Category: Sci-Fi Café


The truth.  Truth is the only way forward.  Lies and misinformation can destroy any plan, even a good one.  Created by writer Daniel H. Wilson in collaboration with the Michael Crichton estate, The Andromeda Evolution arrived last year 50 years after The Andromeda Strain was first published, the book that launched Crichton’s fame as master of the technothriller.  The Andromeda Evolution has all the components of Crichton’s best works–the trademark structure of a team of unique experts colliding to prevent catastrophe, the integration of cutting edge science to both inform the reader and carry the plot forward, and the surprising juxtaposition of the improbable and the unimaginable.  The ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness was eerily creepy last year, and here in March 2020 with a real pandemic threatening the planet, it’s even more so.  It all begins with a disaster in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, complete with lies–government clashes and misinformation campaigns–and ends with a surprise also ripped from last year’s headlines.  The Andromeda Evolution is now available in paperback here at Amazon from HarperCollins.

The influences and now, unfortunately, familiarity for readers will harken back to many other fictional tales with virus or pandemic components in sci-fi, conjuring callbacks to Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage II, The Philadelphia Experiment, The Cloverfield Paradox, 2017’s Life, or Crichton’s own novels Sphere and Congo.  More recent fictional touchpoints for addressing virus crises include zombies as in Netflix’s Kingdom, and The Living Dead, both reviewed at borg this week, and even aliens: Who now doesn’t feel like Donald Sutherland–suspicious of everyone who walks by–in Invasion of the Body Snatchers simply visiting your local grocery store?  More fantasy accounts can be found all over the origin stories of superheroes, like the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, Deadpool, and in DC’s Swamp Thing series, where the environment itself fights back.  Add these to attempts at more realistic stories, the modern, mainstream pandemic thriller, like Outbreak and Contagion.

But can we learn anything from science fiction to help us in the real world, right now?

Those watching the news, working in healthcare facilities, and sheltering at home can certainly find shared experiences as a starting point.  But there may be even more.  Like how not to handle crises.  How the human condition delivers all kinds of different personalities, some who help, some who contribute, and some who hinder.  Reading The Andromeda Evolution or revisiting any of the above books, movies, and TV shows may be something you’re not ready for yet.  If you are ready, they also may provide ideas.  Like anything we might be forgetting.  They also may illustrate that no one can say “we never could have planned for this” or “nobody ever figured this could happen.”  Those assertions may be said aloud, but science fiction proves them as falsehoods.  And if you have kids at home, maybe the superhero stories listed above could help explain how viruses work in real life.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

In Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, chemist and author Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, reveals the results of a thorough investigation into the scientific knowledge available to young author Mary Shelley at the turn of the 19th century when Shelley wrote the first science fiction novel (and basis for the first horror movie), Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus The result is a detailed, marvelously interconnected picture of notable minds of the Enlightenment and their theories, a useful history of science and technology, and a worthy supplement to any reading or study of the classic story.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was greatly influenced by noted authors of her era, beginning with her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (through her writings), and her long-time companion and eventual husband, the noted author and political thinker Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Mary Shelley lived in a world of scientific improvements, while also at only the barest beginnings of modern chemistry, biology, and medicine.  Author Kathryn Harkup looked back to writings of the late 1700s and earlier, where religion, politics, and culture were undergoing a radical shift, with old concepts like alchemy winding down its influence on the thinking world.  As Harkup writes, “Dark, discredited, ineffectual alchemy was contrasted with enlightened, rational, powerful science.”  She follows Mary Shelley’s travels as documented in letters and diaries Shelley and her contemporaries wrote to locate hundreds of opportunities that could have influenced the author’s story as well as Victor Frankenstein the character inside the world where he would create life from the dead.  In doing so the reader will get a snapshot of the world in 1800-1818 and a class in a major chapter of the history of science and technology–what someone in Shelley’s circumstances as a woman among affluent families living among vocal sharers of ideas including the likes of Erasmus Darwin, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and Lord Byron.

Harkup takes her research a step further in Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, locating the possible influences of not only Shelley but those around Mary Shelley like her father, her husband, and Byron, whose access to cutting edge science and free thought reached across the ocean and nations.  She references the ongoing relationships and likelihood of the sharing of ideas among these men and Mary Shelley, all leading to the famous trip during the rainy summer of 1816, where the world was overtaken by darkness thanks to the earlier eruption of Mount Tambora in far off Indonesia.  Mary Shelley, age 18, with boyfriend Percy visiting Byron and Dr. John Polidori at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, were hunkered down reading ghost stories to each other from the French book Fantasmagoriana, when Byron suggested each should write his/her own ghost story (Polidori’s story would become The Vampyre, the first vampire novel).  Along with the science, Harkup provides a complete background of each step of Shelley’s life before and after completion of her Frankenstein contribution.

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Kingdom J

We’ve seen Netflix take this approach successfully with series like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Take a Netflix successful series and splice in a standalone episode to surprise and please the fanbase.  This time it’s for a series we pegged as one of the Top 40 of the past decade, the South Korean brilliant horror mash-up, KingdomTwo seasons of the series (the first reviewed here, the second reviewed here) have everything: a great historical drama, royal family betrayals, medieval action, pandemic politics, and zombie horror, all supported across a giant, beautiful Korean landscape.  Kingdom isn’t what you’d think of as K-drama, at least not your typical romance heavy fantasy.  This month Netflix is surprising its viewers with what it calls a “sidequel,” a feature-length movie about a fringe character that arrived in the second season.  Check out a preview and images from Kingdom: Ashin of the North, below:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Plumes are cool.  I wear a plume now.

This week the Doctor and friends turn up at the very event that was the real-life origin point of Doctor Who, the series, and in fact all of science fiction: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s summer at the retreat at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1816.  It was the historic “year without a summer,” believed the result of volcanic ash in the atmosphere.  More importantly for the future of science and technology and science fiction, it was the convergence of celebrity that resulted in Mary Shelley’s spark to write her novel Frankenstein, the first science fiction novel and–notable for fans of all things borg–the first borg novel.

Only this is Doctor Who, and so something is different, as one of the famed guests of the villa is missing.  In its 56 years some of Doctor Who’s greatest episodes have featured a re-look at historical places and events, and the fantastic new episode, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” may top them all.  The events of 1816 are well documented and writer Maxine Alderton (The Worst Witch, Emmerdale) used them to create the perfect blending of Doctor Who and history.  Directed by Emma Sullivan, Alderton’s story is expertly designed to weave together even the obscure historical facts and figures with the fantastical, while foreshadowing the focus of the season’s remaining episodes (find a peek at that below).  Just as the story of the creation of the first science fiction story takes center stage (also one of the early Gothic horror tales), so does the world inside Shelley’s novel peer into the world of the Doctor.

Save the poet, save the universe.

In a word, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is perfection, as the seed of all science fiction meets its latest incarnation both from within the universe of Doctor Who and viewing Doctor Who from the outside as a work of science fiction itself–delivering a perfect threat to a single point in time that, if altered, changes everything thereafter and could obliterate the world as the Doctor–and the viewer–knows it.  Plus… a haunted house, ghosts, and a decision that could throw the future into chaos?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

So often big budget dramas dressed in sci-fi dress rise up the box office rankings, you might miss the best films, the ones that don’t need the big budgets or major stars, the refreshing sleepers that surprise you.  One of those great surprises was Midnight Special, which I reviewed here at borg back in 2016.  The next spectacular science fiction work is even better–The Vast of Night–the brainchild of writer-director-producer-editor Andrew Patterson (who is billed under multiple names), now streaming on Amazon Prime.  Could this freshman filmmaker be the next J.J. Abrams, John Carpenter, or Steven Spielberg?  Think Super 8, The Fog, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in a setting like American Graffiti and The Outsiders, with stunning cinematography, superb dialogue in a tightly written script, and a fresh and eerie use of sound.  If you missed this Amazon Studios arrival earlier this summer, you’re in for a treat of 1950s teenage sleuths, a radio station, and strange goings about town: An ambitious film that comes pretty close to perfect science fiction in the classic tradition of The Twilight Zone, The War of the Worlds, and the short stories of Philip K. Dick.

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NASA space station photo

While we have all been busy here on Earth, the international assemblage of astronauts on the International Space Station have been moving on with their scheduled work week far up and away in Earth’s orbit.  The Expedition 45 crew has been busy this month with biomedical science, Cygnus mission preparations, and routine maintenance.

But this crew is not above letting its fanboy flag fly, donning the Jedi Knight look of Obi-Wan Kenobi, complete with lightsabers, for their NASA expedition poster.  What better way to keep the tie between science fiction and science fact?  You often hear about how many astronauts and NASA engineers and crew were influenced by Star Trek, but clearly Star Wars must have had a similar influence.

Expedition 45 includes flight Engineers Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui, who both have been in space for more than 100 days.  Yui has been working on experiment hardware inside Japan’s Kibo lab module.  Lindgren is conducting research on growing food in space for the Veggie botany experiment.  Commander Scott Kelly is prepping for the December arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft. Continue reading

Review by C.J. Bunce

Timing of the debut of a horror genre series on Friday the 13th isn’t that much of a clever stretch, unless your series is about a plague and it’s launched on this particular Friday the 13th.  It’s a shame that with most people staying home there won’t be a water cooler to circle around to discuss Netflix’s latest and greatest release.  That’s the second season of Kingdom, the fantastic, epic tale of villagers in medieval 16th century South Korea dealing with a deadly plague.  Check out my review of the first season here at borg.  I am a bit envious of those who get to watch the first and second season together, because there are subtle hints in the first season that will have a greater impact if you remember them as the many twists and surprises are unveiled.  “Ripped from the headlines,” about a zombie series?  Who would have thought that was possible?

And yet it is.  The first strange irony is that the production was South Korea’s first international release via Netflix, with its topic mirroring people from differing statuses coping with a sweeping virus, government incompetence and mismanagement, and the disparate treatment of economic classes.  Unprepared for what lies ahead, a king is infected with a plague that renders him uncapable of leading.  A group of thug-like mobsters takes the opportunity to position their candidate to take the throne–only he is not ready to lead.  In fact, he doesn’t even exist–yet.  The actual person best able to lead–the rightful heir to the throne, a prince played in classic Shakespearean stateliness by Ju Ji-hoon–has been pushed aside and exiled.  He soon learns his people are threatened by a novel virus–a virus that restores the dead, but not as their former selves.  That was in the first season.  In the new season we learn that the truth behind the virus is even stranger than we could have expected.  As a physician (played by the excellent Doona Bae) struggles to find a cure, the heir to the kingdom attempts to save his people and return to seize the throne from the young, ruthless queen (played by Kim Hye-jun), who is at least partly to blame for his plight.

Kingdom pic 1

The result is a second season that matches the success of the first–the best zombie show you’ve ever seen, while also seizing the opportunity to bring a certain gravity along by steeping the story in a historical context.  And now that many have lived a few days with the threat of a deadly virus at bay, you may find the series takes on its own different, unexpected, heavy level of drama.  You might agree the nature of the threat in the series makes for the least “fantasy” version of a zombie story you’ve yet seen on film or television.  Kingdom is as much science fiction as fantasy, but it’s like that science fiction you’ve seen from Stan Lee superhero creations, and all his character origin stories resulting from misapplied science.  You’ll also find plenty of heroes and villains.

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Last week we previewed a teaser for the coming second season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and we now have a full trailer from the streaming provider showing us even more.  The new trailer confirms the near wipe-out of the main cast from the first season, with only the artificial intelligence named Poe remaining, played by Chris Conner (Burn Notice, House, Bones) and a new kind of robot.  Two supporting characters clearly get a bigger role this season: Renee Goldsberry (Star Trek Enterprise, Life on Mars) as Falconer, a platoon leader from the past, and the original form of the series lead, played by Will Yun Lee (Hawaii Five-O, Bionic Woman, Witchblade).  It’s too bad for those who thought cop Kristin Ortega, played by Mexican actress Martha Higareda (McFarland USA, Royal Pains), was the highlight of the series–she and first season lead Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop, Suicide Squad) seem to be out this time.

In fact other than Poe the new trailer appears like Season Two could easily be an entirely new sci-fi series.  Alison Schapker is the new series executive producer and showrunner.  Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Adjustment Bureau) is in the driver’s seat as the new “sleeve” or body inhabited by Takeshi Kovacs, hero of the Richard K. Morgan novel the show is based on.  Kovacs is a future soldier in a world where science has developed a hard drive called a “stack” that is implanted in humans’ necks, enabling our memories to be uploaded to storage and replanted over and over so we seemingly can live forever, even in new bodies (see our review of the first season here).  Allowing Kovacs and other characters to be played by any number of actors (so the series could potentially run forever like Doctor Who) for the second season will be something new for many Netflix viewers.

Season Two begins thirty years after the last episode, with Kovacs continuing his search for Falconer (explaining why so many first season characters are no longer around).  New to the series, and highlighted in this trailer, are Simone Missick (Marvel’s Luke Cage, The Defenders) as Trepp, Lela Loren (Chuck, Lost) as Governor Danica Harlan, and Torben Liebrecht (Homeland, Luther) as Colonel Carrera, with James Saito (Prodigal Son, Law & Order) as Tanaseda Hidecki.

Check it out the new poster (above) and this new trailer:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

So many books that go behind the scenes of films take a similar approach, skimming the surface with interviews of only top production heads, providing diehard fans of the property who have read all the fanzines little that is new.  So when you get an immersive treatise like The Making of Alien, you must take a few weeks to digest every story, quote and anecdote found inside.  Maybe it’s because so much of the inception of the other classics J.W. Rinzler has written about is the stuff of sci-fi movie legend, but Rinzler’s research this time around is completely enthralling.  Writer Dan O’Bannon, writer and initial director Walter Hill, concept artist H.R. Giger, director and storyboard artist Ridley Scott, actors Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and Ian Holm–Rinzler’s chronology is framed by the entry of these people into the project and their key roles.  The account of their intersected careers and efforts resulting in the 1979 sci-fi/horror classic provide a detailed understanding of studio productions in the 1970s.  For fans of the film and the franchise, you couldn’t ask for more for this year’s 40th anniversary of Alien.

Rinzler, who has also created similar deep dives behind the scenes of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, the Indiana Jones films, and last year’s The Making of Planet of the Apes, has established the best format for giving sci-fi fans the ultimate immersive experience.  In many ways The Making of Alien is an account of the necessary vetting process behind any major creative endeavor.  The first draft of any story is never the best, and sometimes neither is the 100th draft.  But the best books and the best movies get reviewed by other people, usually producers, editors, studios, departments, some with prestige and money backing them, sometimes over and over, with changes made to every chapter, with creators and ideas that are tried on for size, dismissed, re-introduced, and sometimes brought back again.  By the end of many a film, the contributors are exhausted and disenchanted, some even devastated.  Only sometimes this is alleviated by a resulting success.  It was even more difficult working on a project like Alien–a mash-up of science fiction and horror pulled together in the 1970s, when drama was in, and science fiction meant either the cold drama of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the roller coaster spectacle of Star Wars.  Behind the scenes there would be overlaps in creative types, like famed set “graffiti artist” Roger Christian and sound expert Ben Burtt.  But ultimately Alien had to be something different to get noticed.

The stories of O’Bannon and Giger’s contributions and conflicts are the most intriguing of the bunch, and if you’ve read everything available on the film you’ll be surprised there is far more to their stories you haven’t read.  The influence of John Carpenter was paramount to getting the idea of the film past the first step, particularly his films Dark Star and The Thing.  Along the journey other creators would intersect with the project–people like Steven Spielberg, Alan Ladd, Jr., John Dykstra, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Ron Cobb, Jerry Goldsmith, and even Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s as good as it gets for Michael Crichton fans.  Not only is The Andromeda Evolution a new thriller being released more than a decade after the author’s passing, it’s a sequel to a Crichton classic novel–his original science fiction cautionary tale The Andromeda Strain.  Created by writer Daniel H. Wilson (Robopocalypse) in collaboration with Crichton’s estate (CrichtonSun LLC), The Andromeda Evolution is nicely timed to arrive 50 years after The Andromeda Strain was first published, the book that launched Crichton’s fame as master of the technothriller.  The Andromeda Evolution has all the components of Crichton’s best works–the trademark structure of a team of unique experts colliding to prevent catastrophe, the integration of cutting edge science to both inform the reader and carry the plot forward, and the surprising juxtaposition of the improbable and the unimaginable.  And the ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness is eerily creepy–it all begins with a disaster in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, complete with government clashes and misinformation campaigns, and ends with a surprise that will stop you in your tracks.

Nothing defines Crichton’s storytelling as much as his interaction of characters, always an unlikely grouping of personalities that some far-off puppetmaster thinks is the right team to solve problems.  A  mix of the wise, the pragmatic, the cerebral, the sensitive, and the reactionary, common to the Crichton elite team are individuals who must struggle to get along like any group trying to complete a project in the real world.  Everyone has a piece of the puzzle, but can everyone survive long enough to contribute their piece?  In The Andromeda Evolution that first means introducing us to Dr. James Stone, son of The Andromeda Strain bacteriologist Dr. Jeremy Stone.  The son is a late addition to a core unit assigned to investigate and prevent the spread of what appears to be that dreaded, fast-moving viral strain his father faced so many decades ago that almost destroyed Earth.  Haunted by a lifetime of living with the threat of the virus’s return, Stone has acquired expertise under his father’s wing.  With the alert of a new threat, on a moment’s notice he’s dropped at Ground Zero with only hours to collect data with other similar elite minds to try to save the world again.

In The Andromeda Evolution, everything you think you know about the constructs of modern science and technology was a lie, dating back to the original Andromeda Strain virus, documented in Dr. Michael Crichton’s original account (recall Crichton was in medical school when he began his career as author).  Hidden by world governments, never losing ground as the world’s primary threat to security and survival, the Andromeda Strain was real.  NASA, the Center for Disease Control, all the framework for technological initiatives we think about every day from the 1970s forward have been preparing humanity for the return of the dreaded AS-1 and AS-2.  And the biggest secret is staring us all in the face.

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