Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Coming up...

It lives! Since quitting my day job a few months ago I've really had the chance to dig deep into some new stuff. So I'll have a few write ups on some great finds in a few here, namely:

The Metalmark Contract - debut novel from David Batchelor, a NASA physicist.

Leviathans of Jupiter - Ben Bova's follow-up to Jupiter, can he follow up the first one? 30 pages in and I'm hooked so far.

Check back soon!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Squares of the city

1965 John Brunner

After his most excellent The Crucible of Time I am working on several more Brunner novels, including his seminal works The Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar. However before tackling those I wanted to start with some 'light fare' so to speak and picked up this copy of The Squares of the City. But of course this unassuming paperback is deceptively complex as I've found out.

This is vintage Brunner as he constructs an elaborate parallel to a chess match, with the city as the board and its inhabitants the pieces. When I say a chess match I mean a specific one, the 1892 world championship match between William Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin. The characters in the novel represent specific pieces and make moves and defeat other characters as per the actual match went down - fully detailed in the novel's appendix.

I haven't finished the book yet but find this conept intriguing, and wonder if it is a limiting factor to essentially force the plot to conform to the chess match. Perhaps it will come off as gimmicky but it is still a good example of the kind of experimental writing that good sf is. Along the way there are elements of mind control, social commentary, and class warfare. Good stuff.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

New Blog

Just fyi, I have a new blog up at criticalhits.blogspot.com, specifically about gaming. Although this blog has been infrequently updated it will still stay active, so my legions of fans needn't worry.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


2001 Ben Bova

In talking with a friend I had been lamenting the fact that all of the good sci-fi I've read lately seems to date from 1985 or earlier, and that there was nothing from this last decade that has been noteworthy in any regard. So I had made a point for my next read to be something from at least the last decade. The cover art on this one is what drew me in.

Before this point I actually hadn't read any Bova, I had of course heard the name but that's it. So it was a real pleasure to discover this. I liked Jupiter a lot, for different reasons. It has a a mix of plausible sci-fi, compelling character drama and real adventure. The setting is somewhat original in that in this future, Earth governments have been more or less taken over by a religious organization called the New Morality. The background is that after major famines and disaster society fell back to a stricter outlook where religious powers gained sway. The protagonist himself is a both a believer and scientist. As an atheist I found this character combination very interesting. Though the setting on Earth is important, it is the space station orbiting Jupiter, and later, the giant planet itself, where most of the novel takes place. The thrust of the novel is that our protagonist must discover the reason behind the station's manned flights to the Jovian atmosphere.

The science is solid but doesn't go into overboard hard sci-fi. At the same time it's believable and won't offend someone with a basic knowledge of science. The most fascinating part is the descriptions of the manned flights into Jupiter's atmosphere. Bova realizes that the atmosphere gradually condenses to a liquid state and this is an important point regarding the jovian biosphere (of course that was coming). Most of what follows is outright fancy but well done. That was my favorite part, and Bova captures the tension of exploring such a weird and hostile environment.

Anyway I loved this one. The pacing, character development, and climax are spot-on. Sometimes I can't focus on a book long enough to finish it but this one I ripped through in just a few days. It's good.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Best endings in SciFi and Fantasy

Check out this entry at fellow scifi blogger John Ottinger's site wherein he has collected the musings of several prominent book bloggers regarding their opinions on the best endings in the genre. I think this was a great topic and I'm honored he asked for my input as well. So check it out, and see what my personal picks are for the novels with the best endings in scifi and fantasy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Latest Battlestar Galactica packing T&A... and then some??

So Battlestar Galactica: The Plan arrives on DVD later this month, wrapping up the series with a prequel of sorts that takes place during the first miniseries. Like a lot of fans I thought BSG was really losing its way by the 4th and last season, and while it held together to the end I thought it could have been stronger, and return to the miniseries and first couple seasons for the best material. So maybe going back to this earlier setting bodes well - but then on the other hand it's another chance for the writers to push the envelope.

According to Grace Park herself in this month's Maxim - " Yeah, there’s going to be a T & A version. Though maybe I should say T, C & A, because it’s not just girls this time..." In case that is too vague she also uses the word "wang" in the next sentence, which pretty much dispels all doubt.

Ok... I know Battlestar has always been a little on the edgy side, but come on - do we really need to see some shaft to push the story along? And yes I am perfectly aware of the double standard here. In the Pegasus DVD we have Tricia Helfer seducing Michelle Forbes and I dug that. When you think about it it is kind of a stupid taboo. The problem is that male nudity in drama is still hard to pull off. HBO's excellent series Rome got away with it, but honestly I don't the creative team behind Battlestar is up to that particular challenge, and they don't need to be. I'm pretty in tune with Ron D Moore and the other writers' strengths and weaknesses by now, and my advice would be: don't go there. Stick to stuff you do well already. Other shows and movies will come along to push this particular aspect into the mainstream, but not this one.

At any rate let's hope that this last hurrah of a much-acclaimed and loved sci-fi series delivers the goods and sucketh not.

Ok. So what started as a highbrow science-fiction literature critique blog has devolved to me posting about the latest T&A on network TV. And in only two months too, I know. So with the exception of V after it airs next month - no more TV crap! Back to the books.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More Artwork from John Berkey

You've probably noticed by now I am a big fan of the late John Berkey's artwork. I'll mix it up later on but for right now I'm putting up one of his pieces every month. I like how his style contrasts spacecraft and machinery against natural backgrounds.

There is a really great book of his artwork published in 2003, The Art of John Berkey, but unfortunately it must be out of print or something with used copies going for at least $100 on Amazon. Apparently there are also pieces of his work available over at ArtOrg Moving Walls Gallery. Based on the prices (5K+), I'm guessing these are the original works! I'll have to ask, though not likely I'd be affording that anytime soon.

This one was used by the US Navy at one point.

No explanation necessary. Powerful.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Flashforward TV show, or how TV writers' reach exceeds their grasp

Ok so last month I posted about Robert J. Sawyer's 1998 novel Flashforward. Since then the tv show based on the book (loosely) with the same name has aired a couple episodes, and I finally got around to watching the first 3 on the ABC website. Since the episodes are available there, I'd recommend everyone check them out, if only so that you can follow along with what I get into here.

Now originally I intended this blog to be pretty much about books and for the most part it will continue to be, but I think this is an interesting example of what happens with creative property that starts as a science fiction novel and morphs to a tv show, and particularly how the two mediums change the nature of experiencing the story by the reader/viewer so I will spend a bit of time on it here.

Now about the TV show. As you may recall (especially if you went out and read the book after I blogged about it, right?), the premise is that all of humanity simultaneously experiences a collective future vision for a few minutes, then returns to reality to deal with it. In the 3 episodes I've seen so far, for a TV show it is pretty good. Now granted, 99% of TV programming is just utter shit, so that's not really saying much, but it is at least ok. I'll give it props for high production values and decent effects. However as I mentioned earlier it is significantly different from the book. Some of the key differences:

- In the book the future events are approximately 20 years ahead. In the TV show the glimpse of the future is only 6 months away
- The characters are completely different. The book focuses on the scientists involved at CERN that inadvertently triggered the event. The TV show invents entirely new characters that initially have no connection to the event.
- The cause of the flash-forward is different. In the book it is the accidental result of a nuclear collider test that occurs at the same time a burst of neutrinos is hitting the earth. In the TV show the nature of the event is so far unrevealed but it is strongly alluded that is was purposefully caused by intelligent agents.
- The nature of the flash-forward is also profoundly different, and I'll get into this more below.

Now I get to roll up my sleeves and begin the nit-picking, which is what I love. While there's a lot of cool aspects to the show and I'm glad that this kind of thought-provoking speculative fiction has made it to a larger audience, it has some BIG plot problems, especially when seen in context of the original material. Here is probably my biggest beef - In the book, the future seen by the present observers WAS NOT ONE IN WHICH THE FLASHFORWARD OCCURRED. That is, the future everyone saw was not necessarily one in which everyone in that future had seen the future in the past (present). Get it? That was one of the core ideas of the book, that knowing the future allowed it to be changed. However, in the TV show, many of the future scenes individuals witness directly reference the actual flash-forward of (then) six months ago. A detective sees himself working on the case of the cause of the flash-forward. A criminal sees himself being pardoned because he has helpful information about the flash-forward.

The problem with this is that it becomes recursive. One of the details in both the book and the show is that since the visions seen are part of a collective shared reality, people whose describe interactions with other people during their future scenes can be corroborated by those other people since they were ostensibly at the same place at the same time in the future. So in one instance a detective is doing just that and shows a picture to person A of person B who claimed they were with person A together in their flash-forward, and asks person A if person B (shown in the picture) was indeed with him. But wait - shouldn't person A have recognized person B from the picture during the flash-forward (it was their first meeting) since the detective revealed to him six months ago that they would meet? That is what follows from the writers' assumptions, that we now have all these characters basically traveling about Mobius strip. Any sci-fi writer worth his salt knows all the traditional time-travel logic traps and Sawyer deftly handled them in the novel, but the TV writers blunder straight in.

Another big difference, to me at least, is that in the book, any security cameras and recordings made of any type during the event show nothing but snow or garbled static. The scientists intuit that because the no-one's consciousness was in the present to observe it it exists in undefined states. Which is in line with quantum mechanics' view that a conscious observer must be present to define reality. However in the TV show the feds review security cameras that show everyone slumped over during the event. I suppose that can be justified by the revelation that there is at least one individual conscious and not under the effects of the event at the time and only one observer is required.

To me I think it shows a big difference in how the material is handled in the hands of a scientifically literate author and in the hands of TV writer hacks. To their credit I think the writers are doing probably the best job they can, but when your job has been basically writing brain-dead claptrap for the consumption of the masses and then you step up to trying to write intelligent sci-fi for TV the seams are gonna show. For the most part I enjoyed how Sawyer made scientists the principle characters of his novel and really put the science in science fiction for it. I guess the network weenies thought this would be too drab for a mass audience.

At any rate I'll be following the rest of the series and I think it will be interesting to see how it turns out, and I highly recommend ABC's website for the show, which is very well-done (Check out the Mosaic!). Oh, and while watching it I caught an ad for the upcoming remake of V which for some reason I had no inkling of! Definitely excited about that as V was a killer miniseries back in the day and people of a certain age will recall it fondly. With V and Flashforward ABC may actually be putting out better sci-fi on TV than the SciFi channel. Oh wait, that's the Syfy channel, because the slimy network execs felt they had to change the name to be more relevant. But that's for another post.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lord of the Rings

In science news today, this just in: Saturn has yet another ring. Of course Saturn's primary rings are it's most well-known feature, this one is distinctly different in that it is far, far larger in scale, at an 8 million mile radius, or 50 times further out than the inner rings, and inclined roughly 27 degrees from them. The ring is very tenuous (some 20 particles per cubic km) and therefore difficult to detect in the visible light spectrum. One of the gas giant's farthest moons, Phoebe, orbits within the ring and scientists believe the gas and dust particles that comprise the ring originate from collisions between comets and Phoebe. I'd say that's a good guess if Phoebe's orbital plane matches that of the ring so maybe someone can look that up for me (I'm far too lazy myself).

One of the significances of this is that is that the presence of this large, diffuse ring of debris helps explain unusual albedo differential of the moon Iapetus. Astronomers earlier speculated a of causal relationship between Iapetus 'dark' side and the moon Phoebe, and the newly discovered ring material completes the inference. The picture of Iapetus from the Cassini probe clearly shows one side of the moon pitted with lower-albedo (that is, darker) surface material, this comes from material from the ring falling inward to the saturnian system and impacting the moon "like bugs on a windshield".

What I find fascinating is the sheer size of this structure. 'Ring' is kind of an understatement, it is more like a donut in that the thickness is several times the diameter of Saturn, which itself has a diameter some 11 times of Earth. It's an awesome discovery that really highlights the advances in astronomy that have been made in only a short time. And in space flight too, as a great deal of the data we have about Saturn comes from the probes we sent there. When I was a kid first reading about astronomy and the planets we knew Saturn had something like 17 moons. Now we know it has at least 60 and now this giant donut field of extra crap around it. It's obviously an important new (to us) part of Saturn's already complicated planetary system. It makes the Earth-moon system look positively quaint. Speaking of which, I wonder if some day we'll have our own ring from all the shit we've left up in near orbit.