After enjoying Steelheart, I picked up the follow-up short story Mitosis and waited on my hold request for Firefight to come through. The things I’ll do to be able to discuss the plots of books with my running buddies. (Yes, I was the slacker on this series.)
BTW, spoilers. There’s no other way to do this. So if you haven’t read Steelheart, go read it before continuing. Actually, you’ll pretty much want to catch up entirely before going on. They’re fun books, so do that.
Still with me? Good.
Firefight picks up not long after the events of Steelheart, showing the Reckoners continuing to fight epics who are streaming to Newcago in order to take over after the fall of a certain titular character from that book. See how subtly I’m not spoiling the death of Steelheart? Oops!
Although the title to this book is Firefight, the name of the Epic we found out was actually Megan in the previous book, I don’t think I’d really say this book is about her. Instead, the focus shifts to Babilar, formerly New York City, and a powerful epic called Regalia. But the fact that she has a history with Prof is what really drives the action in the story. So I’m not totally sure why the book is titled the way it is. Yes, there’s the subplot of David trying to find Megan and bring her to the good side, as well as to convince Prof not to kill her, but the book is absolutely about Prof and the inevitability of Epics going bad.
To the extent that the book is about Megan, it’s actually mostly that David is starting to question the unconditional killing of Epics. Which makes sense since he works closely with one (Prof) and is infatuated with another (Megan). This doesn’t stop him from shooting one in the face early in the book, but the flicker of the “real person” coming through right before he pulls the trigger makes him begin to doubt his methods. And his quest to redeem Megan and have her be on the Good Team is further complicated by the fact that she evidently killed one of the Babilar Reckoners, so there’s a bit of trouble over that.
I’m not going to spoil the core idea of this book, even though it wasn’t terribly hard to predict, but I’ll just say that if you read and enjoyed Steelheart, I’m sure you’d enjoy this one as well. And now that I’ve made the mistake of reading a partial series, I have to wait until early next year to finish it. Dangit!
Oh well, there are plenty more books to read. I read Starship Troopers for Take Me To Your Reader, and I started reading Rendezvous With Rama, but then my e-loan on it expired two weeks early! What’s up with that? I’m thinking of picking up Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars to give it a thumb-through, and I’d love to read Armada when it comes out. Or maybe I’ll just read some more Graphic Novels.
TL;DR version: I enjoyed it but it’s a mess. Still, some of the mess can be blamed on T2. Stay with me, we’ll get there. But first, I need to go back in time a bit and give a few thoughts on the previous entries in the series. Newest to oldest:
Terminator Salvation: We always wanted a movie set in the future. This just wasn’t the movie we wanted. Oh, it’s reasonably enjoyable, but the plot makes anti-sense. If combined with actual sense, it could annihilate the universe. (If you don’t believe me, answer this question: How did Skynet, in this timeline, know that John Connor was a.) a major threat and b.) someone they’d been failing to kill for a long time? Yeah.)
It’s notable that the movie would’ve been way more interesting had the trailer not given away the central twist. That’s going to sound familiar, so get used to it.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: Gets more hate than it deserves, but has the best ending of the series. You seriously cannot disagree with this without lapsing into crazyhood. Nick Stahl was terrific as a PTSD-suffering John Connor, Claire Danes was a nice addition, and the crane truck scene is flat out amazing. And again, the idea of Judgment Day being inevitable makes infinitely more sense than, say…
Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Okay, I love this film. So exciting, with effects that still hold up to this day. The trailer spoiled the central idea (Arnold as the good guy), and it’s to the film’s credit that it basically didn’t matter. However, the ending is the reason we got T3 and Genisys, and it’s where the film falls apart for me. Yes, Terminator was built around an ontological paradox, but as a closed loop it actually works. Breaking out of that loop makes no sense whatsoever. There should at least have been a nod to the idea that destroying Cyberdyne and Dyson’s work might not avert Judgment Day. BTW, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles takes the idea of the changing date of Judgment Day and does something really cool with it. And it was a terrific show, criminally cut short.
The Terminator: A nice, simple plot that plays more like a horror movie, but it’s just so effective! And again, the plot holds together pretty nicely. Why hasn’t Michael Biehn gotten much, much more work? Kyle Reese and Dwayne Hicks and then two or three other major roles? Not cool.
Before I start on Genisys, let me just re-emphasize: You cannot object to this movie based on its being a reboot or messing with the timeline. The entire franchise is built on that. And if T2 is your favorite, you’ve already aligned yourself with the idea that the timeline is changeable. So either adjust your favorite to the original (which I’m leaning toward) or stop objecting to this film on that basis. (Also, admitting you’re doing it is the first step.)
Okay, so now to my thoughts on the new movie. It’s not good. The plot makes almost no sense. And yet, it was tons of fun. The major problem with it is that it introduced ideas that would have made a more interesting film but then wasn’t that film (the young Sarah film could’ve been awesome). Also, THE STUPID TRAILER RUINED THE BEST TWIST IN THE MOVIE!!!! I can’t blame the filmmakers, because it’s the marketing department that does the trailer, but seriously, it’s not good enough to get people into the theatre if they’re then going to be less impressed because you put the best stuff in the trailer.
Maybe I should just divert into some things I liked and disliked (This is where the Spoilers begin):
Things I liked:
- J.K. Simmons. Best thing in the film. It’s not close.
- Arnold. Who’s not going to enjoy him as the T800?
- Nods to the original. I loved all the references to the original film. (Though it also made me strongly wish I was watching the original, so it’s good and bad.)
- Jason Clarke. Loved him in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I liked him here. I just wish the trailer hadn’t blown so much of his character arc.
- The effects. If you look really hard, there are a couple of terrible missteps here, but for the most part they’re flat-out terrific.
- The Sarah/Pops chemistry. This will feed into my dislikes, because the only believable chemistry here was between Sarah and the T800, and to a lesser extent between John and Kyle.
- The time-twistyness: Another one that’ll pop up on the dislikes. But I like the idea of the alternate timelines and the T800 being sent back earlier. (Though we’re never explicitly told who did it, but I think it’s strongly implied.)
Things I disliked:
- Who’s the main character? I guess it’s Kyle Reese, but even though Jai Courtney did an adequate job, it didn’t feel like his movie. Even though he was the narrator. But much of the action took place without him driving it. So that’s not so great.
- The Sarah/Kyle chemistry. Sorry, it’s not there. Or if it is, it’s not believable. I would rather have seen them just shelve the idea that they had to have a child. At the end, when Sarah says she can choose, I seriously wanted her to stiff Kyle completely. I would’ve believed it. They’d already established that a.) John was no longer the hero of the resistance and b.) Judgment Day was averted.
- The time jump. When you go through time to avert a future event, why do you allow yourself less than two days? Why not six months or a year? (Because it’s a movie.)
- The Genisys thing. You’re telling me there’s an actual countdown to a major software release and it’s not backed up anywhere? If John was ensuring Skynet’s existence, wouldn’t he have set up Genisys as a decoy and had his launch happening in Greenland or something? (This, again, is why you allow yourself some lead time, to allow for emergency international travel.)
- The time-twistyness: Ju got some splaining to do! I liked that there were some movements toward explaining Kyle’s memories, but it really should’ve been explicitly stated who sent Pops into the past.
So there you have it. I’ll probably see it again (Swimmer Dude wants to see it, so we’ll go on cheep nite), but there’s no way this one will ever be the classic the first two films were.
Feel free to weigh in here.
I’ve certainly read better books than Ready Player One, but no single book has ever made me geek out anywhere near as much. I’m not much of a gamer these days, mostly because I don’t own a game console and never have (other than a PC), and PC games are expensive and require PC upgrades I’m not willing to shell out for. So the vestiges of my gamer geekiness froze sometime in the 2000s (there was quite a bit of Quake3 being played back then in The Geekfest Room).
Really, though, when it comes to gaming, you have to take me back to the Atari 2600 and classic arcade games like Galaga, Tempest, and Missile Command. As it happens, love for those games suffuses the pages of Ready Player One.
The book presents a kind of dystopia, with much of the world in pretty bad shape, but still with good internet service. (We don’t ask any questions about this because we’re too busy geeking out.) Into this world emerges OASIS, an immersive online virtual reality simulation. The creator of this utopia dies, leaving no heir to his vast fortune (and the OASIS itself), but as a parting gift, he announces that whoever finds his Easter Egg will inherit everything. The Egg Hunt is born, and Egg Hunters (“gunters” for short) start looking.
Since Halliday (the designer of OASIS) was an 80s geek, the Hunt is filled with references to John Hughes movies, Monty Python, and classic gaming (including Atari 2600, Commodore 64, and any number of other consoles of the time). I have to confess some of the references slid right past me, particularly those involving role-playing games (my experience of which is limited to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), but I was up on enough of the jargon that nothing ever jarred me.
The main character even has a guilty obsession with the film Ladyhawke. Personally, I object to this, because that’s just an obviously tremendous film. If you disagree, we probably won’t hang out.
I wasn’t thrilled with the book’s denouement, but the rest of the book was enjoyable enough that I can give it a hearty recommendation, particularly for anyone of roughly my age (early 40s, though it’s probably okay for teens and up due to language and some rather frank talk of sexuality). I think, though, that just looking at the book as a fun summer read might miss some of the more profound points brought up, if not fully explored, by the book. For instance:
- What does it say about a society in which most people spend most of their lives living in a virtual world? (And are we heading there?)
- Are we heading for a reality in which people become indentured servants to global corporations?
- Who owns the Internet?
I’m not saying that the book is super profound, but it’s something more than a pot boiler. I’m looking forward to Cline’s next book, Armada. Which looks like a ton of unprofound fun, but who knows?
I’m cranking these out, I tell you! Next up is Firefight, even though I finished it before the last two books I’ve reviewed. And I’m also working on a rundown of some graphic novels I’ve oddly found myself reading, after being rather an obstinate heretic in the despite of that form of literature.
Also, I posted the I, Robot podcast, so do check that out.
I don’t think space opera is my favorite kind of science fiction, and I’m also not a huge fan of long book series. So that’s two counts against Leviathan Wakes right off the bat, so it’s probably a tribute to how good the book is that I actually read it. I didn’t exactly plough through it, though, as I diverted into reading a few other things before finishing it. Still, when my library loan expired, I went ahead and bought it for my NOOK, so that’s another good sign.
There’s a lot to like about Leviathan Wakes. The world-building is skillful, dropping the reader into a universe in which mankind has spread out through the solar system to establish colonies on Mars and a number of moons and asteroids (or dwarf planets). There’s even some interesting social commentary, showing the prejudice between Earthers (people born on planets) and “belters,” people born in the Asteroid Belt. There are physiological differences owing to the former maturing in strong gravity wells and the latter in microgravity (the difference in bone density is hand-waved away with a reference to drugs that allow normal bone density for belters).
The central (and two-part for much of the book) narrative unfolds around two protagonists: Jim Holden, executive officer of an ice freighter (water being a precious commodity in the Belt), and Joe Miller, a detective on the dwarf planet Ceres. The preface to the book introduces both narratives, which stay separate for the first half or so of the book and also introduces the central mystery of the story. I won’t delve much into it here because it makes an interesting (if gruesome) reveal.
The rest of the story is part military sci-fi, part alien body horror, part planetary politics, and if it’s not exactly to my taste, I still enjoyed it more than I expected.
The book is being adapted into the SyFy series The Expanse, and I’m genuinely curious how they’ll handle the very prominent idea of the differences in physiology between the belters and Earthers. (Though I don’t get SyFy, so I may have to wait a while.) I suspect they’ll just cast tall people as belters and call it good. But I think it’ll miss out on some of the interesting ideas about differences in body language and customs for belters that made the book so interesting.
Even though it took me a couple of months to actually finish the book, it was really more of a function of having several other things to read the pushed this one down in priority. It’s well-written and never a slog, with some really exciting sequences and, again, some interesting ideas. I especially liked some of the notions of acceleration gravity and “the juice,” a drug cocktail that allows humans to undergo forces that would normally just flat-out (pun intended) squash them. So yeah, good stuff.
All that being said, I’m not anxious to pick up the next book in the series. Too many other things out there to read, I’m afraid. Speaking of which, I’m on the hook for quick reviews of Firefight and Ready Player One. I seriously do intend to write these more frequently, but most of my energy has been going into Take Me To Your Reader. If you’re interested, we recently did an episode about Jurassic World and our next episode will cover I, Robot. And we’re currently reading Starship Troopers, our July choice.
A certain friend of mine has been bugging me to read Steelheart for quite some time, and I finally did. I’d picked it up when it was a couple of bucks from the NOOK store and finally had some downtime (read: swim meet) to read it.
Such a fun book! Oh, it’s not perfect, and I’ll gripe about a couple of things, but it won’t stop me from picking up the rest of the series in the near future. (I’ve already read Mitosis and will move on to Firefight just as soon as my library hold comes through.)
The central conceit of the book is that super powers exist, but everyone who has them is a bad guy. Under threat of these super-villians (called Epics), the civilized order fell rather quickly, with Chicago becoming Newcago, its residents under the thumb of Steelheart, a seemingly invincible Epic with the ability to transmute inanimate matter into steel, along with being extremely hard to hurt, extremely strong, and the long and the short of it is that he’s basically invincible.
The prologue starts quickly and introduces David, a character who was present for the fall of society and has “seen Steelheart bleed.” He hopes to join forces with the Reckoners, a rebel group dedicated to killing Epics, so he can see Steelheart bleed again.
If there’s an obvious flaw with the book, it’s that the title character doesn’t get much development time and is basically a bogeyman, but it’s made up for by the colorful cast of Reckoners and the development they get. As it stands, the book is a quick, enjoyable read with plenty of action and carnage, though staying at the Young Adult level.
One trick the author uses to keep things PG is imagined slang/profanity, and that’s another gripe I have. I don’t believe ten years is enough time to allow for language creep such that “Sparks!” would become the expletive of record, or “slontze” a believable epithet. (And honestly it brings the word “slut” to mind. Not sure the author intended that.) I’m fine with made-up slang or pidgin language in books set in the far future or off in space somewhere (though it’s still extremely irritating), but in this setting it didn’t work for me. That being said, it’s a book for young-ish kids, so I at least understand the impulse to use it.
There’s also a ham-handed attempt at humor that’s supposed to result from the main character’s shocking ineptitude at using metaphors, and it was a bit tone-deaf to me. It didn’t make me laugh, and honestly it took away from the readability of the book, as I often had to go back to make sure I’d understood it correctly.
Gripes aside, it’s a terrific ride and certainly the kind of thing a teenaged boy would enjoy. The action scenes are all kinds of entertaining, the twists and turns keep you guessing a bit, and it’s just basically fun. And fun is underrated.
Now I need to try it out on my teenager so I can justify picking up the rest of the series so I don’t have to wait for my library hold to come through.
Speaking of space pidgins, I’m now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the Expanse series, so hopefully I’ll finish that one up soon. Next up on Take Me To Your Reader, it’s Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. (Our latest episode, about Rollerball, went live a week ago.)
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but one of the really cool things about doing the Take Me To Your Reader podcast is getting to know some classics of the science fiction genre, even if only because they fall into the “related works” category.
In a recent episode, we discussed Eando Binder’s Adam Link story “I, Robot,” the lesser-known predecessor of the Isaac Asimov story collection of the same name. I had no knowledge whatsoever of Eando Binder or the existence of such a story. Once I finish reading all the Adam Link stories, I’ll be sure to write up a review here.
From there, it occurred to me to jump off and see what else there was in the Robot canon that I hadn’t read. Which brought me to R.U.R. (stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). The origin of the term “robot” in popular culture. You don’t get more classic than this.
Originally a Czech-language stage play, it can now be found in translation in a variety of places. Here, for instance.
I won’t say that it’s some kind of earth-shattering genius work, but the history of it buys it a lot of leeway for me, and it didn’t need much. The play takes place over the course of a great deal of time, from R.U.R. dominating the market for labor, to the world economy basically collapsing because of the inundation of robots into the workforce, to the robots deciding that they have a right to be free and overthrowing their masters.
It’s probably noteworthy that the robots are nowhere portrayed as mechanical men so much as simulacra of humans. So instead of being the all-metal, positronic Asimovian kind, they’re more just synthetic humans.
Being reasonably well-read in science fiction, I saw all kinds of parallels to subsequent books and films, notably R.U.R.’s declining human birth rate, echoed in The Children of Men. There’s also some shades of political uprising, where the one human spared by the robots is someone who works with his hands. The ruling class were all purged, but the working class were allowed to live.
And of course there’s some discussion about man playing God and sowing the seeds of his own destruction. We’ve seen that a few times in subsequent fiction, haven’t we?
I’m absolutely thrilled to have read this. It’s not long, and I just love the idea of getting in on the ground level of something, seeing the influences such a classic work has had on the genre it helped found. I’m sure this won’t be the only time this happens while doing background research for the podcast.
Next up, it’s my first Brandon Sanderson book, Steelheart. And eventually I’ll have to do a summary review for all the Flash New 52 stuff I’ve been reading.
I’m really not wanting to start any controversy here, but if you’re going to read this, keep in mind this book is about evolution. So if it would freak you out to learn that I’m pretty much in agreement with the author on this one, maybe you should just move along. Or you could read on and talk to me about what I wrote. I’m happy to dialogue about anything here, so long as it’s more friendly chat than fire & brimstone sermon.
I, like many others, watched the Ken Ham v. Bill Nye debate at the Creation Museum, and like most people, wasn’t swayed from my position by it. I find that most of Ken Ham’s arguments border on the absurd, and his absolute certainty that his position is correct is honestly a bit unnerving.
I’m uncertain about many things. I’m comfortable with uncertainty. I’m a Christian, but I acknowledge that I could be wrong about the existence of God or the historicity of the Bible (though I also don’t hold as high a view as some in that regard). I could be wrong about my views of creation, about the End Times, about any number of topics. There are virtually no views I hold that I’m not open to reviewing. I care about being correct, so much that I’d actually like to be corrected if I’m wrong. It seems to me this is a healthy attitude.
And then there’s this:
I watched a debate between Dennis Venema (a Christian defending evolution) and Georgia Purdom (a representative of Answers in Genesis) and saw the same interchange. What would change Venema’s mind? Evidence. What would change Purdom’s mind? Nothing.
I don’t see how that kind of rigidity is helpful, honestly.
And then there’s the sloppy science. Ken Ham’s quote that “If there were a worldwide flood, we would expect to find billions of dead things buried in rock layers all over the world, and that's exactly what we do find” is just one example, but it’s a major one. “Billions of dead things buried in rock layers” isn’t what you’d call a testable hypothesis. What kind of order would be predict to find them in? What kind of ages would we expect to find in those rocks? How would those rocks form in a few thousand years? Would you expect essentially a random distribution of dead things?
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation is Bill Nye’s way of venting a bit after that debate, along with providing a passionate plea in defense of evolution and the importance in including it in education. He goes a bit far in saying that children taught creationism would never be attracted to science or succeed in it, I think. But he’s also right that setting the Bible up as opposed to science isn’t a good precedent. One side wins. From my perspective, it’s wrong to throw out either. (Loren and Deborah Haarsma, whose excellent Origins I reviewed a while back, agree with me on this.)
There are a few missteps in the book (and in the debate) from Mr. Nye. He claims that he never undercut anyone’s faith or disparaged religion during the debate, but he clearly did. Several times, he referred to the Bible as an ancient book that’d been written by multiple authors and revised and revised through history.
What’s that you say? That’s a completely accurate statement? Well, of course it is. But that doesn’t make the statement any less of an attack. Like I said, if people are looking at evolution as opposed to Scripture, you get NOWHERE by trying to explain how they’ve got Scripture wrong. Stick to the science. If what you say is seen as an attack on the basis of my faith, I’m more inclined to tune you out. Besides, you’re not an expert in the Bible, Bill. Stick to your stuff.
And in the book, he does, though with one more issue I’ll discuss later.
Nye eloquently points out that the distinction between micro and macroevolution is a false one. Given enough time, it’s all the same. (You may disagree, but I don’t think you’ve got an argument here.) Small changes accumulate over time. Deep time is impossible to conceptualize. Billions of years!
For me, one of the more convincing aspects of evolutionary theory is the concept of Convergent Evolution. The idea is that evolution predicts (a testable prediction) that species occupying similar ecological niches should have similar form. Even if those ecological niches have been separated for millions of years. So as an example, you might find mice in Northern Europe in certain niches. In Australia you might find mice in them as well. But they just might be marsupial mice.
Marsupial and placental mammals have a common ancestor, but at some point it seems the marsupials were largely isolated and diversified along similar lines to the way placental mammals did. So you have placental groundhogs in North America and marsupial wombats in Australia. Placental wolves in North America and marsupial wolves (the unfortunately extinct Tasmanian tiger) in Australia. Placental rabbits in Europe and marsupial rabbit-eared bandicoots in Australia. Evolution predicts this, much the way it predicts that dolphins and sharks should have similar form and function, though one is a fish and the other a mammal. The niche necessitates the form, though the forms may originate from very diverse branches on the tree. You don’t get much more diverse than fish and mammal.
Of course, a Creator could have created similar things in similar places. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s a scientific statement. More importantly, if the flood happened and scattered billions of things in the rocks, why don’t we find marsupial fossils scattered all over the world? Surely some animals would’ve died on the way back from Mt. Ararat to Australia? And by the way, how did they make it back to Australia?
Finding a fossil out of place is the kind of evidence Nye mentioned in the things that could change his mind. The absence of this kind of evidence makes young earth creationism seem scientifically bankrupt.
I should clarify that I grew up believing in a young earth, and in a literal six day creation. It’s been a process of many years to come to understand that evolution happened, that humans share a common ancestor with all other life on this planet, and that it’s okay to believe that and still be a Christian. But the process was painful. I don’t think it would have harmed my faith to learn these things earlier.
And now to the other misstep in the book. Abiogenesis. Life from non-life. This is not really part of evolutionary theory. Evolution says that after life arose, it increased in complexity by way of many small mutations that conferred selective or reproductive advantage. The question of how life formed in the first place is something else entirely.
Unfortunately, it’s not at all uncommon to hear an objection to evolution along these lines: “I just can’t accept that life came from nowhere.” You don’t have to. Believe what you will about the origin of life. But if you look at the science, you’ll find there isn’t a grand conspiracy to cover up the evidence for a designer. The evidence just isn’t there. (I probably offended someone just now. Feel free to object.)
One other interesting point Nye makes in the book is the principle of “good enough.” If creationism were true, you’d expect to see perfect designs everywhere. But what you see are designs that are good enough to get the job done. He cites the backward design of the vertebrate eye as an example here, along with the cephalopod eye as an example of convergent evolution (two fundamentally different structures that do the same thing.)
Ultimately, Nye challenges the reader to embrace science as a way to explain the universe:
…religious explanations are unsatisfactory. They don’t take me anywhere; you either believe them or your don’t, and that’s that. Scientific theories of the origin of life are open to questions, to tests, to revisions, to replacement with new and more insightful theories. One path leads to a dead halt. The other leads to thrilling, limitless forward motion.
I won’t totally agree with him here, as obviously I believe in God. But I don’t believe it somehow makes God smaller to believe that the natural processes He put in place (I do believe in a Creator even if I’m not a Creationist) brought forth the complexity we see around us today. Saying He didn’t intervene in a special way in that process doesn’t make that process any less special. But I’ll understand if you disagree.
I’m sure there are people out there who’d read this and conclude that as I’ve rejected creationism, I’ve rejected the Bible. And they’d be wrong. I haven’t rejected the Bible. I’m still trying to figure out how my new views on science can be reconciled with Scripture, but I haven’t landed yet. I’ve got some ideas, and I’d be happy to discuss them. But the point is I’m open to being corrected if my understanding is incorrect. It’s actually fun! Sure, it’s a bit scary at times, but isn’t that part of the fun?
Changing gears here, I wanted to give a plug for our latest podcast episodes on Take Me To Your Reader. We just covered Total Recall, and we did a bizarro-podcast and covered the novelization of the movie as well. I’ll also be posting a supercut of us sounding like idiots soon, and then we’ll be covering Rollerball.
In the meantime, I’m planning to get a review up for R.U.R. in the near future, and I’ve just started reading The Stepford Wives (also for the podcast).
Lots of the time, books (or movies) about time travel are all about the excitement and danger of traveling through time, and the dangers of creating paradoxes, or about parallel universes and causality loops. Or about the creation of the device.
And then there’s Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell. Suppose you invented time travel and used it to basically observe every key even in the history of the world. What if it just ended up boring you?
What if you routinely saw the future and past versions of yourself? What if some in the near future looked all put together, and others even farther down the line looked like complete wrecks? How would that affect how you approached your life? And what might you do to prevent the seemingly inevitable decline after the peak? Would you try to quit drinking even though you saw that a future version of yourself was obviously a drunk?
In a way, I almost don’t want to classify Man in the Empty Suit as science fiction. There’s no discussion on how the Inventor created his time travel machine. Or how New York City fell into ruin. Technical detail of any kind is almost entirely lacking. Instead, it’s more science philosophy, meditating on selfishness and detachment and inevitability, on love and loss.
It’s certainly a book with atmosphere, and I have to admit it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. But in a good way. It’s not all the way to Primer head-scratching, but there are a few places I had to retrace my steps to make sure I was getting it.
I encountered the book first through Two Book Minimum, a podcast hosted by Dan Wilbur of Better Book Titles. (Be advised that BBT and TBM tend to be explicit.) I actually picked it up from the Library and read a chapter of two before getting caught up in other reading. It was only when we were working on the Take Me To Your Reader episode on Predestination that I decided to go back and finish the book given the similar themes to those in the movie.
It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like a bit of philosophy thrown into your sci-fi, and you’re interested in a different take on the typical time travel story, I’d recommend this one. (Content advisory: strong language and some sexuality.)
Somehow I wrote this a month ago and forgot to post it. Also, I just haven’t been doing much writing, between work being busy and doing the whole podcast thing. But I’ll try to be better, honestly. In fact, I literally just sat down to write up a quick review of R.U.R., the play that introduced the word robot into popular culture. So maybe I’ll just crank that out while I’m here. Or I could just go do some reading.
It’s probably ironic that the work we chose for review on Take Me To Your Reader this time wasn’t just a book that was adapted into a well-known film, it’s actually a screenplay adapted into a book adapted into a film. Double adaptation!
(BTW, thanks to Rem from The Sci-Fi Movie Podcast for recommending the topic this time.)
One problem with adapting a novel from a screenplay is that by its very nature, a screenplay is a leaner and more streamlined story. So in adapting it to a novel, you’re going to have to expand the story somewhat. There’s an appropriate level of stuff to add, and unfortunately Contact goes a bit beyond that.
I was fine with the extra detail about the decoding of The Message, and with some of the other major differences between the book and movie. The Five chosen to go into The Machine was an appropriate change from what we ended up with in the film (it’s possible the original screenplay had five, for all I know). The deeper background on Ellie and her motivations for being involved with SETI, again excellent stuff. But then there’s the bad side.
Why, for the love of God, did we need to learn the secret history of Ellie’s parents? Why did we need full dossiers on everyone who attended the World Message Conference? Why did we get a detailed narration of what was going on on a computer screen?
This latter one really irked me. Describing, in prose, what’s going on on a computer screen is one thing, and I’m actually okay with that. But putting those words into a character’s mouth is a bridge too far. Yes, it’d work on the Big Screen. But in a novel, it just simply doesn’t go over the same way. Rather than having a character say, “What you’re seeing on the screen is X,” it should have been more like this:
Ellie explained that X on the screen represented yada-yada
Without the visual cues you’d get on film, having a character narrate a computer readout is just plain clunky.
You might be imagining that I prefer the movie. You’d be correct. It’s a leaner story, though it’s of course far from perfect. There are a few scenes we could’ve done without, and some things the book did better. I actually think the book could’ve been adapted into a killer limited series, going into greater detail and doing a lot less Art Major Physics.
And even though it’s a bit of a slog in places, the book is still highly worth reading; I’m just not sure it’s worth re-reading. I think I’d run into the same issues I had re-reading Jurassic Park. Heavy detail is fine for one read-through. On a second reading it just seems excessive. But if you had to choose to either read the book or watch the movie, I'd go movie.
If you’re interested in hearing our podcast discussion on the book and movie, go check that out, too.
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The simple fact of the matter is that I’m too effusive about books. I use waaay to may superlatives. So when I say What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is freaking awesome, you probably think it’s a Boy Who Cried Wolf kind of thing. Unless you’re my mom, in which case you’re texting me that I really shouldn’t be using the word “freaking.” Noted.
If you style yourself a nerd and you’re not consistently reading xkcd, then you’re basically a nerd poser. Seriously, it’s required nerd reading. Get with the program here, nerd!
The reason xkcd is so nerd-friendly is that it’s written by a nerd for nerds. Randall Munroe is a smarty-pants who used to work at NASA, and his webcomic is full of all kinds of geekish topics. Just take a sampling of some of his comics (with links, of course):
How can you love someone who prefers Xenocide to Speaker for the Dead? (one of my favorites)
But xkcd isn’t Munroe’s only pursuit. He also runs a sub-site called “What if?”, where he takes ridiculous science questions and gives them his best noodling. This book is a compilation of some of the best ones.
What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light? Answer: very bad things. But then there are mind-blowers like how much radiation would you get if you swam spent nuclear fuel tank? (Answer: I’m not spoiling that one, but you can listen to him explain it on Science Friday.)
Most of the chapters are absolutely hilarious, some downright terrifying, and others just really surprising. For me, my favorite chapter was also the most bittersweet one: the question of what would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks of all the various elements. It’s a great chapter, extremely informative and also hilarious. And it made me wish I could share it with my dad.
We’re coming up on Dad’s birthday, and I miss him. Actually, the way I miss him most often is when I’ve read something I’d normally talk with him about. But that also means that simply by reading, I’m constantly reminded of him. So that’s a good thing.
Sorry if I diverted into moroseness. It wasn’t my intent. I just miss my dad. I’m sure you understand.
Pick up this book. Talk it over with your mom or dad, or one of your siblings, or just someone you like discussing science with. It’s tremendous, and one of those books you’re a little disappointed at finishing. But the site continues the awesomeness.
It’s been pretty slow-going here, but I’ll try to pound out a few more reviews in the near future. In the meantime, we’ve still been plugging away on Take Me To Your Reader, and we put out two episodes in January: one on the new film Predestination, the other on the 2002 film Minority Report. This month we’ll be doing Contact. I also guested on an episode of The Sci-Fi Movie Podcast, talking about Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Feel free to give any of those podcasts a listen. And like our Facebook page while you’re at it.