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Godzilla: Final Wars or ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ (2004)

November 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Godzilla-_Final_Wars

After a long break, I decided to watch a film and, because I never like to be wholly predictable, chose Godzilla: Final Wars or ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ (2004). This is somewhat perverse since so many films of potential interest have appeared over the last year or so (including the latest Hollywood attempt at a Godzilla film), but this seemed to have the right level of silliness to match my current mood. It turns out the Japanese have not lost their sense of wackiness when it comes to Kaiju films. This is the twenty-eighth in the series and it celebrates fifty years of Godzilla. Yes the man in the rubber suit first appeared on our screens in 1954 and has now been venerated by his very own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. All other monsters (with the possible exception of Geiger’s Alien) look on enviously at the international success of this rubber suit (still no sign of CGI replacing of monster of choice as he stomps through cardboard buildings while incinerating troops on the ground with his radioactive halitosis).

Masahiro Matsuoka, presumably the one on the left

Masahiro Matsuoka, presumably the one on the left

This time around, we’re looking at an alien invasion plot which, to some extent, puts our monsters in the shade. Here comes a short summary. This is an invasion some 12,000 years in the planning. I suppose, with the time dilation effect, the aliens could have come to Earth, done the necessary, and then gone home or whizzed round the galaxy a couple of times so it was only a year or so for them, and 12,000 years for us. Such details are never considered in Japanese science fiction films. Anyway, these aliens with a name so unpronounceable they decide to call themselves X, plant Gigan, a cyborg, in readiness. They also introduce a gene into some local monsters, and one or two humans. Our Xians are into serious mind control and, once the gene spreads through the host’s body, the aliens can control the body with their thought waves.

Godzilla doing what he does best

Godzilla doing what he does best

Coming forward, Earth has been developing a group of mutant soldiers to form the core of Earth Defence Force. Yes, the mutation for stronger, faster and more intelligent (sometimes) soldiers is the X-gene. This looks to be a great idea until the Xian mothership appears over the EDF HQ and takes over all the mutant soldiers bar one who’s that one-in-a-million mutation the Xians call a Kaiser. Yes, he’s a kind of superman just waiting for the right set of circumstances to wake up his superpowers. Coming to the crunch, the aliens want to smash our civilisation. They want to farm the few surviving communities for food so call up all the monsters containing the X-gene and have them rampage around. The EDF is overwhelmed and realise their only hope is to wake up Godzilla and have him/her/it fight and beat them all, while the few remaining humans fight the Xians on their mothership. The aliens die. All the monsters bar Godzilla, Mothra and Minilla die, and the obvious couples go off into the rubble to begin repopulating the Earth.

Don Frye and his epic moustache

Don Frye and his epic moustache

As to the cast Shin’ichi Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka) is not the most lively of actors but, courtesy of some very forgiving cutting and slow-motion, fights quite well when called upon to defend Earth. His love interest is Miyuki Otonashi (Rei Kikukawa) who’s supposedly a biologist but, apart from using it to store costume jewellery, would not know what to do with a test tube. Her older sister, Anna Otonashi (Maki Mizuno) is more credible as a newscaster but she’s only there to look like a love-struck mooncalf at Colonel Douglas Gordon (Don Frye) who’s one of these mixed martial artists turned “actors” who hides behind a large moustache and pretends he can’t speak a single word of Japanese. Other humans are involved but they are less important. The cast of monsters is impressive including Anguirus, Ebirah, Kamacuras, Rodan and others. Minilla is, as always, endearing with the Twins and Mothra doing their fortune cookie act to warn the humans of the need to die with dignity if attacked by monsters. Given we have the serial destruction of Paris, Sydney, New York and other iconic cities, we get to see extras of many different nationalities and races throwing themselves around with considerable enthusiasm. All of which just leaves us to talk about the Xilian Regulator (Kazuki Kitamura) who has gone on to do good work in the Galileo and other series. Courtesy of the lighting and careful fight choreography, he does well as the villain who learns the hard way that using hard attacking styles all the time loses out to soft power. The only other name I need mention is Tsutomu Kitagawa who’s one of Japan’s best suit actors. You may not know it, but he’s the stuntman behind many of the monsters and the Power Rangers. Truly a man making a career out of anonymity. Put overall, Godzilla: Final Wars or ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ is so absurd it becomes enjoyable. Not having seen a “proper” Godzilla film for several decades, this was a wonderful excursion down nostalgia lane.

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

November 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterdays-Kin-by-Nancy-Kress

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, one section of the world’s population became fixated by the possibility of nuclear armageddon. Wherever you turned, the media was full of news stories about what Russia was supposed to be doing and the countermeasures being taken by the West. In fiction, words and images bombarded us with alien invasions and other apocalyptic shenanigans as metaphors for what mutually assured destruction would achieve if either side pressed the button to signal the commencement of hostilities. So from the earliest age, I was immersed in every conceivable form of plot involving the arrival of aliens. Some were Greeks bearing gifts, others made no bones about their intention to wipe out humanity, while a very small percentage actually proved benign. Having endured sixty years plus reading years of watching this trope played out in all the media, it doesn’t exactly light my fire to see Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, 2014) arriving on my to-read pile. These aliens turn up, claim to have peaceful intentions, and then just sit there for two months not doing anything serious except exchanging a few ideas with the United Nations.

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

I mean, just how boring are these guys! There’s none of the gung-ho, shoot them from the skies aggression we’ve come to expect from either side. Of course, the politicians talk while the conspiracy theorists go nuts trying to work out why they have really come all this way. Surely it can’t just be to say, “We come in peace. Take us to your leaders.” I mean, what civilisation would spend all that cash to send such a wimpy crew to do nothing but sit there?

So our author has to do something to make all this passivity interesting. She has this family of a mother (the father was a drunk who passed on some years ago) and her three children. She’s a top research scientist in genetics, and her children are a border guard, an environmentalist, and a dropout. Notice the subtle hints. One keeps illegal aliens from coming into America from the south. One deals with invading species which disrupt the local ecology. And the other does a new type of street drug and experiences an acute form of empathy. Wow, are those going to be useful skills, or what?

Needless to say, the story quickly resolves itself into mother and dropout versus the aliens. After the first few chapters, I guessed the plot. Although the detail has some degree of originality, the core is simply a different version of duplicitous aliens. So the end result is rather sad. Perhaps in another writer’s hands, there would have been more tension, or the characters, both human and alien, would have emerged to engage our sympathies or other relevant emotions. But what we have here is purely functional storytelling. This author has had a reasonably good idea and wants to get it down on paper with the minimum fuss and bother. The result is a predictable plot and characters that failed to offer any connection. The workaholic and somewhat socially dysfunctional mother failed to connect with the dropout before the aliens arrived. After their dramatic appearance, the young man gets on rather well with the aliens. Indeed, it turns out he shares something quite important with them. But, like most dropouts, he was not particularly likeable to his fellow humans. He did rather better with the aliens, managing to get one of them pregnant. So this is a quick read to see whether your guess as to the reason for the aliens’ arrival is correct. If you fail to get the right answer, keep reading for another fifty years when all such plots will be transparent to you. Overall this is a pedestrian effort and not really worth your time and attention.

For the review of another book by Nancy Kress, see Steal Across the Sky

Irredeemable by Jason Sizemore

June 4, 2014 1 comment

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Irredeemable by Jason Sizemore (Seventh Star Press, 2014) is a collection of eighteen stories, seven of which are original. “Caspar” strips down the setting to the bare minimum and has us view a meeting on a bench. Two men come together and one offers insights into the story of the three gifts offered by the three wise men to the baby Jesus. Perhaps this interpretation of the Bible is not quite standard, but it certainly comes with a point and indicates the probable direction of travel. “City Hall” wonders whether Human Resources Departments, particularly those in the public sector, could become slightly more innovative when it comes to terminating employees who are tardy, incompetent, or have serious halitosis. For too long, personnel mavens have relied on the tried and tested pink slip. But that’s altogether too impersonal. I’m reminded of Julius Caesar Act 4 which warns, “These many, then, shall die; their names are prick’d.” “Faithless” reminds us that sometimes there’s a double edge to a situation. Now it may well be that a serpent was responsible for tempting Adam and Eve with the unfortunate consequence of original sin. But there are times when, in the right hands, the serpent can have precisely the opposite effect.

“For the Sake of Pleasing” is as the title suggests, a rather pleasing science fantasy in which the rather powerful vampire-like creatures who run Earth like a cattle farm suddenly detect the imminent arrival of aliens. This could be very inconvenient, so Earth sends its Barbarella on a first-contact mission. In tone, this is rather like the Richard Jeperson stories by Kim Newman with psychic forces blending in with sixties and seventies spy and thriller film and television series like The Avengers and James Bond. Although I don’t think the ending is quite worked out properly, this is a standout story. “Hope” is a different form of science fiction context for an urban fantasy story of hunter and hunted at the end of the world. Although mildly explicit, it builds to a pleasingly wry conclusion. “Ice Cream at the Falls” sees us back to the straight horror with an artist who has a mission to impose his point of view on the world. With his latest work on display, he suddenly discovers the sins of the father can pass down to the son. “Little Digits” is a short short story which inverts expectation lickety-split or should that be splat? “Mr Templar” takes us back to the sfnal world with a story of androids surviving a nuclear holocaust. They wander the surface of Earth searching for fuel to keep themselves functional. At times, out of desperation, they scavenge the fallen for spare parts and residual fuel. It’s a tough life made more pressing by the discovery of a spacecraft in orbit. Perhaps if they could reach that ship there would be salvation. Or perhaps an entirely different fate awaits them.

Jason Sizemore

Jason Sizemore

“Plug and Play” is a faintly humorous spin on the drug mule trope as our human hero has what some might think a psychotic break on the space station where he works and discovers it can be a better life to work for, rather than against, android interests. I don’t think the plot is completely coherent. Why he should want to go back to his old job and, more to the point, why the androids would want such a troublesome human back needs to be explained. Nevertheless, as written, it maintains interest to the end. “Pranks” is an unsuccessful attempt to run the biter-bit trope. Unfortunately, it telegraphs the ending from the first paragraph. “Samuel” sees a son try to defend his mother from death. It seems not to follow the logic of its basis in faith. If the mother had been baptised and had led a life without sin, or, more likely, had been given the last rites after confession, the son should have faith his mother would go to Heaven and dismiss the words of the devil as lies. But you can ignore this comment. As an atheist, I’m afraid I don’t really understand stories like this. “Shotgun Shelter” takes us back into the real world with a kind of coming-of-age story in which three teens get into trouble and have to decide what to do about it. The answer is slightly extreme but not unexpected.

“Sonic Scarring” is a powerful alien invasion story with a very interesting variation on the answer to the traditional question, “What do the aliens want with us, anyway?” “The XX Agent” is one of the most successful stories in the collection, showing us how arbitrary the line is between life and death, and how often the choices we make dictate which side of the line we fall. “The Dead and Metty Crawford” takes us into familiar zombie territory, and as the title suggests, “The Sleeping Quartet” has us in a dream/nightmare scenario where the trick is telling the real from the imagined. “Useless Creek” is one of these nicely ambiguous stories in which even thinking about a lost love can be emotionally painful. As with all such situations, it’s the uncertainty that’s the most difficult to deal with. And, as is appropriate in collections, the publisher leaves the best till last. “Yellow Warblers” is a terrific story about the nature of acceptance and the role of knowledge when it comes to survival.

Having finished, three things are clear. Jason Sizemore is better at length than writing shorter stories. Second, he’s better at writing science fiction and naturalistic crime stories than straight horror. Finally, although this collection is slightly uneven in quality, there’s no doubt that when he makes a good connection with the ball, he hits it out of the park. All of which makes Irredeemable highly readable and worth picking up if you’re into short fiction which, for the most part, is influenced by the southern gothic style.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead

October 18, 2013 1 comment

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For some inexplicable reason probably connected with the increasingly rapid death of brain cells, this book reminded me of several works from the 1950s. I start with Earth vs the Flying Saucers, one of the better alien invasion films I paid to see when it first came out in 1956. These pesky creatures land in their ships and so long as they stay inside their force fields, they are invulnerable to our primitive weapons, until. . . As a short story, I always liked William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), while Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953) has a slightly more peaceful, but nevertheless disruptive, invasion. As to the alien’s motive for the assault on our green and pleasant lands, I offer The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch and Of Men and Monsters (1968) by WIlliam Tenn. I suppose these works have stuck in my memory as yardsticks against which to measure the level of intelligence in the vast number of alien invasion plots encountered since.

All of which brings me to Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead (Solaris, 2013). This plot depends on several overlapping ideas. The aliens have invaded and the devastation produces a post-apocalyptic situation in which survivors struggle to survive in a devastated environment. In this thread, Kylie and her man (he’s impotent thanks to the residual poison in the environment, so he’s not her lover) live in what’s left of Oakland. In this thread, it’s 2013, and her nemesis is a mentally unstable religious fanatic who has plans for her which he claims will save Earth. There’s one anomaly in the devastated landscape. It’s called the Seattle Preservation Dome. As in Groundhog Day (1993), this is a city caught in a time loop — it’s always the fifth of October. The questions, of course, are how this anomaly came into being and what sustains it as Ian Palmer and his friend, Zack, iterate through marginally different versions of the same time period.

Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead

The good news it that the post-apocalypse element works well as Kylie is forced to leave Oakland and ends up at a survivor-inspired project to bring down the dome. These humans have both a theory as to what the dome is and a fighter jet which they believe can fly inside. The less good news is that, despite the valiant attempts of Zack to remind Ian they are in a time loop, our hero in this narrative thread is stubborn. Admittedly, it does sound a little nutty to suggest everyone is stuck in time, destined to repeat the same day over and over again. But Ian does take a long time to admit the truth of his situation. This means we have to read through the same day quite a few times before things grow more exciting.

As our example to compare, the short story by William Tenn is nearest in spirit, i.e. the cause of Earth’s destruction is similar. The essential difference lies in the introduction of the time loop which, in a Matrix kind of way, offers some degree of preservation for those inside the dome. As a plot, this is all rather elegant even though the first step for exiting the loop (the first time) is not completely voluntary. I would have been more impressed if the relevant individuals had come up with this idea and then had to trigger the major change. The uncertainty in whether it will work would have produced real tension. I was also slightly disconcerted that, as written, the plot has Kylie disappear from the action for quite a long time as we move through the final third of the book. Since their relationship has been set up as love-at-first-sight between two humans who share a certain characteristic, I’m not sure I approve of this way of finishing the book. I understand the author’s choice. He’s free to write the book he wants. But if the final answer is going to depend on the strength of their romance, the demonstration of their love is long time coming.

So as written, Life on the Preservation starts off in a way confirming the strength of Jack Skillingstead’s craft. There’s real cleverness in the different ways in which the fifth of October are presented. Once the ultimate alien threat kicks in, the pace picks up and there’s considerable excitement. This just leaves us with the ending which is slightly muted. I suppose it’s appropriate for there to be an absence of triumphalism. That would be “unrealistic” in this context. The best we can hope for as an outcome is a marginal rebalancing of forces. If nothing else, it’s a triumph of persistence. As George R Stewart tells us, for now Earth Abides.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2011) sees me going back in time to satisfy my curiosity. I was intrigued rather than impressed by the meticulous way in which The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight was put together. Although the political situation as described was rather laboured, the military SF element was pleasing. It therefore seemed a good idea to go back a couple of books to look at the story from the main protagonist’s point of view. Black Jack was part of the practical mythology that informed the activities of the ex-Syndic world. Why not see how and why he had made such a name for himself?

The basic premise is not in any sense original. It assumes an individual from one culture can have a massive impact when he or she is transplanted into a different culture. Simply the fact of difference is enough to raise the hackles in the new culture. There’s always been deep suspicion of strangers. If they are also “foreigners” this doubles the paranoia that their very presence will change the world, and not for the better. This particular variation has a military leader who was “frozen” when his exploits had made him famous. Politicians over the decades then found it convenient to refer back to this man as having been a leader in their culture’s “golden age”. They mused how tragic his “death” had been. If only. . . and then his body is discovered and he’s reanimated. This is, of course, deeply embarrassing to the generations of politicians who have lauded his name. It gets worse when he’s able to start winning battles again. I’m coming into the story just after Black Jack has beaten the Syndic fleet and brought peace to this part of the galaxy. The man’s status as a hero is now undeniable. So what are the politicians to do with him?

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

They could arrest him, but what would the charges be and would the people tolerate a trial for the man who has ended the civil war? They could quietly arrange for him to meet an accident. If he “died” before, he could do so again and save all the corrupt from having to account to this man of honour. Yes, he’s the epitome of everything good about the military. Willing to serve but scrupulous both when it comes to accounting for his own actions and holding others accountable when they fall short of his high standards. People in power would be lining up to pay for his assassination so they could weep crocodile tears at his funeral and berate fate that had snatched the hero away. . . his legacy would not be forgotten, it would become an inspiration to all. . . and so on.

So we open as Black Jack and his new wife are on their way to rejoining the fleet after their short honeymoon. They are not sure what they will find but are convinced it will be dangerous. Indeed, their arrival coincides with an attempt to break the unity of the fleet. This is political suicide, because if unified command ceased to function, ships returning to their own sets of home planets might produce a balkanisation of human space, each warlord claiming sovereignty by virtue of local military power. To avoid this, the fleet is to be sent off to investigate the strength of the aliens in the adjacent part of the galaxy. This plays to the old political ploy that, if you can’t frighten your people with the threat of humans on the other side of a civil war, you threaten them with aliens at the gates. Despite various attempts to sabotage the mission, a strong fleet does set off and is soon in what used to be Syndic space.

Of course, this is no more safe than alien-controlled space. The fact peace might have been imposed does not mean old resentments have been resolved. Thus begins a significantly more interesting journey through local politics. Here’s our hero, a man with the reputation for righteousness and honour, suddenly forced to begin dealing with people who have little or no interest in compromise or even considering what might, objectively, be the right thing to do. It’s back to the good old days of dog-eat-dog power-broking with selfishness uppermost. And this is not just in Syndic governments. It also affects the operation of the fleet itself, particularly when it liberates some prisoners whose view of how the world should operate is very “different”.

At some point, the fleet crosses over into alien space and there’s some fascinating world building on the nature of their culture. This is a very brave attempt to formulate something inexplicable by our standards and, to a considerable extent, this part of the book is a success. I can’t recall anything quite like this in any other media: books, television, cinema, anime, etc. In part, this reflects the essential paradox in what the humans “see” and a real part of the fun is in listening to their attempts to understand it. Indeed, the strength of the paradox lies in reasons for the “first contact” which suggests I have not gone back quite far enough in the series. Perhaps, I should have read the book earlier than this.

That said, the slightly convoluted title The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught delivers a thoughtful book on the politics of war and the management of the subsequent peace. What to do with standing armies has always been a headache. And I find myself recommending this to the broader SF community. This is not just military SF. Braces for strong reaction from ghetto fans. It’s better than that! Indeed, committed military SF fans may think the first half of the book has too much talk and not enough fighting.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Pacific Rim (2013)

July 18, 2013 4 comments

Pacific Rim 2013

Pacific Rim (2013) reminds us that alien invasions can come from different directions. Conventionally, the pesky beasts load themselves into star ships and fly here. This gives us some time to prepare as our telescopes pick up these large unidentified objects heading in our direction. But, of course, the more advanced aliens can open wormholes and fly between two points in space just by pressing Go. This takes Earth’s defences by surprise and, with such formidable technology to call on, they beat us without waiting to collect the $200 for pressing Go. This film takes the wormhole idea one step further and has an interdimensional door opening in the middle of the Pacific. But instead of the aliens coming through personally, they send through Kaiju, rather large dinosaurs somewhat akin to Godzilla and similar Japanese favorites. They can be beaten using conventional weaponry, but it takes time and while they are being slowly shot to pieces, they do an enormous amount of damage. This seems to be an incredibly stupid way of trying to take over a planet. These aliens have the technology to clone ever larger beasts with great fighting skills. Wy can’t they reverse this process and develop tiny creatures called bacteria or a virus which can be unleashed to kill us all without them having to break sweat (assuming the aliens perspire as opposed to randomly seeping ichor)? From the human perspective, we have a single entry point so submarines with nuclear torpedoes could wait there and kill the beasts as their heads emerge. Polluting the sea is a small price to pay if it saves lives.

At this point, it’s perhaps relevant to mention director Guillermo del Toro’s interest in H P Lovecraft. Cthulu lives and dreams in a city deep under the South Pacific. It’s called R’lyeh. Notice the hero of this film is called Raleigh. We may therefore speculate this is the minions of the Elder Gods softening up Earth before Cthulu wakes up and the other Mythos beings arrive. Appropriately, evidence emerges suggesting the aliens tried this before with the original dinosaurs, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite the right mix and they died out before they could clear out the indigenous lifeforms. Now we’ve had several centuries polluting the place, the atmosphere is just right for the larger scale dinosaurs to return. This time the aliens’ monsters will clear off the vermin, i.e. us, leaving the aliens a great planet to call home.

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi as the winning team

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi as the winning team

Knowing conventional weapons will not keep us safe for long, Earth comes together and builds giant robots called Jaegers. The timing of this is interesting. While these monsters are popping up out of the ocean, we can develop the technology and build these robots in a few months. Yeh, right (sarcasm intended). One person interfaces are not strong enough to control these machines. It needs two minds working together. Brothers Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Becket (Diego Klattenhoff), were never star athletes but they were compatible when slaved together to drive the robotic Jaegers. Two-person teams like them become rock stars. They beat the Kaiju. Life begins to go back to normal. Then a Category 3 Kaiju appears and the game swings back in the aliens’ favour. The brothers are beaten and, while connected, Yancy is killed. This leaves Raleigh psychologically damaged. The Kaiju are adapted and start to win more frequently. The ranks of the Jaeger are thinned. As is required in films like this, Earth’s politicians decide to build walls around the biggest cities. Hilariously, the elite retreat three-hundred miles inland and leave the rest of the plebs in these more exposed places. Not that this will save the leaders-from-behind, of course. But the elite can delude themselves they will live longer than the masses. The remnants of the Jaeger team are sent to Hong Kong with funding for only eight months. Led by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), they turn themselves into a last chance defence of the city, prepared to take on all-comers. The rest of the cities hide behind walls. Unfortunately with nothing between the monsters and each wall, the beasts can just hit it until it comes down. Raleigh Becket is recalled to the front line and teamed up with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). As a pilot, Pentecost rescued her from a Kaiju attack and raised her as his daughter. Now he’s holding her back until the plot requires him to make the adoptive parental sacrifice. The new partnership has to build trust. After an initial misfire, it’s obvious they will be winners. With Idris Elba to do the recycling of the Shakespearean trope, it’s once more into the breach dear friends as, on St Crispian’s Day, the heroes set off to cancel the apocalypse.

OK, so what’s right about this film? Well, some of the CGI is very impressive. There’s a nice attention to detail and a real attempt to give a sense of the mass and momentum of both the monsters and the robots. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say is good. Staying with the CGI for a moment, almost all the scenes are at night and many of the battles are partially obscured by rain or sea water lashed up into the air. I have an interminable list of everything wrong with what we see. Frankly, translating this idea from the far superior anime forerunners like Neon Genesis Evangelion is a robot too far. It’s a problem of perception. When you see these vast machines as anime, it’s easy to suspend disbelief. You don’t have to relate them to real-world physics or metalurgy. You can just sit back and watch the inspirational story of heroism unfold. But the more realistic you make the robots, the more questions you have to answer. Like just what metals go into the manufacture of these machines? And why do they not get bent out of shape or dented every time a Kaiju taps them with a claw? Yes, they get damaged (eventually), but they get thrown all over the place, crash through buildings and even get dropped from a great height. But they just get up, dust themselves down and start fighting again. And they are all atomic powered? What’s the risk of having them fight inside a city? Even if they don’t blow up, damage could spread radioactive fuel and leave the area uninhabitable. No, wait. They fight in the sea so leaks of the fuel just kill all the fish we eat. And how can a couple of helicopters can pick one robot up and drop it into the shallow sea without breaking it? And why is the seabed always flat when the robots go into battle? And later they are like submarines that can swim down to the bottom of the Pacific without the pressure crushing them? And is that supposed to be an oil tanker being carried as a weapon by one of the robots? I don’t think so!

Idris Elba as Henry V

Idris Elba as Henry V

Integral to the plot is Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) not quite named for his appetites, who harvests everything useful from the fallen Kaiju. Killing the beasts is good business for him and the Asian men who pay vast amounts of money for Kaiju parts as aphrodisiacs. Initially the scientist double act is there for light relief. Meet Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) the let-me-talk-to-its-brain guy and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) the math wonk. But later they prove essential. As to the technology on display, the drift or neural bridge is quite an interesting idea. Two minds slaved together — think left and right brain — to control the robot. The question, of course, is how the minds stay focused on the job in hand and avoid becoming immersed in memories or other primal urges. Now back to the scientists. If a human was to mind-meld with a Kaiju, that would be a two-way link — not that the aliens would need to know much about us. In this, the baby Kaiju is an amusing touch with two scientists sharing the load to get the inside dope.

This leaves me disappointed. It might have been possible to craft a good story on this theme of monsters vs. robots, but it certainly didn’t appear on the screen. At 130 minutes, the whole thing just takes too long with the human interaction not strong enough to fill in between the set-piece battles. I suspect even the fanboys are going to find Pacific Rim heavy going.

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

June 29, 2013 2 comments

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The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013) is playing in the sandbox of male fantasy wish-fulfillment. From the earliest days of the comics, boys have been presented with heroes who suddenly discover they’re not the usual downtrodden losers, endlessly condemned to slave at the chalk face as bored students before transitioning seamlessly into unemployment or the miseries of exploited slave labour. At a stroke they find they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, fight crime as a caped crusader, and avoid acne. It always was a seductive dream. Then along came the anime series which showed us that the only requirement for being able to win in competition or battle was self-belief — the power of your will was translated into the strength of your Pokemon or BattleBot (sorry that’s real world fighting with geeks using physical robotic avatars but the idea’s the same). Some of these stories are painfully exploitative rather than inspirational, i.e. they exist to sell the games, the cards and other tied-in product lines rather than to provide practical guidance on how to mitigate the pain of everyday existence in our current reality. People cannot suddenly transform their lives by their own efforts. They either start with natural abilities or they have guidance on how to make the best of what they have. Only a tiny percentage of the young become major performers in their chosen field of activity.

Because comics are strongly gender biased, those aimed at young males naturally cater to the fantasies of their target audience. That means all the girls are mere ciphers who fit the prevailing male stereotypes. They must be stunningly attractive and, at first, cluster around the confident but brainless hunks already in the scene. But when our protagonist’s superpowers emerge, he becomes the babe magnet as a fan club forms for the masked or thinly disguised alter ego who now bestrides the neighbourhood doing good. So our hero gets to do cool stuff in physical terms and becomes the most sexually attractive person on the planet with the pick of all the most attractive women he sees. You can’t have a fantasy better designed to sink its hooks into young males.

Wesley Chu in hero mode

Wesley Chu in hero mode

So the point of this story is to find a man who could not be farther from the hero stereotype. Meet Roen Tan. Naturally, he was bullied at school and has grown up overweight and with a level of self-esteem one point above zero. He’s what the IT trade would laughingly call a code monkey and he’s pathetically grateful to be bullied by his line manager into working an insane number of hours for very little money. This provides him with enough cash to drink himself silly in inappropriate clubs, not picking up girls or having any fun (other than the consumption of more pizzas which add to his girth). So you can imagine his surprise one morning when he wakes up on the floor of his shared apartment. Usually, he manages to make it to the bed before he passes out. What he fails to realise is that he’s now become the host for an alien who can control his body while he’s asleep. OK so this is not the most original of science fiction tropes. The alien is one of a group who crashed on Earth several million years ago and all they want to do is get back home (thank the powers above it’s not an alien invasion story). Except they have to wait until humans have developed a level of technology that will make return possible (ignoring the passage of time and the fact their return might not be entirely successful as things will have changed back home while they were away). Originally all our aliens were singing from the same hymn book but, as time passed, a disagreement arose as how best to push our evolution. One group was all for using conflict and wars to drive development. The other wanted to be more patient and encourage curiosity and creativity. When they could not agree, they broke into armed camps and have been fighting each other using humans as their hosts ever since. Yes, they provoked all the more recent wars and had hosts in key positions on both sides. Yawn. We’ve been there and got the T-shirt on this trope so many times.

So only one thing saves this book from dropping into oblivion. No matter how competent the alien, he’s only as good as the host when it comes to doing anything “important”. Although the alien can control the body when the host is asleep, this is not going to produce anything useful when the host wakes up (people on average sleep between seven and eight hours which leaves the host exposed to danger the rest of the time). So the alien has to negotiate with the host to persuade him to sign up for combat training. The bulk of the book therefore follows the slow process of losing weight, getting fit, and developing the reflexes to be able to fight and shoot. Except the mind is less than willing. This produces very indifferent results when our hero suddenly finds himself at risk. No matter how much he has trained, he still lacks self-confidence. His first instinct is to run but that’s not going to save him. At some point he has to fight. The interest therefore comes in watching the alien manipulate the human into at least attempting all this training, and then supporting him until his mind catches up to the new levels of physical fitness.

The result is slow moving and, despite the action sequences going on around him, less than engaging because the only way he survives is by accident. Coincidence and contrivance loom large to save our hero from his failure to develop proper reflexes and complete lack of self-confidence. There are vague attempts at humour but the jokes are repeated and quickly grow tiresome. It all goes on far too long before we get to the predictable climax in which the girl our hero has fallen in love with is threatened by evil Emperor Ming and he discovers he can hit harder than a girl. If someone in an editorial role had cut out all the deadwood, this could have been a good but limited story. There would have been some degree of balance in the characterisation to include believable human and alien females, and some explanation of how the alien sexuality works. We seem to have male aliens in male hosts. What happens when the genders fail to match up? Why is a coma not the same as sleep? These and other questions are just left hanging. Sadly, The Lives of Tao is bloated and boring. That it’s set up for a sequel is not good news unless someone with a lot more experience takes over the editorial role and guides this young writer round all the pitfalls.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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