend too much time trying to explain it. Part of that was a conscious narrative choice. This is a tightly told story. It sticks very close to certain characters. Just like them, we never get the bigger picture.

What sets Predestination apart from other movies of this genre is the performances. Ethan Hawke has been around long enough now — the man knows how to act convincingly. He is solid throughout. Sarah Snook, who plays a tough but lonely girl named Jane, is something else entirely. I’ve never heard of Snook, but I can’t imagine I won’t be hearing from her again. She had a tough role to play, and she was simply amazing. Her emotions ran the gamut, and she pulled them off convincingly and movingly. As played by Snook, Jane is a tragic character who you can’t help but relate to.

Sarah Snook

Despite all this, Predestination is stuck in B-movie land. The plot, especially toward the end, just could not carry the movie to the point of greatness. Nevertheless, Predestination is worth the time.

Archie vs Predator?

Call this post mash-ups gone wild.

What are two things that should not go together? Two things that absolutely MUST go together.

The latest proof — there’s a new comic series coming out that combines that all-American wholesomeness of the Archie comics with…. the sci-fi horror classic Predator.

Predator Archie

Say what???

According to this link at io9.com, Archie and friends will be forced to battle the Predator aliens while on vacation in Costa Rica. Sounds good to me.

When I was young, I loved the Archie comics. There was something so normal, so ideal, about Archie and his life. It was an experience I wanted. And of course I loved Predator. Badass Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting badass aliens? What’s not to like?

I hope Hollywood (or at least SyFy or the Spike Channel) have optioned these books. I would love to see Jughead’s severed head hoisted aloft.

Archie Predator

Why not Venus?

It’s been described as Earth’s twin, our sister planet, roughly the same size and composition as the home world we all know and love.

Venus Earth
But it’s the hellish parts of Venus that make it our evil twin:

–Its atmospheric pressure is nearly 100 times greater than on Earth. If you set foot on Venus you would be crushed.

–It is damn hot: over up to 900 degrees. At best, you would bake.

–Its atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, with clouds that rain sulphuric acid. Not only would you be unable to breathe, but the acid would melt your body.

Venus
So what’s good about this hell planet? What possible use could we have for it?

It turns out that Venus is not as useless as it may seem, at least not according to NASA.

If we are ever to become serious about off-world colonies, Venus might be a good place to start. But how could we ever live on such an inhospitable world? We couldn’t. Instead, we could float just above its poisonous atmosphere.

This is what some NASA scientists are planning: floating cities. These giant blimp-like structures would be tethered about 30 miles above Venus’s surface. At this level, the atmospheric pressure is roughly similar to that of Earth, and the temperature, while still an inhumanly 160 degrees, would be suitable for these structures. The crafts would be solar powered as well.

Venus floating cities
But if Venus is so bad, what’s the benefit?

It allows us to get our feet wet in terms of establishing colonies in space, and we could avoid problems such as extreme temperatures or adverse gravitational conditions (too little gravity and our bodies would break down faster than we would like).

I have never considered Venus as a potential off-world site, and the more I think about it, the better it sounds. Of course it would not be easy. There are many logistical problems, not to mention the cost involved.

At the very least, these NASA dreams can provide another cool setting for sci-fi.

Ascension — a fatal bait-and-switch

I have to give the SyFy network some credit. After taking a strange turn away from all things sci-fi several years ago, they’re making an effort to cultivate new sci-fi programming. Helix, for example, is a solid, if not great, show.

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I was excited to see the promos for SyFy’s new miniseries (and possible series) Ascension. Not just because it stars Battlestar Galactica alum Tricia Helfer, though that’s a plus. Mainly I was ASCENSION-HELFERintrigued by its plot. This is what we were told Ascension would be about:

A spaceship is launched in 1963 to colonize the far reaches of space. Halfway through their 100-year journey, they’ve been isolated from Earth, yet continue on with their mission.

Wow. So many thematic possibilities. The obvious question, what would a society be like that never saw advances such as civil rights and feminism? And how would this society have evolved over a full generation with nothing to rely on but their faith in their mission? Space operas tend to focus on the larger mission, that is, surviving in space and getting to the planet. Few genre shows get into the nitty gritty of day-to-day survival. In my opinion, that’s one reason why The Walking Dead is such a successful show. When it comes to zombies, it is wholly conventional — nothing new to see there. But what it does different than every other zombie show we’ve seen is focus on the mechanics of survival. Ascension, based on its premise, seemed like it could be the sci-fi equivalent.

Ascension

Unfortunately it did none of this. Instead, what we got with Ascension was one of the biggest bait-and-switches I’ve seen on TV.

(SPOILERS BELOW…)

At the very end of the first night of Ascension‘s three night run, we discovered that the spaceship was not in fact traveling in space. It had never left the ground. The whole thing was a planned, covert experiment.

What???

So, you mean to tell me, the last two hours I’ve invested in these people and their mission was wasted? And there are four hours left?

Now, I’m all for dramatic twists, but this one undermined the whole premise of Ascension. I was lured to a show about space exploration, not a show about a Truman Show style social experiment.

I watched the remaining four hours of Ascension, though my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t care about the power struggle among those running the experiment, and I no longer cared about what was happening on the spaceship, because their mission wasn’t real anyway. And all I could focus on were the flaws: the boring angsty teen subplot, the annoying child actor who played a girl with mystical abilities.

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By the time the ending came — a convoluted, inexplicable mess of a thing — I was glad it was over, and I was also sorry that I never got to see the show that I was originally promised.