Monday, 26 June 2017

Tendril Is The Night [Review: The Void]

When policeman Daniel Carter finds a wounded man in the road and drives him to a nearby hospital, he and the other inhabitants find themselves trapped, surrounded by monks with triangular hoods and at the mercy of whatever is already inside.

The Void is a Canadian horror movie, made on an Indiegogo budget and released in 2016. It's an original story but heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, demonstrating everything that makes a good Lovecraft horror. It's not just about the tentacles, you know:
  • Life from another dimension
  • Science confounded by the supernatural
  • Contact leads to insanity
  • A cult of murderous human worshippers
  • And yes, it's still mostly about the tentacles...

Performances are great, particularly from Aaron Poole and Kathleen Munroe. The film relies heavily on special effects rather than visual effects for the creature scenes, these are impressively gruesome and a lot of fun, channeling John Carpenter's The Thing and other classics. I have nothing against CGI. Nothing! But I have great respect for the art of the special effect and it can lead to a film with quite a different look and feel, something I also found when I watched the indie sci-fi film Hunter Prey, reviewed here.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Pitch Black [Review: Daughter Of Eden]

Daughter Of Eden completes Chris Beckett's trilogy about the tribe of humans descended from two stranded astronauts on the alien world of Eden. Beginning partway through the events of Mother Of Eden, this novel is narrated entirely by Starlight's childhood friend Angie. Whereas Starlight is assertive and physically beautiful, two characteristics that seem to have shaped her entire life, Angie is a batface - she has a severe form of harelip, one of the recurrent defects that result from Eden's tiny gene pool. Even amongst the likeable Jeffsfolk she is treated differently from others and must work harder to win affection or respect. As a result she accepts the offer to travel with a religious woman who claims to hear the voice of Mother Gela. Meanwhile the tension between the Johnfolk and Davidfolk is escalating towards an inevitable confrontation - when suddenly, a mysterious light appears in the sky above the circle of stones that marked the original landing site.

The Eden trilogy is full of powerful ideas about the nature of civilization, humanity and religion. It begins as a version of the Old Testament that grows from a human origin, and deals with themes such as morality and the introduction of killing into the world. Here the people of Eden finally come face to face with the gods of their religion - but what happens if your gods turn out to be human? This is unlikely to end well.

This final book was just as compelling and difficult to put down as Dark Eden and Mother Of Eden, although the story structure is slightly harder to follow - instead of sequential accounts from different characters, the narrative jumps backward and forward between different times in Angie's life. The book ties up loose ends everywhere, filling in the gaps in the colonists' mythology and constantly fascinating the reader with even more details of the indigenous life
of Eden.

In addition to the three novels of the trilogy, the story of the founders Angela and Tommy is told in the short story "Dark Eden" which is published in "The Turing Test", an anthology of Chris Beckett's short stories.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Dark Is Rising [Review: Mother of Eden]

Several generations after John Redlantern and his followers left the Circle to find new places to live, John's own story has become part of the accumulating mythology of Eden, and the colony has become divided into two main tribes - the adventurous Johnfolk who and the conservative Davidfolk who still wait by the circle of stones for the promised return of the Landing Veekle and the godlike figure of Angela or Mother Gela.

The second of Chris Beckett's trilogy of novels set on Eden focusses on Starlight Brooking, a woman of a smaller tribe descended from John Redlantern's clawfoot ally Jeff. Like Jeff, Starlight and her tribe are pacifists with a tradition of mindful meditation, living on a small island to avoid the skirmishes between Johnfolk and Davidfolk and building boats to trade with the mainland. However on one visit Starlight encounters Greenstone, the son of the leader of the Johnfolk, and travels back with him to become his bride.

The society of Eden has changed in ways foreshadowed by the events of the first novel. Forms of money are appearing. The Johnfolk have discovered metal and moved forward into a bronze age with better weapons and armour, along with other discoveries such as doors and houses, servants and slaves and the division into "big" and "little" people. As the handed-down stories of Earth become cloudier the religion that has formed around Angela has become stronger, and the societies of both Johnfolk and Davidfolk have shifted towards male domination and rule of the strongest. Starlight's new family are powerful but must constantly scheme to remain in control, knowing that they will be killed by their rivals if they fail. Meanwhile women are persecuted for spreading the Secret Story, advice supposedly passed down by Mother Gela to her female children teaching them about equality and the dangers of men who "believe the story is all about them." Eden is darker than ever and this novel introduces themes of power and sexual politics on a personal and societal level, while continuing to dissect the darker side of religion.

I found both Dark Eden and Mother of Eden to be compelling and addictive reads. The writing is very high quality and is capable of shocking the reader at times - punches are not pulled. Starlight's experiences with the Johnfolk are reminiscent of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and the writing style is similar in some ways, particularly the chapters narrated by different characters. while the setting of Eden reminded me of the Human Beings of Stephen Baxter's Flux, another tribe clinging on to their sense of humanity in an environment utterly different from Earth.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Darkness Falls [Review: Dark Eden]

The people of Eden live in simple shelters surrounding a circle of stones where, only five generations earlier, their ancestors arrived from Earth in a stolen starship. The entire tribe is descended from two Earth astronauts - Tommy and Angela - who remained behind on the planet while the other three attempted to return, according to the True Story re-enacted by the children every year. The colonists are able to eat many of the local lifeforms but they are living in a small pocket of warmth and life within a crater, surrounded by cold mountain walls, and as more children are born the food is already becoming scarce.

Dark Eden is the first of Chris Beckett's trilogy set on the sunless world of Eden, located across the galaxy and reachable only by a physics-defying starship that took a generation to build. While many characters are introduced, the novel centres on John Redlantern, a restless young man who chooses to leave the Circle to seek new sources of food, defying the wisdom of the elders who insist on living within reach of the landing site so that they can be found when rescue comes. 

The novel explores the way that historical events can grow into mythology or religion, as well as the inevitable battles between change and the status quo, and the difficulty in keeping to a well-intentioned moral system. In the process two worlds are created in deep convincing detail - the alien ecosystem of Eden, with bioluminous lifeforms all dependent on the "trees" that constantly pump up heat from the core of the planet; and the society of the humans with their Earth beliefs, their simple morals, child-like language and genetics - due to the small and incestuous gene-pool, genetic defects such as "batfaces" (cleft palate) and "clawfeet" recur in each generation. The title is apt - this is truly a dark vision of a desperate society.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Life Will Find A Way [Review: Life]

The crew of the International Space Station retrieve a capsule from Mars, completing a sample return mission and bringing a small quantity of soil into their orbital laboratory. The sample contains what appears to be Martian microbes - but are they dead or can they be revived? And should they?


Life is at heart a surprisingly traditional creature feature, perhaps even a tribute to classic films such as Alien, The Blob or even Roger Corman's Little Shop Of Horrors. There's a creature who grows in power and intelligence as it hunts down the humans who had the hubris to summon it into existence. The only truly original aspect of this movie is the setting, with the ISS re-imagined as the perfect modern-day haunted house - labyrinthine, claustrophobic, vulnerable and disorientating due to zero-gravity. The creature is also well-designed, developing from scene to scene like a Martian Audrey Two, and it definitely feels alien, although there's little attempt to explain its biology or evolution.

The only missing cliche is the kid who nobody believes when he tries to warn them - but since the Thermal Curtain Failure debacle of 1986 and subsequent abandonment of the Jinx robotics programme I don't think we're going to see any more children in low Earth orbit for some time. So instead we have to make do with the somewhat childish medical officer David, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and the excellent multi-ethnic cast playing his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts, led by Olga Dihovichnaya as the station's Russian commander.

I enjoyed the thrills, shocks and clever moments of this movie, and I think it was well casted and acted, with a great setting. The ending is a bit predictable but I'll let that go for now. I would still recommend it to horror fans. It's a little gory in places so other cinemagoers may wish to exercise caution. This is however a popcorn movie - other than the themes of hubris, bravery and self-sacrifice common to the genre it's not really about anything and doesn't have anything particularly profound to say.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

C'est un petit pas pour un homme [Review: From The Earth To The Moon]

The members of the Baltimore Gun Club, bitterly disappointed by the outbreak of peace seek a new outlet for their passion - a cannon that will fire a shot to the Moon. Buoyed by public support across the US and around the world they defeat obstacle after obstacle in their quest to build and fire the cannon - until they are thrown an even greater challenge by a French explorer Michel Ardan who wishes to ride inside the shot and emigrate to the Moon, along with Barbicane, the President of the Gun Club and his lifelong nemesis Nicholls.

Jules Verne's novel, De la Terre à la Lune, was written in 1865, almost exactly 100 years before the actual Moon landing. The novel deals with the engineering and human challenges in designing, constructing and preparing the cannon, leading to the firing and then the voyage itself which is the subject of the sequel, Around The Moon. Verne is neither the first nor the only writer to send fictional astronauts to the Moon but most of these lunar romances rely on magical or unexplained methods of transport - Verne's genius was to come up with a credible means of getting there, indeed the novel could almost be used as an engineering manual for aspiring rocketeers. Amongst the challenges faced by the engineers include the shape, size and construction of the cannon and shell, the position, date and timing of the shot, mediating the shock of launch to prevent the crew from being crushed, providing air, water, heat and food to the crew, slowing the craft for landing, and how to monitor the voyage and landing from Earth. One challenge that is simply thrown aside is that of returning the astronauts - the plan is for a one-way trip.

Verne also takes on scientific uncertainties - the crew hope to find an atmosphere and water on the moon, but this is by no means certain as the authorities of the time held differing views, played out in Michel's debate with Nicholls.

Verne notably criticised H.G.Wells' novel, The First Men In The Moon written in 1901, a few years before Verne's death, for exactly this reason - Wells' voyage is made possible by a fantastic element (the gravity-defying Cavorite). However to give Wells his credit, when a few years earlier in 1897 he wrote of his Martians crossing the expanses of space to wage war on Earth, they did so in cylinders fired from a gun.

Like many science fiction writers Verne never saw his work as a prediction of the future - he is on record as saying that the ideas featured in his books are there to facilitate his character's journeys - for example, imagining a steerable hot air balloon as a way for his heroes to traverse the whole of Africa. Many of Verne's novels depict physical journeys and are full of speculative vehicles from floating islands to the formidable Nautilus.

However, intentional or not, when we compare Verne's novel to the actual NASA moon shot a century later, Verne was absolutely right about a lot of things:
  • Military engineering drives the space programme
  • The launch site in Florida, together with the intense competition between states to host the enterprise
  • The national and international excitement that follows the mission and turns its' figureheads into celebrities
  • The three-man crew
  • The 3-day voyage
Some aspects don't quite ring true in the same way - whoever heard of Americans obsessed with guns? Verne was also a little optimistic with the price-tag as well - his cost estimate is for 5 million dollars, whereas the Apollo programme cost about 25 billion. Of course, coming in a century late and five thousand times the original budget isn't so unusual for the space programme...

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Top Three Songs Inspired By Scientific Equations

"The Drake Equation" Helion Prime In third place: Helion Prime are a metal band who use science and sci-fi imagery the way other bands use Satanism. So this is a song about the Drake Equation. While I love the song, it only gets the bronze for two reasons: there's no video yet, and they don't actually sing the equation. With thanks to Big D of the Assorted Thoughts blog who first introduced me to Helion Prime.

"Mandelbrot Set" Jonathan Coulton In second place: Lyrics sadly became outdated as Benoit Mandelbrot passed away in 2010, but still... Here's a chalk-based animation that illustrates the song nicely, although it's a shortened version. Or if you prefer, there are about a million YouTube videos of fractal animations set to the song. Bonus points for spelling out the equation. Bonus points subsequently deducted as, obviously, the equation used in the song actually describes the Julia Set. D'oh...

"The First and Second Laws Of Thermodynamics" Flanders and Swann And the winner is: Flanders and Swann, those rapscallion 50s and 60s music hall entertainers. Michael and Donald were no strangers to science - songs about the mating habits of hippopotami made them the Discovery Channel of their day, while their revelations about the spiral growth of the honeysuckle (right-handed) and the bindweed (left-handed) were worthy of a PhD. Bonus points for spelling out and actually understanding the Laws, and for squeezing in the Third Law as well. There's no actual video of Flanders and Swann performing this so here's a version accompanied by random pictures and some bad jokes from teachers. Polar! Lol.