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Tag Archive: Arthur C. Clarke


Review by C.J. Bunce

Bradley W. Schenck’s sci-fi-meets-retro novel Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis, was our favorite read of 2017.  Schenck created a unique story within a world we’ve never seen before, a world only hinted at in early 20th century pop culture, early pulp novels, and film.  For fans of classic sci-fi and all things retro, Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom handled science fiction futurism like rarely seen before.  With the same imagination and fun, Schenck is back again in Retropolis with a new book of short stories, Patently Absurd: The Files of the Retropolis Registry of PatentsAll but one of the stories were originally published in 2016 and 2017 in Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, and the new story ties together the other stories in the volume, which all really read like a single narrative with clever titles to the chapters.  As with last year’s novel, it’s all great fun and smartly written.

Readers again revisit Retropolis’s day-to-day, the mundane, and the ordinary, in an uncertain world of tomorrow where nothing could possibly be mundane or ordinary, but this time Schenck hones in on one segment of the city, the Registry of Patents and new heroes of the office: Ben Bowman, investigator of patents, and secretary to the Registrar, Violet the humanoid robot.  Ben does not have aspirations of greatness, he’s content to do his job, but Violet is a robot who knows she was built to be an investigator.  The problem is that she’s gone through more than 14 bosses now–the Registrars–and still hasn’t been promoted.  Is it because they leave each other notes in the locked safe in the Registrar’s office about Violet?  And is it possible the office keeps losing Registrars because Violet is working her way through them?  Nah.

Big, bright, and detailed, like Tron, Logan’s Run, Walt Disney’s vision of Tomorrowland, a bit Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, a larger dose of Metropolis, and an equal dose of Office Space and The Office–readers won’t find anything like Scheck’s world elsewhere.  The final story in the volume, “The Enigma of the Unseen Doctor,” is as compelling, rich, and poignant as any other master of science fiction’s take on what it’s like to be a robot.  Scheck turns the tables as we meet a robot with compassion for what it’s like to be human.  Patently Absurd provides the next step in science fiction’s investigation of the soul.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Much of the best science fiction doesn’t leave us with memorable or lovable characters so much as incredible, imaginative ideas, and prescient or prophetic visions.  When you look to science fiction’s past, examples can be found throughout the works of H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury.  Great concepts abound, like Wells’ time travel, Mary Shelley stretching the bounds–and horrors–of medical science, Dick always wrestling with the perils and annoyances of technology, and Michael Crichton finding ways to use science to change the future.  Robert J. Sawyer is a current science fiction author building on the ideas of the past, and like all of the above writers who researched the real science behind their characters, he delves deep into his subjects.  In his novel Quantum Night, now available in paperback, he has with surgical precision stitched together a tale of modern truths and horrors, bundled in a story pressing the bounds of psychology and quantum theory to explain why the world may seem to be falling apart, and offering one way to try to repair it.

In a very educational way, Quantum Night is also a refresher in Psychology 101.  Sawyer, one of only three science fiction writers ever to have won the trifecta of writing awards (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Campbell), references every major theory and experiment from college days along with enough background in quantum theory to support a compelling thriller.  By book’s end you may find yourself staring at strangers and questioning their level of consciousness, conscience, and psychopathy.  You may be sitting next to a psychopathic individual right now, or someone with a mind that may be even more gut-wrenching to discover.  Written in 2015 and taking place in the not-so-distant future, Russian President Vladimir Putin readies to fire nuclear weapons on the United States.  A future U.S. President gets Roe v. Wade overturned, has gotten his country to turn on immigrants and then invades Canada, led by its first Muslim prime minister (here Sawyer predicts the future of the current real-life Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi), purportedly so the U.S. can secure Canada’s cities when the country no longer is able to control the flow of terrorists.

The story follows a professor of psychology who also serves as an expert witness to defend criminals who have proven to be psychopathic on both established and modern psychopathy tests.  In the latest case he is reminded of his own past on cross-examination–a past he refuses to believe.  As he re-traces his memories he learns his volunteering for psychology experiments in college resulted in six months of erased memories.  And it gets worse–his mind was altered.  Readers encounter a pair of scientists in the past, trying to hone in on those elements of the mind that shape how we think.  The protagonist encounters a lover from his college days who is also in the field, and their relationship and her relationship with her daughter and her brother (now 20 years in a coma), could dictate the fate of everyone’s future with a high-tech tuning fork “sonic screwdriver”-inspired device and one of the 40 giant, real-world synchrotrons.

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back-to-the-future-ii-world-series-cubs-win

As predicted by Bob Gale in his script for Back to the Future II, it was the destiny of the Chicago Cubs to be playing–in fact sweeping–last year’s World Series.  As we sat in Kauffman Stadium last year and watched the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets we were disappointed the Cubs weren’t there.  Science fiction never seems to get it right, but Gale–and the Cubs–were so close last year, much like the Royals were the prior year.  Science fiction rarely even comes close, as you’ll discover especially if you read many classic sci-fi novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  Just look how far off course in date predictions forward thinkers were, like Arthur C. Clarke (we’re still waiting for much of his 2001), Philip K. Dick (the novel inspiring Blade Runner takes place in 1992), and Gene Roddenberry (Khan controlled much of Earth during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s).

But history was made last night when the Cubs broke their 108 year gap between Series wins.  Would 1908 Cubs stars Mordecai Brown, Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, or Joe Tinker have believed it if you told them their team would be on the outs so long?  How about contemporary science fiction visionaries George Melies, Thomas Edison, Charles Urban, H.G. Wells, or Mark Twain?

1908-champion-cubs-baseball-cards

1908 baseball cards were tiny, weren’t they?

Just how long ago is 108 years anyway?  In 1908 Shackleton was heading to New Zealand, and explorers finally made it to the North Pole, Wilbur Wright was demonstrating this new flying vehicle called the airplane in Europe, and Henry Ford created his first Model T, Teddy Roosevelt declined to run for a third presidential term paving the way for the election of William Howard Taft (who would go on to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in Bolivia, and Albert Einstein had just introduced his special theory of relativity.  1908 was a very different world and plenty of history has filled the gap, with countless millions of fans–an entire generation born, living and dying–watching the Cubs games without the big win, many from 1914 onward at the site of the baseball field that would carry chewing gum’s William Wrigley’s famous name.  It is “just a game,” yet the game itself survived plenty just as its fans survived plenty.

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The Witch screencap

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

I saw The Witch last week and I got a few true scares.  I also felt a little sleepy at a few points due to a big meal beforehand, poor sleep hygiene at the moment and possibly, possibly, due to the movie and its time period.  It has made me wonder, when in the history, present and future of the universe is the best setting for horror?

I’ve written before on horror in the future when I looked at A Walk in the Dark by Arthur C. Clarke.  (I won’t make myself shudder by mentioning spooky little girls again.)  As I wrote about in that essay, the compelling element of that story came from its application to any time period.  The dark scares us.  The dark scared us.  The dark will continue to scare us.

The future can be scary in its own period as any watching or re-watching of Alien can stir up the tension and fear of meeting with the unknown on the fringes of space.  If not a xenomorph, maybe it’s the weeping angels of “Blink” or the Vashta Nerada of “Silence in the Library” from Doctor Who that get you.  The future combines the unknown of our nightmares with the familiarity of the present (video stores, libraries, kitchens) set in just enough of a different place to make it believable.  When won’t we have libraries?  (In the presence of eBooks, after Netflix all but eliminated video stores, I maybe should have kept that question to myself.)  When won’t we gather with others to eat?  When won’t we watch video entertainment?

video store x

The present scares me because I can insert myself into the world of self-documentation like in The Blair Witch Project or the world of the omnipresence of cameras in the various Paranormal Activity movies.  As I type, someone could be scoping me as I scrutinize my screen, attired in a Kingdom Come Superman shirt.  Properly spooked, I may throw in the towel on this essay, go to my bed, open my Spanish language-learning app and get watched through the camera on my phone.  I could put the phone face down and still not solve the possibility of someone watching me through the rear-facing camera as I crack open one of those library books that pedants might argue as far-fetched.

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Edward Hopper original sketch night scene

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain

We’ve talked about horror movies before on borg.com, and in my discussion, a common theme of creepy girls and the supernatural emerged.  The thing is, these things aren’t scary on their own.  “Thor” isn’t scary. “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” isn’t scary.  What gives them the ability to scare me comes not as much from their intrinsic natures, but from the images that come from the masters of horror combined with my imagination.

My imagination is the key.  The supernatural have no rules and no limits.  They can do whatever you dream them to do.  Once you start down that road, then anything can trigger those pieces of the mind that start the skin crawling and the sweat to run cold.  The rustling of leaves outside my tent?  Probably the wind.  But, then maybe it’s a mouse.  Maybe it’s a snake.  Maybe it’s a softly moving wolf.  Maybe someone is in my camp.  Before I know it, an army of undead, animals, and adderall-crazed ankle biters have amassed on the other side of the thin sheets of nylon.

Those are two other keys to fear: removing senses and being alone.  If my tent was clear material and I could see the leaves drifting along the ground, my fear would be gone.  If I can hear the voices of friends still up around the campfire, I can feel safe.  If I have a friend telling me to go back to sleep after a late night trip behind a tree, I can rejoin his or her slumber.

Original sketch Edward Hopper Nighthawks

Arthur C. Clarke hits me perfectly again with the short story, “A Walk in the Dark” from the same collection as “The Wall of Darkness.”  The opening is innocuous.  The first paragraph introduces Robert Armstrong as a man who has walked two miles and his flashlight just went bad.  It give you those two pieces of information and depending on your imagination, it might be perfectly safe as you think of a two-mile round-trip hike.  Maybe you just finished trick-or-treating and you can use the streetlights on the rest of the way home.  Maybe your friend has a flashlight.

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barriers - Great wall of China

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain

I love when a story starts me guessing like “The Wall of Darkness” by Arthur C. Clarke.  I have so many notions of walls and barriers that once Clarke reveals there’s a mysterious black wall in the dark lands where the planet’s sun doesn’t reach, my mind immediately guesses likely conclusions.

Due to the surge in popularity of all things Game of Thrones, the Wall of Westeros first came to mind.  A structure built of ice and stone to separate the civil from the uncouth and things unimagined.  The dangers were so serious that an elevator is needed to get you to the top of the wall for it is so high. Would the wall of darkness be the same?  What monsters must inhabit the lands devoid of starlight where the wall only becomes accessible at the highest days of summer?  Would they be blind?  Would they be legion, held back by the material of the wall, waiting for a foreign object to infest so as to spread throughout the light?

Wall of Westeros

Then again, the other side of the wall could be something more akin to George R.R. Martin’s inspiration for the Wall – Hadrian’s Wall.  On the other side might be a separate version of the planet’s inhabitants, people that have learned to live without the warmth and light of a star.  They may have fashioned great cities lit by artificial light and have evolved in different ways while exploring cuisines that flourish in the night.  (Think lots and lots of catfish sautéed in mushrooms.)  Maybe this time it’s the Morlocks that are kind and just and they built the wall to keep out the Eloi.  It’s much more romantic than thinking of the Romans and Scotsmen of the very earliest part of the AD centuries separating with a wall due to differences in distance over now adjacent time zones on the same continent.  It’s more romantic to think of Starks and white walkers.  As an earthbound human, our walls are just another case of separating ourselves from those that are “different.”

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By Elizabeth C. Bunce

This week the Science Channel, part of the Discovery family of networks, premiered a new series, helmed by producer Ridley Scott (Aliens, Blade Runner), celebrating the scientific foresight of masters of classic science fiction literature.  Prophets of Science Fiction will explore both the literary accomplishments of authors such as Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick, as well as their influence on ongoing scientific advancement.  Here is the trailer for the show:

The series begins with a profile of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), credited with creating the science fiction genre as a whole.  With commentary from Shelley scholars and historians, the series premiere offers parallel storylines of Shelley’s life and literary career, the plot and themes of her seminal novel, and the scientific underpinnings that inspired her immortal work.  Interviews with scientists on the cutting edge of electrical medicine, genetics, and artificial intelligence round out the episode, with Shelley’s tale of science-without-responsibility providing the cautionary undercurrent.

A centerpiece of Science Channel’s rare original programming, Prophets of Science Fiction is getting due attention on their website.  Check out interviews with contributors including Ridley Scott, historical notes on the authors, and an episode guide, showing eight episodes that will air at least through February.

Future episodes will profile Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and borg.com favorite George Lucas.  Although the series begins with genre progenitor Mary Shelley, Episode 2 will feature Philip K. Dick, so it appears the series creators don’t plan a chronological exploration of their subject.  Watch on Science Channel Wednesdays at 10 pm (Yes, borg.com is aware this is the same time as Psych.  That’s why you have a DVR.).

Review by C.J. Bunce

My best reaction to movies comes from those films that are not over-hyped, and that have trailers that do not show too much of a film’s content.  Examples are Inception and Avatar, two movies that were so hyped that by the time I saw them I was disappointed.  Not so for Source CodeSource Code is so innovative and interesting that you may keep talking about it, keep thinking about the different elements, the different choices made and possibilities the story reveals.  If they only made sequels to movies like this.

For one, my favorite sci-fi movie subject involves alternate realities, whether they are parallel timelines, time loops, time travel, or alternate histories.  On a basic level you will encounter time loops, a discussion topic from earlier this week, and you may encounter other alternate reality topics in Source Code.  Despite its title, it is not a computer techno-romp like The Net.  That’s a good thing.

Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man on a train who appears out of nowhere and believes he is an American soldier whose last memory was fighting a battle in Afghanistan.  He is pulled out and replaced into a confined space, and from the trailer we know this place is a train that has a destiny with some type of horrible explosion.  Like Unstoppable, reviewed earlier here, only a handful of characters and tight locations are necessary to tell this tale.  The grandiosity of the typical blockbuster is not necessary here to deliver fast-paced action and harrowing circumstances for Gyllenhaal and co-star Michelle Monaghan, and uniquely difficult decisions for a project leader played by Vera Farmiga.  The is a small film, but high concept.

Gyllenhall fails to disappoint.  Joining Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis, his films always deliver.  His acting project choices, like this film, will hopefully continue to propel his career forward.  Like his character in Zodiac, the suspense mystery about the search for the real-life Zodiac serial killer, his character in this film struggles with confidence, angst, and a desire to break out of his confinement, his lot.  His performance here is as equally exciting as his acclaimed role as a troubled youth in Donnie Darko.

Source Code contains traditional sci-fi elements, to the point you would swear this was based on a Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury story.  It has the feel of a classic sci-fi story.  Like with Bruce Willis’s Twelve Monkeys, Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens is a traveller, not by choice, not in the way we all dream about what you could do if time travel were possible.  Like characters in Connie Willis books (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Lincoln’s Dreams, Doomsday Book, All Clear) Stevens has a mission to complete, but not all is as it appears.  Rounding out the key characters of the story is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), a lead actor type who is always equally solid in a supporting role as “the man behind the curtain.”  Look for the voice of Scott Bakula as Stevens’ father, not entirely coincidental considering this Quantum Leap-inspired quest.  And see how this could be considered another borg story, not unlike The Six Million Dollar Man.

Source Code could be compared with the Matrix, but Source Code is much better, much smarter, and more compelling.  As with movies like War of the Worlds, you are forced to ask yourself “what would I do if I suddenly awoke in Stevens’ shoes?”  Directed by Duncan Jones, this film does not follow any typical pattern and the story begins in the middle of the action, like a lot of TV shows, such as Heroes, have been filmed in recent years.  The pace works really well here.  You may be able to stay ahead of the action and decisions a few times throughout the movie, but I’d wager no one could predict the branches the story ultimately follows.  What contributes to the gravity of the characters’ situations is the believability of the circumstances in our current era of varying colored alerts.

While you’re buckling down for Irene to arrive this weekend, you could do a lot worse than renting Source Code on DVD or Blu-Ray.  Source Code’s creative story, action, and good acting earn 4.5 of 5 stars.  This may have fared even better in theaters, because so many details contribute to the story understanding that even on a decent size small screen you may miss some of these bits and pieces.

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