Posts Tagged ‘alien invasion’

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

November 30, 2014 Leave a comment


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


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


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


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


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.

Oblivion (2013)

May 15, 2013 2 comments

Oblivion poster

I suppose Oblivion (2013) makes a change. Instead of dealing with the crash-bang defeat of an alien invasion and stopping the cameras rolling before Earth gets to do the clean-up operation, removing all the damaged and destroyed buildings and the bodies of the aliens we managed to slaughter, this film starts off with the notion that the aliens turned up and attacked the moon. Don’t you just love science fiction. Knowing they could never hope to defeat Earth’s military might, they took on the one target they knew they could beat. Oh, and of course, substantial destruction of the moon changed the gravitational effect of said moon and there were earthquakes and tsunamis down here that pretty much did in Earth’s defences. Pretty sneaky, huh? Except the military had enough nuclear firepower to defeat these pesky creatures when they did land. The price of Earth’s victory? Contamination on an epic scale.

At this point, i.e. about two minutes into the film, we get a major inconsistency in the narrative. If Earth was seriously damaged by all this, how come we could develop the technology to build this superduper space station and go into residence around Titan? This is clearly beyond our abilities, even without the odd high tide washing over cities. More importantly, if Earth didn’t beat all these scavenger beings and they hang around still attacking our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), why not get more systematic to exterminate them before settling into a life in outer space to wait for the planet to heal? Failure on this front means they breed while we’re away and can build defences to stop us coming back. We’re also immediately shown that “they” are messing with our hero’s memories. He keeps getting flashbacks to the pre-invasion Earth and sees this dominant image of a woman. This must be some imperfection from the last security memory wipe which occurred almost five years ago. Except Jack is obviously an unreliable narrator and we can’t trust anything he claims to remember. His minder (and lover), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is apparently there to keep Jack on mission and acting within the “rules” laid down by Sally (Melissa Leo), the liaison officer in command from the space station.

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

So we hypothesise that the aliens won and, having wiped Jack’s memories, are now using him to repair their drones while they steal our water. The images of the beached ships and odd bits of building left exposed are quite impressive and confirm destruction on an epic scale. Assuming this is replicated across the planet, it’s inconceivable humanity survived in any numbers. As you would therefore expect, this homely drone maintenance engineer and his consort believe they are the only folk left on Earth and they have one of these idyllic homes perched on top of a mountain while he completes the establishment of the drone network (except the trailer has already shown us that Beech (Morgan Freeman) is alive and well and living in semidarkness so he can see where the end of his cigar is to light it when he strikes a match). His sidekick is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who looks difficult to kill. OK so what’s the verdict after ten minutes? It seems Earth has also developed antigravity because these drones move around without regard to little constraints like mass and momentum. There’s also this nifty flying thingamagummy for Jack to patrol his allocated quadrant which is also way beyond anything we could have developed.

For the record, not one bit of the “science” in this science fiction film makes any sense. If aliens blew up the moon, we could have a ring like Saturn which would be really cool when the sun shines on it or there could be a big dust cloud which would have substantially the same mass as the moon in solid form, i.e. have the same gravitational effect. If the moon was pushed away, the sun would take over as the dominant gravitational force and we’d get high tide at noon every day. Oh, and people would stop changing into wolves when the moon was full. The assertion Earth would have been pulled to pieces because of this sneak attack is ludicrous. The only point of this scenario is to justify the montage of CGI images that provide a context for the actors to say their lines which, for the most part, are ditchwater dull and make little sense.

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Perhaps we can save the film by dignifying it as an SFnal examination as to the meaning of identity. You know the kind of thing. We are the sum of all we remember so, if there’s an artificial block on our memories, our character changes. Why? Because if we can no longer remember how we reacted in the past, experience stops guiding us in the present. Except all this film does is prove these damn fool aliens don’t have a mind machine to beat the mind of Tom Cruise. He’s back in the past remembering football games and this woman on top of the Empire State Building. You just can’t keep the mind of a good hero down. It bears mentioning that the main plot set-up and twist is the same as in Moon (2009) which was not unlike Eutamnesia (2000). It’s difficult to be genuinely original when there have been so many books and films on this theme. So perhaps we can say the CGI is great and the action exciting? Well, the first fight sequence is chaotic and the behaviour of the drone makes little sense. Then an old piece of technology crashes and, after forcing the drones to pull away, Jack rescues Julia (Olga Kurylenko). She’s been in suspended animation for sixty (or more) years and, yes, she’s the girl he keeps remembering. What? Earth had suspended animation technology? Perhaps they also had stealth technology as well.

At this point, lots of stuff happens and then it ends. Perhaps this would not have been too bad if it had only been a ninety minute film but, at one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, it feels like Purgatory. It’s an excuse to watch Tom Cruise ride his motorbike, fly this cool thingamagummy and shoot at whatever moves (and do environmentally sustainable things in a patch of jungle). Andrea Riseborough is there to look good and prove that the alien mind machine works on women. Olga Kurylenko is there as the “other woman” and to perpetuate the species. Morgan Freeman lights up the screen and his cigar for about ten minutes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is effectively invisible. For me Oblivion is appropriately named because that’s where the film should be consigned.

Redeye by Michael Shean


Redeye by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2013) Wonderland Cycle 2 is Bobbi January’s story set some two years after the fight at the Genefex Corporation left her frightened for herself and desperately sad at the loss of Agent Thomas Cooley Walken of the American Industrial Security Bureau. She’s taken over the running of The Temple after Anton Stadil’s death and has kept a low profile. Now she shaken out of her quiet retreat by a message from a changed ex-colleague of Tom’s from the Bureau days. Then she was Arnold Kelley. Now he’s Freida Kelley. That’s the future of gender for you.

At this point, I need to give you the headline overview. We’re now more explicitly into the science fiction mode with some levels of uncertainty as to who everyone is and precisely what target(s) they should be aiming for. But none of these elements are sufficient, individually or collectively, to be classified as a mystery. In terms of narrative structure and style, therefore, we’ve rather left the first two books behind. We’re now recognizing that there’s an alien invasion underway and watching our key characters take the fight to the aliens. That said, it’s difficult to define sides in this conflict. Because the form of the invasion is transplanting alien personalities into human bodies, not all the transplants take. This has created a kind of fifth column with some “personality hybrids” supporting humanity’s cause. The problem for both sides is detecting when a transplant is failing and the extent to which the original human personality may be able to reassert control. Taking a step back, this is a very well-conceived plot, nicely picking up from the first in the series and taking us through to a delicate point of balance at the end.

Michael Shean

Michael Shean

The major problem with the first section of this book is the character of Bobbi. I don’t mind people living in a state of fear for some of the time. That’s an inevitable part of life. And given what’s she’s been through, it’s completely understandable she should feel so insecure. But, after a while, I found her heightened anxiety state rather tiresome. Again making allowances, she’s balanced herself in a difficult position. Like everyone else, she has legitimate curiosity and would like a better understanding of what’s going on. But she’s only too aware how fragile her position is. So she’s isolated herself. This is moderately responsible of her. If she’s going down in flames, she’d rather not see others going down with her. But with the loneliness comes a natural amplification of the anxiety and paranoia. She lacks objectivity because she denies herself the chance to talk with anyone else. So the arrival of Freida should share the burden and ease the fear. But that doesn’t happen. In part this is because Freida seems to have a reckless streak and engages in some highly dangerous activities without first checking with Bobbi. But once you’ve introduced yourself to paranoia, it tends to stay your friend. Trusting this person is a stretch. That’s why the steady presence behind the security of The Temple, is a better person to trust. She’s known Marcus Scalli for ten years. And lurking just out of sight (although somewhat unnervingly in earshot) is Cagliostro whose agenda is a complete unknown but his identity, later revealed, is interesting.

The first big set piece inside Data Nexus 231 is a bit of a cliché with the Wonderland mods, slowish-moving ghouls to contend with. It improves significantly from the entry into Tenleytown until they meet up with the titular Redeye who proves to be the saviour of the book producing a better balance as Bobbi gains in confidence and Redeye proves a powerful catalyst to directing the attack in what looks to be the right direction. As we go along, some of the additional historical background, particularly of the Eurowar, is quite interesting, and we get snatches of memory from the Yathi. When you put the whole thing together, it actually produces an alternate history for Earth starting in pre-Revolution France with influence slowly moving around Europe until the final beachhead is established in the US. But this is less impressive than the first two books set in this version of Earth which were both packed with a wealth of political and economic background information.

Put all this together and there’s a general lack of spark. The first two books had spiky prose and a lot of inventiveness. This is a professional job, but it spins the story out too far. It ticks the right boxes and the story moves along, but it would be better if it lost at least fifty pages. This is a shame. I had hoped Michael Shean would develop into a really interesting author for the longer term. On the evidence of Redeye, I’m less sure he’s going to convert his early promise into reliable and consistent performances. Hopefully the next book will get us back on track.

For the earlier books, see the first in the series Shadow of a Dead Star and the other book set in the same universe Bone Wires.

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

Phantom From Space (1953)

Phantom from space


Normally I would warn people of spoilers but it’s impossible to spoil his film.


Having just watched a film about nostalgia, I thought it appropriate to metaphorically travel back in time, to excavate a little truth from the past. I therefore searched out a film I missed at the cinema and which, for some reason, never seems to have been shown on terrestrial television. I suppose I should not be surprised it was so easy to find. There were hundreds of B movies made and, no matter how arrogant I feel at times, I can’t claim to have seen them all. The question that immediately comes to mind is why I should bother to watch Phantom From Space (1953) when I know it will be awful. In part, I’m acknowledging it’s therapeutic to cross back through time to remind myself of the state of cultural play sixty years ago. It’s far too easy to delude ourselves that most films of the day were actually movie classics that should be preserved for posterity. In reality, most were considered terrible at the time and deserve their fate in the rubbish tip of history. The second reason for watching it is to understand why it’s so awful. It’s not just the acting. We’ve grown used to seeing the wooden, rather mannered style that many actors affected. It’s the complete failure to develop the narrative in any convincing way. This is always surprising. There were some terrific novelists whose work has passed down the years. . . and then we remember all the thousands of titles that have mercifully passed into obscurity. At this point we look with clearer eyes at modern films and novels. In many ways, they are better, but we should also understand that most of today’s output will also end up discarded. We may live in a time when the marketers hype every last piece of content as being wonderful. Sadly, sugared words can never cover up the woeful deficiencies in much of today’s output. Very few of today’s films and novels will still be considered worthy in fifty years time.

The alien naked apart from the helmet

The alien naked apart from the helmet


Anyway, this science fiction epic on the theme of alien invasion starts off with the mandatory voiceover to reassure the increasingly paranoid US citizenry that its government is ever vigilant — its ships patrol the seas, its planes guard the skies and its technology is constantly on the alert for anything trying to sneak into Earth’s atmosphere — there’s no Commie threat that can’t be identified and neutralised before it can do any harm. On this day, at this time, an unidentified craft is detected. It’s whizzing along at 5,000 mph — no slouch, then — even if it can’t evade our primitive radar (shown on oscilloscopes as an example of high technology in action). Stock footage of ships and planes emphasises preparedness and the mysterious blob of light is shown in the sky. This is frightening stuff even for 1953. Where did they find all this stock footage? Then over Santa Monica it disappears. The Red Alert is called off which is strange. If you lose track of an alien craft over Santa Monica, you shouldn’t just give up and walk away. Even in 1953, Santa Monica was worth protecting. Fortunately the local people are outraged that something is interfering with their television reception. They are not getting their fix of I Love Lucy. So cars with big dishes clamped on top are sent out to triangulate the source of the interference. Thank God you can rely on the television companies even though the military gives up.


When the first body turns up, the police dismiss the story of a threatening figure wearing a frightening helmet and prefer the scenario of a love triangle gone wrong. Then there’s another murder nearby with the same television interference. The mobile receivers track the source to an oil field. There’s still no call for the army even though there’s a fire. An artist’s impression from witnesses shows a deep-sea diver. Ah ha. It’s a saboteur, parachuted into the area — sorry who swam across the Pacific to infiltrate America and blow it up. Send word to Washington. US leaders refer the police on to local scientists. Miraculously they link the unidentified object to the saboteur and start thinking a “space alien” is invading America. As the television company’s trackers begin to close in, the alien knows it will soon be caught so it plays its ace. After running around aimlessly for a few minutes to drag out the suspense, it takes off its helmet and suit, and shows itself to be invisible.


The female scientist asked to look at the suit sends off her husband to do the shopping at around 1 a.m. — great late-night shopping in Santa Monica and a real sign of gender equality in action — while the dog that can track the alien is locked up for barking. Her analysis is spectacular. “This stuff is tougher than nylon.” It doesn’t burn, it’s magnetic and it repels acid. We should have skirts in this fabric in the shops by next Tuesday. But then it disintegrates, suggesting teething problems with proposed mass release of skirts. Naturally the female scientist ends up held as a hostage by the invisible alien. Everyone else runs around like headless chickens. The alien dies because it can’t breathe our atmosphere without its helmet and suit. They all shrug. Such is life and death on planet Earth. After checking the schedules, they go home to watch a rerun of the I Love Lucy episode so thoughtlessly interrupted by the alien invader. In my more rational moments, I know I paid to see an amazing number of films as bad as this (or worse, if that’s possible). It’s a remarkable reflection on the rate at which our culture has evolved. Tastes and fashions are remarkably ephemeral. We were all amazingly naive. I wonder if that space ship is still parked off the coast at Santa Monica.


If I have tempted you to dip into this lost gem, you can find it through the Internet Archive at this address: The Archive is an interesting place to browse and the masochists among you will find many other out-of-copyright films like Killers From Space (1954), an early classic featuring Peter Graves.


%d bloggers like this: