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Archive for the ‘Two and a Half Stars’ Category

manchester-by-the-sea

After this brother Joe’s sudden death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) finds out that he has appointed him as sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is a janitor in Quincy, south of Boston, about an hour and a half’s drive from Manchester, his home town. When he returns to take care of his brother’s funeral and will, the is thrown back into his former life, with all the vengeance and violence that former life can muster.

The movie tells the story of the Chandler family’s misfortunes in frequent flashbacks, and gradually we come to understand why Lee is so stoic and void of emotion in his pathetic life as a bachelor in a one-room basement apartment, unclogging other people’s drains.

His nephew Patrick is 16 years old, has two girlfriends at the same time, plays hockey, basketball and is part of a teenage band. His life is full, and Lee’s life has no room for him.

This film is rated with 97% on the Tomatometer, so I expected that it would blow me away. I found Affleck’s acting intense and as I walked out I thought he’d get an Oscar for it. But Trisha, who watched it with me, didn’t agree at all. She pointed out the he had one face throughout the entire movie, the one in the photograph above, and that set the mood. No Oscar. Thinking more about it, I must agree. His mood was as gray at the winter in Manchester, Massachusetts, and the entire movie was gray and drab.

But then again, that’s what Lee’s life was like after his brother died, and perhaps that’s the story. I’ll let you be the judge, since despite my low two and a half star rating, I recommend you watch it.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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arrival

 
Twelve giant mysterious alien space craft the shape of avocado halves land in different areas of the globe. Mankind, as you would expect, goes crazy and in the frenzy escalates itself to the edge of global war. The American landing takes place in Montana. American Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of the makeshift tent army base at the ship. Since communications with the aliens is crucial, he recruits Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a world-famous physicist, as the team leaders in their fields. Backed by a team of military specialists, they enter the vessel. They learn quickly that physics as we know it does not hold true. For instance, as soon as they are inside the ship and make contact with its surface, artificial gravity allows them to walk up vertical walls.

And then they meet the aliens.

This is my kind of movie. When it was advertised at 100% on the Tomatometer, we went to see it on opening night. It has meanwhile been downgraded to 93%.

There are a lot of things about this movie that I liked, and a few things that I want to criticize.

I loved the soundtrack. It is a perfect match for the movie and its ambiance. I also loved the fact that the aliens are not little green men, or greys, or humanoids at all. The aliens are very, very different from us, which is what I would expect aliens to be like. I also enjoyed that the movie’s central plot relates to the relativity of time, something I am also inherently interested in. It portrays those concepts well and effectively by using them as central drivers of the story.

Here is what I had trouble with, and it’s also related to the central plot of the movie: Communications with aliens. I have written much about alien linguistics over the years. One review titled  Dolphins, Myths & Transformation – by Ryan DeMares is an example.

The fact is: We have aliens right here on our planet: dolphins. They are as intelligent was humans are, as far as we can tell, they have language, and our genomes are basically the same. We have lived with dolphins around us since antiquity. Roman writers talk about dolphins: the Latin word delphinus is the origin of our word for dolphins. And yet, in all these centuries of trying, and in recent decades with powerful computer technology, including the application of neural networks, we have not yet broken the code. We cannot even communicate with dolphins in a rudimentary way. We don’t understand them, and they don’t understand us. We don’t have a dolphin dictionary yet – even though there are many teams working on one now.

Yet, Louise Banks, in a few weeks, figures out a dictionary of rudimentary terms and even a sentence structure that allows her to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is not based on symbols like ours, but concepts projected in inkblot-type rings that are seemingly formed out of an ink-like material. You can see some of the alien “sentences” in the picture at the top of this post, represented by the circular structures pasted on the wall behind Ian and Louise. Not only do the Americans figure out the language, but the Russians, Chinese and a few other countries independently do also. And all of them, within a short time, come to the conclusion that the aliens mean us harm because they’re talking about “weapons.” How the humans figured out a translation between an alien ink cloud and the word weapon, among many other words, is not explained.

The central plot about Arrival is how we communicate, and how our communications affects our lives – and times. Perhaps I know too much about the subject, and therefore it didn’t seem real and believable to me. Perhaps I am overly critical. It just didn’t work.

However, if you simply accept that we’re going to be able to communicate with aliens, while everything else about them remains completely and utterly mysterious – ahem – alien, then you might enjoy this film very much.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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the long way

I have heard science fiction writers say that they are writing the books they’d like to read. Well, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a book I would want to write because I would like to read it.

The debut novel by Becky Chambers is a quirky little road trip story, except the participants are not a motley crew of young adults driving from New York to the American West in a VW van. Rather, a crew of humans and aliens are on a trip in a space ship from the human “area” of the galaxy to the “core” where an obnoxious and dangerous alien race wields power.

The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship – that’s a spaceship designed to punch hyperspace tunnels into space so you can travel thousands of light years in a few hours. How that is done, how the science of it all works, is not explained, and it really does not matter much to advance the story.

When I said it’s a road trip story, I mean that it does not have much of a plot or a conflict. The joy of reading it is simply following the crew from adventure to adventure.

The universe they live in is one where humans are not the primary race. There are three founding races that formed the “Galactic Commons” long before humans even had technology, let alone space travel. One of the races are the Harmagians, a mollusk-like race with tentacles and slimy skin, but no feet, so they have to move around in wheelchair-like carts. Then there are the Aandrisks. They are lizard-like creatures, a bit like velociraptors but with more gentle, human-like faces. They have scales, are cold-blooded, and have claws. They also have to molt. The third funding race are the Aeluons, humanoid creatures, with scales, and no vocal chords, that communicate with the coloring of their skin. They are perceived as beautiful by humans. Humans were only very recently voted in to join the Galactic Commons as a member race. They therefore don’t carry much weight yet.

Rosemary Harper, a human with a secret in her history, is getting away from it all by joining the Wayfarer as a clerk. The captain of the Wayfarer is Ashby, a human. Its pilot is Sissix, an Aandrisk. Its medical officer and cook is Dr. Chef, a Grum. Grums are an almost extinct, ancient race, that have six “handfeet” that they can use interchangeably, multiple throats, and many other very alien features. Then there is Corbin, the ship’s algaeist, a human, and Kizzy and Jenks, the techs, also humans whose job it is keep the ship running. Finally, there is Ohan, the ship’s navigator, a Sianat, which is a feline-like race with fur and four legs. Ohan is extremely reclusive, but a vital member of the crew because due to a strange viral condition is able to visualize hyperspace, a crucial skill if the job of the ship is to “punch holes” into space to create wormholes for other ships to travel through.

How this crew interacts with each other and with other aliens is what the book is mostly about. Other aliens they come across are the Toremi Ka, a very nasty sort with four legs with knees bent the wrong way, or the Quelin, lobster-like creatures with lots of clicking legs and a centaur-like torso and head.

I was fascinated with all the aliens and their interactions, both individually on the ship, and as races with each other, in the Galactic Commons, with all its politics and social structure. But there were some flaws with this book.

As some Amazon reviewers noted, the dialog is sometimes that of high school girls, perhaps because Kizzy, the tech, is a ditsy, albeit brilliant, chick.

My major complaint is that most of the aliens are really humans dressed up as aliens. While their bodies and structures are very different, they pretty much think and feel like humans in other bodies. To me, they are not alien enough.

I also found that the author didn’t describe them well enough. So I could picture them somewhat, but not sufficiently to, say, draw or paint them. I’d have to make a lot of things up. I would say that if you write a book which is centrally focused around aliens interacting, you should do a much better job putting pictures of those aliens into my head. The aliens are all about the same size, approximately human, so they can all interact, sort of like in the bar scenes of the Star Wars movies.

Here is what pushed it over the top, though. Some of the humans and aliens had the hots for each other. There is one central plotline revolving around a sexual relationship between a Human and an Aeluon, and another between a Human and an Aandrisk. That was too much for me. I can’t imagine how one would get sexually attracted to an alien, no matter how humanoid that alien is. And how would that work, claws, tentacles and all, not to speak of sex organs, if there even are any in the aliens. So while it was tastefully handled by the author, it just made it too outlandish and farfetched for me, and I was always reminded that, yes, I was reading a book, and I just had to accept that this was somehow possible.

For me, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was eminently readable, a page-turner even, with some major flaws that I was willing to forgive. I read that Becky Chambers is working on a sequel.

I will read the sequel when it comes out in October.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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Obama is five years younger than I am. In six months he’ll be an ex-president after 8 years in office. They have already made a movie about, of all things, his first date with his wife. Say want you want, he is a remarkable man.

Southside2

Southside With You plays on one summer day in Chicago in 1989, when Michelle Robinson went on a first date with the summer intern Barack Obama at her lawfirm, where she was a second-year associate. Michelle didn’t want it to be a date. Barack insisted and made it one. Their day meanders through an art exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, to a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, then to a community organizing event, drinks and finally to the site of their first kiss outside of an ice cream parlor.

I knew Southside With You is about the young Obamas, but I didn’t know the entire movie was about one single day.

It is a portrait of a young couple that went on to do extraordinary things. Whether you are a fan or opponent of Obama, there is no denying he made history. That one day in Chicago may well have been a turning point in world history, if one may assume that Obama might not have become The Obama without the partnership of Michelle. None of us will ever know, of course, but I ruminate about such turns – or perhaps I would call them – simple twists of fate.

Southside1

Who would have thought in 1989 that the skinny couple above (in a picture taken during the time the movie plays) would be moving into the White House less than 19 years hence.

If you are a supporter of Obama, you’ll likely enjoy this movie as a portrait of the young man to make an extraordinary difference in our nation’s history. I read both of Obama’s books before he became president, and they helped form my opinion at the time. Here are my reviews of those books:

Dreams from my Father

The Audacity of Hope

This movie does a good job rounding out the background.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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War Dogs

I am a government contractor myself. I respond to government RFPs, just like the two guys in this movie do. They sell bullets and guns. I sell software systems. But the process is the same. And yes, it sure looks like there is money to be made in arms.

I do not know how authentic this movie actually is. It portrays two young  kids (Jonah Hill, Miles Teller) with little education, barely out of high school, who stumbled into dealing with arms, getting rich quickly.

Or do they? There are always hurdles, and sometimes the hurdles to our successes are within ourselves.

War Dogs is an enjoyable movie to watch and I am afraid it’s probably closer to the truth of government contracting than I’d like to think.

Makes you want to get on that website right away and start getting rich quick, from the crumbs.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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EyeintheSky

Warfare, during the times of the Spartans, or the Romans, was conducted by highly trained men with swords going at each other. In the American Civil War, lines of men, shoulder to shoulder, shot at each other with muskets and as the lines dropped, battles were won.

But now is the time of killer robots in the sky. Well, not quite yet. Let’s give it another few decades before we need to worry about the science fiction killer machines that descend on the world and kill humans. Right now, the killer machines are called drones and their use has been perfected over the last decade or so. The Obama presidency is marked by the use of drones.

The “pilot” sits in an air-conditioned trailer outside Las Vegas, surrounded by video screens, flying a with a joy stick like in the video games he grew up with, and directed by a colonel through a set of headphones.

The “commander” could be anywhere else in the world, like in the Pentagon, in the White House, or, as in the case of Eye in the Sky, somewhere in England.

The “ground troops” are individuals or commandos near the target, in this case somewhere in Somalia.

The “generals” are sitting in their war rooms, directed by politicians out playing golf. In this case, the politicians are taking a break from their Ping-Pong game in China to give the order that will have people killed.

The “players” of this war are spread all over the world.

But ground zero is a shack in a slum neighborhood in Somalia, which just happens to contain five major terrorists at the same time – and therefore needs to be taken out. If only there were not a young girl selling her bread on a stand just outside the walls of the house in the crosshairs. If the missile is launched, surely she will die. And all participants know it, except for the one who gives the final order – by being interrupted in his Ping-Pong game.

Eye in the Sky is a riveting account of the moral implications of modern warfare, where immense damage can be inflicted on innocent lives on the other side of the world by the simple push of a button on a joystick in the Nevada desert.

All the warriors go home after the mission, to their families in their suburban houses all over the world, but the little girl in Somalia, who happened to be at the very wrong place at the very wrong time, never gets to go home at all.

Eye in the Sky is reminiscent of the 2015 movie Good Kill, where the same type of moral conflict is highlighted. There is no way to walk away from this movie without being aware of the immense responsibility of the commander-in-chief who literally decides if someone lives or dies. This is even more relevant today during our tumultuous election season, where there is at least one candidate who seems to be proud of showing the world that he does not care about anybody but himself.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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War and Peace

I finished reading War and Peace. I am pretty much the only person I know that has read War and Peace all the way through. If a reader wants to challenge me on this, leave a comment!

With over 580,000 words (in English), the book is listed on Wikipedia’s list of longest books as number 22.

The only books I also know on this list is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo with 655,000 words, and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand with 645,000 words, which I have actually read and reviewed here.

But why am I whining about how long the book is? Because it’s iconic for its length. When our English teacher told us that an assigned essay would not have to be too long, he would say: “You don’t need to write War and Peace.”

It also took me longer than any other book I can remember. I started reading this around New Years 2016, and look, it’s almost Tax Day 2016, that’s how long it took me. I am starving for other reading material. I can’t wait to start another book, any other book!

War and Peace is one of the central pieces of world literature. In 2007, Time magazine ranked War and Peace third in its poll of the 10 greatest books of all time. Tolstoy’s other major work, Anna Karenina, was first. Incidentally, Anna Karenina is one major novel I have actually read twice, listed with a few others here. Newsweek ranked War and Peace first in its list of 100 greatest books in 2009.

War and Peace plays in Russia, mostly in and around Moscow, during the Napoleonic Wars, and the central action is the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812. While there are hundreds of important characters in the book, there are some protagonists that the work follows from beginning to end. One is Pierre Bezukhov, an illegitimate son of a count who grows up a misfit and then unexpectedly becomes one of the richest men in Russia when his father dies and leaves his estate to him. Another is Prince Andrew, who becomes an officer in the war. Natasha Rostov is a the young and beautiful daughter of a count who is the object of intrigue by both Andrew and Pierre, and a number of other suitors.

The book follows mostly members of the nobility. We get to learn how Russian nobility lived, and there are enough princes and princesses, and counts and countesses in War and Peace to last me a lifetime. While Tolstoy clearly spent a lot of time and effort describing the lifestyles of the rich, famous and glamorous of Russian society around 1800, I felt that I didn’t learn enough about the lives of the peasantry, the soldiers and the ordinary workers. As it seems, half the book is filled with endless petty conversations between princes, counts and their panderers in the drawing rooms of Russian estates. Real people, the servants, the footmen, the nurses and tutors, are only referenced. They hardly ever talk. It’s as if life only consisted of the one percent.

From reading Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky), Fathers and Sons (Turgenev), all playing in Russia of the Czars, I have a completely different picture of Russian life in its glory days than I do of Russia today, when we think of oligarchs, Putin, Soviets, Stalin, and communism. Read War and Peace, experience how the gentry lived and used and abused the people, and you will understand why the Russian revolution happened about 100 years after War and Peace played. The people, the workers, the serfs, the peasants, they couldn’t take it anymore. Alas, it didn’t last long, and a new breed of abusers took over, not by inherited titles, but by power. That’s what made Russia what it is today.

War and Peace tells a story of epic proportions and provides endless material to marvel about. It is an unforgettable book – and it is very, very challenging to read and finish.

So while it behooves me to give such a classic work four stars, I simply didn’t experience it that way. It’s a must-read, yes, but it’s not a page turner.

You don’t read War and Peace, War and Peace reads you!

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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10 Cloverfield Lane

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her boyfriend. She moves out of their apartment in the city, driving into the countryside when, out of nowhere, she gets hit, her car careens off the road and flips upside down. She wakes up in a cellar with cinderblock walls, on a mattress, an IV in her arm, her leg in a brace, and chained to a pipe along the wall. She has no idea where she is.

It turns out she is in the “custody” of Howard Stambler (John Goodman), who has been preparing for a doomsday scenario all his life. He claims that the end of the world as we know it has come, and rather than being antagonistic, she should be grateful for his care and protection.

Howard is just a bit too crazy, too strange, for her to accept that reality and she starts plotting for her escape.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a suspense drama with just a few actors, almost like a play. John Goodman performs in one of his best roles ever, and he is perfect for it. Howard is on the one side a compassionate uncle-figure, on the other side a stark-raving-mad conspiracy fiend, and I found myself wondering all through the film whether I should trust Howard, or whether he was actually the problem.

The ending is not what I thought it would be, so the surprise element worked well for me. The movie was suspenseful and quite entertaining, but in the end I would not call it a great movie – it was just “good.”

You should go and see it.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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A Walk in the Woods

Many years ago I read the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. It’s one of those books that you can randomly open up at any page, point to any paragraph and start reading, and within a few seconds you crack up and often laugh out loud. It’s one of the funniest books ever.

The movie is about Bryson (Robert Redford), a writer who decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (the AT), and can’t find anybody to hike with him, except his cantankerous, out of shape friend Katz (Nick Nolte). So they go off and hike into the woods, where they encounter odd characters, rain, snow, endless woods, priceless vistas and the bottoms of their souls. There is something in hiking that opens up a man. Bryson and Katz are going through some good male bonding out in the elements.

The movie A Walk in the Woods is nothing like the book. The funny scenes are a bit predictable and slapsticky. And the story, while cute, doesn’t much follow the book at all, other than both are about hiking. In the end, that’s what it’s all about, and I would not be surprised if the southern terminus of the AT were not swamped next spring with lots of Bryson and Katz pairs, at least for the first few days.

Two stars for the movie, and half a star because it’s about hiking. Hey, I can do that!

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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Aurora1

Aurora is a powerful, well done, highly readable and very thought-provoking generation ship story.

In the year 2545, a star ship leaves Earth with about 2000 people on board on a one-way trip to the star system Tau Ceti (which is interestingly a common destination in science fiction stories for interstellar travels). Tau Ceti is about 12 light years from Earth. The ship travels at about 10% of the speed of light. Figuring acceleration and deceleration, the trip takes about 170 years one way.

This of course means that the original crew lives their entire lives on board the ship. They know they never will arrive themselves. Actually, it will be their great-great-great-grandchildren who will be alive when the ship arrives at Tau Ceti. Generations are born, live their entire lives on the ship, and die, never knowing another world.

Putting this into perspective today, if we were on a ship arriving at the new star now, it would have left Earth sometime around twenty years before the American Civil War. The implications are mind-boggling, and Kim Stanley Robinson does an excellent job describing the society and the culture of the people onboard. He also describes the ship very explicitly and in far more detail than I have seen in many other generation ship stories.

The main story line actually begins about twenty years before scheduled arrival at Tau Ceti. It is mankind’s first excursion to another star system. The inhabitants of the ship do not know what to expect, but they know there is no possible return. The ship is a century and a half old, and things are breaking down. There are constant emergencies related to the ship and its life support systems. When they finally arrive, things don’t go exactly how it was planned, and how could they?

The author meticulously explores the social and moral implications of interstellar travel, and what it would do to the psyche of the travelers.

*** Spoilers Below This Point ***

When the ship arrives, and things don’t go well, some of the crew wants to stay in the Tau Ceti system, and others want to return to Earth. This divides the book into almost two completely different halves. The story abandons those that stay at Tau Ceti. We never hear about them, and the story follows the returning crew. By using advanced cryogenics, they sleep through the trip, and the generation that left Tau Ceti arrives back at Earth about 200 years later, or around the year 2900. They have significant challenges decelerating at the solar system. The speculations about the speed of the ship as it enters the solar system at 3% of light speed are fascinating all by themselves.

After enormous challenges are overcome to decelerate, the travelers actually arrive on Earth. The last ten percent of the book then waxes philosophically about their readjustment, which I actually found quite boring and in retrospect completely unnecessary. The book could have been ten percent shorter and thus probably better. The Earth episodes could have been shortened to a few pages. So the last 10% of the book brought it down by about a star in my rating.

*** End of Spoilers ***

Regardless, Aurora is an education about generation ships, and therefore a must-read for anyone interested in the subject.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

I am obviously interested. Other generation ship stories I have read and reviewed in this blog are listed here:

Ship of Fools – by Richard Paul Russo

Non-Stop – by Brian W. Aldiss

Orphans of the Sky – by Robert A. Heinlein

The Dark Beyond the Stars – by Frank M. Robinson

Lungfish – by John Brunner

Seed of Light – by Edmund Cooper

Tau Ceti – by Kevin J. Anderson

Ark – by Stephen Baxter

I am sure there were more in earlier years, which I have forgotten about. If any reader remembers another generation ship novel, let me know, and I’ll read and review it here.

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The Gift

Simon and Robyn just moved to Los Angeles where Simon has a new executive job. Things are going well for them. As they get situated, they run into Gordo, one of Simon’s high school classmates.

Simon does not seem to recognize him at first. Gordo welcomes the couple into the community and drops off a gift at their doorstep. It seems strange to them, but harmless at first.

Then, while Simon is at work, Gordo shows up unannounced and befriends Robyn. She starts to suspect that there is something between the two men beneath the surface that she does not understand.

How well does she actually know her own husband? As the digs deeper into the past, she finds some unsettling truths that bring havoc into their lives.

The Gift is a mystery thriller and very highly rated by the reviews. It is very well done. I was captivated by the story and intrigued to find out what actually happened. This is an entertaining movie that you won’t regret seeing.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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Foothold

It’s 2063, and Earth is headed for runaway global warming. The Hope is the first starship built by mankind to travel to Tau Ceti, a star 12 light years away, where astronomers have found several candidates of planets that could support human life. Eight humans are on board the ship, four couples, carefully selected by the international community for their educational background, their genetic makeup, and their psychological profiles to go on a one-way journey to Tau Ceti to start the first ever human colony in another star system.

The Hope is a spaceship designed for this trip. It can reach a speed of 40% of the speed of light and this make the trip in about 40 years. A technology called stasis was invented to basically freeze time to a standstill in phone-booth sized devices, where the humans on board can remain while the automated ship completes the journey.

That is if nothing goes wrong.

The first half of the book is about the journey, and the second about the colonization of the planet they end up finding. Interwoven into the story is Earth history and the rapid degradation into global disaster brought on by runaway global warming. There is a sinister part of the story where a tycoon on Earth essentially hijacks the next star ship for his own imperial plans.

As I read Foothold, I could not figure out why the tycoon story was part of the plot, until I got to the end where I learned that the plot isn’t getting resolved but the whole thing is a setup for a sequel.

The sequel notwithstanding, Foothold is a good, riveting sci-fi read. It kept me turning the pages. However, there were a few things about the book that bothered me:

The technology, for being only 50 years in the future, was just too unbelievable. Fabricators, which are basically 3-D printers into which you just have to feed raw materials (iron ore, etc.) just didn’t make sense to me. The fabricators were able to build robots that could autonomously build habitats, launch mining operations, and the like. The statis chambers, while a neat trick in themselves, just seemed too convenient. Most of the technology just seemed too deus-ex-machina-like to strike me as feasible within the next 50 years. The eight human protagonists also seemed too much like super people to seem real.

Finally, unfortunately as it is common with self-published authors, grammar errors abounded, particularly in the second half of the book. I appreciate that the authors do this all themselves. Don’t they have a friend or two who can read their books before they publish them to get the gross grammatical errors taken care of? I am sure I found at least 50 sentences that just didn’t make sense. The author should eliminate those obvious errors before he asks readers to pay money for his book.

I enjoyed Foothold, but not enough to want to spend the time to read the sequel The Seasoning.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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Still AliceAlice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a renowned professor of cognitive science and linguistics. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a successful physician. They have three grown kids, stellar careers and an exciting future ahead of them. Suddenly Alice notices that she forgets words.

She has herself checked out and is diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Everything comes crashing down. Her struggle, her fight for the normalcy of her life, is frightening.

I have often worried about my memory. It used to be almost infallible, and I could memorize anything I wanted to: long lists of items in the military, poems, songs, foreign vocabulary and speeches in Toastmasters. After turning 50, I found that occasionally I can’t even remember names of famous actors, like – Alec Baldwin. The names would be ‘on the tip of my tongue’ but nonetheless completely inaccessible. This was a frightening discovery and it has often given me reason to pause.

Watching Still Alice reminded me of this sign of aging that we all eventually experience. Our bodies can’t do what they used to be able to, and the same happens to our minds. For most of us.

For Alice, however, the diagnosis is unforgiving. She knows she is sinking into the abyss of losing her memory, her cognition, and in the process – herself. This movie is about how she deals with it.

Frightening, that’s the word that comes to mind. Frightening.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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Ship_of_Fools,_Richard_Paul_Russo_(book_cover)

For many centuries, the starship Argonos, with thousands of people on board, has traveled between the stars looking for a planet to colonize. None has worked out. They never once encountered any alien civilization. About 275 years ago, there was a revolution on board which ultimately upset the balance of power and also destroyed the logs and records of the ship. Nobody knows how old the ship is, how long it has traveled, and where it has been.

Its society has fractured into the downsiders, those people born and living in the lower decks of the ship, where farming and labor takes place, and the upsiders, who are the crew, the educated and the religious elites. The Catholic church is strong and thriving. There is even a cathedral on board.

For the first time in recent memory, they find a planet that looks promising. They land to explore it, and in the process find a gruesome and shocking surprise. Eventually, a transmission from the planet into space leads the Argonos to an alien ship in deep space. They explore and find disconcerting evidence of what many call evil.

Bartolomeo Aguilera is the narrator of the story. He is the confidant of the captain of the Argonos, but an outsider in general, disliked by the elite as well as the workers. Through his narration we learn about the realities of life on the ship, where everyone on board was born on board and has lived their entire lives on board. They know no other life. The church teaches that the ship has existed forever.

I loved the first half of Ship of Fools. The story of the lives of the inhabitants is engaging and thought-provoking. I didn’t care much for the endless sections of religious exposition. The bishop of the Argonos and one of its priests are major protagonists, and their points of view and dialog keeps drawing the story into religious confusion and anachronisms.

When the ship reaches the alien vessel, the story becomes boring and pointless, and the climax really never gets resolved. There are two threads to the ending, and neither is completed. Perhaps the author wanted to set us up for a sequel. This was written in 2001, and it’s now 2015, and there isn’t one.

I had this book at three stars or above, until the second half just took a nosedive and left everything just – uninteresting.

Nevertheless, for lovers of generation ship stories, it is still a must-read.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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Tau ZeroIn the nearer future, about a century from now, humanity builds starships. The Leonora Christine is the seventh ship of its generation, and she getting ready to depart. The world selects 50 people, 25 males and 25 females, to travel to the third planet of Beta Virginis, which has previously been visited by a robotic probe and found highly likely to be habitable. Beta Virginis is about 50 light years away. To get there, at the speed of light, would take 50 years, if anything could travel that fast. To send a message back to Earth once they got there, would take another 50 years. So a hundred years later, the descendants of the star farers would first find out about the fate of the crew.

The Leonora Christine is a starship based on the Bussard ramjet concept. The ship scoops up interstellar molecules in a large magnetic funnel it pushes ahead of itself and converts this matter into energy for its reaction drive. Here is the description of the Leonora Christine in Chapter 2:

 Her hull was a conoid, tapering toward the bow. Its burnished smoothness seemed ornamented rather than broken by the exterior fittings. These were locks and hatches; sensors for instruments; housings for the two boats that would make the planet-falls for which she herself was not designed; and the web of the Bussard drive, now folded flat. The base of the conoid was quite broad, since it contained the reaction mass among other things; but the length was too great for this to be particularly noticeable.

At the top of the dagger blade, a structure fanned out which you might have imagined to be the guard of a basket hilt. Its rim supported eight skeletal cylinders pointing aft. These were the thrust tubes, that acclerated the reaction mass backward when the ship moved at merely interplanetary speeds. The ‘basket’ enclosed their controls and power plant.

Beyond this, darker in hue, extended the haft of the dagger, ending finally in an intricate pommel. The latter was the Bussard engine; the rest was shielding against its radiation when it should be activated.

At an acceleration of 1g, the ship can accelerate to relativistic speeds (close to light speed) within about one year. Based on Einsteinean physics, onboard time slows down drastically as an object nears light speed. Decades go by on earth while the people on the ship may experience only a few months, or days, or minutes – depending on how close to light speed the vessel travels.

On the way to their destination the ship encounters an unexpected obstacle in form of a dense cloud of matter. As they hit it, some damage is done to the decelerator. In essence, the ship going effectively at light speed has lost its brakes. It can’t stop once it gets to its destination. They have to come up with an alternative plan.

The result is a cosmic journey where the ship travels through entire galaxies (which would take 100,000 years) while the passengers experience it as a mere turbulence lasting a few seconds, speed bumps in star travel. They end up going to the edge of the universe and time itself.

Tau Zero is a very hard science fiction story. Anderson spends time on his character development, but for the most part they are caricature-like and the human side story, while important, is secondary. The scientific concepts he illustrates blow the mind.

ramjet-side-text

Concept by space artist Adrian Mann

The technical concepts for the ramjet are described at Centauri Dreams for those of you that are interested. The Bussard ramjet is also described in this post Cruising the Infinite, among a number of other star travel technologies.

Conceptually, approaching light speed, the ship gets ever more massive, and time slows ever more down. So the trip between two galaxies that are 50 million light years apart could be perceived as taking a day on the ship – depending on how close to light speed the ship travels. The result, of course, is that from the viewpoint of the rest of the universe, the ship is traveling for 50 million years.

Anderson uses these relativistic concepts throughout Tau Zero. It is intense scientific reading. It needs to be read slowly, except for the human-interaction parts, which seem hokey in comparison. I skimmed over those.

Written in 1970 (45 years go!), Tau Zero is the time dilation book of all time dilation books. I recommend it for hard science fiction aficionados only. Everyone else will be totally lost.

For me, I am in awe.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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