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Book Review – The Three Body Problem

20518872The Three Body Problem took me forever to finish but I always enjoyed my time reading it. Because it’s hard science fiction, long and translated from Chinese, the book itself is dense. Every page takes time to get through and skimming will only hinder any understanding or enjoyment the book provides.

The first chapter starts in China during the sixties and I realized how little of China’s history I know. We follow cultural revolutions, scientific movements and political restrictions, most of which were new to me. I think I might have to pick up a history book next. The rest of the story is told in the modern day, as we follow scientist Wang Miao as he tries to understand visions that keep appearing as a countdown in his photographs.

The Three Body Problem takes its time getting to the main plot of the story. By that, I mean, it takes until the last fourth of the book to reveal what’s really happening. If the back of the cover didn’t tell me what this series was, I would have been fairly surprised by the change in direction.

For a long time, the book seems focused on these visions Wang Miao keeps seeing. Then, it’s more focused on this weird video game that shares its title with the book. The game, which doesn’t seem like something I would ever want to play, deals with players trying to solve an alien planet’s predicament of having three suns. See, you can’t really predict seasons, and most seasons are either freezing or scorching, so civilization can’t really grow. It’s a game that only a few brilliant players invest time into and there might be a bit of The Last Starfighter going on behind the scenes.

And that’s the book. Reading about Wang Miao’s gaming sessions, his visions and the scientific history of 1960s China. The mystery isn’t really handled like a mystery, the plot doesn’t really move along at a quick pace. By the time the reader and the characters know what’s really going on, there’s more behind us than ahead.

But, as I said at the beginning, I always enjoyed myself while reading the book. It’s dense, yes, but it’s never dry. I didn’t understand everything, especially near the end when the books got into particle physics. Michael Crichton always wrote in a way that made me say, “Yeah, I get it! Like too much helium in a balloon!” Liu Cixin writes in a way that makes me say, “Yeah, I get it! Like too much…wait, no. How many protons are in that much helium? What’s the quantum integrity of a common balloon? Wait, what exactly is particle physics? I dont…I don’t get it!”

And it’s still enjoyable! I don’t understand it all, but it’s not necessary to have a physicis degree to follow the plot. It’s also interesting to be reading this type of book written from a completely different perspective than I’m used to finding. Views on culture, science and extraterrestrial life never totally line up with what I’m used to, even if it’s just a different way of experience the same facts. It really is fascinating to see how different American science fiction can be from other countries, but also how strong the similarities can end up. Science is science in any language but it’s how we interact with it that create such different cultures. The Three Body Problem, which won Best Novel in the 2015 Hugo Awards, is a heavy read, but a fascinating one.

All the Books Show: Episode 104 – Hugo Awards 2017

It’s that time of year again! Where Nic and I talk about the Hugo Award winners! I guess it’s a seasonal thing. Maybe, even, a fifth season of sorts.

It’s nothing like a fifth season.

26228034We talk about the Hugo Awards, looking at the winners of most categories. Nic was correct in the movie, so he has that to boast about now. I was surprised by the winner of Best Novel, but that’s because I didn’t like the first book in the series and I didn’t expect a sequel to take home the top award. It’s happened before, yes, but it’s not super common. N.K. Jemisin joins a very short list of authors who won two years in a row. Congratulations N.K. Jemisin! I wish I liked your book!

I tried to stay out of the politics of this year’s award and after the winners were announced, I went back to see if there were any. It seems like most of the shouting has died down. I hope it’s for the better. The Sad and Angry Puppies made something I thought was fun not fun. But, now, I think there’s a bit too much “We shut them the hell up!” from the other side. I just want science fiction and fantasy to be fun for everyone involved. I hope we can just move on and enjoy good writing and interesting ideas.

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See you next week, podcats!

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – A Review

valerianWe shouldn’t compare Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to The Fifth Element, even if director Luc Besson is behind both of these films.

We shouldn’t compare the two because The Fifth Element had lead actors we liked, like Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. Valerian, on the other hand, has Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne. Dehaan, who was compelling in Chronicle, is a black hole of charisma in this film. As the action lead, he’s a failure. Too young to be taken seriously, too much of a snot to be likable, Dehaan’s portrayal as one of the galaxy’s best soldiers is hilariously off mark. Delevingne, who you might remember as the shaking, shadowy non-character Enchantress from Suicide Squad, fairs betters in the film but not by much. She has a flat, no-nonsense delivery that helps some of the lifeless dialog seem planned that way. But, she too comes across too young for the type of character she’s playing. If I’m supposed to believe either of these two have the field experience to be given any of the responsibility they have in Valerian, then consider me unconvinced. The only time I had any affection for them was when the two were dressed like characters from Final Fantasy X. Then they changed clothes and I lost all my positive feelings.

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets-hdWe shouldn’t compare Valerian to The Fifth Element because that nineties film had an energy that felt more like a comedy than a drama. It’s almost a scifi Rush Hour and not just because of a manic Chris Tucker. Valerian’s plot moves at a snails pace but I still found myself forgetting what our “heroes” were doing or if it had anything to do with the plot. The movie’s second act is a huge detour from anything that matters to the story and, when it finally gets back to the main plot, I had almost forgotten the goals and problems I was supposed to be invested in. A good example of why we shouldn’t compare the two movies is how The Fifth Element has that famous opera scene that connects to main plot. In Valerian, we had a strip tease from Rihanna that has little to do with the threat to the city (of a thousand planets). Sure, Dehaan needs her help, but only because of a sidequest that’s taking up forty minutes of the movie.

valerian-and-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-2017-dane-dehaan

There’s not much more to say about Valerian. It was an exhausting film and not in the way that War for the Planet of the Apes left me ragged. I was bored after the first half hour and was never won back. Clive Owen gives a performance that left me feeling bad for the guy. None of the supporting characters, alien or otherwise, were charming. While I complained about the reason Rihanna’s character is involved, she’s has an energy that the film desperately needs but then ignores. The alien race we follow from the beginning is too noble to be interesting and too passive to connect with. The film’s opening of humanity greeting hundreds of new races to it’s space station, all set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is charming but false advertising for the rest of the movie.

Yes, we should support original scifi (even adaptations), especially the ones that get bigger budgets. But, when the results are movies like Valerian, it’s hard to fault studios for not wanting to fund one hundred and fifty million dollar films, no matter how pretty they are. We shouldn’t compare Valerian to The Fifth Element because we still talk about that movie and Valerian will probably not last in the public consciousness. Heck, this review is running short because there just wasn’t enough on screen to talk about.

All the complaints people had about the Star Wars prequels apply here. Technical aptitude over plot, archetypes over characters, and stilted dialog over, well,, human dialog. George Lucas was torn apart by fans. Yet, for some reason, I’ve seen people trying to give Luc Besson a pass because he tried something big and grand and failed in the process. Maybe they’re just fans of The Fifth Element. But Valerian is no Fifth Element. Let’s not compare the two.

Rolling Stone’s Top 20 Sci-Fi Films of the 21st Century

Rolling Stone magazine just put out a list of their top scifi films of this century and it’s an impressive collection. I’ve seen all but two of the movies so I’ve decided to rundown the list and see what I thought of their selections. You can check out the original article here for their reasons. Either way, this is a good time to be into science fiction and you should fill out the checklist I setup here to show the world how much you’ve seen.

mpasunshineposterb20. Sunshine
I already gushed about this so you can read the post here. A good summery is that I liked it a lot, it felt somewhat old school and also left me feeling down, in a good way. More man vs. nature, with some man vs. man and man vs. himself thrown in for good measure. It’s got a killer soundtrack and should be higher on this list.

19. Donnie Darko
I will never understand why people like this film. It pretentious and muddy, without real meaning or an understanding of pacing. Pure film school crap and I’m certain you have to be a freshman in college to have good feelings about this thing. Like everyone at the end of this movie, I wish I could forget it happened. #baddream

attach-2850-monstersposter18. Monsters
The cinematographer’s monster movie, though it would have helped to have a guy on lighting. I feel like it’s more impressive that this movie exists rather than what it does. Made for half a million bucks on prosumer cameras and out of the box editing programs, it looks pretty darn professional and makes me jealous. On the other hand, it’s not super entertaining. As my wife states, it’s really about actors starring at things, and she’s right. The problem is, because of the darkness, we can’t see what they’re looking at.

17. Reign of Fire
I remember thinking this movie was pretty cool stuff when I saw it in theaters. Today, it’s alright but not a great film. I agree with RS though. With Bale and McConehay in the lead roles, this movie would be a blockbuster if opening today. Even if the whole film doesn’t hold up, the dragons still look cool.

attack-the-block16. Attack the Block
The inner city indi scifi film we never knew we wanted but got anyway. This movie is fun, weird and not too shy to throw in some social commentary. I like that it’s all in one night, that it’s a better Goonies than the Goonies and forces us to root for character we wouldn’t expect. The monsters are cool and the slow-motion final is amazing and worth watching on loop a few times.

15. Cloverfield
This is one of those ‘one and done’ films for me, it was great in theaters and did something new to an already great genre, but I’ve never rewatched it. A film like this, that relies on a certain trick, such as the found footage, isn’t something that works as well a second time, either because the surprise is gone or I don’t want to sit through shaky cam anymore. Still, it was a great night in the theater.

14. Primer
Haven’t seen this movie, and it’s not on Netflix or at the library. I’ll have to find it because it looks interesting.

13. Minority Report
Better than a lot of us remember. It’s fast paced, gorgeous and has some real, painful heart in the main story. I used to think this was too dark to enjoy but that actually helps now that I’m older.

Big_Moon_revised12. Moon
To say I loved Moon is an understatement. I made everyone I knew watch this after I had. It’s just too great. It’s small, personal and the kind of scifi film anyone can make if they have the right talent. Rockwell is sometimes a little off the wall, but he plays it just right. Kevin Spacey as the computer is like a warmer version of Hal, that actually wants to help. And what a soundtrack! It must be a prerequirisit for science fiction these days and I’m fine with that.

11. The World’s End
This was just non-stop fun. While Shaun of the Dead is still my favorite of these films, TWE was so good it almost took the top. My wife didn’t love it, she found it too serious to be a laugh riot. Me? I like a little darkness and drama to give weight to the jokes. I was smiling the whole time because this movie just doesn’t stop. If you haven’t seen it, do.

10. The Host
I think I was a little disappointed with this movie. It’s reputation is on par with Battle Royal but it never clicked for me. There were times when it was almost there, especially during the first attack. But it drags in the middle and the end doesn’t totally hit home. I liked the humor but didn’t get the politics. Your milage may vary.

her_xlg9. Her
Just watched this a few weeks ago. I’m of two minds about it. On one hand, I like the way it explores relationships and humanity falling out of talking to humans. It’s well acted, well scored and gorgeous. On the the other hand, it borders on boring and slow. I feel like this film could have been cut to a ninty minute timeframe and have been stronger for it. As it stands, not bad but not life changing. At least, until I get my intelligent O.S.

8. Looper
I don’t get it. Looper isn’t a bad film but a top 20? From the past thirteen years? No way. The concept is cool but it’s poorly executed and Emily Blunt’s character comes out of nowhere. I didn’t think the action was that great, or the acting. Considering the guy who made this was the one responsible for Brick, I would have thought this to be more promising. Not for me.

7. Serenity
The great tragedy of Firefly is well known but Serenity almost makes the pain go away. Being both a stand alone movie and a continuation of the show, this one is a feel good film. I know some people are still bitter about the show’s end, but I feel like Serenity is a true endcap for the series, giving closure to most of the things we felt denied. What a way to go out.

district9_poster6. Distrit 9
This movie was one of the best surprises I’ve ever had. I had no idea what to expect so everything about this movie seemed to come out of left field. It was a high speed thrill ride with depth and characters you cared about. I was so nervous near the end that I actually prayed to God that things would turn out well. That’s how into the movie I was. And still am.

5. Gravity
Top five? Maybe. Considering how much science it fudges, and how rough the small amounts of dialoge are, it seems like it’s so far up because of freshness and good will. If this list was made a while back, I bet Avatar would be here, because both films are experiences, rides, but not the greatest. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie and the soundtrack, but without the big screen to watch it on everytime, it doesn’t seem as strong as other choices on the list. But then, this is Rolling Stone’s list, not mine.

wall_e4. Wall-E
Probably my favorite Pixar film after Finding Nemo and the Toy Story series. It’s cute, I love the simplicity of the story, the characters are charming, it’s just a great film. I might not have even thought of putting this movie on the list, but I’m glad it made it.

3. Under the Skin
Filed under ‘Haven’t Seen’ but will once the DVD comes out.

2. Inception
Number two? I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve only watched it once and then was in the theaters. But when I saw it, it left a strong impression on me, one that hit hard for someone going through a breakup and trying to reconcile happy memoires with sad realities. But number two? Over Moon? I guess that makes sense, but I’m not thrilled.

children_of_men_ver81. Children of Men
This makes sense. It’s not my favorite film, but it does seem like the strongest contender here. I might have put District 9 at the top instead, but this isn’t my list. But enough about me, this is Children of Men’s moment. It’s a great movie, depressingly uplifting under a dark tone without feeling hopeless. Humanity has never looked worse, and better, than this film and the ending has as much weight as needed. I need to watch this again.

Missing in Action
If Cloverfield made it, Chronicle should have been here and higher. Easily better than Looper or Donnie Darko, maybe they didn’t add it because it’s almost a superhero film but its a white-knuckle ride through and through.

Also missing are Another Earth and Troll Hunter, though the latter might be considered fantasy. My guess is Rise of the Planet of the Apes didn’t make it because this a non-franchise list, but I wonder if 28 Day Later is too much of a straight horror movie to make the cut? I would probably keep War of the Worlds off because of the sappy ending and also The Island because we shouldn’t reward Michael Bay, even for good movies.

Scifyed

mpasunshineposterbI’ve been in a science fiction mood lately. It started when I rented Sunshine from the library. The movie worked for me on a lot of levels; it was dark and (as Kendra likes to say) depressingly uplifting. It was well acted, the science was a little rubbery but done well, and it had a beautiful soundtrack (which is used in the X-Men: Days of Future Past trailer, so whenever the tune stated up in the movie, I kept hearing Xavier ask, “what’s the last thing you remember?”).

In a lot of ways, Sunshine reminded me of The Grey, in both at what it did and how it made me feel afterwards. But the difference is I wouldn’t want to fight wolves but I still think I would risk a trip to the sun.

Sunshine also reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, because both movies show how lonely space is and how dangerous it can be. Honestly, Sunshine actually curbed some of my ethusiasm for space travel because it really is a dark, dangerous place that’s hostile to life and is, for the most part, depressingly empty.

Combine that with the fact that I watched The Planets and How the Universe Works on Netflix, and my scifi itch continues to be scratched (and grows, because it’s probably a scifi rash that I shouldn’t mess with). I think space actually does depress me on some levels because during one episode of HTUW, they were talking about how, someday, the universe will run out of hydrogen and the stars will slowly die out. They were talking about it, the music was swelling and sad and they showed images of the stars dimming and fading, and I swear I almost cried. I never thought I would care so much about the fate of stars.

Luckily, I was reading David Brin’s Startide Rising, which is filled with space travel and aliens and talking dolphins and all kinds of scifi goodness, so space started feeling fun and filled with adventure again. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to fly ships into the void with dolphins and chimps, but I would like to and Brin gives me hope of seeing those dreams fulfilled.

Having done all that, I began to realize that I’m not as well versed in the scifi universe as I would like to be (a realization I see everytime I look at how many Hugo winners I haven’t read). So, I decided to find some movies in the genre and finally watch them instead of talking about wanting to watch them.

Including Netflix and the library, I grabbed Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, Silent Running, and the original Solaris. So now it’s time for some capsule reviews/thoughts about all of them!

silent_running_xlgSilent Running was the first movie we watched and I liked it. It has that’s 60s vibe to it, with the ‘save the planet’ messege, even if the only way we can save the planet is to send it into space. I liked Bruce Dern in it and it was funny that we watched it Saturday night and then the Oscars the next day, onyl to find Dern up for best actor for Nebreska. I guess everyone but Kendra and I knew who the guy was! On a side note, I’ve had that hippie song from the movie stuck in my head for weeks now.

Soylent Green was next. Since the ending is well known, the movie had to stand up on it’s own and not how surprising the twist was. Charlton Heston was good (as he normally is), as was everyone else in the movie. The world was interesting but the movie was slow, even compared to older films. I guess I’d say the movie was simply alright. It doesn’t really add anything to the world outside of the “Soylent Green is people” line.

Next, we watched Logan’s Run. This movie started off really well and had that cool, 70s scifi feel to it with its beeping soundtrack and Michael York-like class to acting. It had me for most of the movie, but then that weird robot shows up and freezes people. And then a weird old guy goes on about cat names. And the movie stops for about twenty minutes. The end is decent but the movie never regains the fun of earlier.

The Blob was super dissapointing. When I was a kid in fifth grade, my school’s library had a book series on movie monsters that I absolutley devoured. The one book on the Blob was one of my favorites and I always wanted to see how cool the movie was for myself. Twenty-five years later, I see the truth and I’m worse for it. The movie is boring, especially considering it’s a 50s monster movie. I don’t know how they failed with this. Whereas Invasion of the Body Snatchers is still grade A monster movie making. It’s still creepy, still well acted and I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The Cold War analogy is a little strong for my taste, but it works in context with the film.

solarisI ended with Solaris, which is ironic because it’s the one I wanted to watch most after Sunshine. It’s another movie that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a slow movie and one that challanged my patience but it had enough charisma to keep my watching. It’s more about human relationships than space and that’s okay. The film has some incredible shots and cinematography, especially the weightlessness scene, and the constant white light from the planet outside is almost maddening. Looking back, I wonder how many Russian films I’ve seen because I can’t remember many besides this one now. Interestingly, though maybe only to me, is that somehow I did the math wrong in my head between when I started this movie and when it would end. When it was over, it was twenty minutes later than I had figured. With the films strange style and my poor math skills, I felt like this movie achieved its goal of messing with space and time.  

cosmos-a-spacetime-odyssey-first-season.21012Last night, since I was still coming down off this science fiction high, I decided to watch Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on demand. I was pretty dissapointed with it. It may be because it was the first episode and the show is building up to the good stuff, but in the first hour I didn’t learn a thing. The Cosmic Calander was cool, considering humans have only been around for the last hour of the universe, but that was the only big piece of interest. To be fair, I might be asking a lot since I’ve been reading and watching a bunch of stuff about the universe, but I don’t understand how you can’t say anything worth knowing in a whole hour. I almost feel like the show is for the dumb people of the world.

That may sound harsh, but I’m sticking by it. If you, as a human being, don’t already know the order of the planets, than you are dumb. If you don’t know there’s an astroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, you are dumb. These are simple facts about the solar system you are in. This should be common knowledge. It would be like not knowing the names of the continents or not knowing the surrounding towns of your home. You don’t know the first thing Google shows when you type in ‘planets’. But maybe there are people who don’t know these simple facts. Maybe Cosmos will help them. But that makes me sad.

There also seems to be a lot of beating up on the Church. These things bother me because I’m a Christian and I love learning about science and the universe. It’s strange how the more we learn, the more I see God, while others see less.

But, to get back to my main point, I’m in a big science fiction mood and I don’t know how to get out of it…

Meh, it will work itself out. It’s not like I’m planning to watch The Omega Man or The Day the Earth Stood Still this weekend…Oh shoot.

planets_image

First image when Googled…