Category: Sci-Fi Café


Review by C.J. Bunce

We’re accustomed to seeing non-fiction tie-in books digging into what makes the big sci-fi franchises so popular.  But it’s only a recent trend that publishers are meeting fan demand by digging into those television series that don’t have the established fan bases and studio support.  Firefly was probably the first series to break out in this way, but publishers are now seeing–thanks to streaming platforms specifically–that fans want more content about their favorite shows.  Following recent books like Jeff Bond’s The World of The Orville (reviewed here at borg) and The Art and Making of the Expanse (reviewed here), the next acclaimed science fiction series has a behind-the-scenes account with Mike Avila’s The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World from Titan Books.

Designed almost identically to the successful The World of The Orville, this look at Amazon Studios’ The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World is both an overview of the series, its characters, its source material, and the creation of its detailed alternate world, and it’s also a visit with the creators behind and in front of the camera that made a complex, highly regarded work of classic sci-fi literature into a compelling benchmark in television storytelling.  As we’ve seen in interviews with Lisa Henson in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance–Inside the Epic Return to Thra and interviews about the Broccoli family in The Many Lives of Bond: How the Creators of 007 Have Decoded the Superspy, this look at the Amazon series provides one of fandom’s first glimpses at Philip K. Dick’s daughter, Dick estate trustee and series executive producer Isa Dick Hackett.  So whether you liked (or not) how the series took portions of the novel, left some behind, and added new bits, Hackett explains the thought process behind the production’s choices.

The book covers the entire series–all four seasons–and is divided into four sections by theater: the Japanese Pacific States, the Neutral Zone, the Greater Nazi Reich, and Alternate Worlds, and these sections further highlight specific components of the series, including characters, locations, design, costumes, props, and music.  There’s even a section on creating the creepy opening title sequence, slightly altered each season.  And stills of the signage, both re-created concepts and alternate history imagery, provide fans the opportunity to at last study them in detail.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We first met Rom the Spaceknight in 1979 in the pages of his own Marvel Comics series.  Rom’s first foes were the Dire Wraiths, evolved descendants of the same Skrulls from the Avengers stories.  Since 1979 the Wraiths have faced all sorts of familiar Marvel superheroes, including S.H.I.E.L.D., the X-Men, Silver Surfer, Power Man and Iron Fist, the Fantastic Four, and Doctor Strange.  Now, thanks to co-publisher IDW Publishing, Rom: Dire Wraiths–a new mini-series brings astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins at the launch of the Apollo 11 in 1969 face to face with the Wraiths.

But where’s Rom?  That’s covered in a back-up story by Chris Ryall (writer of previous Rom stories),  featuring art by Guy Dorian (Rom, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero) and comics legend Sal Buscema (The Incredible Hulk, Spectacular Spider-Man).  The primary story by Ryall features a vist from Earth Command, and it includes artwork by Luca Pizzari (Marvel’s Weapon X).  Some particularly striking variant covers are available for the first issue, drawn by Luca Pizzari, Corin Howell, and a collaboration between Guy Dorian and Sal Buscema.  The Wraiths, in both stories, are rendered with incredible detail, some of the best sci-fi/alien designs we’ve seen–one panel in the back-up story featuring the claws is almost three-dimensional.  Brilliant work.

You might recall Men in Black III took a similar approach, an alternate timeline with a visit to the day of the Moonshot, bringing that series’ Agent J back in time to meet a young Agent K at the Apollo 11 launch and face an alien threat, as Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who also accomplished in the episode “Day of the Moon.”  As with these other genre close encounters, in Rom: Dire Wraiths humans apparently knew more than the public was made aware back in 1969.  In as many crossovers as we’ve found that featured an appearance by the Dire Wraiths, this story also references the G.I. Joe universe via reference to cyborg Mike Power (and did they refer to The Ruby Files’ Rick Ruby?).

This is a science fiction story for fans of monster comics from the 1950s through the 1980s.  The artwork is truly top tier sci-fi.  Here is a preview of the first issue and look at some nicely creepy future covers from Rom: Dire Wraiths:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Usually a franchise tie-in novel or sequel will be able to serve as a standalone story to create a springboard into the story’s universe for new readers.  That’s not the case for readers of the new Gears of War prequel to the Gears 5 video game, Gears of War: Ascendance.  Author Jason M. Hough takes fans of the games on a journey back into field combat with a group of familiar characters battling close-quarters with the Swarm, with a backdrop focus on the political machinations of Coalition of Ordered Governments’ Minister Jinn and her reliance on Damon Baird and his robot army.  Unfortunately the story reads like the down day at a Dungeon & Dragon session, all about a group of characters getting from Point A to Point B, with little happening in between.

The entire novel is a set-up to bring the franchise’s first heroine to the lead position of gameplay, Kait Diaz.  The lack of development of the character is unfortunate, because it could have the potential for another alien bug fighter like Ellen Ripley, Rita Vrataski, Dizzy Flores, or Private Vasquez.  We meet Diaz following the burial of her mother.  She and her team are rescued from this planet only to return later so she can try to save a boy and a girl that she believed were dead when her group had abandoned their location.  So readers will be drawn toward her mission.  Backstory (available elsewhere) for the video games explains the significance of a special talisman she wears, yet each time it is discussed the reader is ready to learn more about it, but its purpose is ultimately skipped over in this book.  And readers don’t get to learn much about what makes Kait Diaz tick.  For that, readers will need to look to the game (which has been well-received by gamers).

So Gears of War: Ascendance is truly for fans already familiar with the game and its characters.  What a “Gear” even is, and what the opposing factions are and why, what one weapon is versus another–none of these concepts are ever explained (a Gear is a soldier, but is it an elite soldier or any foot soldier?).  The Swarm and other beasts are some kind of alien monster inspired by the Arachnid Bugs of Starship Troopers or that creature from Mimic, a kind of giant locust (it’s called the Locust Horde so I assume it looks like a locust) but all creepy like the Xenomorphs of Aliens, and telepathically connected like the hive mind of The Borg from Star Trek.  Why are they bad?  We don’t know, just as Heinlein treated his antagonists in Starship Troopers, although game players who dig in outside this novel will see they become more than that to Kait Diaz in the game.  Opening paragraphs in each section providing some backstory and setting, along with descriptions of characters would have been a welcome addition for those not familiar with the game yet.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s a fantastic sci-fi series with a stellar cast and a story and production values that rival the original Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel: Altered Carbon is based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel of the same name, a story about Takeshi Kovacs, a future soldier in a world where science has developed a hard drive called a “stack” that is implanted in humans’ necks, allowing our memories to be uploaded to storage and replanted over and over so they seemingly can live forever, even in new bodies.  That conceit allows Kovacs and other characters to be played by any number of actors, which could allow the series to run forever much as Doctor Who’s regeneration mechanism allows replacement Doctors.  Originally launched on Netflix in 2018, Altered Carbon has been extended for a second season, with filming underway last year, and viewers should expected a second season trailer and 2020 air date any day.  Which means fans of the Syd Mead, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick brand of futurism, and all things borg, should catch up on the first season now.  What does it mean to be human, and how much can you shed away and replace with technology and still retain the “self”?  Altered Carbon tackles the philosophical questions The Matrix film series tried to answer.

Kovacs, played by several actors (more on that below), is a 300-year-old soldier.  As a seasoned fighter 250 years ago he was the last of a mercenary group called the Envoys, leading a rebellion against the new world order.  Kovacs’s stack is shelved for the intervening 250 years until one of the wealthiest men alive, Laurens Bancroft, played by James Purefoy (an actor who has been runner up for the James Bond film roles and appeared in A Knight’s Tale and The Following), buys his stack and puts it in a new body or “sleeve,” giving Kovacs the opportunity to live anew if he agrees to find Bancroft’s killer.  This is a bleak world, filled with virtual reality and virtual sex, body swapping and trafficking, and the kind of tech noir, bleak, dystopian realm seen in Strange Days, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Ready Player One, The Running Man, Brazil, Total Recall, with the violence of A Clockwork Orange, but maybe not so hopeless as in Elysium, Mad Max, Gattaca, Terminator, and Dredd.  

The series, which has a slow start and doesn’t kick into high gear until the second episode, also has the John Carpenter Escape from New York vibe but with Blade Runner visuals and effects, plus the creative elements of Total Recall that made for some unexpected surprises.  Altered Carbon is a close match to RoboCop as future science and technology goes, so it’s easy to see why the casting agents brought along RoboCop remake star Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs’ primary sleeve in the first season.  This sleeve was last owned by a cop killed in duty named Ryker.  Ryker’s partner, Kristin Ortega, played by Mexican actress Martha Higareda (McFarland USA, Royal Pains), takes on the role of the season’s co-lead, struggling as she sees her old partner’s body and acting to protect his sleeve, trying to solve the murder of Bancroft, and uncovering the bad cops in the bureau.  Ortega is a badass character in a small package who gets in and out of several fights that would take down anyone else in any other story, and she is the high point of the series–at one point an incident results in a loss of an arm, soon replaced by a powerful cybernetic arm.  An interesting twist is that her family are Catholics, and in this future Catholics don’t believe in the stacks, which means once they die they are dead forever.  This sets up one of the more interesting plot threads.  If it seems like the series has a lot going on, that’s because it does. But it all comes together in a satisfying way in the final episodes.

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With a new Ghostbusters sequel coming to theaters this summer, expect the original Ghostbusters characters to get the spotlight from several different toy lines.  Plus, following up on individual figures released last year, Playmobil is finally rolling out the DeLorean time machine (including Marty, Doc, and Einstein the dog) from Back to the Future, coming this spring (pictured above).  Online toy store Entertainment Earth is the first out of the gates taking pre-orders for the time machine (check it out here), and it is also offering a special 1955 edition of the figures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown (check ’em out here).  As New York Toy Fair 2020 draws closer, expect to start hearing more about new releases from these two 1980s sci-fi properties.

Ghostbusters has already licensed several products to major toy brands, featuring their Ecto-1 Ectomobile, and characters Venkman, Spengler, Stantz, and Zeddemore, all expected to pop up in Ghostbusters: Afterlife in theaters in July.  We found several sets available on Amazon to get kids (young and old) psyched up to revisit these characters, like the Playmobil Ectomobile, including Janine and Zeddemore (here), a set of all four Playmobil Ghostbusters (here), the Gargoyle Dogs with Venkman and Dana (here), and the Stay Puft marshmallow man with Stantz (here).  The best has also been released before but is coming back next month: the big Ghostbusters NYC Firehouse, which has lots of detail, includes five figures, the firepole, the ghost depository, and it has a garage for the Ectomobile (check it out here).

Funko has individual Pop! figures for Spengler, Stantz, Zeddemore, Venkman, and Slimer, as well as the Ecto-1 with Zeddemore set, Venkman with firehouse set, and Spengler and Venkman and the banquet ghost set.  And that’s not all.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

To understand the scope of celebrated Chinese author Cixin Liu′s 2005 novel Supernova Era, finally available to Western audiences in an English translated edition by Joel Martinsen, it helps to look back to its influences, and those works published since its original publication in China.  At its core, this is a classic science fiction novel of the Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury school.  It’s a work of speculative fiction, at once arguably both optimistic and dystopian that reads almost like an alternate history in the vein of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  Disturbing and horrifying at points, philosophical, and filled with global, international, and political intrigue, it’s also squarely a young adult title, featuring almost exclusively middle grade aged kids tasked with surviving an interstellar holocaust–the actual “supernova” of the title–that quickly fries the DNA of anyone older than the age of thirteen.  The solution?  In the face of their imminent deaths, the world’s adult leaders begin to select youth leadership based on the classic “model United Nations” competitions.  It’s a jarring, but ultimately interesting and clever mash-up of some great tropes of science fiction.

Since the initial publication of Supernova Era in China, we’ve seen parts of the story replayed–possibly even inspiring–many other genre works:  Only last year in we saw Jeff Lemire’s Sentient–a comic book series where the adults on a ship are killed in a sabotage leaving kids to run a spaceship.  Here, we follow two small groups of children, the cabinet who must lead China and the cabinet who leads the United States, without the help, advice, education, and other benefits of adults or adulthood, on a global stage.   At first, the children default to letting an Internet-like artificial intelligence computer–the Digital Domain–help keep society in order, something like the robot in last year’s Netflix movie, I Am Mother, where a computer system’s robotic surrogate fulfills all parental duties to children.

When the daily toil of work grinds the kids in the Supernova Era into a state of boredom, they reach out to a massively multi-player online roleplaying game (MMPORG) and begin to build their real lives around it, as we saw in Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, where a future society allows itself to give up life in the real world to become lost inside a virtual reality MMPORG.  And the world’s kid leadership ultimately decide they need to compete with other nations, creating a worldwide version of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel The Hunger Games (also inspired by Stephen King’s novel, The Running Man) with a society relying on a new world construct with quirky contrived, artificial new rules of survival, battling wars with gameboard rules to the death.  Were these authors aware of Liu’s internationally known and respected work?  Possibly, but it’s the earlier works that served at least in part as influences on Liu’s novel.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As movies go, few successes were as unlikely as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws It was a film that from its inception never seemed like anyone knew how to get their arms around the project.  Spielberg’s driving force was refusing to film in a tank as seen in the Spencer Tracy clunky version of The Old Man and the Sea.  It was to be the real ocean or nothing.  And there never was any alternative to building a full-sized shark.  Art director-turned production designer Joe Alves partnered with Spielberg, and it was his first instinct to render his charcoal concept drawings explicitly to show the violent shark attack scenes, all for a set of pitch materials to help sell the idea of the film to the studios.  These drawings by Alves, his storyboards, his location scouting notes, and his pages of production outlines are now reproduced for the first time in Joe Alves: Designing Jaws, a new look at cinema’s original blockbuster.

A lot has happened since Jaws.  Would Paul Allen have taken on searching for and discovering the sunken USS Indianapolis but for the film sharing the sailors’ story?  Nearly 45 years later it seems impossible that a new book could be written about the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s 1974 hyped novel Jaws (reviewed here), which was (incredibly) being published at the same time the film was being made.  The definitive book for years about the making of the film has been (and remains) screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s insightful work The Jaws Log (reviewed here), but we’ve since seen periodic looks back at the production, as in Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard (reviewed here).  No doubt if there’s something more to learn about Jaws, the film’s fans (including me) are going to get our hands on it.  Access to something like Joe Alves’s personal archive of artwork and production notes is as surprising and rare as it gets, so Joe Alves: Designing Jaws is going to be a no-brainer for movie buffs to add to their bookshelves.

Jaws was by no means Alves’s first film.  He began in the cinema creating special effects for Forbidden Planet, and later Night Gallery, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and after Jaws he’d design films like Escape from New York, Freejack, and Geronimo: An American Legend.  Somehow all the competing ideas for Jaws would come together, and Alves would be best known for his work on the film.  His charcoal concept art illustrates how removed from the final vision the creators of Jaws began with, beginning with an assumption that Spielberg would actually be showing the shark a lot.  As readers will learn in this book, the film we know only came together in the editing room.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The “Moviemaking Magic/Cinemagic” series from Abrams Books is my current favorite book format for genre tie-in non-fiction works.  Check out my reviews of the volume on the Marvel Studios Heroes and Villains here, and the first volume on Star Wars, The Moviemaking Magic of Star Wars: Creatures and Aliens, here.  The format is interactive, featuring several series of foldout photographs that allow the reader to see the changes in design over time, like ships from concept to realized model.  And these books allow for hundreds of photographs and how-to film production process accounts and interviews, arranged in an easy to reference chronology.  With the latest film in theaters, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has published the next look behind the scenes at the production process, The Moviemaking Magic of Star Wars: Ships and Battles, the most comprehensive account of the 11-film franchise’s models, sculptures, concept artwork, and their creators since Sculpting a Galaxy was released in 2005 when we only had six films available (you can see my review of that book here).

The book is targeted at a younger audience, but Star Wars fans of any age will appreciate the detail and information they may not have read about before, including notes from George Lucas from the first idea for the film, his treatment for The Star Wars, to Colin Cantwell and Joe Johnston′s concept drawings, all the way through the two “Star Wars story” movies Rogue One and Solo, and all nine Skywalker saga films, including a preview page of concept art from The Rise of Skywalker.  The original trilogy gets the biggest share of the coverage, including the full run of major ships, how they were developed, and what method was used to get them on the big screen, but the 21st century films and the prequels also get significant sections.  Readers will follow the development of filmmaking methods old and new: full-sized sets and vehicles like the landspeeder and X-wing fighter, scale models (both small and large scale), kitbashing, matte painting, and CGI.

Fans of the Millennium Falcon specifically will not want to miss this book.  They can track the development of the many models and designs used across the original trilogy, which had to be resurrected for the final trilogy with a side trip to an early, modified version of the ship for Solo: A Star Wars Story.  Coverage includes concept art, unused designs, and photos of the pocket-sized models through the multiple full-sized, walk-on creations. The various Death Star space stations and Star Destroyers get similar handling in the book.

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The best of British genre fare collided New Year’s Day as the new season of Doctor Who got underway.  Merging a classic type Doctor Who adventure with James Bond tropes made for what might be the best episode of Doctor Who since Matt Smith handed over his sonic screwdriver.  But that’s only the beginning, as the two-part opener continues tonight on BBC America in the States and much earlier in the UK on BBC One.  U.S. viewers have one chance to beat the social media spoilers: Fathom Events is hosting a unique Doctor Who event nationwide today at 1 p.m. local time, a theater broadcast of Spyfall–the New Year’s Day episode and the worldwide premiere of part two–complete with a live Q&A with the cast.  Check out the Fathom Events website here for details.

Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall had a full season to iron out the transition to a new Doctor, and if you didn’t watch the entire first season now is a good time to jump back in, because this adventure starts strong with high stakes, a new alien threat, non-stop action, and an echo from Doctor Who of the past.  It all plays out like an episode written by either Russell T. Davies or Stephen Moffat, but it’s Chibnall who wrote this story.  A new favorite scene can be found in the New Year’s Day Spyfall episode: It’s hard to imagine any prior Doctor could have nailed the scene where the Doctor takes on a 007-inspired role, and plays a high roller hand at cards trying to be as cool as Bond–but not quite getting there.  Jodie Whittaker has the enthusiasm of David Tennant, the innocence of Matt Smith, and the daftness of Peter Capaldi, all rolled up into one.  And she’s brilliant in this first episode, even better than last year.

This Doctor doesn’t need a companion any different from the twelve Doctors that preceded her, yet this new triumvirate companion works–it’s a family, or “fam” as she calls them and a mechanism to allow a distribution of the action.  Yasmin (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Graham (Bradley Walsh) join the Doctor on her latest travels at the request of MI 6, and a guest appearance by Stephen Fry as C (think M in the Bond stories) and Sacha Dhawan as O (another 00 agent).  It’s hard to believe it’s actually been a year since we last saw them all together in the Season 11 finale.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

With the much anticipated ninth episode Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker here at last, writer/director J.J. Abrams has succeeded again at managing a major film franchise challenge and making the best of it.  With Star Trek in 2009, he took a waning property and shot new life into it, but came up short four years later when he tried again and delivered Star Trek Into Darkness, heavily milking the nostalgia of the fan base with its retread of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.  In 2015 Abrams was handed the keys to the other big space franchise, where he revitalized a left-for-dead movie saga and delivered Star Wars: The Force Awakens, notable for the introduction of Daisy Ridley’s curious and mysterious desert scavenger Rey, arguably one of the most fleshed out characters in the entire franchise with this final installment.  Fortunately Abrams’s return to Star Wars will likely net better results for its fanbase with a movie that rises to become the best in the final trilogy, or at least as good as his The Force Awakens.  Is this still George Lucas’s Star Wars?  No, but that just shows the power and unique status of the original trilogy–even Lucas couldn’t capture the magic again with his prequels.  The Rise of Skywalker is the kind of movie that could be judged on its merits as a J.J. Abrams movie and separately as a Star Wars sequel.  Whether you as a viewer like this installment or not will depend on your own expectations.

Abrams may be at his best, with his unique style, lens flares and all, when he gives fans what they want.  Abram’s success this holiday season is a bit of a salvage effort, bringing Rey back as the focal hero/heroine of the story, incorporating some of the saga’s best “Jedi being Jedi” sequences, and tapping into the nostalgia for the 1977 original in bite-sized bits instead of leaning on it like he did so unapologetically with Star Trek Into Darkness.  If only Abrams had made all three Star Wars films, this third chapter could have been much tighter, and the whole trilogy would likely be better received by most of the fanbase.  As a viewer if you don’t (or can’t) just sit back and enjoy the cameo performances, throwbacks, and Easter eggs, you’ll get the feeling that using two directors instead of one over the three films is the crux of any problems in The Rise of Skywalker.  Upon its release, the previous installment The Last Jedi felt like it belonged to an entirely different story than The Force Awakens.  Plot threads created by Abrams were summarily abandoned.  Key characters were eliminated without explanation.  New plot threads came from out of nowhere.  In short, the director-flipping was the big mistake from a storytelling perspective.  Abrams has the extensive portfolio behind him to demonstrate he would have been the right choice to direct all three films.  So this time Abrams had a greater task than ever before, because he was stuck making major course corrections, all to get this tale back on track, re-focused again on Rey.  The necessary patchwork aside, The Rise of Skywalker will go down as one of Abrams’ best works.

Will Star Wars, or more specifically, the Skywalker saga with this three-part conclusion, endure the test of time?  If audiences continue to believe in its value as entertainment, there is no reason why studios can’t keep going back to this material repeatedly–think Shakespeare’s plays, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dickens’s Ebenezer ScroogeRecall how even more recent stories like the Terminator, Predator, and Halloween (and Star Trek) film series have continued to make sequels and wholesale reboots, disregarding a film that doesn’t do as well and continuing like it was never made.  There’s no reason that can’t happen someday with Star Wars.  So those fans who still want to see the Expanded Universe on the big screen–the complexities and triumphs of both Timothy Zahn’s sequel trilogy and Dark Horse Comics’ many stories like Dark Empire that did so much more with heroes Luke and Leia–just wait.  Someday the right new visionary will step in and make it happen, but fans will need to accept new actors as their heroes, just like we saw with the latest Star Trek trilogy.

Want to dig in further?  Spoilers follow.

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