Science fiction reviews (Summer 2021)


This is a collection of science fiction book and screen reviews that I posted this summer over on blogspot. I’ve put them all together here out of a sense of nostalgia for all the good stories I got to enjoy.



August 27th, 2021

Star Trek Voyager ran for seven seasons from 1995 to 2001. Earlier this year I decided to rewatch all 172 episodes. I’m now half way through season six. 

With a lot of tv shows the best seasons are the earliest. But that’s not the case here. The early seasons of Voyager feel different to the later ones but they’re not superior. I’d say the writers kept the quality high all the way through. 

I guess a big reason why the later seasons feel different is because of changes in the cast. Kes left in the third season, shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend Neelix. (I think her absence gave Neelix much more room to grow.) In the fourth season the crew were joined by Borg drone Seven of Nine. In the later seasons we also see more of the “subunit” Naomi Wildman.

Captain Janeway is in Voyager throughout, but her character changes slightly. In the later seasons she seems very weighed down by the responsibility of getting the crew back to Earth. I also wonder if, for a while, the writers overly favoured Seven of Nine — relegating Janeway to the role of Seven’s motherly mentor. 

That’s why my favourite season six episode so far is Fair haven (episode 11). It puts the focus square on Janeway and her feelings. Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers. 

To keep the crew amused during a storm, Tom Paris opens up 24-hour-a-day access to a holodeck location called Fair haven. This fictional Irish small town by the sea is as cosy as they come. It even has a talking pig, though sadly we never get to see it. 

Janeway visits Fair haven and is intrigued by the handsome but holographic bar man. She alters his program to make him into her ideal companion. After falling in love, Janeway becomes uncomfortable. Is it ok to feel like this about someone who isn’t real? The ship’s doctor encourages Janeway to continue the liaison, pointing out that she’s in a lonely position; everyone else on board is her subordinate. 

The Fair haven episode is an example of one of the things I love most about Voyager. The writers produced stories about the consequences of living with advanced technology. In a world where holograms look as real as anyone else, it’s inevitable that some people will fall for them. 

August 5th, 2021

I downloaded Picard in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Twenty minutes into the first episode I switched it off. In those early scenes Jean-Luc Picard looks weighed down by his 94 years. I really didn’t want to see the ageing struggles of a beloved TV character. I was already worried about older loved ones in real life!
More than a year passed before I gave Picard another go. I’m so glad I did. Despite the gloomy start, the show is every bit as positive as the comedy Grace and Frankie (starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin).Of course, Picard is not a comedy, although it has moments of humour. What the two shows really have in common is the birth years of the leading actors and a great sense of positivity about the agency of older people. (Jane Fonda was born in 1937, Lily Tomlin in 1939, and Sir Patrick Stewart in 1940.)
Jean-Luc Picard first appeared on TV from 1987 to 1994 as the captain in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whoever it was who chose Stewart for the role deserves an award. He was the best follow up to the great William Shatner (Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek) that anyone could ask for. Both Stewart and Shatner have strong charisma but they’re very different in looks and accent. That difference gave Next Generation the chance to be something new.
Picard is also something new. In Picard the character of Jean-Luc is not quite the same as he appeared before. Losses, disappointments and years of retirement have changed him. He seems to wear his emotions more visibly and to be much more of a people person.
I think it’s wonderful that we get to see these changes. Star Trek has always been an educational show, using character arcs to teach about human emotional and social growth. In Picard we see Jean-Luc learning to process decades of personal emotional baggage. And what a wonderful thing that is when there aren’t enough older role models on our screens.
Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) has many characters who grow through their adventures. The ex-Borg, Seven, is a relatable character for any viewer who has blundered with social etiquette. Raised from childhood on a Borg cube, Seven starts out with little idea of how to get along with other humans. She grows, without losing her uniqueness, and becomes a valued and popular member of the Voyager crew.
It is therefore a delight to meet Seven again in Picard and fascinating to see how she’s changed as a person. She too, like Jean-Luc, has years of personal baggage. Vocally and in appearance she seems more human — but she still retains the differences that make her such a special character.
I wonder if dealing with the weight of lived experience is one of the great themes of the first season of Picard. With few exceptions, all of the characters are middle aged or older. Jean-Luc even comments that he has never met a crew with so much baggage.
Back in 2020, watching those early scenes, the weight that Jean-Luc carries put me off Picard. Ironically, the show’s message seems to be that by continuing to engage with life (as William Ryker and Deanna Troi do) we may learn to carry the weight with greater ease. If Jean-Luc has a slogan it might be to “keep on trucking.”

August 2nd, 2021

Winter World (2018) is the first book of the Long Winter trilogy by A.G. Riddle. It’s an enjoyable read: a space thriller with memorable characters and an unpredictable plot. 

Riddle is extremely good at maintaining the tension. Throughout the story the two narrators deal with a series of challenges on a personal and a global scale. Riddle does a great job of weaving these small- and large-scale elements together, layering them in to build a seamless experience.

Winter World has a particularly strong opening. It begins with three big questions. Why is Earth entering a new Ice Age? What is the alien entity out by the Sun? And are the two connected? 

Riddle also throws the narrators into personal drama, right from the start. James, a robotics expert, is caught up in a dangerous situation in prison. Emma, an astronaut, must survive a life-threatening crisis out in space. 

Male authors are sometimes criticised when they write female narrators. I’m female and I think Riddle did a good job with Emma. I also appreciated the equal balance of male and female voices.

So, was there anything about Winter World that I didn’t like? There is a slightly dull section where the characters spend too much time explaining gravity to each other, but apart from that, no. 

I look forward to reading the next instalment, The Solar War (2019). 


July 29th, 2021
If we met for a croissant you’d find I only wanted to talk about one thing. That’s Missions, a wonderful French tv series about humans on Mars. I love everything about it: the way the story unfolds, the filming, the characters and the soundtrack.
It’s only recently that the world watched as billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos launched separate ventures into Earth’s orbit. In Missions the same sort of thing happens — except on a bigger scale. The story begins with a race to the red planet between two billionaire-sponsored ships. 
Ulysses 1 is a joint project paid for by cuddly Swiss philanthropist William Meyer and the European Space Agency. Meyer is also one of the astronauts, serving alongside a mixed European crew that includes French psychologist Jeanne Renoir.
Jeanne tells William that the crew’s mental wellbeing is so poor it’s probably not a good idea for them to land. But go to Mars they must, to rescue the crew of Zillion. The NASA ship, funded by billionaire Ivan Goldstein, arrived first and is in distress.
After landing, the Europeans face the usual technical hitches we expect to see in Mars stories. Then, what follows really turns up the mystery dial. The Europeans find Vladimir Komarov, a 40-year-old Soviet cosmonaut, last seen alive 50 years earlier. He’s even wearing a 1960s space suit and helmet.
Komarov is the first season’s enduring mystery. How did he get to Mars? Why is he there? What does it all mean? 
I love Arben Bajraktaraj’s performance as Komarov. To me he comes across as both warm and cold at the same time. I trust him but I also don’t. To avoid spoiling the mystery for you I can’t say more. 
I finished watching the first season yesterday and started the second today. It’ll take a lot of willpower not to watch it all by the end of tomorrow.


July 26th, 2021

The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett is about a young translator who becomes infatuated with a sex robot called Lucy. 

The translator, George, lives in the scientific-rationalist state of Illyria, in the Balkans of Europe. Illyria is the most scientifically advanced country on Earth. It was founded by scientists as a refuge from the Reaction, a worldwide wave of religious fundamentalism. Unsurprisingly, religion is banned in Illyria. The state even plans to reduce external religious influences by replacing immigrant workers with robots.  
Beautiful Lucy serves in a brothel. For socially awkward George it’s love at first sight. When Lucy shows signs of sentience the pair leave Illyria for a journey into the religious Outlands. 

I thought The Holy Machine would be a romance. It’s definitely not! It’s more accurate to describe it as a coming of age novel. During their difficult journey both George and Lucy grow into their skins — in very different ways. 
It’s not a stretch to say that The Holy Machine is fantasy travel literature. And that it’s also a deeply thoughtful novel that, through the actions of the various characters, presents a complex image of human rationality and spirituality. 
I’m sure I’ll be thinking about The Holy Machine for a long time after reading it. The many aspects that are likely to stick in my mind include the depiction of Lucy’s thought processes and the subplot about George’s mother and Virtual Reality. 
Other reviews: 
Michael Levy’s review in Strange Horizons
Gavin Pugh’s review in SFRevu

July 18th, 2021

I’m not alone in enjoying The Three-Body Problem by Cinxin Liu. First published in China in 2006, this extraordinary novel became very popular and won a major Chinese science fiction award. It was then translated into 25 other languages. Ken Liu’s English translation, published in 2014, won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015.

Clearly I was very late to the party when I picked this novel up in July 2021. I’m glad I found it. My usual science fiction diet is dominated by British and North American stories. A story set in China and written by a Chinese author was a welcome change.

So what makes The Three-Body Problem so popular? I suspect that the mix of settings forms a very strong part of its appeal. Locations include a remote forest-based listening station during the cultural revolution, modern-day urban China, a mysterious online game and the far off planet of Trisolaris. 

The book’s main characters are memorable as well. My favourite has to be the irreverent police detective Da Shi. I will also never forget the astrophysicist Ye Wenjie. She’s a complex character. (Any literature student looking to write an essay about The Three-Body Problem would do well to start with Ye Wenjie.) And of course the aliens themselves are very interesting. I won’t give too much away, but they’re shiny and they dehydrate!

The Three-Body Problem is in some ways quite a difficult novel to read because more than a few sections are about physics. The story itself is named after an orbital mechanics problem concerned with predicting the motion of three masses moving around each other. (You can find out more about that on Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-body_problem.) It’s of significance here because Trisolaris is troubled by the unpredictable movements of three suns.

Subatomic computers also pop up in one of these scientific sections. I believe they feature again in The Dark Forest, the second book of Cinxin Liu’s trilogy. I’m keen to spend more time with these computers and the characters so I’ll definitely make another appointment with the Three-Body world. 


July 15th, 2021

TV two-part drama Ice (2011) follows a familiar climate disaster movie format. A scientist’s warnings are ignored, climate catastrophe occurs, the scientist behaves bravely as he attempts to reach his loved ones. 

Despite the predictable story, Ice is well worth watching for the cast. Richard Roxburgh is great as climate scientist Professor Thom Archer. The Australian actor plays Archer with a rugged and reassuring warmth. Supporting actors Clare Forlani, Frances O’Connor and Ben Cross are brilliant too.

Location is everything in a climate disaster and Ice delivers on this front. Much of the action takes place on the Greenland ice shelf, where energy company Halo is drilling for oil. There are also scenes in British government offices in Whitehall and in an English vineyard.

Ice was made 10 years ago and already its predictions for the future look quaint. The writers proposed that by 2020 most of Europe would be arid desert and that England would have a balmy Mediterranean climate (hence the vineyard owned by Archer’s father). 

Back in 2011 some viewers might have thought that Ice presented an alarmist view of climate change risk. Writing this blog post in 2021, not many weeks after the Canadian heat dome, I find it impossible to accuse Ice of catastrophising. The future won’t look like this film, but it will certainly bring dramatic change. 

I watched Ice on Amazon Prime Video. Please feel free to leave a comment if you know where else viewers can see this two parter.

July 5th, 2021
Laura Lam’s space novel Goldilocks is classified by Google as dystopian science fiction. I didn’t think it was dystopian. To me it was an optimistic story that provided food for thought.

It’s certainly true that Lam’s vision of Earth’s future has upsetting elements. The climate is so badly damaged that the human race has less than thirty years left. And if that’s not bad enough, America has elected a misogynistic president and women are missing out on jobs. 

Perhaps Goldilocks didn’t seem dystopian to me because it was too close to recent events. After all, the dictionary defines dystopia as an imaginedworld or society. Can something be dystopian if it’s not very different to actual history?

I say that Goldilocks is optimistic because right from the get go, the five lead female characters work to make life better for everyone. They’re travelling through space to find Cavendish, a planet suitable to become humanity’s new home. 

The story focuses on Naomi and her adopted mother, expedition leader Valerie. It goes between past and present, examining their relationship and the development of the Cavendish mission. I particularly enjoyed reading about Naomi’s work on adapting Earth plants to Cavendish’s environment.

For me, two points for interesting discussion come out of Valerie and Naomi.

  1. Valerie’s vision lifts the women up. She is determined that women can build a better society on Cavendish, but is she the woman that Cavendish needs? Goldilocks is a good starting point for discussions about leadership.
  2. Naomi’s story goes into a lot of detail about her women’s health issues. In recent years social media culture has encouraged women to speak openly about periods and female health. Is Goldilocks one of the first British science fiction novels to pick up this torch?

Goldilocks was published in 2020 and is available in paperback and ebook format.

Friday, June 25th, 2021

Rose Byrne, Gina Rodriguez and Gugu Mbatha-Raw play mothers in three very different science fiction movies currently available on Netflix. 

I Am Mother 

In I Am Mother, Byrne is the gentle voice of a robot known only as Mother. After the extinction of humanity Mother lives in an underground bunker with 65,000 human embryos, a set of artificial wombs and one female human child, called Daughter.

From the start of the film I wondered why Mother and Daughter were alone. It looked easy enough to grow babies in the artificial wombs. So what was Mother waiting for? Did the robot believe in a 1:1 ratio for optimum parenting?

My question seemed unimportant to me, but it turned out to be the point of the story. Watch I Am Mother if you’re in the mood for intelligent and thoughtful science fiction. 

I Am Mother was released in 2019 and runs for 1 hour and 53 minutes. It received a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It also stars Hilary Swank and Clara Rugaard. 

Awake

Gina Rodriguez plays Jill, a former U.S. army medic and mother to Matilda and Noah. The children live with their grandmother because Jill is also a recovering drug addict. 

Jill’s chance to take care of her kids comes after a global event knocks out all electrical devices. Cars crash, planes fall from the sky and looters hit the streets. But that’s not the worst of it. After the event most people find they have lost the ability to sleep.

Jill discovers that her daughter can still sleep. She realises that within days everyone will be dead and Matilda will be alone. When Jill hears of another person who can also sleep, she decides to find her. 

Awake was released in 2021 and runs for 1 hour and 36 minutes. Watch this film if you’re looking for action and tension. Awake received some negative reviews. I don’t know why. I thought that it was very enjoyable viewing. 

The Cloverfield Paradox 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ava, the mother of two children lost in a house fire. She is also one of an international team of scientists tasked with starting a particle accelerator in orbit around Earth. Everyone hopes the accelerator will provide energy and solve the planet’s worsening energy crisis.

When the accelerator finally works it catapults the space station into a parallel reality, knocking that reality’s space station out of orbit. The one surviving crew member of the lost space station recognises Ava. In her reality Ava didn’t join the mission and didn’t lose her children. What will Ava do with that knowledge?

The Cloverfield Paradox was released in 2018 and runs for 1 hour and 42 minutes. Although it received a mere 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes I thought it was an entertaining film. Watch The Cloverfield Paradox if you’re in the mood for an unchallenging science fiction horror. 

My favourite of the three

I Am Mother is clever, Awake is pacy and The Cloverfield Paradox has lots of whizz bang. Of the three movies my favourite is Awake because of Gina Rodriguez’s performance as tough, capable and caring Jill.

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