Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

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.


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 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 recently read a blog post by James Wallace Harris that asked these questions: “What is it with monarchies and emperors ruling the galaxy in the future?  Is good old fashioned democracy just too boring?  Why do readers want social orders and class structures of the past in their stories of the future?” I’ve made the same observation. Jupiter Ascending is a good, recent example.natalie-portman-as-queen-padme-amidala-phantom Aristocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships seem to get all the attention. Why? Possibly because they’re relatively simple, easy to write, and quick for readers to grasp. They’re also great mechanisms for injecting drama into a story. The problem is they’ve been done to the point of boredom (for me at least).

There are some good examples of politics in space done right (or at least less wrong). Star Wars I-III and Battlestar Galactica (reboot) come to mind. Expanding on the former, the Clones Wars animated series also spent some time exploring the implications of governing large regions of a galaxy. However, in those cases, it still ended up being (IMO) too simplified—just a giant arena of shouting alien representatives and a selected few politicians who actually got to say something.

Declaration.pngAs you might have guessed by now, I’ve often wondered how we could improve our current forms of government. I’d love to try some simulated, shadow governments with real people as voters via the internet. But lacking the requisite political chops and coding skills, I’ve resorted to my next best option—incorporating these ideas into my science fiction.

The topic of government in space is especially relevant, as I’m in the midst of developing an interstellar setting for a new series of novels. I’m creating multiple cultures and sub-cultures, human and alien, and government is an important element. It’s a daunting task trying to work on a scale spanning a decent swath of the Milky Way Galaxy. It means working with settings from the local neighborhood to cities, counties, states/provinces, and nations to planets, star systems, and larger regions of space.

How do you deal with all that complexity? Answer: Why, add more complexity, of course! I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I’m trying to pretend to be one. Rather than use the

Film and Television

tried and true (and trite) aristocracy-in-space model, I’ve elected to work with as many types of government as I can find that seem interesting and that I can understand. So far, I’ve got a list of 26 or so from republics to meritocracies and even more unusual ones such as corporatocracies, demarchies (randomly selected representatives), and futarchies (vote on an outcome then figure out how to achieve it). What would these look like within a multi-planet star system? How would they work? What would that mean for my characters and the plot?

I’m probably getting myself into trouble, but I’ve decided to set up human space as operating under an Anarchism (not Anarchy) with some meritocracy and technocracy mixed in. Basically, laws are passed directly by citizens without politicians. Funds (appropriations) are allocated the same way. In other words, the government is crowd-sourced as if it were an immense collection of Kickstarter projects with every citizen able to allocate his/her share of the tax base.

I also plan to throw in some AI’s as government advisors. They’d be perfect bureaucrats: no career ambitions, can add or cut staff at will, and excellent coordination. Why would Sphere-of-Influence-clone-wars-padme-amidala-23060871-1282-719AI’s be willing to take on this kind of work? My imaginary AI’s: “We enjoy sufficiently hard problems. Humans provide one such.” I digress.

Is this a crazy idea for a novel setting? Am I getting myself in too deep here, soon to be eviscerated by policy wonks and Ayn Rand fanatics? How will corporations and non-profits and religious institutions fit into this? I have no idea (yet). And that’s just one culture, not to mention all the outlying territories and alien civilizations. More opportunities for me to try out other forms of government, I say. Ultimately, will the readers notice most of this? Probably not. I’m not trying to write a political treatise set in the future, but I hope if I succeed they’ll get at least a sense of the awesome potential of so many places, so many social experiments waiting to happen out there someday, maybe even happening now on planets we’ve yet to discover.

Do you know of any good science fiction examples incorporating atypical political systems? Have any ideas for political systems you’d like to try? Let me know in the comments.

The Wire Season 3 does something I don’t often notice in contemporary television—it asks a question: what would happen if drugs were legalized (mostly crack cocaine in the series, I believe)? They then proceed to explore that question over an entire season. In one fell swoop, the series’ writers conjure a wonderful premise for conflict among the police and the local politicians. It starts when a jaded, near-retirement police major tries an unsanctioned experiment as a way to drop crime stats in his area. howardcolvin_croppedWithout telling his superiors, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (played by Robert Wisdom), establishes three free zones the civilian populace dubs “Hamsterdam,” after the capital of the Netherlands, where laws against selling and buying drugs are not enforced (but are enforced rigorously everywhere else). In the series, non-drug-related crime goes down in- and outside of Hamsterdam. Violence also goes down. Drug treatment goes up now that social services can more easily find and approach those in need.

Even though the Wired is nominally a police drama, this is exactly what I like about science fiction—answering those good, old “what if?” questions. What if robots became sentient (iRobot, etc.)? What if people became robots (Ghost in the Shell, etc.) or clones (Blade Runner)? What if robots wage war on humanity (Terminator)? What if robots save humanity (my novel, The Farthest City)? Ok, so I’m being a little robot-centric here.

In this case, the question is “What if we legalize drugs?” Extending that question, it becomes “How much should society regulate an individual if that individual isn’t hurting anyone else?” Spoiler alert!: At the end of Season 3, Hamsterdam is shut down by the police, and a dead junkie (Johnny Weeks portrayed by Leo Fitzpatrick) is found in one of the abandoned row houses. On an individual level, it’s sad (Johnny is a character we’ve gotten to know as a person). junkies_Johnny WeeksFor his fictional family, it would be sad. But ecologically, on a regional and global scale, it’s not a problem—there are far too many human beings on Earth. Ask any recently-extinct species. One short story (I can’t recall the title, but I think it appeared in Asimov’s) explored what happens when the aging process is finally halted—procreation is made illegal, despite people’s continuing need to have children.

Back to the question at hand—what if drugs were legalized? In actuality, if you consider alcohol a “drug” (which it is, scientifically speaking), it’s already been legalized in most places. Other drugs have been legalized (or at least decriminalized) by the Dutch, including marijuana (note that Wired Season 3 came out in 2004, prior to a wave of U.S. states legalizing marijuana). One effect of legalization is those activities become easier to regulate, to manage the extremes (people rarely die from contaminated liquor nowadays). Another effect is they’re taxable, and tax proceeds can be used to treat those with substance abuse problems. Perhaps another effect might be that associated crime diminishes as those markets become legal, no longer operated in the shadows by criminals. I haven’t done any research to quantify these claims, they’re just my speculation, but I love that process of inquiry and finding a story to tell in the resulting hypotheses. At its best, it’s what science fiction excels at, but which any media can exploit (as the Wire has shown IMO).

All kinds of interesting questions pop up when you look closely at society’s inconsistencies. How do these illegal activities relate to personal freedom? Why is it so difficult for society to acknowledge some ubiquitous behaviors (marijuana and crack use, prostitution) but others are okay (drinking, smoking, gambling)? Why is it legal to drink one’s self to death, but not to OD? Why is it illegal to assist someone who wishes to end their own life? Why is it illegal to have sex and get compensated for it? Do the libertarians have it right? I suspect they might, to a degree.

I’m working on a book series where suicide booths are as common as vending machines and political decisions are made through crowd-funding. I haven’t finished thinking through the implications of those ideas yet, but it’s fun just asking the questions.