Sunday, April 26, 2009

42 Challenge Completed

Novels
1. Last and First Men; Olaf Stapledon (1930) – 5/5
2. Ring Around the Sun; Clifford D. Simak (1952) – 2.5/5 Thanks to Dave for correcting me on the title of this novel - quite embarrassing on my behalf.
3. Atlas Shrugged; Ayn Rand (1957) – 1/5
4. Non-Stop; Brian Aldiss (1958) – 3/5
5. The Great Time Machine Hoax; Keith Laumer (1963) – 2/5
6. The Man Who Folded Himself; David Gerrold (1976) – 4/5
7. Strata; Terry Pratchett (1981) – 2/5
8. The Day the Martians Came; Frederik Pohl (1988) – 3.5/5.
9. Jumper; Stephen Gould (1995) – 5/5
10. The Sparrow; Mary Doria Russell (1996) – 4/5
11. Blade Runner 2: Edge of Human; K. W. Jeter (1996) – 4.5/5
12. Paris in the Twentieth Century; Jules Verne (1997) – 4/5
13. Reflex; Stephen Gould (2002) – 1.5/5
14. The Praxis; Walter Jon Williams (2002) – 4.5/5
15. The Sundering; Walter Jon Williams (2003) – 4.5/5
16. Conventions of War; Walter Jon Williams (2005) – 5/5
17. Evil Genius; Catherine Jinks (2005) – 4.5/5

Movies
18. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – 4.5/5
19. When Worlds Collide (1951) – 1.5/5
20. The War of the Worlds (1953) – 3.5/5
21. Logan’s Run (1970) – 3.5/5
22. Spaceballs (1986) – 2/5
23. Starship Troopers (1997) – 5/5
24. The Matrix (1999) – 5/5
25. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2002) – 3.5/5
26. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2002) – 4.5/5
27. Donnie Darko (2002) – 4/5
28. The Matrix Reloaded (2003) – 2.5/5
29. The Matrix Revolutions (2003) – 2/5
30. Steamboy (2004) – 5/5
31. Serenity (2005) – 5/5
32. Wall-E (2008) – 3.5/5
33. They Are Among Us (2008) – 1/5
34. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) – 2/5
35. Watchmen (2009) Reviewed by Brideofthebookgod – 5/5

Television
36. Aeon Flux (1995) – 1.5/5
37. Firefly (2002) – 5/5
38. Children of Dune (2005) – 3.5/5
39. Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles Season 1 (2007) – 4.5/5

Videogames
40. Phantasy Star (1988) – 3/5
41. Ratchet and Clank (2002) – 3.5/5
42. Destroy All Humans! 2 (2004) – 4.5/5

Best Novel: A tie between "Jumper" and "Evil Genius", both YA SF novels. I would compare “Jumper” favourably to “Stars My Destination” – exciting and well fleshed-out characters and a wide variety of ideas, too. “Evil Genius” gets a nod for such an original plot – a child being taught to become an evil criminal mastermind like his father – and being so fun to read with few plot inconsistencies. “Last and First Men” is excluded because I have read it several times previously, and I don’t want to include a repeat viewing as a favourite, but it does deserve a mention anyway – vast scope, variety of ideas, and extremely challenging philosophy. Stapledon is quite underappreciated considering the works that he has produced.

Best Movie: Three-way tie between “The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)” “Watchmen” and “Steamboy”. "The Day The Earth Stood Still" is a quiet, intelligent character movie, and some quite interesting ideas there, too. "Steamboy" is a beautifully-drawn anime that creates a cyberpunk nineteenth-century London with some challenging moral questions. "Watchmen" (which BrideOfTheBookGod reviewed, and I largely agree with what she wrote) is an violently explicit superhero movie with insightful satirical elements set in an alternate-history America. I can not compare the three movies, all of which are quite different in presentation, ideas, and scope, but all are worth watching, and not one of those movies are done justice with the single-sentence summary I have given them.

Best Television Series: “Firefly”. There’s quite a variety of storylines attempted, yet everything makes sense in the wider Firefly universe. The characters are excellent, and so is the acting. It’s exciting to watch, too. In fact, apart from the fact that I don’t have a second series to watch, I can’t think of a problem with Firefly. Why can’t all television be this good?

Best Videogame: “Destroy all Humans! 2”. You’re an alien, invading earth, wield a bunch of cool weapons and your own UFO. It’s as cool a game as it sounds, and also enjoyable for all of the references from the 1960’s, both from the world of science fiction, and wider culture.

I would also love to thank those whom went to the effort to respond to a review I made, particularly Ardsgaine, whom I had an interesting discussion about "Atlas Shrugged" with. It's quite interesting to see different people's perspectives on what I have seen, and I have some interesting recommendations, too.

Phantasy Star (1988) (Sega Master System)

I’ve decided to play a retro science fiction-fantasy game in contrast to the somewhat newer games I have played on my trusty PlayStation 2. I’ve chosen “Phantasy Star”, a role-playing game made in the late eighties exclusively for SEGA. Because I am playing this game on an emulator, I can post screens of my game to show you something of the game I am discussing, and hopefully some in-game screens can help give you a better idea of what the game is like. Or to help pretty this review up. Either way, I hope the pictures are appreciated.



The story of “Phantasy Star” is quite simple. In the opening scenes, Alis’ brother has died, and she swears revenge against the person responsible – Lassic. Apart from killing your brother, which is enough to make him a villain in any RPG, it also seems that Lassic is also an evil overlord of sorts. So you are justified in setting out to kill him, then. Obviously there are a few things that need to be done before this encounter occurs, otherwise there wouldn’t be a game to play, and this review would have already ended. Alis starts with merely a goal of revenge and a sht. sword (apparently stands for short), and needs to build herself up to take on a variety of obstacles leading up to the showdown. She enlists the help of several allies, needs to do a bunch of quests to get items, fight lots of monsters over three different worlds (forest, desert, and water) to level up and purchase special items, and do a lot of dungeon crawling, in time-old RPG fashion.
“Phantasy Star” is a strange hybrid universe of science fiction and fantasy. You have rocket ships, robots, mad scientists, ruined laboratories, all of which you encounter over three different planets in the late twenty-fourth century. The opponents you fight, and the skills you use to battle comes straight from more traditional fantasy – there are undead people, werewolves, dragons (there are always dragons in role-playing games), talking spiders and so forth, and you cast a variety of magical spells - fire, wind, cure, and so forth. It’s an odd mix, quite formulaic and doesn't always work.


The graphics are something of a mixed bag. The maps in which you traverse are decent enough, but there have been a lot of better efforts since. The maps are somewhat repetitive in the tiles they use, they are somewhat sparse, simple, and lack some of the graphical tricks used in later 2D RPG’s. The sprites don’t look great, and there is little variety in their appearance. Compared to the efforts of, for example, early Final Fantasy games and the like, the maps look somewhat ugly. Yes, they do the job, but there’s little artistry here.



The game is not entirely bad in regards to graphics – far from it actually. The game uses quite a lot of pictures, and quite a lot of effort has went in here. Speak to an NPC (a non-playable character), you get a picture of the NPC and an appropriate background. You go to battle, you get a monster on a background. The monsters are animated, which does look nice – monsters snap at you, winged creatures flap and so forth. Talking to a new character or reaching a major in-game achievement unlocks a cut-scene of sorts. Well, a montage of pictures and text, but it still looks nice. None of this is going to be serious competition against more modern games of any sort, but I have a fondness for 2D art in games, and what’s here is quite good.

But graphics are one of the least important aspects of a game. Far more important is the gameplay, and it’s quite decent, and still worth playing today if you are a fan of role-playing games. The exploration element of this RPG works quite well – here’s an objective, figure out what to do, complete the task, and learn a bit more about the story, the characters, the in-game world, and get another objective in the process. Or you can just have fun. The game can be occasionally be somewhat opaque on how you go about your objectives, and you will find yourself having to talk to people you have already talked to previously, to find that one hint that will clear up your confusion on what you need to do. If you leave the game for a few days, you’re also going to forget exactly what it is you have to do, and spend some time figuring this out. This is never an insurmountable problem, though, but would have been appreciated had the conversations been made somewhat clearer, more people doled these important hints out, or even if there were a menu screen to show your objective/s.
You’ll also have to do a lot of dungeon-crawling in “Phantasy Star”, and this is one of the better games of this example. Dungeon-crawling is where you navigate through one enclosed area within a world map, searching for treasure, a quest objective, or both, all while fighting monsters. The dungeons are done in a fake 3D style, which I’ve only ever seen in this game. No maps, only a sense of direction and inquisitiveness to find the exit, treasure and objectives. Unlike most 2D RPG’s where you look down as the omniprescent player, this will requires some thought to figure out. This is even more notable for the inclusion of the 2D pictures they use for enemies –no separate screens for battling enemies at all when navigating in a dungeon. Compared to the normal map-style dungeon that is normally given in 2D RPG’s, it’s a dramatic improvement - I wonder why it didn’t catch on, as it makes the game quite distinctive.

Navigating the world maps, or the myriad of dungeons, inevitably results in battles against monsters. Battling is simple but decent enough – your characters get a variety of weapons to equip, and several can use a variety of spells of varying uses – heal yourself, hurl magic at enemies, or do a variety of odd things in and out of battle. You can even talk to enemies, which can save you from fighting. I quite like this compared to the “attack anything that moves” that is so prevalent in nearly every single other RPG. The start of the game can be quite ruthless and unforgiving in the battles you fight, and the later areas are paced well – difficult but not insurmountable – and you can lose a character or two if you aren’t diligent in keeping your characters’ health up.
However, there are some problems with battling monsters, which become quite apparent when so much of the game is spent here. Firstly, whether you battle one, two or eight enemies, opponents will appear as a single enemy sprite, and you can’t choose which monster to aim at when fighting. It’s fine when you battle one monster, but doesn’t work well when you have to take on multiple enemies. This can be alleviated somewhat by using spells or weapons that target multiple monsters, but it makes battling groups of monsters more difficult than it needs to be. I also don’t like how variable the damage dealt is, both for monsters and your characters – sometimes characters do thirty or forty damage to an enemy, and then can’t manage five damage to that same enemy in another turn. It’s quite a difference when a tough enemy might have two hundred health.

Levelling up is an extremely simple affair – killing monsters nets you money and experience, the money goes towards kitting your party and purchasing necessary items, while experience goes towards levelling up your character. Easy enough to get understand, but there is not much depth here. I prefer something more complex, such as having to learn skills or abilities.

There are some minor things that I miss that I have gotten used to from later 2D RPG’s. You can’t sort your items. Information isn’t readily accessible for my liking – you need to visit a church to find out how much experience you need before you reach the next level, for example, and skills and items have no description, so you will be using trial-and-error to figure out their exact use. There are other niggles of a similar vein, but these are only readily apparent when you compare the game to other games of a similar nature – few of these ruin the game in of itself, but do detract from the experience slightly. And it does add up over time.

So, my impressions of the game are quite mixed. In some regards, it is quite behind later games of a similar nature. It doesn’t have the finesse and all of the features that have come to be expected of later RPG’s. Levelling is rigid and overly simplistic, you can’t sort items, there is simply not enough information shown in the game for my liking. I have other complaints, but they are of a minor nature and the game works well enough without the features, even if they might have made it slightly easier and more user-friendly.

On the other hand, the underground mazes are quite interesting, the explorative gameplay is quite good, and the plethora of 2D pictures in the game and in the battle system are quite pretty. Yes, it seems odd to praise the graphics in such an old game when games on new consoles are so detailed that they show the individual pores on someone’s face, but there’s an aesthetic pleasure that I derive from bright and colourful 2D graphics that I do not get from highly realistic, sombre 3D graphics.


It’s a challenging game, of a decent length – I’ve currently completed approximately twenty-five hours or so (it’s hard to tell without an in-game clock) and I’m still at work. There are also a huge variety of things to do and items to collect – outfitting your party with the best equipment will take some time. I found it interesting, and I quite enjoyed it overall, but it’s probably not an RPG I would introduce new-comers to, because there are better examples out there, both 2D and 3D. I would have to give it a 3/5.

Dread Empire’s Fall Trilogy; Walter Jon Williams

The Praxis (2002)
The Sundering (2003)
Conventions of War (2005)

The “Dread Empire’s Fall” trilogy starts off with the death of the last immortal Shaa, the race of which conquered the galaxy and put all of the defeated races beneath it’s yoke, imposing it’s ideals and values upon them. After the death of this race, a civil war begins between a renegade group of Naxids, and the remaining races of the alliance – including the far-future members of humanity – over whom should rule over the galaxy. I’m reviewing the three as a single story, because the only way that I really read the current crop of science fiction trilogies is all at once – I can’t really wait for a year to find out what happens in the next novel, and by this stage, I’ve forgotten most of the original story, anyway.

The narration of the story largely passes between Gareth Martinez and Caroline Sula, both of which are the main characters of the trilogy. Martinez is a provincial Peer, the equivalent of the nobility in the novel, and his family are desperately trying to claw their way up socially, through the judicious use of marriage and money. Sula is the last member of a once highly-respected Peer group, her parents having been executed when she was a child. Both encounter each other quite early in the first novel, and something of a convoluted relationship between the two develops. There are some other characters that narrate the story, particularly Lord Chen, a highly-respected peer fallen on hard times due to the war isolating his business interests, and whom is financially rescued by the Martinez family, but on the whole, the story passes between the two. The major characters are all well-fleshed out, and are all interesting to read.

I found the military SF aspect of the trilogy to be quite well done, and this series is recommendable for that alone. I quite liked how the three novels kept the reader updated on the strength of the forces of both factions, in terms of the ships that each group had. It was a simple but extremely effective way of showing how the armadas were progressing in the war. Williams also envisages a variety of methods of futuristic warfare – large, pitched battles in space, ground-based guerrilla warfare, a small raiding party, space bombardment of a planet, and so forth. The variety of battle styles does make for interesting reading, particularly since military tactics in this world is narrowly-focused, and has crystallised and stagnated under the rule of the Shaa. The warfare of both sides sometimes comes across like a stereotyped perception of England at war – there’s a refusal of military command to adapt to changing conditions in battle, command is based on social class, with only nobility able to take positions in command, and the decisions of policy makers are partially based upon the commercial interests of the voter and their acquaintances.

The story alternates between telling of the war and how the alliance is faring against the Naxids, and telling the story of how civilian society is reacting to the war. The social aspect of the trilogy, while on the whole interesting, did not always keep my interest like the military part of the trilogy did. The first book is broken up with a backstory of a character named Gredel, whom befriends Lady Sula in her adolescence. The significance of this back story is quite obvious far before the revelation occurs, and during the backstory, slows the pace of the story dramatically. The second book, midway through, suddenly becomes quite concentrated on the idea of several members of the Martinez family getting married within quite a short period. It slows the book dramatically, does not make for interesting reading, nor is the sudden blossoming of various marriages explained well. These are minor complaints in regards to the story considering how much I enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, but do need to be made.

On the whole, the “Dread Empire’s Fall” trilogy is excellent military SF. There’s a variety of ways in which futuristic war is waged, the characters are quite interesting and well-fleshed out, and so is the society the characters live in. There is a variety of perspectives of the war, focusing on a lone, individual fighter and scaling up to commanding a fleet of warriors, and tactical command itself, and the perspectives add variety to the story.

The Praxis – 4.5/5
The Sundering – 4.5/5
Conventions of War – 5/5

Saturday, April 25, 2009

4 Star Trek Episodes

Just added 4 Star Trek The Next Generation Episodes to my list. We are going through season by season-currently we're in Season 4:

6.Star Trek TNG "The Lost"-another overarching bratty Deanna Troi story: 2.5 stars
7.Star Trek TNG "Data's Day"-one of my favorites, gotta love Data and O'Brien's Wedding, and I believe the first appearance of Spot?-5 stars.
8. Star Trek TNG "The Wounded"-1st Cardassian's! Great story-5 stars
9.Star Trek TNG "The Devil's Due"-another fantastic story-a classic!-5 stars

The Host, Unstrung Zither and the War Games

I haven't been keeping up with my updates for this challenge. Instead, I've been having fun reading and writing reviews for it. In the last week or so I've written three reviews.

The Host by Stephanie Meyer
In 1955 The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney was published. A year later Invasion of the Body Snatchers hit movie theaters. In 1978 Finney rewrote the novel and fleshed it out from novella length to a full length novel. There have been a number of film versions and homages. The most recent take on the story is The Host by Stephanie Meyer. Read the rest of the post.

Unstrung Zither by Yoon Ha Lee
In the introduction before the story, Gordon Van Gelder explains that Yoon Ha Lee lists Anne McCaffrey and Orson Scott Card as two influences in in her writing (p. 40). Having not read any of Card I can't speak to his influences but I can see McCaffrey in the music and dragons of "Unstrung Zither." Read the rest of the post.

Doctor Who and the War Games by Malcolm Hulke
Doctor Who and the War Games is a novelization of the last ten episode serial of "The War Games"(1969) to be filmed in black and white and the last regular appearance of the second Doctor. The novel takes about 250 minutes worth of story and boils it down to 143 pages. What's left is a quick but thought provoking look at war while providing some glimpses at the truth behind the Doctor. Read the rest of the post.

These three posts bring my total up to 11. Only 31 to go!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In the Forests of the Night by Jay Lake

In the Forests of the Night by Jay Lake is the first short story in the anthology Metatropolis, available from Audible.com.

We are introduced to the world of Cascadiopolis, a city in the America of the future, where wars have decimated the landscape. The America of Metatropolis is so different as to be almost unrecognizable. Big cities are gone. In their place are other collections of people - in this case, a heavily armed encampment of "green freaks". Their camp is seriously guarded, and no one gets in - or out - without a challenge.

So when a mysterious man named Tygre appears in the midst of the camp, people are unsettled. And when Tygre starts to draw a crowd of followers, the unsettledness turns into hostility. Meanwhile, an assassin hired by a mysterious outsider also gains entrance into the camp, and as emotions run high, her mission becomes clear - kill the newcomer.

In the Forests of the Night is a great start to this anthology. Jay Lake does an incredible job of world-building in a fairly short time, and his story is mysterious and intense, which kept me enthralled throughout. Michael Hogan was a good choice to read this one - his grizzled voice matched perfectly with the embattled characters. I'm definitely hooked on this collection, and can't wait to listen to chapter 2!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Knowing

My review of Knowing, starring Nicolas Cage, can be found here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Planet of the Dead

My review of the newest Dr Who episode, the beginning of the end of David Tennant's run, can be found here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Monsters vs Aliens

My review of Monster vs Aliens can be found here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ring Around the World; Clifford D. Simak (1952)

Jay Vickers, an author of some fame, is currently living in a world going through a strange industrial revolution. A company seems to be manufacturing products which are going to last forever, and this apparently has industry quite worried – if goods don’t become used and break down, then they can’t manufacture anything, and no one will have work. But that same company is also manufacturing artificial food, and distributing it for free to those whom do not have work. An industrialist asks Jay to investigate, and Jay says… no, actually. But he eventually goes and investigates anyway.

In some ways, it’s quite pulpy SF. The characters are poorly fleshed out. It is unmistakeably made in the 1950’s firmly in mind - a few gadgets have been added to take the story in the future, but the people carry the same values, the same ideas, the same tastes and prejudices as the fifties, and only what is needed plot-wise is updated. There are a lot of coincidences in this novel. I really do mean a lot. Vickers does question the occurrence of these for us, and although there is some explanation provided, I really cannot accept the inclusion of so many plot coincidences that are required to make this story work.

In other ways, the story is quite odd, in a pleasant way, and reminiscent of Philip K Dick, although Dick began his work several years after this novel. Vickers finds out that his knowledge about the world in which he lives, and what he believes he knows about himself, are quite, quite wrong, and what the world he actually lives in does make for interesting reading. Simak has his own metaphysical ideas about the world, like Dick. There’s also a undercurrent of paranoia running through the book, like Dick. The inclusion of these makes the book far less about whizzy gadgets, which does help detract from the pulpy nature of the book.

It’s the first Simak book that I have read, though, and if there is any fan of Simak reading this, I would be interested to know if this book is indicative of how the author wrote, and if it is, what his best book in a similar vein might be. This novel often reads like badly-written pulp-SF. Although but flashes of Dickian-style ideas do make the book more interesting, in this novel, Simak never manages to achieve what Dick does in his best works, or even his good works. 2.5/5.

Last and First Men; Olaf Stapledon (1930)

I happen to belong to a group that does group reads of a variety of SF books (see here), and we happen to have picked “Last and First Men” for this current read. I consider myself quite fortunate, because it is one of my favourite novels, and I need little excuse to reread this book. “Last and First Men” is philosophical treaty of the future history of the human race, extending over the next two thousand million years, and Stapledon covers a gamut of ideas in this time, which I will discuss in a moment.

To be honest, the first part of the book is not nearly as good as the rest of the book, and Stapledon anticipated as much when penning his prelude to the novel. The first part of the novel has Stapledon attempting to extrapolate from the start of the twentieth century, and some of these predictions dated quite quickly. Germany is a pacifist nation, we never achieve space flight. However, predictions that Russia’s communistic ideals are preserved by China, the world is purchased with American money, and saturated with American culture, seem to be far more accurate.

But it is also a prediction of a future that has not come yet, and it makes for extremely interesting even today – poison gas and biological agents killing entire nations, the creation of a world-wide religious movement based on energy, a world under the sway of the twin powers of America and China, becoming increasingly mechanized and less intelligent, and approaching world-wide disaster.

All of what I have mentioned is probably what you would expect from better examples of old SF – a mix of dated and prescient predictions, and some interesting ideas that still read well today. More difficult are Stapledon’s attempts to classify different countries and races with their own unique characteristics, and the generalisation of all minor characters (there are no major characters at all) as having the characteristics inherent of their country. I don’t think Stapledon was being racist at all, because he is far from flattering of his descriptions of America, Europe, and his home country of England, but it can be painfully dated reading at times

After the fall of the First Men, which makes for extremely interesting reading and is even more relevant today than in the 1930's, the book is far more relevant – Stapledon pulls out for a larger perspective of the world considered as a whole, and discusses a gamut of ideas about what events might occur in our future, and how they affect us socially and philosophically. Stapledon writes about organic giant brains as sentient super-computers, the repopulation of a near-dead Earth,, a society eking out an existence in a world depleted of metals and resources, the effects of a plethora of social policies on the general world-wide population, and a host of other ideas that I really should leave you the opportunity to discover should you find a copy of this book.

Stapledon never spends more than a chapter or two on each idea or concept, so if you aren’t terribly excited by a particular idea, a completely different idea will come up. Although it sounds like you would only get the most cursory of examinations of any subject, it’s all you really need to be able to consider the social or psychological ramifications of each. And although some of his ideas have been often dealt with in other novels, Stapledon attaches an interesting philosophical idea, a moral quandary, or a social idea or so forth makes it feel fresh and extremely interesting.

I also enjoy Stapledon’s writing style – it’s detached, clinical and impersonal, an anthropological study of our present and future, constantly cycling between the birth and death of civilisations. Technology is barely described, only so far as we need to understand the overarching story of the progression of humanity, and something of the mental outlook of varied races that exist along the stage.

The start of “Last and First Men” is somewhat dated, as much old SF tends to be, and does drag the book down somewhat. The rest of the book, with the rare mention of an old science term, does not feel dated at all. The plethora of ideas that Stapledon considers, quite a few of which are extremely original, and all of which are dealt with in an intelligent and challenging way, as well as his detached writing style, makes this a must-read book. 5/5.

Steamboy (2004)

In an alternate steampunk history of 1866, James Steam’s father and grandfather have developed a device called a “steam ball”. It contains high-pressure, high density pure water, and is capable of delivering power at a rate unrivalled by any other power source, and there are quite a few people out to use the steam ball for their own nefarious ends. The activities concerning the steamball take place in the lead-up to London’s Science Fair of 1866.

Steamboy is an animated feature, and the animation itself is stunning. It’s apparently quite technically-advanced for an animated movie, but I’m not experienced enough to comment. All I can say is that it appears that quite a lot of effort has went into every single part of this movie – the characters, the machinery, the backgrounds (quite definitely the backgrounds). I know that I say that the animation is excellent for every Japanese animated film that I have reviewed on here, but the simple sketches by American animators cannot compare to the detail and artistry displayed by Japanese animation so far. Perhaps it is because only the best-selling anime gets an English translation, but I can still appreciate the difference in the skill between the two styles.

The plot itself is not overly complex. It’s a contest between two different parties whom want the steam ball for their own uses, and the personal progression of James, who learns something of the world during the film. There’s an extremely interesting debate on the ethics, proper use and direction of science and scientific research, and plenty of good steampunk-based technology. I wish I could discuss what I liked (particularly the major steampunk creation of focus of the movie), but I don’t want to be the one that spoils the movie for those whom haven’t watched it. Considered in a less high-brow manner, there’s the huge steampunk creation that I don’t want to ruin for those whom haven’t seen it yet, and quite a variety of action scenes, including a huge battle that manages to destroy half of London, the Tower Bridge, and the massive glass building of the Science Fair. Nice.

There are a few niggles with the movie that I could point out. I didn’t really like the heiress Scarlett. She acts far too dim-witted and helpless for my liking. Yes, it’s the 19th century, and women were taught to behave in such a deplorable manner, but I still don’t have to like seeing it in a movie. Although the end of the movie addressed what happens as a result of the revelation of the steampunk-based inventions, and attempts to extrapolate the future from this, I didn’t think that the ending of the movie was explicit enough about the fate of Scarlett or James. There are some minor coincidences and inconsistencies that I will ignore. But all of those aspects are trivial complaints, and quite easily glossed over considering how much I enjoyed the rest of the movie.

“Steamboy” is an excellent animated movie. Actually, it’s an excellent movie, regardless of the fact that it is animated or not – don’t think I am making any allowances on the method used to create the movie at all. There’s quite a lot of action, some great ideas on the developments of steampunk technology, and an excellent debate on the morality of scientific research here. I highly recommended “Steamboy”. 5/5.

Evil Genius, Catherine Jinks (2005)

Cadel Piggott has gotten into trouble with his recent work which has involved hacking into computers. The police have recommended that Cadel attend sessions with renowned psychologist, Thaddeus Roth, whom has some quite unconventional ideas about what to do with Cadel – teach him to be more like his father, Phineas Darkkon, an evil genius whom had plans to completely change the world. Obviously his adopted parents need to pay some more attention to Cadel than what they currently do, then.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a book as engrossing as this. It’s not because it’s particularly well-written, or that it has beautiful, well-realised characters, or that there are astoundingly intelligent and challenging social or moral ideas here. It’s that the main idea of this is such a hoot – it’s about the son of an evil genius unwittingly working his way in his father’s footsteps, and Jinks manages to fully keep attention throughout the entire book, and manages to do so much with such an engrossing central idea.

Jinks sets up what seems to me to be the typical YA SF teenage protagonist here, but does it quite well. Cadel is extremely intelligent compared to his peers, being a genius and all, but is socially isolated from them – he is not concerned with what they are concerned with, and his interests are completely different to theirs. He also uses his intellect to get his comeuppance against those whom cause problems for him. And although it’s been done numerous times before, such as in Ender’s Game, this sort of character works for me. I don’t know if it works because the general YA SF reader, and myself, can identify with Cadel in some regard, or that the reader wants to read about people that are of above average intellect. Either way, I particularly liked the character of Cadel.

I suppose if I were feeling somewhat more jaded, or had not enjoyed myself so much, that I could find some plot holes to snigger about, point out the coincidences in the book (of which there are few, and it’s the only reason I would mark the book down), or just be a jerk about the entire experience and point out how unrealistic the whole idea of evil geniuses trying to take over the world are. But it’s been quite a while since I have had so much fun reading a book. Sometimes it is nice to read something simple and fun, a nice change from the ponderous and complex brick-thick science fiction that seems to the current trend in SF, and that’s how I would recommend this book 4.5/5.

When Worlds Collide (1951)

A star and it’s planet is hurtling towards earth, signalling doom to life as we know it. In an attempt to save a portion of humanity, a private group attempts to build a rocket to fly to this new planet.

Some parts of this movie are enjoyable enough. I liked it when the movie examines how people react to the news that the world will end, and the government’s response afterwards, although I felt that the movie did not concentrate on this for long enough. The idea for a private company to construct a rocket to the planet was an interesting idea, although it’s initial premises were quite flawed. I also enjoyed the idea of the rich, wheelchair-bound man financing the trip to pay for a berth on the ship. So, there is the occasional interesting idea here.

The characters and actors in the movie are serviceable, although I do have some questions about their skills. The acting is slightly ham-like at times, but nothing too unbearable. However, the tribulations of the main characters did not terribly interest me at all, nor did the love triangle that occurred in the movie.

The special effects are quite mixed, here. The incoming star looks decent enough, there is some nice model-work for the tidal destruction scenes, and a few other things look passably decent. On the other hand, there is some laugably poor special effects, too, that ruin any goodwill that might be generated from the good efforts prior to this. I’d suspect this of being a spoof of some sort if the movie had a more humorous script – poorly-painted backgrounds, bad models, particularly of the rocket and it’s surrounding area.

There are a plethora of problems with this movie, though, that far outweigh any positives that I might find. There are glaring scientific problems – there is a huge presumption that the incoming planet has breathable air and water, as one easy example. Yes, this is questioned briefly, but you know that they are going to be able to survive. I think that the movie would have been far more interesting with an “everyone dies” ending when they reach this alien planet, but that is just because I think it would have been a good tonic against the cheerful ending that the majority of apocalyptic stories foist on it’s viewers, but that's just my opinion. The science for the space part is laughable, even for my admittedly basic knowledge of physics in space – no weightlessness, there’s fire in space, and the ship still needs to use fuel to propel itself forward in space when it is a trip that will only last a few minutes. The set-up explanation for why the rockets have to be built privately do not work, either – everyone except the few doomsayers calculate the incoming trajectory of the star wrong, and that does not make any sense at all. The movie is also badly dated – the concerns regarding whether the rocket would actually work belong in the decade this movie was made, and do not stand up at all.

“When Worlds Collide” is occasionally decent, but time has not been kind to this movie at all – scientific inaccuracies are aplenty, the special effects greatly vary in quality, there are some huge problems with the premises of the movie itself, and future technology has badly dated this movie. 1.5/5.

Aeon Flux (1995)

“Aeon Flux.” It’s an animated show, created by MTV in the mid-nineties, and stars Aeon Flux. If you have watched the movie of the same name, also created by MTV, you might think you know what to expect – a stylish movie with little substance behind it. However, the television series is somewhat different. It attempts to be intelligent, but most of these attempts come of as nothing more than pretentious and incoherent ramblings. However, several times in the series, put forward something both original and surprising. Yes, I wrote the words original and surprising for an MTV show. I’ll be getting to that in a moment.

Aeon Flux is a terrorist capable of performing superhuman feats, such as long-distance sharpshooting, aerobatic tricks, or whatever is required to progress the story forward. Why she is capable of all of these things, like much of the rest of the show, is not really explained or examined. It’s mainly an excuse for Aeon to do cool things, wear a variety of cool leather outfits that leave little to the imagination, and get into a variety of fights. Against Aeon is Trevor Goodchild, the evil fellow of the series. He’s bent on forcing the rest of the world to be good, using a variety of contrived artificial means to do so. Aeon wants everyone to be able to make their own choices. The entire series is about the conflict between the two, and the over-arching conflict between being forced to be good, and choice, even if this choice is not beneficial. However, there is little that is new nothing new in this regard.

There are a plethora of problems that deserve discussion. When the stories attempt to be anything more than the contrived conflict between Aeon and Trevor, make little sense. It’s odd to say the least; I don’t see why an MTV show would be unclear in what it is saying, and I don’t think it is because it is a show trying to be subtle or multi-faceted. Some of the episodes lack clarity in their resolution, too - one episode has Aeon trapped in some paralysing goo, unable to move, yet is completely free of this problem without any explanation as to how she escaped in the next episode. Consistency and logic are both major problems for this series. The love-hate relationship between Trevor Goodchild and Aeon Flux makes no sense whatsoever. Trevor is either coming up with some dastardly complex scheme to capture Aeon Flux, fighting her, or attempt to make out with her, and a somewhat similar trio of thoughts are on Aeon’s mind. Their feelings towards each other are somewhat confused, but not as confused as I was when trying to figure out some of the shows in the series.

However, it’s not a complete loss as a series. The animation is not overly bad, although it lacks the artistry and detail of some of the better animated shows that I have seen. In a superficial manner, it is somewhat exciting – there are plenty of fights waged in a variety of ways, lots of gunfire, lots of explosions, and all of that silliness. And, if animated soft porn appeals, Aeon usually manages to sleep with at least one character in each episode.

At the start of the review, I said that occasionally, “Aeon Flux” actually does something surprising and original. I’m not joking. “Episode 2: Thanatophobia” had an excellent ending – quite a few seemingly irrelevant scenes in the show had built up to the conclusion. In fact, after watching that show, I had wondered if my dismissive initial impressions of the show were correct. “Episode 6: Demiurge” had eternal villain Trevor Goodchild trying to use the powers of a God to control people’s behaviour. It’s a good idea, although it was not particularly well-delivered. “Episode 9: Chronophasia” has Aeon Flux continually looping back to a particular point in time, trying to tackle a difficult situation. The story was quite difficult to follow, like every other show in the series, but the confusion felt that it actually belonged to this episode. Although the occurrence of these good ideas warrant discussion, they are poorly delivered, poorly executed, and far too sporadic to save the series from being rubbish, for the most part.

For the most part, “Aeon Flux” looks cool, but there’s little inside – MTV apparently knows something about style over substance. In spite of the occasional attempt towards intelligent ideas, for the most part, the series fails. I can’t recommend the series at all, which is sad to say when it seems that with more work (a lot more), it could have been both an intelligent and exciting show. 1.5/5.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

#8: Heechee Rendezvous


I've finished the third and original final book of the Heechee Saga by Frederik Pohl. It didn't wow me as much as Gateway but I'm still enjoying the series.

You can read my review and see how I compare it to Futurama and Ghost in the Shell: SAC on my blog