Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Blame! Is a 2017 anime film released by Netflix, directed by Hiroyuki Seshita and written by Tsutomu Nihei and Sadayuki Murai (based on Nihei’s manga of the same name). [Spoiler alert!] The film opens with a small group of humans in high-tech exosuits exploring deep within a strange and ominous cityscape as they search for food—if food is defined as organic sludge coming out of a pipeline. They move stealthily to avoid the attention of something they call Safeguard and wear “helmettals”, helmets that hide their human features, a kind of camouflage from Safeguard and its watchtowers, while providing them with data-augmented vision (the kind of virtual overlay, or heads-up display, that Google glass aspired to). It’s not long until Safeguard detects their intrusion and sends exterminators after them—bizarre machines that run on four legs and wear Noh-like masks. In full retreat, the humans are quickly cut off, but a dark stranger named Killy appears to rescue them.

Unafraid of the killer machines, Killy wears no mask and wields superior weapons. He returns with the survivors to their village where we learn they are Electro-Fishers, a lone group of humans surviving in a sanctuary zone but on the brink of starvation. The Electro-Fishers are led by an older man named Pops who questions Killy. We learn a little—Killy is searching for humans who still possess the Net Terminal Gene, a gene which grants its possessor authority over the City, Safeguard, and the Builders.

Other than that, we never learn much about Killy. At first, I thought—Killy—this guy’s gonna do lots of killin’, and he does, sort of. One of the things I liked about Killy is he seemed like a standard protagonist, and I wanted to place him in the good guy category, but I was never quite sure as the story progressed—was he really helping the Electro-Fishers? Or just using them, or perhaps just allying with them as long as it serves his purpose. In that sense, his mysterious origin persists throughout the film adding a nice touch of anticipation.

The animation really stands out in terms of quality—it’s very well drawn with a beautiful sense of motion during action scenes. You really feel the dread as the exterminators scuttle towards the characters at an inhuman pace. The city itself is impressive for the overwhelming sense of unknowable machine complexity it conveys—a fully enclosed environment created by machines who lost or escaped the control of their human masters and now continue building, expanding the city for reasons only they understand. In terms of style, the film replicates the visuals, linework, and faces of Nihei’s anime series, Knights of Sidonia, also released on Netflix.

Watching this made me remember some past books and films. It bore a slight resemblance to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, although with a completely different setting, of course. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson, also comes to mind. The obvious film comparison is to the Terminator series, although the feeling here is very different despite the shared killer-robot elements. In a way, it reminds me of an animated short, the Transcendent City, by Richard Hardy—a city created by machines for machines conveying an feeling of on-going processes we’ll never understand.

One gripe I have to get out is I still don’t know why the film is called Blame! Who’s to blame for losing the Net Terminal Gene? (how does one lose a gene anyway other than by going extinct?) Who’s to blame for getting everyone killed? I suspect I won’t know until I start reading the manga—always a recommended step for anime you love.

Overall, Blame! provides an hour and 46 minutes of excellent sci-fi adventure. While not the most complex storyline (especially compared to anime released in series), it has a fast pace and a satisfying conclusion (while leaving plenty of room for a sequel(s)). I commend Netflix for making this quality of anime available to wide audiences—keep it coming!

Kill Command is a 2016 film written and directed by Steven Gomez. The film’s premise [spoiler alert!] is a marine unit being sent to a remote island for an unscheduled training mission. They arrive without the typical greeting communications by human support staff, but they continue on with their mission and destroy the mostly oblivious enemy robots as expected. What they don’t expect is those gullible enemy robots are just a ploy used by a next-gen, mechanized combat robot referred to as a S.A.R. (Study Analyze Reprogram) unit and its contingent of more advanced robot foot soldiers to observe the marines, learn from them, and then apply their own tactics against them. This unexpected, second conflict unfolds with the marines gradually realizing they’ve been brought here under questionable circumstances and their survival is very much in question. The marines evolve from surprise, to dismay, and finally to grim concentration as they manage their retreat as best they can. The machines have them outgunned and outsmarted, and the humans know it.

The marines use some questionable military tactics. For the first third of the move or so, half the team neglects to even wear helmets. Under fire, they stand around or run upright—real soldiers would be hugging the ground, prone or crawling to keep as low a profile as possible. There’s a fair bit of one-handed rifle firing with dubiously high accuracy. The marines neglected to bring any heavy weapons, other than a mortar which is quickly lost. Unrealistic aspects apply to the robot side as well. For example, flying recon drones continually fly up to within an arms-reach of the marines. First of all, this makes their surveillance incredibly obvious when it doesn’t need to be—with today’s optics, a target could be visualized from kilometers away (not to mention what military satellites might be able to see from orbit). Even in a forest, where much of the action takes place, drones could detect and monitor targets from tens to hundreds of meters away and remain cryptic while doing so. Why reveal their presence and give up the element of surprise? In the film, the impression is the machines may not care about surprise—they don’t need it, but then why bother with this conflict at all? I suspect they come so close more for dramatic effect than anything else.

Only the white characters survive. The marines start out as a somewhat diverse group with two black soldiers out of six. That diversity is whittled down until only the white characters remain. While at least one of the two black soldiers dies a heroic death, I have to wonder about the plot choices and how they will be received by various film-goers.

The acting is adequate, but no one really stands out. The characters are all pretty thin—we never learn much about anyone. No soul-searching conversations while under fire here. No one asks any philosophical questions about the nature of artificial vs. biological beings, or how the murderous robotic soldier became self-aware or why it decided to study human combat in a live-fire, kill-all-humans format. The marines accept their fate with a surprising stoicism and not a single “game over, man!” (that could have been a nice homage to Bill Paxton, but oh well).

The film has a definite Terminator-esque  feel but without the unique appeal Arnold brought to his robot villain. The S.A.R. villain generates sufficient menace but without any memorable aspect (no interesting personality like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). The CGI effects are well done and almost seamless, yet lacking creativity. And in these days of CGI mastery, good isn’t good enough. To be fair, this could have been an intentional choice to remain faithful to the combat robot designs already being developed by today’s militaries.

In my opinion, the robots underperformed. In future conflicts involving ground robots (“foot soldiers” which I suspect we’ll see deployed in the near future), they would be the perfect snipers—no breath control necessary, no body movement to still, unblinking eyes that can see beyond the spectrum of visible light. In the film, the robot grunts (mostly four-legged, heavy machine guns) miss a lot, don’t fire at a rapid rate, and in some cases are easily destroyed by single shots from the marines.

Despite these quibbles, the film offers a good glimpse of the future of mechanized war, but it’s unclear what role humans soldiers will play going forward. How will imperfect humans participate in future warfare without being quickly exterminated? It’s not an easy question to answer—will humans be able to fight at all? Or will they be confined to a bunker somewhere waiting helplessly for the cold calculus of machine vs. machine to play out on the battlefield and seal their fate as victors or victims? I’ve blogged about this topic before and took it even further in a short story, Lonely, Lonely. My guess is future human soldiers will only survive by working intimately with their own robot protectors (I’m exploring this idea further in a new series of far-future novels). Yet in reality, I suspect we’ll see early answers to questions like these soon enough. Just like the marines in Kill Command, we may not like what we see.

These three music videos are a lot of fun, and you should watch them now!

Welcome guest—I’d like to start you off with Flicker by Porter Robinson from his album Worlds. What starts out as a seemingly normal view from a train passing through Japan quickly evolves into an augmented reality of psychedelic digital reality overlaid on top of an otherwise mundane view of the countryside, residential neighborhoods, and

cityscapes. I might call this Anime Electronica. The digital music accompanies flying dragons, crazy-colored skies, explosions, color-shifting rivers, and geometric spheres destroying houses with lasers, all rendered in a delightful 80s-style digital aesthetic. The

music is high energy, fun, and fits this acid-trip of a video perfectly. Directed by Adam Goodall, produced by Targa Sahyoun, with VFX by Adam Petke @ Coyote Post.

The second video is Earth by Dream Koala (from his 2014 EP Earth. Home. Destroyed.) which follows the voyage of a lone space traveler from an unknown location in space, through our solar system, to ultimately crash land on Earth. The video was directed by FABULOUS (Adrien Peze and Albin Merle) and created by Les Gentils Garçons. Beautiful visuals show the astronaut (Dream Koala) in the interior of the ship, suited up, and bpeering into the rainbow-lit aurora of what might be the way ahead as seen from a faster-than-light velocity or possibly just really cool light effects. The ship follows a winding trajectory, threading its way through Saturn’s rings, past the ISS, and through Earth’s atmosphere. Juxtaposed against the space images are environmental symbols: oil derricks, power lines, and open pit mines. Yet the music and lyrics are never preachy.

Lyrics:

Have you ever seen the lights
Of a thousand exploding suns?
Kingdoms and cathedrals under the ocean
Because no god can save us from ourselves
No god can save me from myself
So I will remember the earth as it was
And let my dead body floating in space
When my time will come
We can’t escape from here
Our time has come
As we see the world collapsing so close from the end
Our time has come

cThe music blends well with this unexplained journey, but the video never explains why the traveler is going to Earth or what happens on arrival. Does he survive? From the lyrics, maybe not, but I can empathize with his perspective. More and more, human civilization seems to me like it’s on autopilot regardless of our best efforts to steer away from danger.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with Easy by Mat Zo & Porter Robinson (taken from Mat Zo’s new album Damage Control). Another anime-inspired music video, this one follows a young starlet dissatisfied with her media-saturated life. Naturally, she abandons her

mega-scraper pad via Akira-style motorcycle, but not before triggering  a device that explodes releasing  an expanding sphere of Wankershim-like alternate reality through which our young heroine finally arrives in the peaceful dreamscape she’s been wanting. The music has almost an inspirational vibe–this is a nice video to watch if you need cheering up. Directed by: Louis & McCourt, studio: The Line, production Company: Bullion Productions.

Gantz: 0 is a Japanese, CGI anime movie based on the original manga series Gantz [Note: spoilers ahead!]. I ran into Gantz: 0 on Netflix, not having heard anything about it previously. I had read some of the manga years ago and seen the live-action version (2010), so I decided to give this film version a go. I’m glad I did! Normally, I avoid CGI animation which has traditionally suffered from uncanny valley syndrome (creepy vibe of animation that comes close to human realism but falls short in a bad way). Early attempts like the Final Fantasy films (2001, 2005), The Polar Express (2004), and Beowulf (2007) had soured me on CGI for “realistic” mainstream films (admittedly it’s been a better fit for children’s films), but at the same time, I knew video game CGI effects and animation in general were advancing all the time. Gantz: 0 showcases the best CGI characters I’ve witnessed yet. While still noticeably animated, the characters have just enough expression that I managed to skip over the valley and achieve that much sought after “suspension of disbelief” despite some persistent manikin-like attributes—artificial posture and body motion (do people really sway like that?), skin textures, physics-defying hair, and the compulsory well-endowed female characters (how much animator time has been devoted to the physics of breasts?).

Plot and character borrow minimally from the original, more complex and slow-to-unfold manga storyline (skipping the multiple “game” rounds, learning about the rules and how to survive and what Gantz is), but the film preserves the core of the series—people resurrected to fight aliens, or in this film—supernatural monsters. There isn’t much in the way of character development. The hero, Masaru Kato, does heroic things mainly because he’s the hero. Inexplicably, all the veteran warriors with the high-level weaponry are killed off. With the help of his friends (and one not-so-friendly kid with homicidal tendencies), Kato prevails in the end despite his apparent lack of skills. The morals seem to be self-sacrifice is the trait most worthy of admiration and teamwork can trump badassery.pedmc1a

Despite its shortcomings, Gantz: 0 delivers over-the-top effects in true Japanese anime/manga style with full-on craziness and mayhem captured in eye-popping CGI detail. IMO, the creativity on display here puts many Hollywood special effects juggernauts like Pacific Rim or Godzilla (2014 reboot) to shame. Bodies, lighting, and scenery are amazingly rendered. It’s clear digital animation is steadily gaining on its live-action counter-part. I expect in 5-10 years the two forms may be nearly indistinguishable. In any case, the monsters steal the show in Gantz: 0—horrors brought to life from Japanese folklore—you can tell the animators went all out in this respect.

I enjoyed this film and would definitely watch more if the Gantz: 0 team ever decides to tell more stories from the Gantz universe. As a tangent, I’d like to suggest they also take on one of my favorite series—Berserk. I think their style would fit perfectly with Berserk’s medieval knights-and-monsters carnage. I can only hope!

I finally got around to watching Ajin Season 2 (aired on Netflix in October 2016) [Note: spoilers ahead!]. After an exciting season 1, the new season of anime provides a little more character development, primarily for Izumi Shimomura, the female ajin working for Yū Tosaki at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Mr. Sato and his Ajin followers continue to provide more diabolical mayhem as they wage war on the Japanese government. An impressive villain, Sato is always one step ahead of his foes, outsmarting them at every turn. Overall, the episodes were fast-paced and enjoyable as I binge-watched them over a weekend.ajin-season-2-episode-1-sub

On the downside, some of the major plot turns felt somewhat contrived. Kei Nagai’s failure, crisis, and retreat are followed by a redoubling of his determination to beat Sato, but his renewed commitment seemed hollow, without much reason behind it other than the unflagging faith of an old friend.

Disappointingly, we don’t learn anything new of significance about the Ajin themselves. How did they come about? Do they have a higher purpose? Barring future seasons, I guess we’ll never know.

Another abrupt revelation is Sato is just playing a horrifying game. Rather than obtaining freedom for Ajin, we learn he really just craves the excitement of hunting and killing his enemies, turning everyone’s lives into a real-world video game. This plot turn seemed somewhat arbitrary. Even his followers seemed to acknowledge the change without much fuss and shifted gears into fighting against him too smoothly to seem real to me.maxresdefault

The ending was sufficiently dramatic and exciting, but then the epilogue undercut any satisfaction I felt at the story’s resolution—far from being contained, Mr. Sato pulled off another escape, and Nagai’s well-earned quiet life was on hold once again. This skewed ending was an off-key way to end the series IMO, or perhaps a clumsy way of leading into a potential season 3. Overall, those who enjoyed the first season will likely enjoy season 2 as well; however, I think it could have been better.

I may be late to the Lorn party, but I’m glad I found them. In the same vein as Gunship but mostly without vocals, both groups fall into a genre I’m calling retro/sci-fi electronica. Just like Gunship, Lorn has put up some amazing videos. My favorite so far is their song Anvil, a pleasingly electronic track with a good beat and post-apocalyptic vibes. It melds perfectly with animation by Antoine Caëcke & Hélène Jeudy (aka Geriko) (character animation by Anthony Lejeune & Manddy Wyckens).

As the music rolls along, we enter an animated urbanscape of hovercars and airships and cyberpunk architecture all rendered in beautifully spare black and white, as if a comic book had been inked by an angel. One airship deposits a stoic young woman at a facility that appears to be part crypt, part Matrix-style mind-uploading machine. I’ve had similar ideas about the future of death in that I suspect as we increase human lifespan and continue to conquer more diseases, perhaps aging itself, death will become something more intentional than accidental. I’m more skeptical about the possibility of uploading minds and therefore no Singularity fan, but this video imagines the process with impressive creativity and leaves us with a gorgeous aesthetic (although I could do without the unsurprisingly porn-worthy mammaries).

Another video worth watching is Lorn’s Acid Rain. Live action rather than animated, it still manages to deliver an attention-grabbing sequence involving cheerleaders, dancing, and a surprising (or not) ending.

 

I love beginnings! They unspool almost without effort from my brain. So much mystery with just a few words. Momentous events can be implied with a few lines description. Captivating characters step through a doorway radiating promise. What I hate (ok, perhaps hate is too strong a word)… what I cringe away from are endings. Those black holes at the end of my plot outlines that sit there like gaping craters. They’re hard to dealpicture-110-300x186 with those craters of emptiness, or worse, of weak plot I keep telling myself is good enough (writer’s instinct: listen, you fool, before it’s too late—that’s Swiss cheese you’ve written! It’s rotten through and through). There are quite a few books and movies out there that suffer from this syndrome. Why? Because writing a good ending isn’t easy. No, in today’s world of jaded readers and audiences suckled on amazing stories, it’s damn near impossible.

So what, I wondered (for the nth time), makes a good ending? With that question in mind, I began to jot down a list of my favorite stories and some notes about what made their endings stand out (I considered both final endings and endings of key plot sequences). Next, I divided them into ending components, and this is what I came up with (spoiler alert!):

Components of Great Endings:

Unexpected revelation (URn):

Wizard of Earth Sea: enemy revealed as something unexpected (Ged’s death).

Game of Thrones: Hodor’s big reveal. This is also another excellent example of tricking the reader, where the clue is laid down early on and becomes so routine the reader overlooks it until the final revelation when it all makes sense.

Unexpected ally (UA):

The Diamond Age: The main character is kidnapped, raped, fights her way out, and is rescued by the mouse army the reader thought was only imaginary.

Lord of the Rings [Helm’s Deep], Game of Thrones [battle at King’s Landing], Count Zero, Watership Down: hold off superior army, allies arrive to counter-attack [brought by one of the characters].

Conan the Barbarian: Arnold is almost overwhelmed by his enemy, but a Valkyrie (lover back from dead), intercedes, allowing Arnold to regain his footing and win the fight.

Beserk: rescue by the Skull Knight during “The Eclipse”.

Star Wars IV: Han returns to give Luke a hand right when he needs it most.

Note: to avoid a deus ex machina situation, the allies can’t make it too easy for the protagonist who should still struggle to overcome the problem.

Unexpected reversal (URl):

Blade Runner: Protagonist (Harrison Ford) faces final enemy, Roy (Rutger Hauer), cannot defeat him, yet Roy saves the protagonist’s life. Important note: in the very end, Roy gains a transcending appreciation for life, and thus, his saving his enemy’s life in understandable despite being unexpected.

Trickery (Trick):

Hunt for Red October: Sean Connery fakes the destruction of his Russian submarine so he can defect without hurting his crew while still maintaining the intel value of the stolen sub to the Americans.

Conan the Barbarian: initial phase of final battle using decoys to distract enemy soldiers.

Roadwarrior: in a change of heart, drives fuel tanker that turns out to be a decoy.

Almost Famous:  Penny Lane tricks Russel and viewer into thinking she sent Russel to meet her, only to find she really sent him to meet the protagonist.

Somewhat similar: Silence of the Lambs: viewer is tricked into thinking agents are coming to rescue the protagonist at the correct house, but it’s not the correct house. Just when she could really use the help, she’s on her own.

Note: there are two forms of trickery: fooling the antagonist and/or the reader/audience. In either case, the trick has to be clever and plausible.

Failure instead of success (FIS):

The protagonist must either succeed or fail, and failure isn’t an option. Or is it? This binary choice is a tough one for authors. LOTR solved it with a 3rd party (Gollum) and the ring’s evil, corrupting influence.  The ring defeats Frodo only for Gollum to take ring and unwittingly complete mission. It works because Gollum’s behavior is completely plausible having been laid down over the entire trilogy and its precursor, The Hobbit.

Endurance (End):

Wizard of Earth Sea: Ged pursues enemy to final confrontation (turns from fleeing to pursuing: hunted becomes hunter: courage).

The Road: enduring many travails, the protagonist finally dies (self-sacrifice in a sense) but first gets his son to safety.

True Detective: the first protagonist is stabbed by the big bad (seemingly mortally), but counter-attacks anyway, enough so protagonist #2 can assist, #1 kills big bad before he can kill #2.

Enemy Secret Weakness (ESW):

LOTR [final battle at Black Gate] and Star Wars IV and VI: attack superior enemy [but enemy has secret weakness that is exploited], enemy destroyed.

Sacrifice (SAC):

The Mission:  Robert De Niro sacrifices himself to save the village.

Harry Potter (end of last book): Harry sacrifices himself, but lives on to defeat enemy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan sacrifices himself then is reborn and defeats enemy.

Hero Goes Alone (HGA):

The Man from Snowy River: the protagonist goes over cliff when no one else would, captures wild herd and clears his name.

Ripley in Aliens. It’s just her against the Queen.

Enemies Unite (EU):

The Storm Riders: Rival protagonists unite to defeat big bad who had manipulated them and betrayed them.

Endings can also be rated by various criteria. I’ve come up with five:

  • Difficulty (for the protagonist): I notice this a lot with stories I critique: beginning writers make things too easy for their protagonist. It’s almost as if they identify with their character so strongly, they can’t bear for anything bad to happen to them. I always advise they get over this tendancy and start throwing obstacles in their protagonist’s path. Unless the hero earns his/her victory, it won’t generate much enthusiasm from the reader.
  • Plausibility: Hollywood films are full of unbelievable plot devices, deus ex machina situations, or plots that just don’t make sense. An audience’s suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
  • Unexpectedness: everyone loves to be surprised. It’s a big part of the entertainment experience. While not easy to accomplish, it’s worth it (IMO) for an author to spend a lot of time making sure their story has some surprises in store.
  • Resolution: some stories have too much of this, others not enough. While every question doesn’t need to be answered, enough should be answered so the reader feels a sense of closure at the end.
  • Contribution (of the protagonist): It seems obvious the protagonist should do the most towards resolving the story’s major problem, but that’s not the case in some stories.

Using these criteria, I rated some stories. The results are completely subjective, but it allowed me to think more clearly about why I liked the endings of some stories, but not others.

plot-criteria-table

To take it even further, I used my ratings to create the figure below. Ideally, a story should be as close to the outer edges of the pentagon as possible.

 

plot-pentagram

The Greatest Endings:

In the final analysis, I find the greatest endings often:

  1. Combine more than one of the components above.
  2. Are nested like Matryoshka dolls, one surprise and/or escalation opens within/after another.
  3. Are complex and nuanced—some joy and some pain, some victory, but also some loss (you see where I’m going with this).
  4. Surprise the reader/audience. The unexpected is essential, but more difficult to pull off well as time goes on and audiences become more savvy. Surprises must (IMO) have their groundwork laid out well in advance, so the unexpected event makes immediate sense and doesn’t come off as a badly-done twist ending.

Tips for Developing Your Endings:

  1. Warning (advice gained the hard way): if you don’t have at least a rough idea of your ending as you write, you’re likely to end up having to do some major re-writing by the time you’re done. Having to do those re-writes is probably healthy for the story at that point, but if you can avoid re-writing in the first place, I’m all for it.
  2. Think of an ending for your story. Odds are your first idea is trite, simplistic, too easy for the protagonist(s), and uninspiring (I speak from personal experience). What now? Think of another ending. Then another, another, and more. To make it easier, start tearing apart every assumption about your plot, every turning point, every fork in the road. If they steal a ship, what if they build it instead? If the aliens can’t speak English, what if they know Japanese? Take your plot endings and “break” them, twist them, reverse them, etc. Besides the fun of morphing old, tired ideas into something new, it’s a great way to force yourself to expand your thinking. Theodore Sturgeon put it well when he suggested writers “Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that.” While you can apply this process at any point in your writing, I think it’s especially useful for plotting endings, whether it’s the end of your book or just an important scene.
  3. Make a table or list of the ending components in your book or series (see example below) for each character arc and/or major plot. This will at least force you to think through the various endings. Are you using the same ending components too many times? If so, this is a quick way to see that early on when you can easily rethink the plot.

ending-table

  1. Don’t feel you can’t use a plot device just because it’s already been used. It may even be true, as some say, that no new plots exist. What you want is to use that plot device in your way, putting your own unique style, spin, or stamp on it. That’s really the one thing you have people will value the most—you (see, even that advice is trite!).

And here we are,

The End

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