Tag Archives: science fiction

Film Review: Fallen Kingdom, The New Modern Prometheus

This year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The classic novel was written as a parlor game in 1816, the year without a summer, by the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley).

Wordsworth Classic Edition

The Governing Myth

HRW Edition

Her story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster casts a long shadow. Its adaptations in popular culture have become what author Jon Turney calls “the governing myth of modern biology“: a cautionary tale of overreaching by a scientist that ends in tragedy and death.

A central tenet of this myth is that the monster, cobbled together from dead body parts and animated by electricity–created by man not God–is against the natural order of life. The story’s horror comes not just from fear of dying at the monster’s hand, but from a more primal sense that the universe itself will not abide this creation or those that created it. In the words of Ian Malcom, “Life finds a way.”

The Myth Updated

Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street. Image: Jurassic Park wiki

The original Jurassic Park updated this governing myth for the 20th century. Instead of electricity and magnetism, the sexy new science to be harnessed is genetic engineering. And instead of a humanoid monster killing everything its creator loves, we have dinosaurs. But the same hubris, greed, and willful ignorance remain–along with the same sense of wonder and naive good intentions.

In a humanizing scene, John Hammond (played by Santa Claus from the remake of Miracle on 34th Street) explains to Dr. Sattler that he wanted to bring magic to children with Jurassic park, just as he did years ago with a flea circus. But his park is collapsing, melting all around him, along with his ice cream and his dreams.

Jurassic Park Ice Cream. Image: Popcorn Cowboy

John Hammond, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, gets his comeuppance by the end of the book (although it takes a few movies to finish him off). And, the other craven greedy villains such as Donald Gennaro and Dennis Nedry become dinosaur food quickly and spectacularly. While of course the cute kids, Hammond’s grandchildren, survive.

Leaving the island of the dinosaurs after his misadventures, protagonist and good guy Dr. Alan Grant looks out of the helicopter to see modern pelicans flying as they should. His theory of dinosaur-to-bird evolution has been validated. His skepticism about Jurassic park itself has been vindicated, too, at great cost, and all is back in balance.

Image: GIPHY

Life found a way to put humans in their place.

Science, not Myth

The original Jurassic Park had unforgettable characters, amazing effects, an awesome music score, and was thematically resonant with Frankenstein, a timeless classic of English literature.

Image: Jurassic Park wiki

Jurassic Park also, almost unique among modern science fiction movies, contained a testable scientific hypothesis. The story spawned a virtual cottage industry of scientists looking for ancient DNA in amber until the half-life of DNA molecules was calculated several years ago. These results showed definitively that Jurassic-era DNA could not have survived long enough to be reconstructed to clone dinosaurs. Real-life Henry Wu wannabees will have to make do with trying to bring back animals more recently extinct.

The Myth Transformed

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is like Jurassic Park‘s ugly stepsister, a monster cobbled together crooked from all the shiny parts of the original. Its dinosaurs are bigger, badder, and uglier. The heroes are hiding out in remote cabins and ineffective non-profit organizations. The benevolent-ish grandpa, this time named Ben Lockwood, isn’t Santa Claus. He’s an invalid who is being taken advantage of by his underlings.

And the cute grandchild, Maisie? There’s something otherworldly about her too. She lives by herself, except for an elderly governess, in a creaky old mansion above a museum, and looks and talks like English musical child prodigy Alma Deutscher.

Most of the plot of Fallen Kingdom will surprise no one. People stand there, mouths open, until they get lunched by dinosaurs. Greed and hubris are again on display in ever-uglier forms. A plucky child escapes death by dinosaur and makes a fateful decision. The audience will probably cheer when a particularly horrible example of humanity tries to take a trophy from a dinosaur he thinks is asleep and then loses his arm, and his life, in the process.

What is different in Fallen Kingdom is that while the body counts pile up, balance is no longer restored to the movie’s universe. The otherworldly Maisie turns out not to be Ben Lockwood’s granddaughter at all, but a clone of his deceased daughter. The flying creatures Owen sees at the end of Fallen Kingdom aren’t Dr. Grant’s friendly pelicans. They’re pteranodons.

Image: Jurassic World Universe

In their race to save and weaponize the most clever and aggressive dinosaurs, the humans of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom abandon another of their creations, the gentle plant-eating brachiosaurus. This is the same species that first evoked awe and wonder in the original Jurassic Park. The scene where a brachiosaurus calls to the retreating human ship as it awaits its own death on the island has become an audience tear-jerker. “That scene represents the ending of a dream that started 25 years ago,” says director J.A. Bayona.

I think this scene represents a new reading of the Frankenstein myth for modern scientists. Frankenstein’s creation does not start out cruel and murderous. He only becomes that way when he is abandoned by his creator. Hank van den Belt, a Dutch professor of philosophy, writes in Science magazine that Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest moral shortcoming was that he did not assume responsibility for his own creature and failed to give him the care he needed. Owen’s conscience is similarly pricked when he realizes how he may have failed to give Blue the care she needed.

Modern audiences for Frankenstein sometimes confuse the name of the scientist with the name of the monster. This confusion mirrors the increasingly monstrous behavior of the scientist. Dr. MG Bishop of King’s College Hospital in London is quoted in the same issue of Science:

Read the book and weep for those we have rejected, and fear for what revenge they will exact, but shed no tears for Frankenstein. Those who think, in ignorance of the book, that his is the name of the Monster are in reality more correct than not.

A sad brachiosaurus awaits its death on Isla Nublar as the last rescue boat leaves

In Fallen Kingdom, life as we know it no longer finds a way back. Instead, the worst impulses of human nature have found a way to transform nature itself.

This review also appears in slightly edited form on Movie Babble


Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I saw the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters when it first came out, and my favorite character was Han Solo. It helped that I had a serious tweenage crush on Harrison Ford, and I wasn’t the only one. Even my mother, who thought Star Wars was a silly kids’ movie (even before it was called “A New Hope”), was able to muster up some love for Han. But while my fangirl affection for Han and his star-crossed love story with Leia carried me through the 1980s, it is not serving me well for the newer crop of Star Wars movies.

We know how it ends for Han

I looked forward to The Force Awakens in 2015 as much as anyone else, and I was thrilled to meet onscreen Rey and Finn, a new force wielder and a stormtrooper with a conscience. These characters blew out of the water the tired old stereotype that black or female leads couldn’t carry a blockbuster movie in the United States. I cheered them on and listened to the soaring John Williams soundtrack, delighted by their exploits. Except.

Except, as much as I loved The Force Awakens, I also hated The Force Awakens. The story was exciting enough and boldly told that I was mostly willing to forgive the many plot holes, but I can’t forgive the way Han Solo was killed.

I seem to be a minority in this view, maybe a minority of one. When I ventured to my friends, “that part was a little too dark for me,” they answered back, “It’s *supposed* to be dark! That’s what Star Wars is about!” And they’re right. It’s not called the Dark Side for nothing.

Brian Kesinger

But Star Wars is about more than that, to me. It’s also about humor, and about hope and redemption. And all the humor, hope, and redemption that I had lived along with Han and Leia’s love story and in their victory over the Empire died with Han there on that unnecessary catwalk. I came home from the film to fitful sleep and disturbed dreams. Han, Luke, and Leia hadn’t just made a few parental and avuncular mistakes. No, they had spawned a mass murderer.


A Nightmare of Eternal Return

“It’s a classic battle of good and evil,” a friend told me. “An allegory, a morality play” (as my 10th grade English teacher had also once remarked). “No one side will ever really win or defeat the other side permanently.” This argument struck me as Nietszchean. Han’s death plunged the series into a nightmare of eternal return, in which nothing and no one ever won or lost or even changed very much. Jakku was Tatooine rebranded. The First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire. And they apparently didn’t learn anything about not building planet-killing weapons with single fatal flaws that can be destroyed by small bands of fighter ships.

What would an origin story about Han Solo add to all this? Might it somehow redeem Han’s death? Could it say something new about families, about fathers and mothers and sons, or even about the power of romantic love stories and the limits thereof? Unfortunately, at least so far, the answer is no.

A Boy and His Dog

I didn’t hate Solo: A Star Wars Story. It was an enjoyable enough way to spend two hours on a Memorial Day afternoon. Alden Ehrenreich did a credible job soldiering through the action sequences, and Lando’s antics as played by Donald Glover were amusing. I especially liked the meeting between Han and Chewbacca. Every hokey SF movie has a scene in which Our Hero is thrown into a pit to fight a crazed hungry beast. I was happy to see the script end differently for once. It would have been nice, however, if we had a reason that Han could speak Wookiee. What made him learn that language? Is Han talented at languages or especially interested in them?

Image via ckpg today

As it was, the movie seemed like a kids’ movie emotionally, in spite of its PG-13 rating. The boy-and-his-dog friendship between Han and Chewie is a case in point. Chewie could have been Lassie for all the emotional complexity their relationship had in its early stages.

The Dark Side?

This same issue–cute, talented kid mysteriously turns bad–plagues Episodes I-III as well. The stakes are higher with Anakin because he starts out cuter and more innocent than Han. Anakin also has further to fall to become Darth Vader than Han does to become Jabba the Hut’s eventual target. But both transformations are similarly unsatisfying at the core. There is no real betrayal of Anakin’s trust by those he loves. Padmé Amidala loves Anakin unto the end, and even Obi-wan cares enough to travel to Mustafar in hopes of saving his Padawan. Anakin just turns, motivated not by tragic circumstances but by a character flaw exploited by the Sith Lords.

Similarly, Han is not betrayed in Solo by anyone or anything that matters, not even himself. The Empire whose army he deserts is corrupt. His sometime-friend Beckett has already shown his true colors plenty of times, even as Han remains a loyal friend and helper. Han couldn’t help leaving Qi’ra behind on Corellia and carries a torch for her for 3 years hoping to make it right. Qi’ra fights by his side when it counts. Han saves Chewbacca and even lets him go to help other abused wookiees, at serious risk to himself.

Return of Eternal Return

Qi’ra is long gone by A New Hope. The method of her disappearance whether by death, betrayal, or other, is the only thing I see here that might transform this movie’s Han into the bad boy we know and love. Qi’ra (played by a dark-haired Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones’ Mother of Dragons) starts out as a standard romantic love interest and becomes potentially the darkest, most complex character in the film. Her motivations and feelings remain murky, but like Padmé Amidala before her, she is still too good and true (and alive) to ruin Han’s earnest boringness in this film.

So any betrayal involving Qi’ra would have to happen in a sequel. In order for that sequel to work, it needs to be more dark and twisty in the realm of human relationships than anything in Star Wars we’ve seen. It would need less of the spirit of Lassie and more of  Game of Thrones. Yes, this would mean telling a story that might upset some fans.

But it also would mean confronting what we really want and need from this franchise, 41 years in. Is Disney just going to keep telling the same story over and over with different names? Or do they have a chance now to delve deeper into human motivations around betrayal, deceit, and the will to power?

Book Review: Watership by Jenna Whittaker

Author’s Note: In addition to the non-fiction and professionally published fiction that I have reviewed on this blog, I am occasionally blogging reviews of independently published Science Fiction and Fantasy authors, as I hope to someday join their ranks! 

WatershipWatership by Jenna Whittaker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was an enigma. It was written with some beautiful language. Especially at the beginning, it read more like poetry than prose, and I think that is a good way to approach this book to get the most out of it: Read it for the imagery and the pictures it paints in your mind of the living, elemental watership, traveling through space to save humanity by feeding first off nebulas, and then life forces and energies of living beings. This material also might make an excellent graphic novel if the author is an artist or can find a collaborator.

Continue reading Book Review: Watership by Jenna Whittaker

Book Review: Julian Comstock, a story of 22nd Century America

JulianComstockMy SF credentials clearly need updating in that I had not heard of Robert Charles Wilson before reading this book, Julian Comstock: a story of 22nd century America.

How I came to read it is a bit unusual. It began as a short story called “Julian: A Christmas Story” and that story is included in the study guide I have been using for my Neuroscience class. That class reads “Flowers for Algernon,” which is the short story previous to “Julian” in the study guide. I can’t seem resist reading ahead.

I had the book on my nightstand for at least a year, though, and I didn’t read it until recently because of the marketing. I’m glad I persevered, because the book is really good. It’s been a long time since I discovered a new SF author whose work I wanted to read all the rest of.

What do I mean by the marketing? Well, in this case I mean two things, namely, the title and the cover. Both the self-publishing advice guides I’ve read and the writing and publishing advice I’ve received in person all harp on these two things constantly: the title is the first thing your reader is going to read, and you’ve GOT TO have a good cover. These things are supposed to “hook” your readers, catch their attention, draw them in to your story. Blah blah blah.

Well, sorry Robert (or Robert’s publisher), these did not. The cover is a mixture of several different elements, none of them particularly promising. It shows a guy in a cowboy hat, looking away from the viewer, holding a gun and standing in front of a confused and confusing landscape that includes a possibly ruined town, a road, some nondescript buildings, and something that resembles the Statue of Liberty’s torch. I’m not particularly interested in cowboys, guns, Westerns, or really anything that contains a lot of shooting. I don’t insist on equal treatment of the sexes at all times, but I do prefer that there be at least one non-stereotypical female character in a story. And, if I see a ruined Statue of Liberty, I immediately think, “Planet of the Apes.”

And then there’s the title. I’m not enamored of titles that are just the name of one of the characters—even if it’s an important—even if it’s THE MOST important—character. I had the same trouble with Adam Bede, another book I ended up loving after taking a period of months in overcoming my resistance to the boring title. Adam Bede wasn’t even the most important character in that book, or the most interesting. That honor went to his future wife, Dinah. So I should really know better. But even so I still haven’t read, say, Silas Marner, Ethan Frome, Olive Kitteridge, or Ellen Foster. It’s a pretty good example of my being “bumped out of the story” as a reader before I even start.

I wonder whose idea it was to tack on the tagline, “A novel of 22nd century America” to Julian Comstock. Whosever it was, thank goodness. Because that’s why I finally read it. It is a future alternate history of the USA, which I am also experimenting with in Hallie’s Cache.

So, the cover is accurate. Julian Comstock is in fact a Western. There is quite a bit of shooting. The few women characters are interesting enough and are not doormats, but they don’t play a super-large role in the story. It reminded me of the Star Trek episode, “Spectre of the Gun,” in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have to re-enact the gunfight at the OK Corral. That was a fun episode, which I enjoyed, so this is not a fatal criticism, but it did seem like the 22nd century was an excuse to tell an old-fashioned Western tale that could have been set in the 19th-century USA without losing a whole lot. I’ve also read a couple of reviews that claim it’s a retelling of the history of Julian the Apostate, set in 22nd century America. That could have added to the sense of familiarity that I was feeling, but it’s also a neat idea.

My favorite parts of the book were these: the narrator and his voice, and the scope of the world building. One enables and enhances the other. Adam Hazzard, the narrator, is an intelligent but unworldly son of the working class who is fortunate to befriend Julian, the nephew of the President, while he is living on a plantation out of the capitol’s intrigue and away from his corrupt and tyrannical uncle.

An issue that faces authors of books about worlds very different from our own is how to work in exposition without confusing or boring the reader. Info dumps and expository lumps are big no-no’s, but without important back story, readers are also going to be confused and tune out. Writing from Adam’s point of view was a good way to solve this problem. Adam isn’t going to know how it works in Washington, he will have large gaps in his historical knowledge, and he will need things explained to him that will also help the reader. His questions were often my questions. Like other non-title characters, he was the most interesting, and relatable, character in the book for me. Adam’s voice, the classic “unreliable narrator” that you learn about in college literature classes, worked. In the end, I cared very much about Julian Comstock. I wanted him to achieve his goals, and I was glad that he found true love.

Occasionally Adam’s naiveté could get a little irritating, though, especially in the matter of intimate relationships. It’s not unreasonable to think that after a crash, American society would revert to something like the Old Wild West under a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. But I found it hard to suspend disbelief that major aspects of the American (and human) experience, such as homosexuality, the Jewish religion, and the scientific method, would be so completely outside of Adam’s ken as it is portrayed in the book. A few words from the 21st century, such as “eBay,” survive in garbled form and meaning in this world; it seems very unlikely that the words “gay,” “queer,” or something similar wouldn’t have survived, albeit in mutated form, as well. It also seems highly unlikely to me that virtually all the science of the 20th and 21st centuries would have disappeared. The “fashionable” vaccines that actually spread disease rather than cure it are a nice creepy touch, but they stand isolated as a plot device rather than being integrated into a plausibly dysfunctional medical system.

The Dominion–this world’s government–is powerful, but not that powerful. As portrayed, it lacks the ruthlessness, brutality, and attention to detail of the Ministry of Truth. And Deklan Comstock is no President Snow. Instead, Wilson limns a sprawling, lawless land, in which nameless throngs live and die on the margins and revert back to a simpler, perhaps more natural and fundamental state. I suggest that the fact that for Wilson this fundamental state resembles the 19th century American West, says more about the author than it does about us. Still, it brings up interesting questions. Can you un-ring the bell? Put the genie back in the bottle? Would you want to? And what can one man, even one with all the possible worldly power and advantage at his disposal, do against these forces before he too is swallowed by them?  I put this book down with a satisfying combination of mixed feelings: sadness and hope.