The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Ted Chiang's longest work to date, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, is a fascinating story that takes a bit of a new look at how an artificial intelligence might develop. The story is understated, quiet and humble, but is exciting and touching at the same time. This was a story that I absolutely devoured in a single sitting that stretched late into the night, something that rarely happens with any story.

The book's description includes a quote from Alan Turing that helps to set this story apart from other robot stories:

“Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried.”

The story follows Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks as their own lives intertwines over the course of a decade. Software AI has been achieved, and is a growing industry at the start of the novella, one that changes as the story progresses. Fans of stories such as I, Robot or other reads about robotics will find this to be a vastly different type of story, and for that reason, it's very refreshing. Working to create Digients, a sort of artificial intelligence profile or avatar online, we see the introduction of Jax, Marco and Polo, who essentially grow up under the care of Ana and Derek.

Fiction is a product of our own lives and surroundings. Lifecycles is a good example of how Chiang was able to take a very old story type (Man creating life himself) and create something that feels new and fresh. Very often, our perceptions of robotics are shaped by dramatic presentations such as The Terminator, or The Matrix, stories that predict that the rise of a robotic race will automatically deduce that the human race will be pegged for extinction. Similarly, it’s also assumed that a comprehensive knowledge and sheer logical reasoning will prove to be a superior mind.

Chiang takes on the other side suggested by Turing in his approach to the development of an artificial intelligence, which strikes me as a far more realistic method for developing a viable computer intelligence: you make them grow up. This happens over the decade that the story takes place, but it’s far more complicated than that. In other stories, there’s never really a reason for creating a robot, or at the very least, there’s no reason given for developing a new mind. Here, it’s very much the same thing, but the reasons are stark: it’s a business, and there’s little demand for highly realistic artificial avatars that talk back or cause problems as they’re developing.

The important thing here is that there are some major philosophical issues at the heart of any sort of AI, especially when one is assuming that it will be a being along the same lines of a human: can they be purpose driven, or is there any intent to their design? Religious arguments aside, I don’t see any particular purpose to human beings, just a happy accident of chemistry and circumstances at the right time billions of years ago. So to, would a machine guided by rigid logical programming be the same thing? I think not, although the appearance could be replicated somewhat with fast programming.

Intelligence is also complicated: it’s not just that a robot would have to have 700 million languages at its disposal, or whatever actions pre-programmed into it: any such being really isn’t truly free as people seem to be. Rather, complicated intelligence (and this is from my own limited understanding) comes more with the ability to draw connections between different, unrelated things. Driving along one route, I try to infer what lies between another road that’s running parallel to me, based on what I can see in between the two locations. My dog sees my sister and realizes that not only is she outside, but that if she runs to the window, she’ll see her as she runs down into the yard. These types of responses aren’t ones that I can’t see being rigidly programmed into a computer, but are things that will learned from experience.

Interestingly, the book has far more in common with another, slightly lesser known story from Isaac Asimov (and film adaptation), The Bicentennial Man, which sees a robot learn to become a human, going to the extreme and replacing metal for flesh. I greatly enjoyed the movie (I’ve never understood the hate that it seems to elicit), and The Lifecycle of Software Objects takes some similar lines of reasoning and does them in a far better fashion.

Set amongst a sort of tech boom that would be familiar to anyone who used the internet since the 1990s, companies come and go, but the people remain, and find their own way through life. In a large way, the cover is exceedingly deceptive here, because this isn’t a story about robots, it’s a story about people who deal with robots, and one another. Chiang does a marvelous job here, setting the lives of two people in a mere thirty thousand words, where things never feel like they are rushed or that anything major has been glossed over.

Where there’s the approach to growing an intelligence, there’s a lot to be said for the people on the other side of the equation. As we watch the trio of Digients grow up in their own little world (and a times, jumping into a robot body that their owners have for them), it’s apparent that they’re as much a product of their parents than their surroundings, and that frequently, their upbringing has as much an impact on themselves as it does their caretakers. What I found most fascinating is that this isn’t really a story about robots at all: they’re central to the plot, but the real point here is in the long relationship between Ana and Derek, and how two people who are so similar can be so far apart and estranged from one another. It’s a love story in its own right, between the two humans, but also for a parent for their creation. In doing so, Chiang presents an interesting idea that robots and artificial intelligences wouldn’t be so different from us, and that the creation of an AI isn’t any different than parenting.

The story is also available online, here.

The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games one of the latest young adult novels that's made a huge splash. The book's trilogy has recently finished up with Mockingjay, and a movie is currently in the works. Young adult fiction is experiencing a boom right now, with a lot of attention paid towards the genre since Harry Potter reinvigorated things over the last ten years. Even more for the books, a number of the recent hits steer very closely towards the speculative fiction side of the house, from Harry Potter to Twilight to the Hunger Games.

Coming highly recommended after I had finished up another YA novel (Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi) last year, Collins' novel is a straightforward affair that is both dark but hitting all of the proper high points for the teen readers that this is steered towards.

Set in an indeterminate future in North America, the United States has ceased to exist, replaced with a nation called Panem after a devastating war. Ruled by an autocratic Capitol, 13 districts around the country have become incredible specialized, providing the nation with specific goods. The story's heroine, Katniss Everdeen, hails from District 12 and becomes involved with a yearly spectacle called The Hunger Games.

Every year, two children, Tributes, are selected at random from each district and brought to the Capitol. There, they are brought into an arena where they fight to the death. Following the creation of Panem, a rebellion from the 13 districts was quashed, and in retaliation, the Capitol demonstrated its grasp over its subjects through the games.

The idea came out of channel surfing as Collins flipped between reality television and coverage of the recent Iraq war. The result is a horrific combination of events, where children are forced to kill one another on live television. The book, as the title suggests, covers Katniss's experiences in the arena, as she shoots, stabs and otherwise works to survive, while the wealthy residents of the Capital and other districts watch on.

I've begun to understand the rise of Young Adult fiction over the past couple of years: it's a very clear-cut way to get across a story with very clear morals. Working at the bookstore years ago, it's easy to ridicule the housewives who came in gushing about Twilight, but I get it now: the books aren't complicated in the stories that they tell, but have a number of interesting teaching points throughout.

The Hunger Games very much falls into this category. Where I expected some elements of ethics on killing your fellow tributes, this wasn't as clear cut as I'd anticipated. Katniss teams up with her fellow District 12 tribute towards the end, and allies herself with others with mutual goals. The result is a story of trust, friendship and quite a bit of violence.

The story wanders at points - like the character, I lost track of time in the story as she wandered back and forth, trying to survive, and the prose leaves a bit to be desired at other points. But, the tale is a fantastic dystopian story that is both exciting and engaging, and while I'm not sure that I'll get to books 2 and 3 at any point soon, it's a story that I'd recommend.

Silent Running

As I've been working my way through old science fiction films from the earlier days of Science Fiction films, I've finally been able to knock another film off the list: Silent Running. A science fiction film that's been cited as inspiration for of some of my favorite recent science fiction films, such as Moon, Sunshine and Wall*E, Silent Running is a fun, but chaotic film that taps heavily into the environmental movement that was so popular during the 1960s and 1970s. The end result is a fun, entertaining flick that's become one of my favorites while I watch a number of the old classics for the first time.

Set far in the future, Earth seems to have become an environmentalist's worst nightmare: plant life has vanished from Earth, with their last remains in space, in large domed spaceships run by American Airlines, the Valley Forge. Lowell, one of four crew members, is the only one who really cares for the plants, and their significance for the human race: he hates the synthetic food that they eat, and hates his crew members for their lack of interest of passion. When the orders come along to blow up the forests and return home, he kills one of his fellow crew members and jettisons the other two into space, remaining with the last remaining dome and three small drone robots.

Alone with the robots, Lowell doesn't seem to have a plan, and sets about reprogramming the drones (which he names Huey, Dewey and Louie, after the Disney characters) and keeping the forest on his ship alive as they drift into deep space. As he does so, the forest starts to die, and his ship is rediscovered. Fearing that his disposal of his fellow crew members will be discovered, and awash in guilt over their deaths, he places the dome under the care of one of the remaining drones, and sends it off into space as he destroys the Valley Forge.

The film is a fun one - it has a tone that reminded me much of another recently viewed film, Soylent Green, which takes on some similar environmental themes for the storyline. It's a story that really holds up well today: Lowell ridicules his co-workers for the junk that they're consuming, noting that it's not real food, and it's an interesting take on how the future might turn our, forty years ago. Indeed, mass extinctions and the destruction of the environment is something that has been featured from time to time in science fiction - Soylent Green is one example, but also other recent stories such as Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn and more recent films such as Moon. With Silent Running cited as a seminal work in the genre, it's interesting to see how forward thinking it was, with a bit of twenty-twenty hindsight.

While the film is good in concept, if fails in story, with a number of plot holes that don't make as much sense. Lowell kills his fellow crewmen in a fit of passion at the destruction of the orbital forests, and escapes through the rings of Jupiter, trying to disguise what happened as a series of malfunctions. But, for a person who seems very intent on pointing out the many things that are wrong with the world (ie, no plant life), his actions confuse the story - blowing up his crew members would be a dramatic act, an ultimate thumbing the nose at the world before taking off with the plants. At the same time, he doesn't seem to realize that plants need sunlight, and the further away one gets from the sun, the more problems a gardener will have with their garden. It's trivial, but it distracts from the story too much.

The highlight for me was not the environmental element or the visuals (which hold up well), but Drones 1, 2 and 3, Lowell's minor companions when he's on his own. Tasked with helping the crew outside, they're small, two legged robots that seem like an early influence on R2-D2 and Wall-E - and I have to say, I liked them just as much as R2, if not more - and after Lowell is injured, he reprograms each to operate on him and perform other tasks, such as playing poker. They're handled masterfully, with minimal voices and subtle movement that conveys that their emotions and apprehension, especially when poor Louie gets blown off the ship, and after Huey is damaged. I'm a little surprised that they don't get as much attention as other robots.

At the end of the day, it's easy to see why Silent Running has provided a bit of inspiration for a number of films: it's a scary film that has some major elements of truth to it: pre-packaged, synthetic food, the loss of life and habitat on the planet, and an apathetic, uninterested population that simply can't bring themselves to care about the consequences of their actions. It's a scary future, one that still could very well happen within our lifetimes.

The Social Network

The creation of Facebook has changed the way that we look at our entire lives. Since 2004, when it was first launched, the site has forced us to reevaluate how we look at privacy, how we conduct ourselves in public and how we interact with our peers. Despite the numerous faults that can be found with the site, it is a remarkable innovation, one that is here to stay.

David Fincher's film chronicling the story behind the creation of Facebook is a fascinating, well paced film that has almost no right to be as good as it is. Penned by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network is almost certainly a dramatic interpretation of what really happened. Events seem to line up as they have in real life, and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerburg has noted that the film is fairly inaccurate, especially when it came to his motivations for starting in the first place. Regardless, it's extremely well written, acted and directed, a film that stands on its own merits, rather than something held up by its own novelty.

Alienating his date, Zuckerburg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) returns to his dorm room where he hacks into Harvard's internal social sites, downloads pictures and puts them together in a site where people are compared and ranked. It's a degrading exercise, but one that's revealing: the site receives over twenty-two thousand hits in a day, taking down Harvard's network, and getting Zuckerburg and his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), thinking about what to do next. Approached by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss to create a social network of their own, Zuckerburg turns around and creates his own site, launching it as an exclusive online site for Harvard and surrounding area students.

The film splits itself between Zuckerburg's college years and several intense questioning sessions by attorneys from the Winklevoss twins and Saverin himself as they try and prove wrongdoing on Zuckerburg's part - the twins claiming that he had stolen their idea, while Saverin was trying to leverage the money that he lost when he was pushed out of the company. The juxtaposition shows how much things could change within a few short years.

The Social Network isn't about Facebook, or really even about the creation of the website. The film's true themes come from the title, and are ultimately an intense character drama between Zuckerburg, Saverin and Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker and their own interactions. Facebook has become an intense issue in the public lime-light, and the film's creators did well to frame their film by the people involved. The Social Network is ultimately the relationship between Zuckerburg and his friends, and ultimately the rest of the world. It's complicated, as Zuckerburg and Saverin face off against one another, backed by their lawyers, and the tension is incredible.

This is a film that is far more compelling than it should be. It's a film about a couple of geeks, working to push against the established social order that they've been told to work in. Zuckerburg has gone on to upend how we interact with one another. Parker notes that while his first company, Napster, was sued and killed by the music industry, it completely changed how people looked at buying, distributing and listening to music. The film also plays up the conflict between the Winklevoss twins - rowers who would go on to the Olympics - as the jocks against a diminutive Zuckerburg who beats them at their own game. Coders are selected by a complicated coding marathon and drinking game that wouldn't seem out of place for a stereotypical sports team - minus the computers and technobabble about what they're coding. Facebook, like some of the other earth changing events and creations in human history, was created by the nerd. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Albert Einstein and numerous others can likely count Zuckerburg amongst their numbers for the changes that he's pushed upon people, for better or worse.

The Social Network, while likely a fictionalized account of true events, is a fascinating take on the people behind the creation of Facebook, and I'm sure that there's some truth behind parts of the story. As someone who's used the website since it began, when it was invite only with a college e-mail address, it's astonishing to think about how much things have changed - there was certainly a nostalgic pang seeing the original masthead and layout. Up for several Oscars, Fincher's film has received a lot of critical acclaim, all of it well deserved for this highly relevant and thoughtful movie.

Hull Zero Three

Greg Bear's book Hull Zero Three opens much the same way as any number of science fiction thrillers: someone awakes, enclosed in a stasis booth, and finds themselves in a strange situation. Pandorum, Avatar, Pitch Black, Supernova and others all have this as a bit of a start to the film, to varying degrees, a cold open to the story. This book is no different, and our main character is ripped from his dream-state and out into a cold and hostile environment. The resulting book is straightforward, fast and overall, a decent read.

Hull Zero Three was a book that I've been interested in reading, if anything because I've never read a Greg Bear book, and it represented a bit of a change of pace compared to what I've been reading recently. This book falls between the space opera, hard science fiction and horror as the protagonist, simply known as Teacher. He meets up with a strange assortment of fellow characters as they escape through the ship to find out not only what the ship's purpose is, but what theirs is as well.

The easiest comparison can be made between this book and the film Pandorum, where the book gets all of the things that the film missed. Where the film missed huge plot points that could have made it a great film, Hull Zero Three gets them, in a way. The ship (known only as Ship) is a generational ship, one designed to seed a far-away star with life. The reasons are never really disclosed, but they don't matter here - the ship is moving forward, and along the way, problems crop up.

This is where the book is at its best, with some of the exposition and background to the story. The ship was created, sent out to the Oort Cloud to capture a moonlet, and then off to a far off world in which to continue earth-based life. Somewhere along the way, it's discovered that the planet is inhabited, and this is where the fun begins: do you colonize the planet at the risk of overcoming the life that's already there? In this case, the civilization on the planet attacked the ship, damaging it and setting much fo the story into action.

At points, I was confused as to what was happening throughout the story. Bear pulls the reader through as one fumbles through a tunnel. There's no frame of reference for the main characters or the reader, and that adds a certain thrill to trying to find out what's happening with the story as a whole. Many of the interesting parts of the book happen before the story actually takes place, and we're left with a glorified hunt and search on the part of our characters to learn what their purpose in life is.

The interesting part of the story doesn't come until the end, after Teacher and the other mutated and purposed people discover the dangers of the ship, and come across a power-struggle that seems to have caused additional damage to the ship between Mother and the Destination Guidance team, who saw conflicting interpretations of their orders: preserve human life. One saw their best option as the selected planet, while the other wanted to go on and try somewhere else. The result is a civil war on the ship, and the book comes down to one of its fundamental points: how do you program ethics?

Teacher, and all of his companions were produced and copied from Mother. In the case of some of the people, they were designed with very specific purposes - teaching, cleanup, killing, protection, etc. While they are designed specifically for a purpose, there are gaps where they question their own existence and purpose. It's an interesting element to the story, and while it was a bit of unexpected depth, it wasn't enough to really dazzle me as a brilliant story. At the end of the day, Hull Zero Three was a fun, light read, one that is a better version of similar stories, but one that I found myself wishing that other parts of the story had gotten more attention.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I)

The first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens with a bang as a wizard instructor, tortured and begging for her life drops to the table, surrounded by jeering Death Eaters as she’s killed by the story’s main protagonist, Lord Voldemort. This sets the tone for the best Harry Potter film to date, one that is both a superb adaptation of the novel that it’s based upon, and a solid film in and of itself.

Starting with the books, I’ve long found the film adaptations of each to be lacking when comparing one another. The first and second films get the story across in a decent manner, but miss out on the real essence, look and feel of the novels. The third one had an exceptional look and feel, capturing the story in a condensed manner, while four and five likewise got elements of the tone, but not the story across to audiences. Generally, storylines were dropped or hinted at, while scenes that showed off the skills of the computer programmers filled in for unnecessary moments. Coming out of The Deathly Hallows, I found that I really couldn’t criticize the film for the few elements that they had dropped.

If time is the key element here, the move to split the book into two separate films is proof positive that the penultimate film uses its time well: the story, themes and characters are on screen, almost perfectly making the transition over. The final novel of the series is itself a superior read because of the depth and ground covered in the story: as Lord Voldemort rises, the Ministry of Magic topples as it’s infiltrated. More than just a fantasy novel, J.K. Rowling uses her time well to create a fantastical dystopian fiction, while the film enhances much of what she wrote by background visuals: guards at the Ministry are dressed in black, with red arm bands while wizards in the ministry work to root out undesirables in a fashion reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This is underscored by the puppet Minister of Magic stating in the early parts of the film: ”If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. It’s dark territory to go to, and the film tackles it well.

In a way, this film should be one of the more dull entries in the Potter franchise. Much like the first book, it’s set away from Hogwarts, focusing intensely on Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley as they escape from Voldemort’s forces in the Ministry and vigilante bands wandering the countryside. As a juxtaposition from the dystopian feel, the film also incorporates a number of vaguely post-apocalyptic scenes as they travel across burned out villages, abandoned fields and structures in a number of hauntingly beautiful scenes while searching for the remaining horcruxes. The film maintains a sense of urgency throughout the two diverse elements, from their raid on the ministry to their escape across England, and director David Yates demonstrates a mastery behind the camera for everything that’s on the screen: the action scenes caught my breath in my throat, and even though I’ve recently read the book, I found myself at the edge of my seat with anticipation for what comes next.

At the heart of the entire film is the three characters that we’ve grown to love since the first books and films came out so long ago. Watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time in years recently, I marveled at how young the entire cast looked, and how they have changed. This film serves as an intense character moment for the trio as they embark on their last adventure against the world’s darkest threat. Tempers flare, moods turn to despair and emotions deepen as they wander. I’ve often wondered if Rowling was somewhat reluctant to let the characters go at points, but returning to the source, I’ve realized that the vast change in tone and style for this last story was one of necessity, one that required the time to uncover things at a natural pace. It suites me just fine, and where the book served as the perfect coda for the series, this film does as well, before the last decent into what will ultimately be a packed and exciting conclusion with the second part this July. Where the first half of the book is a bit sedentary, the second half is the direct opposite, with an intense finale that both ties together numerous sections of the story together and leaves it with a satisfying conclusion.

After watching the first part of the last film, the last film is already set up to a stellar ending, and I hope that it will live up to the excellence of its first half. Part 1 has set an incredibly high bar, but this was the easier part to adapt, and the next installment has a lot of material to take in. For this outing, however, it's as perfect an adaptation as could be expected, and a fitting take on Rowling's fantastic story.


Grey, by Jon Armstrong

A recent book caught my eyes in the bookstore the other day: Jon Armstrong's second novel, Yarn, with a gorgeous cover and an interesting looking storyline. In the midst of deciding which book to get, two others won out, and it was returned to the shelf. Followup research showed that I should have gone for it, and further searches in nearby stores came up empty.

Over the course of reading up on Yarn, I discovered that the author's first book, Grey, was set in the same universe, setting up Armstrong's particular brand of fiction, labeled 'Fiction-Punk'. Better still, the publisher, Nightshade Books, had an advance reader's copy of the book up on their website, for a free download. (You can get it here.)

Grey is a quick, funny read, with a couple of caveats and assumptions to go along with that. Set in a near future dystopia, Michael Rivers is the son of a family member, part of the elite, in a world where pop culture and consumerism has run amok, in the most ridiculous fashion possible. While reading the book, I'm operating on the assumption that this book shifted more towards the satirical than rational. Rivers is a celebrity, and where reality television runs every day, with talk show hosts and talking heads talking nonstop to his own egotistical father who has a documentary filmed of his life as he's living it, reediting it as he goes.

Fashion takes a front seat in this book, and Armstrong's descriptions of the fashion of this world is a fun one. Despite the book's title, there's multiple colors everywhere, with people wearing some of the strangest things throughout, at least in the expensive and livable areas. It's not an area where one will think about science fiction, but it's clear that there's a lot of inspiration taken from the costuming of numerous films here, and if anything, this film breaks the reader out of the mold that this book is merely a continuation of suburban America.

Despite the label 'fashionpunk', this book isn't really about fashion: it's a fairly acute look at the direction of a consumerist culture. Once the absurdity is stripped away from the book (mainly in the language of most of the characters), it's a downright scary look at how things could be several decades from now. Some things remain very much the same: an obsession with celebrity and instant gratification, where companies live and die by their ratings and public perception, rather than their actual internal workings.

This is an entertaining book - one that was a bit of fun to read, although I do hope that Yarn (which I now have) turns out to be a bit better. The plot for this story was rather loose at times, and there are some elements (Michael's origins - cobbled together from parts from his numerous sibblings comes to mind) where I thought there should have been more emphasis, and there's a bit of wandering here and there as the book progresses.

But, Grey is an entertaining, with some very dark undercurrents to it, and some very fun parts (Who wouldn't enjoy professional ironing championships in a fashion-oriented world?) as well. I'm even more excited about Yarn after finishing it.

Tron: Legacy

I first watched the original Tron earlier this year based on several recommendations from friends, and was really hooked on the film. The 1982 film was one that was a neat balance between advanced effects (now very, very dated), action and a decent storyline that had a lot of potential. When the first promotional clips were released of the new Tron, it looked like it would be an interesting update of the franchise. Tron: Legacy is a fun science fiction film, and while it has its shortcomings in the plot, the visuals and excellent score make up for it.

Taking place nearly thirty years after the events of the original, Legacy has aged real time. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) rose to the top of the tech industry and then vanished, leaving behind his Son, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund). The majority share-holder of Encom, Sam plays a minimal role in the company, stopping by to prank the board, before encountering Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), who tells him that he received a page from his long-lost father's office at the arcade. The younger Flynn is sucked into the Grid, and finds that his father had literally disappeared for the past thirty years, and that his creation has grown beyond its creator harboring some greater ambitions for the real world.

Tron: Legacy serves as a good action film, with top-notch visuals and action that shows just how good the last thirty years have been for the film industry. The effects of the original, now quaintly dated, held up nicely for what they were (and as a sort of period science fiction film), and the new entry in the Tron universe has brought together a sleek glass and light environment with better costumes and more exciting and dynamic action sequences. The eye candy alone is worth the price of admission, and on one level, the film is a fun action film that does well for what it is.

Plotwise, the film falters more than I would have liked. Inception this isn't, and while I can make a case for some strong points for stories and allegorical undertones to the original, the fact remains that these films were designed to be crowd pleasers, not something to ponder for years to come. As such, the plot moves from point A to point B pretty quickly, expediently and predictably.

Looking back at the film, there's quite a lot that could have been done: the most frustrating element here is the wasted potential that a film such as this could have offered. Like the original, there's some powerful material here that relates to religion and creationism, for we see Flynn creating his own world from quite literally nothing, alongside CLU and TRON, according to some plan of perfection. Along the way, we see the introduction of ISOs (Isomorphic Algorithms), who manifested themselves out of nothingness. The potential for some very interesting storytelling is there, and ultimately, never followed up on to any great deal of satisfaction. The big problem here is that these elements are all touched on: the father / son angle, the deity angle, the understanding of perfection vs. imperfection angle and so forth, but once touched on, they dissolve into the background as one thing leads to another action scene. To turn this into a truly extraordinary movie would have been a huge leap of faith by creating a radically different film from what we've seen in the franchise thus far, and it's clear that Disney was content to keep this as a sure money maker, rather than a risky investment. Critical acclaim is certainly nice, but it's not bankable.

Disney has a number of plans for the rebooted Tron, with an additional two sequels planned, and a ten episode television series coming up next year, the franchise is something that the company is looking to for revenue for the future. Rather than going the smart route, they've gone the Star Wars route: merchandising, sequels, continual updates and inclusions into the franchise. The TRON world seems like it would be a good one to try out, given the potential that exists with some elements of the plot. The ending of Legacy certainly leaves the door open for some future films and stories to be told.

There's other flaws with the film as well. The director, Joseph Kosinski, is out for his first time with this one, having directed some critically acclaimed shorts such as the 'Mad World' Gears of War and Halo 'Starry Night' commercials, but his style here left some of the action and transitions between scenes flat, slowing down the pace of the film at points, something that shouldn't happen in any sort of major film.

But, this doesn't ruin the film. The pieces are there in the background, and there's a balance between action and story that makes this a film that can exist on a couple of levels. There's far more logic and interest to the film than some of the other science fiction blockbusters out there, and the combined effort of the actors (Michael Sheen is especially excellent as the zany manager of the nightclub End of Line) who bring about some decent performances - I particularly liked Olivia Wilde as Quorra, Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn and Bruce Boxleitner, reprising TRON and Alan Bradley briefly. Quick eyes will pick out Cillian Murphy in the opening of the film as well. Plus, Daft Punk helped to put together an amazing soundtrack that helped push the film along where needed, and the duo show up a couple of times in the club. One might think that that's their natural habitat.

More so than the story or the actors, Tron: Legacy has done an excellent job updating the Tron world from the 1980s on a visual and social level. I've liked what the original did to conceptualize computer programs as people within their own little world (which in and of itself has some towering philosophical threads) and it's been used in other works to great success, such as in Ian McDonald's 'River of Gods'. Legacy opens up this world a bit more under Flynn's Arcade, and the territory is ripe for new ideas and directions.

Tron: Legacy was a film that I enjoyed watching. While it didn't move me to want to go back and watch again right away like Inception, Moon and District 9 did, it didn't make me regret that I'd spent the money and time watching it in the first place. While not the smartest science fiction film out there, it's certainly far from the worst that I've ever seen, and I'll be interested to see what will come next for the Tron franchise.

Horns, by Joe Hill

A man wakes up to discover that he's sprouted horns on his head overnight. Joe Hill's latest book, Horns, starts off with a simple premise, one that unfolds into a wonderfully complicated and minimal story of murder, revenge and the inherent darkness that exists within people. At the same time, Hill brings out a deeply philosophical and intriguing look at faith and Christian allegory.

As Ig Parrish finds that people are influenced by the new additions to his head, the circumstances of personal tragedy (his girlfriend's rape and murder, which he was blamed, but cleared of) begin to resurface as people begin to tell him their deepest inhibitions and secrets. As the story progresses, we are taken deep into the lives of each character, which fully explains and supports the events that send the story moving in the first place. The end result is a literary masterpiece that brings out a rich blend of horror and supernatural with a cast of fantastic and utterly believable characters. Every element, every mention of something comes to some level of significance to the story as a whole, and Hill brings out rock and soul music, personalities, and other numerous references to help support the story. This is a rare thing that I've seen, and possibly one of the best examples that I've come across where this is enacted and works: everything in the story supports the main premise and story as a whole.

Horns is wonderfully complex, yet minimal at the same time. The story jumps around from character to character and from the present to various points in the past, with a dedicated, focused purpose. Rather than wandering off to put together a story of epic proportions (and a story where a man grows horns on his head certainly calls for this), Hill burrows down and tells an intensely personal story, with a small collection of characters who's stories intertwine around a central tragedy. This is storytelling at its best, where there are no arbitrary actions, but carefully crafted story. It's a notable achievement, and I hope that Hill receives due recognition for this: it doesn't happen all that often. The result is a superior, notable book.

This novel is one that left me disturbed on many levels. Rather than the horror being presented as Ig turns into a supernatural being, of sorts, the horror comes as Ig sees what people are capable of as they confess to him the darker thoughts that they've been harboring. At the same time, the events that put much of the plot into motion are horrible, terrible things, and in the way that the book is structured, the reader is conscious of what is likely coming, with a growing amount of horror. This is terror on a level that far transcends a monster or man in a mask: this is the horror of the inevitability of something coming down the line, with no way to alter its course.

Furthermore, there is a residual bit of horror in the ways that people interact with their faith. Hill puts together an interesting look at the relationship between God, Lucifer and People, with some interesting parallels and conclusions sure to piss off any devotee of Christianity, but not coming out as a lecture on philosophy: this is storytelling at its finest, and a story that is possibly one of the more important to examine in a critical fashion.

Horns is a stunning read, for the story, the characters and the allegory, which turns this into a novel holds up with some of the best books that I’ve picked up this year: easily comparable in quality to China Miéville’s ‘ The City and The City’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’.

Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

As the publishing industry has jumped wholeheartedly into the emotional Vampire trend that's seen the release of the Twilight novels, it's nice to come across a book that was published during this that really brings the horror back to the style of story. Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola is an engrossing read that both deals with vampires, and brings in a proper horror feeling to the story.

This unconventional novel was first recommended to me a couple of years ago, where I was drawn to the absolutely fascinating cover, drawn up by comic book artist and author Mike Mignola. Mignola, the creator of the Hellboy and BPRD comic series, is a favorite of mine, not only for his excellent artwork, but for his strange, gothic stories that pull me in. When I came across the book at a convention last month, I immediately picked up the book, and had it signed, as author Christopher Golden was one of the attendees.

Lord Baltimore, a soldier in the English military during the first World War, leads a night attack against German soldiers, when his entire squad is killed when they are spotted. Wounded, he sees something frightening: creatures coming out of the dark to feed on the men under his command. He attacked one of the giant bats, striking it in the face with his bayonet, scarring it. He is attacked in turn, and loses his leg as a result.

Those actions push the story into action, and the rest of the book is preoccupied with not Baltimore’s story, but of three friends of his: Doctor Lemuel Rose, the doctor who treated Baltimore’s leg after the attack (and ended up amputating it), Thomas Childress , a childhood friend of Baltimore’s, and Demetrius Aischros, who brought Baltimore home from the battlefield. Each man was summoned by Baltimore, and as they await his presence, it unfolds that each of them has had an encounter with the supernatural, and that they would help him in his mission.

Following Baltimore’s attack, Red King (the leading vampire who was wounded in the face) unleashes a plague against Europe in retaliation for his disfigurement. People passed away across the continent, and turned into vampires themselves, grinding the war to a halt as the death toll climbs. As Baltimore returns home, the King exacts his own revenge on his attacker by killing his family, then his wife, in an effort to break the man. The opposite happens, and Baltimore goes on a quest to kill the Red King. As the stories are told, they blend together towards a finish that was entirely unexpected, but rewarding.

Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire is s a good example of where a genre has been changed from largely traditional details, yet is able to stand on its own. Where books such as Stephanie Myer’s Twilight have been criticized because of the liberties that have been taken with the books, Baltimore was able to capture the horror of such individuals and come out as a work who’s antagonist doesn’t feel shortchanged. Having not read Twilight yet, I can’t accurately compare the changes to some of the more rooted versions of the canon, but I can say that Baltimore reaffirms my belief that canon isn’t always paramount, and that modern stories that take on vampires shouldn’t be rooted as firmly to Bram Stoker’s Dracula as we’d like.

Baltimore sheds away the Victorian gothic styling that comes with the territory and advances towards World War I. With its trench warfare, rapid advances in weapons and seemingly pointless nature to the attacks, the battlefields in France and Germany are the perfect setting for a horror novel, and under Golden and Mignola’s care, a time of industrial realism is blended together with a sort of surreal supernatural amongst each of the characters, in Italy, England and South America. Moreover, vampirism here seemed to be carried on by disease – a horrifying method of death in and of itself – rather than the bites and lives in coffins. These vampires are pretty scary in their own right – taking over towns, coming out at night and generally not good people to be around, especially as they feed and decimate the population of Europe.

In the end, the book serves as an interesting counterpart to the First World War. By the end, it becomes increasingly clear that both sides have become larger than their individual selves: they represent a larger picture, and with the war as a background, they have become two larger forces that collide endlessly, tirelessly and each unable to yield to the other. Baltimore is a fascinating read, one that pulls in the strange worlds that Mike Mignola puts together, (along with his art on every page) and the excellent storytelling of Christopher Golden.  The story shows that the vampire craze can be adapted into its own different ways, but that it retains some of the core facets: there are some things that are more horrifying than death.

Goodtimes, Goodtimes


In 2008, Franc Cinelli released his first album, Glue, under the moniker Goodtimes Goodtimes, which blended great acoustic and free feel, along with Cinelli's fantastic voice and strong guitar work. The album has remained one of my favorites over the past couple of years, and since then, Goodtimes Goodtimes has been at work on his second album, which has just been released in the U.K.

The self-titled album opens quietly with the song Point One, and straight from the get-go, it's clear that you're about to listen to an evolutionary change. Where Glue really impressed me throughout, Goodtimes Goodtimes absolutely blew me away. Point One is the first indication, as it slowly grows and grows, adding on layers as the song progresses into a gorgeous wall of sound and vocals.

Over the past two years, I've heard various versions of songs as they were worked on and released, and was generally impressed with the styling and sound that came with each one. Let It Begin is the only song that seems to have made it onto the new album from this initial batch of demos, and the demo that bears the same name demonstrates that there were some changes to come: expected changes, from Glue to the next major effort. The album is a perfect example of where a band or singer/songwriter has taken their already notable music and figured out what needed to change. The result is an exceedingly superior effort, and I'd struggle to see what would come next that could be better.

Listening to the new album version of Let It Begin however is an entirely new experience. Frank comes out of the gate at a flat out run, with a blast of guitar, bass and vocals. Turning the volume up, there's an incredible richness to the sound that simply didn't come through before, from the guitar strumming in my right ear, the background vocalist in my left, with a speed and urgency that just didn't exist before.


This continues through the album as a whole. Magic Hour and Love display the a slower tone, but the same level of richness through the vocals and music, and the album's first lead single, Fortune Seller Song, brings the same casual level of energy and depth throughout the song. Burn and Diamonds in the Sky bring back the fast pace of the album, while other songs, such as By Your Side and Sweet England put together a sentimental feeling.

Looking between Glue and Goodtimes Goodtimes, it's astonishing at how much better the latest album is. Listening over tracks such as Temporary Freeze and Kids, the supporting and basic elements that inform tracks such as Magic Hour and Fortune Seller Song. Going from track to track, I'm reminded of a beginning photographer learning to take pictures, but only later learn how to manipulate their results in subtle ways to bring out a better picture by correcting the colors and applying filters as needed. Goodtimes Goodtimes is an incredibly well polished, tight and exciting album that surpasses his prior works by miles, which says a lot, and makes a really good thing even better.

The best element of Goodtimes Goodtimes isn't what has changed, however. The sound is together, polished and bright, but the core element that drew me to the group in the first place, the soul and songwriting has remained exactly where it was. The same, breezy free feel that has kept me listening to Goodtimes Goodtimes is intact and only improved by its actual execution over the course of the album.

The good times are back, but they've never really gone away. They've only gotten better and better.

You can listen to the entire album here.

China Miéville’s Tale of Two Cities: The City and The City

The City and The City is the first and only book that I've picked up that was authored by China Miéville, and it's easily one of the best books that I've read all year. The story, from all accounts, is something that stands apart from Miéville's other works as a minimal, stripped down affair. This book was well deserving of the latest round of Hugo Awards, tying with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl for the best novel prize.

The City and The City opens with the murder of a woman, which Inspector Tyador Borlú is tasked with investigating. What sets this murder apart is its location in the city state of Besźel. Here, two worlds intersect with one another, two conjoined cities that have long been separated, occupying the same place. The two cities set up a storyline that is highly relevant, as Borlú digs deeper into the crimes that have been committed in order to find the killer, uncovering a vast conspiracy that goes to the very heart of the split of the two cities, and the shadow organization, Breach, that enforces the boundary between the two locations.

The complicated element of The City and The City was this split between the two worlds, and what Miéville has done is nothing short of spectacular: create a profound world, one that touches on some of the most relevant topics in today's society. The book also does what all good speculative fiction stories should do: take a speculative element, and use that to set a story. Science Fiction / Fantasy readers will find that this book utilizes a single speculative element: the split between worlds. A common enough story element, but there's no strange devices, mad science or magic gone bad: visitors from one side to another must take their passport with them, and must learn to 'Unsee' the other side, or they will run up against the Breach, a shadowy organization that steps in when accidental, and intentional breaches occur.

With the backdrop of speculation, Miéville sets his story in motion, and the pursuit of the woman's killer. As Borlú digs deeper into the woman's background, he discovers that her area of study goes to the heart of the separation between the cities, a radical who enflamed nationalists and unificationists on both sides (political groups who sought to unite the two cities) and uncovers a spectacular conspiracy that holds ramifications for both cities.

An underlying strength to this story comes in the world building that Miéville puts together. The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma recall the nature of places such as Palestine and Israel, East and West Berlins, and Yugoslavia: distinct nations, ethnic groups and political organizations that share the same territory, borders and physical space, but the people's hearts are elsewhere. Here, the separation is a reinforced one, where these societies have been split apart physically. Each city maintains its own culture, architecture, clothing, and languages, and between the two, Ul Qoma represents a modern world, with major foreign investors and trade, while groups in Besźel seek to change their surroundings.

This is where the book is at its strongest: this book is not one that retells the story of real life counterparts, but looks to them for inspiration, while a unique story is crafted around the inspiration that sets the world into motion. Miéville has put together a unique story that takes the bare minimum of speculative elements, while telling a story that is relatable to the modern reader. As such, the book sheds some insights into the mentality of some of the problems of the world: this accomplishes everything that science and fantasy fiction should be doing, and as such, The City and The City succeed wildly.

Miéville's novel is one that slowly unfolds as the story progresses forward. What starts as what appears to be a fairly straight forward murder mystery (abet with strange surroundings) becomes larger as Borlú goes further and further with his case, travelling to Ul Qoma and eventually, committing an act of Breach in the course of his investigation.

The book is not without its flaws, and while the book lives up to much of what it intends to do, I found myself wishing that there was a bit more to some of the elements. Breach, an organization built to separate the two cities, doesn't fully satisfy upon its reveal to the reader, and where there was much discussion about the nature of Breach, and an alternate, third city (Orciny), which never came together as expected, and the unexpected result isn't quite as interesting.

The City and The City is a marvelous book, one that is both fast paced and immersive, a read that I found gripping, rich and easily the one of the best books that I've read all year.

Stories: All New Tales, Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

"...and then what happened?"

This is the question that's asked by Neil Gaiman in his introduction to Stories: All New Tales, which goes to the heart of what should happen with any story. In this collection of nearly thirty stories, the two have assembled an incredible roster of authors to tell some good stories, and ultimately fulfills the purpose of this anthology, to captivate the reader, and to have them continue to turn the pages.

Built on the premise of the notion that stories should be page turners, this anthology differs significantly from other anthologies that I've picked up over the years, and brings together an extremely wide range of tales from every genre. The result is a comparative library of short fiction, putting together a number of genres, themes and perspectives into a single volume. While it's not the best anthology that I own (Robert Silverburg's classic, Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, takes that title), Stories comes very close.

Short fiction seems to be on the rise, with a number of fantastic anthologies published recently: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, Wastelands/Federations/The Living Dead, by John Joseph Adams, the ever present Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois and The Best Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jonathan Strahan, not to mention the countless small press anthologies and digital magazines, such as Lightspeed Magazine, that have grown more popular. As a result, there seems to be a relative explosion of short fiction out there, and Stories is one of the better collections that I've seen. By structuring the anthology with a broader mission, it stands out because it doesn't fall into any one genre.

Broadening the focus of the anthology also brings out a wide diversity in authors, from inside and outside the typical genre circles. Authors include Joyce Carol Oats, Neil Gaiman, Richard Adams, Jodi Picoult, Michael Swanwick, Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill, amongst others, which bring together a really neat roster of all-star writers, which goes to help with the quality of said stories. This isn't to say that a themed anthology is lacking because of the intense focus and a more limited range of stories and authors, but what it does allow is for quite a bit more freedom to tell a number of good stories unrestricted of content. As a result, this is one of the few anthologies that I've read cover to cover, rather than reading through a couple of stories piecemeal. Where Stories is a collection that defies genre, it gains some of the best minds from a broad cross section of writers amongst many genres.

There were a number of stories that I really liked: “Fossil Figures”, by Joyce Carol Oats, “Blood”, by Roddy Doyle, “Wildfire in Manhattan” (which, as a couple of other reviewers have noted, would fix exceedingly well with Neil Gaiman’s own American Gods), “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Gaiman, “Juvenal Nyx”, by Walter Mosley, “Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult, “Goblin Lake” by Michael Swanwick, “A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard, “The Therapist” by Jeffrey Deaver, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerephon” by Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill’s “The Devil on the Staircase”. Michael Moorcock’s title story “Stories” is another that bears mentioning: it’s not one that I particularly liked, but it’s one of the tales that has remained with me since I read the book, and has caused a considerable amount of reflection after the fact.

The end result is a book that easily accomplishes what every storyteller should be doing: telling a good story, one that compels the reader to continue to turn the pages and to see what happens next. For a single author to do to this is a good thing: to get twenty-six excellent stories together that do the same thing is even better, and as a result, Stories is a worthy addition to any library of a speculative fiction fan, or reader in general.

Clementine, by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest had a good thing started with her steampunk story, Boneshaker, set in an alternate Seattle overrun by zombies and populated by the brass, glass and goggles that we’ve come to expect from the Steampunk genre. Taking place in an American Civil War that has run on for twenty years, rather than the four that it actually lasted for, there is a new entry in the series: Clementine, a short novella that takes off from Boneshaker. Priest has continued the story forward, and it proves to be a short tale from the world that she will be continuing onwards with the Clockwork Century. Ultimately, this book is a short one, and is only able to whet reader’s appetites, while not delivering fully on a comparable story such as Boneshaker.

Clementine borrows a couple of characters that were seen briefly in Boneshaker, Croggon Hainey and his crew, who are in pursuit of his stolen airship, the Free Crow. At the same time, Priest introduces a new character, Maria "Belle" Boyd, a former Confederate Spy, who has been hired by the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency to ensure delivery of the cargo of another airship, with weapons for the Union. The two characters collide when their paths cross, and work together to reach their respective goals: Hainey to retrieve his ship, Boyd finish out her first job with the Pinkertons.

The book, while short, is an entertaining read that tells a compact story set in Priest’s Clockwork Century universe, first seen in Boneshaker, which proved to be an interesting, if somewhat limited view of the outside world, where elements of the ongoing conflict were alluded to, but not seen.

That might have been the better approach, however, because while it’s good to see that Priest is continuing the series, Clementine is constricted by its size – a mere 201 pages, with easily twice that amount of story shoved into it, making it feel like there was much more to tell. Events happen rather quickly, conveniently and at points, the fact that this is set in a Steampunk world is something that’s pushed forward often and the end result feels somewhat forced, where Boneshaker felt like it flowed forward a bit easier in its own world.

The size issue is to be expected, given the length of the novella, but the story simply feels too big in scale to really fit in. Fortunately, the book holds enough to really hold one’s interest throughout as it flies by – this is a quick read, and there is plenty of action and gunplay to keep the events moving along briskly.

One of the points that I found most interesting was the attention to detail that Priest exhibits when it comes to prior historical record and the Civil War, but also social relations. With the Civil War continuing onwards, there is a ripple throughout the country on the impact of the war, which is nicely seen here: race relations, mercenary organizations, military hardware and similar happenings are seen throughout the story, and I have to commend Priest on moving towards the Civil War slowly – I suspect that something like that would be several books in and of itself.

The Civil War is a complicated, well documented war, and in Priest’s universe, that has continued onwards for decades longer than the actual conflict – a convenient plot device to explain the technology and event that happened in this alternate world. This short book reveals just a little bit more to the audience, but just enough to keep people wanting more. The next book, Dreadnought, is due out in a couple of weeks, and looks like it will fit far better with Clementine than it will with Boneshaker.

When putting the two together, I think that Boneshaker is the preferable book to point people towards, simply because it held my interest far better than an alternate Civil War story. There are Zombies (and while I dislike them when they’re poorly written, this wasn’t the case here), strange technology, an abandoned city and so forth, this book didn’t have the same depth, and I’m hoping that that is just due to length.

This is certainly a series that will be popular, and Clementine will be the book that the real fans will go to, to get that added bit of insight into the world while they wait for the next book to come out. It’s certainly tided me over while waiting for the next read. One can only hope that we’ll see additional stories to come out of the Clockwork Century while we wait.

River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

Cover Image

Published in 2004, Ian McDonald's River of Gods is a compelling, complicated and fascinating book that ranks amongst one of the best modern science fiction novels that I've ever read. Set in a future India, McDonald takes multiple, diverse story lines, over several fields: artificial intelligence, mass market entertainment, traditional values and international politics, to meld together a book that pulled me in completely. McDonald's vision of the future is one that is wholly realistic, and I have to wonder how long before 2047 that many of the elements will come to pass.

The book is a complicated one to read, and the book forced me to take my time and really absorb what was going on. Following several storylines, where India has become a divided country, split along loose lines. Artificial intelligences over a certain level of intelligence are banned by international law, while life is run by thousands of different A.I.s (called aeais). Drought has created tensions between the Indian states, and a Hindu fundamentalist leader named N.K Jeevanji has begun to push tensions with his own agenda, while feeding information to a reporter. A genderless set designer, Tal, works on a soap opera that has captivated the nation (with an entire cast of aeais actors), while involved with a secretary for the Prime Minister. Elusive A.I. scientist Thomas Lull comes across a girl, AJ, with extraordinary abilities, while Lisa Durnau is sent into space to investigate an asteroid that houses an 8 billion year old sphere that may or may not hold the key to existence, which in turn leads her to find Lull. While is ongoing, Mr. Nandha, a Krishna Cop tasked with destroying rogue AI systems, faces class troubles at home with his wife, while investigating the possibility of the creation of a Generation 3 aeai by Ray Power, who has just turned over control of their research and development section to Vishram Ray, a standup comedian who inherits a powerful position within the company, with the potential to completely change the world. As the story progresses, each of these separate storylines begin to merge and impact one another, revolving around the progression of an intelligence that is far greater than mankind and the inevitable conflict that that might bring forward.

The dominant theme of this book is the role of AIs in the world. While some books such as Neuromancer have taken their own lead in the early stages of cyberpunk, River of Gods moves forward under its own power and understandings of the world from a far more modern perspective. In a word, it’s modern cyberpunk, and McDonald pulls the concept of modern computing and Indian perspective of Gods, bringing the idea of deus ex machine literally to life, and bringing about a very different perspective on any sort of conflict between humanity and programmed entities. Here, programs are entities in and of themselves (much like the film Tron seemed to portray them), and throughout the high-tech environment of India’s cities, they regulate much of the automated processes that go on (air conditioning, safety measures, automated drones, and so forth), while there is a constant battle being waged against unauthorized intelligences on the part of the government, against the aeais themselves, but also their creators, smalltime technicians and programming wizards who are constantly pushing the boundaries that technology can provide. A murder in the early stages of the book bring Nandha’s attention to one plot in particular, as a pair of scientists with links to various companies are found burned alive in their home, one of the many elements that pushes the plot forward.

River of Gods has a complicated, interesting storyline, one that features numerous elements moving at different speeds, all running together with the same conclusion at the end, much like the film Syriana and Traffic have done, telling multiple storylines to get the entire plot together. The story as a whole is greater than the individual storylines, although there were times, and a couple of storylines that seemed to drop off or not fit as well as some of the others. Regardless, the complicated structure of the book is something that worked to highlight numerous elements of McDonald’s future india, and give the book a richness that made me desire to turn the page and resist putting the book down on more than one occasion.

India as a setting was a refreshing tone for the novel, and I found myself marveling at the rich feeling and background that McDonald was able to imbue into the text. While not a native Indian himself, he apparently spent several years in the country for research, which has yielded a very unique novel, which I hope is the start of a larger trend in the genre. The fact that McDonald has done similar books (Brazyl, set in Brazil, and The Dervish House, set in Turkey), is encouraging that there is material set like this. Another notable example is The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, which is set in Thailand. I’m sure that there are others, and I’m reminded of a panel that I sat in on at ReaderCon, titled ‘Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe’, where it was pointed out that science fiction is predominantly slanted towards the United States and other western nations, which leaves out much of the world, and with it, a number of stories. While the aforementioned examples of ‘international science fiction’ has been written by western writers, it’s a step in the right direction, and hopefully with it, there will be a push from consumers for more science fiction that was written locally from various locations around the world. River of Gods provided an interesting glimpse into a different view of science fiction, and while it is something that helps the book stand out, it is not something that was done to provide a sort of ‘stunt casting’ to make it do so. The setting is an important part of the book, which makes it all the more interesting and essential.

River of Gods is a fantastic science fiction story, one that has taken several familiar tropes and twisted them with the culture that it’s injected them into. The West is certainly not the only place with a future, and it is a relief to see that there are some authors who have a very realistic understanding f how the world fits together, with multiple elements and sides that come together at the end. This book is good in its execution, but also in its story, where both have been put together to come up with something wholly unique interesting and exciting.



Christopher Nolan's latest film, Inception, is one of the best films that I've ever seen, combining an original story with a compelling future, providing a cerebral science fiction thriller that represents the very best of what the genre is supposed to do: provide a compelling and entertaining narrative.

Inception is an event that is a beginning, and describes the goal of the characters of the film. As the film opens, Leonardo DeCaprio's character, Cobb, is caught while trying to break into a businessman's (Saito, played by Ken Watanabe) dreams, and is offered a job to plant an idea into someone's head. Cobb specializes in a particular form of theft: entering a person's mind during their dream state, and stealing particular secrets in a form of corporate espionage. Cobb is a haunted character, who's own guilt and demons have been coming back to haunt him. Exiled from the United States, his new job, to plant the idea of breaking up a corporate empire in the mind of an heir Robert Fischer (Played by Cillian Murphy), is the only thing that will allow him to return home to his children, after being forced away from the U.S. after the death of his wife: her suicide had appeared to be at his hands. Assembling a team of specialists: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, the point man, Tom Hardy as Eames, the forger, Ellen Page, Ariadne the Architect, and Dileep Rao as Yusuf, the Chemist. They go to work building a complicated dream state for their target, with the plan to plant an idea deep inside his consciousness, where it would take form and provide the target with the motives to break apart his inheritance.

Inception is a complicated, fantastic and brainy film, and is unequivocally a brilliant work of fiction, tying together different story elements: the job at hand, placing the idea into Fischer's head, and looking at what makes up an idea, all within several different worlds that have been created within the minds of the characters. While viewers are generally used to any number of time jumps to help tell the story: flashbacks, jumps forward and so forth, this is the first story that I've seen tell several stories within concentric time spans (i.e., one within the other), with each running at a different speed. The story moves forward in a fairly straightforward fashion as the team moves deeper and deeper into Fisher's unconscious mind to plant their own inception: Fischer must break apart his business.

One of the things that works the best with this film is the subtle, science fiction elements that are placed in the film throughout. There is unnamed technology that allows for the shared consciousness, referred to as a military project for training soldiers, but something that seems to have branched out into the larger world. In one particular scene, Cobb and Saito visit Yusuf, the Chemist, who demonstrates his drugs by revealing a sort of opium den of dreamers, people who have spent too much time in the dream world. The scene, lit by bare bulbs and dim shadows, is as hauntingly beautiful as another demonstration scene in The Prestige, one of Nolan’s prior films. The soft touches here show restraint, but at the same time, reveal a near future world that has elements of science fiction and cyberpunk, but in a way that is far less radical, and in my mind, more realistic than other stories.

At the story progresses, Cobb is haunted by his wife, who died after remaining in the dream state for far too long. Cobb noted that she has been causing problems with some of his work, sabotaging his efforts, and as Ariadne prepares for building the heist, she learns the very real dangers of the dream state, and of inception in the first place: Mal and Cobb had entered a deep dream state, one where they remained together, building and rebuilding their own world, and eventually, losing their grasp on reality. As Cobb worked to get her to leave the dream world, he planted the idea that if she were to kill herself, she would awaken. Upon returning to the real world, she continued to believe that she was in the dream state, and once again, killed herself. This plot element is one that grows alongside the heist, and proves to be one of the most interesting elements of the film: what is reality?

This question is something that has long been asked from the science fiction medium, from films such as The Matrix, and television shows such as Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes. The film takes an interesting look at what the perceptions of one's reality are. Within the dream state, people tend to operate within that context, and accept that reality for what it was. Inception does an interesting job with this line of thought, and it does look at this question in a different manner than some of the other works. Here, the characters know full well that they are operating within a different world, but even then, there are real risks in what they are doing. This is assuming one of two possible endings for the film: that Cobb returns safely to his home, reunites with his children and the story closes off normally. The alternative is that Cobb himself has remained in the dream world, and that the entire film had become a reality that he’s unable to escape from, and essentially, he is lost within his own mind. The ending itself brings the film from a good one to a truly great one, something that is sure to keep people thinking and talking about the movie for years to come.

Despite the film's obvious strengths, there are some weak points in the film. The chief among these is the characters, who get very little in the way of the essential back-story that allows them to become relatable characters. Most of the team, while they get some time, are just fixtures against the background, where they operate simply to fulfill plot elements. Cobb is really the only character who has any sort of treatment towards this, and then, it is really only along the lines of putting major plot elements into place.

Secondly, for a film about dreams, the internal mechanics of the dream world seemed to be fairly well in order. While this can be argued away as some sort of side effect of having someone create the world in the first place, there is very little surrealism that is generally experienced with dreams. Certainly, with my own, I have a feeling of confusion, followed by: "I thought that was really happening?", given how strange some of them can be.

At the end of the day, despite some of the drawbacks to this film, it falls under the same list of films that I love for many of the same reasons: they are original, intelligently written, acted and conceived of; movies such as Moon, District 9, The Fountain, Pans Labyrinth, Minority Report, and a couple of others. Inception easily meets the same requirements of those films, and I have no doubt in my mind that Inception will be just as highly regarded as these films are.

It's Not The Destination That Matters, It's the Journey: The Finale of Lost

After six years, Lost has finally come to an end. What started out as a surprising beginning, ABC's surprise hit was a show that defied tradition, genre and storytelling to create what is possibly one of the better television shows to have ever been released. After a hundred and twenty one episodes, the show has long remained a favorite, even when it was having its off moments, because of the detailed storytelling, characters and references within the show. Lost is a novel, simply put, and no singular part really takes away from that as a whole. Because of this, the lackluster finale that finished off the show really doesn't ruin anything for me.

Since the beginning of the show, when Jack awakens in a field, it's been fairly clear that there's quite a bit more to this show than most others out there. The large ensemble cast, the strange events and discoveries and obscure references to mythology, literature, religion and free thought have grown significantly over the drama's run on television. One moment stood out for me in the first season, when John Locke, teaches Walt how to play backgammon, holding up a white and a black stone.

This has long been a cornerstone of the show, opposites, balance, good vs. evil and chaos vs. order, and it has been embodied in a number of different elements throughout the show, in the personalities of the characters, the actions that they take, and the events that have occurred on the island. Within this larger theme and storyline, the survivors of Oceanic 815 wage their own stories and struggles, which in turn fits into the story of the island, and all that it embodies. Lost is a very literary show, one that is both intelligent and well structured, only hampered in its execution.

The finale, The End, was underwhelming at best. There was no great reveal that helped to tie up storylines, and nothing that fundamentally changed the characters beyond what had happened in the show already. Essentially, the last two hours was the combined momentum from the show coming to a halt. While this was to be expected, it did so in a lackluster and uninspiring way. Throughout the show, a conflict has arisen between Jack Shepherd and John Locke, who respectively represented empirical science over emotional religion (or something similar), with an eye towards logic over chaos and presumably, good over evil. There has been some absolutely terrific storytelling, and a very cool reversal of roles between the two characters over the course of the season. While an ultimate conflict was building over the entire show, the end, with a quick fight, and with Locke being shot in the back by Kate Austen, there was little significance or even forward movement for any of the characters.

Furthermore, a big answer for one of the more pertinent questions regarding the nature of the island was discovered much earlier on, when Jacob explained that the island was essentially a cork, holding back a great evil, and his job, as a gatekeeper, helped keep the world in balance. Indeed, the visual symbolism between he and his brother is marked by the clothing that they wear, and the personalities that they have, which mirrors what Jack and Locke exhibit. In a very cool way, the characters fill roles that are much larger than themselves, fitting into fates that are beyond their control, and with plenty of literary significance to have continued discussion over for years to come.

What the finale did do was put a couple of the show’s elements at odds with one another. On one hand, it becomes clear that the story is somewhat preordained, that everybody will end up where they end up because of an afterlife or fate, or some invisible hand, while on the other hand, the show is one that is largely driven by the actions that the characters take throughout the show, which allows for one side to be disappointed – which may very well be the point – when fate wins out, or the characters beat their fates. Lost does bounce between the two, but ultimately comes down on the side of fate, which is more disappointing, because ultimately, the characters, while they might have improved themselves, they ultimately don’t affect any change on the world that makes their struggles worthwhile.

However, it is the character’s journeys that make the show worthwhile, and in the end, it’s not the end that matters, but the way in which they got there. Every character present in the show has changed somewhat – they arrived at the island broken people, and ultimately, the island healed them, allowed them to find closure, all the while providing them, and the viewer with a series of complicated, interesting stories that range from alternative history, philosophy, science fiction and quite a lot more. Lost has been quite a ride from beginning to end, and the lackluster finale to the show serves as more of an epilogue, rather than anything that is directly related to the story, and is something that provides a bit of an ambiguous, thought provoking ending, which is probably the best thing the show could have hoped for in the first place.

Review: Daybreakers


In a world with sparkling vampires and an abrupt popularization of the genre, the 2010 film Daybreakers comes as a welcome addition to the genre, blending science fiction, dystopian thriller and vampire lore into a neat, exciting film that had a sensible story with a great visual sense. The most interesting thing is that it's really not about vampires at all: it's about oil.

In 2009, an epidemic raged across the world, killing almost everyone and turning them into vampires. There are no new innovations here: the vampires avoid sunlight, wooden stakes cause them to explode in a bloody mess, and, of course, they drink blood. By 2019, society moves along like it always did, just during the nighttime hours. Ethan Hawke portrays Edward Dalton (hopefully better than the other vampire Edward...), a sort of vegetarian vampire who lives off of pig blood, who works for Bromley Marks, a pharmaceutical company looking to make a replacement for the rapidly dwindling supply of human blood. Dalton comes across a member of a human resistance movement, who knows about his work, and brings him together with someone who had cured himself of the aliment.

Daybreakers is remarkably well thought out, from the story to the background elements. Happily, the film takes much of the traditional vampire lore and shifts it into the future, holding onto only what is strictly necessary, and adapting everything else to what the story requires. Cars are fitted with shades and external cameras, sidewalks are moved underground, soldiers wear protective clothing, and houses have alerts for their owners to know when there's a risk of sunlight. Everybody is immortal, and it seems like it could be a very good life.

What really works well in this film is the attention to detail, on a story, visual and background level: the film doesn't feel like, nor is it, fluff. There's a good amount of attention to the story, which moves along briskly, with quite a bit of action, encompassing a number of elements, all along with a really striking visual sense that helps the film really stand out from most of its compatriots. Particularly striking was the lighting, with dim grays and blues for a lot of the vampire scenes, but also bright and solid yellows for the humans, creating a sort of unconscious divide between the characters and their respective storylines when they showed up. This has been done to great effect in other films, such as Pan's Labyrinth and the television show Firefly.

The main problem that faces vampire society is that there is a critical shortage of human blood. Humans, only numbering around 5% of their original population, or around 342 million, have been captured in massive blood banks for the likely population of 6 billion vampires. As the human population declines, the vampires transform into is a horribly mutated one that looks a bit like an oversized, insane bat (a subsider), which an entire populate is at risk of transforming into, and understandably, there is quite a lot of panic in the streets, and the very problem that Dalton and the Bromley Marks company is trying to avoid. Dalton comes across problems as he comes up against corporate interests, who are only interested in the status quo, with the ability to sell pure human blood to the highest bidders, while keeping their form, as opposed to the complete reversal of the condition that everybody is afflicted with.

This conflict is at the center of the film, and at the heart of it, it's really not about Vampires, but it's about the modern world's complete dependence upon oil. Oil, which helps hold the world together as we have become increasingly globalized, is a resource that will eventually run out, and will leave much of the world in a state of decline, due to short sighted business interests who only are interested in pleasing shareholders. The same holds true in the film, and given that there was a decade of vampirism on earth, it seems somewhat astonishing that they would have completely squandered their lifeblood (literally) until you realize that that's exactly what is being done at the moment, with any number of things. The film gets a good message throughout the film, fulfilling some important aspects of what the genre should be doing for its audience.

Ultimately, the environmental storyline is the strongest component in the film. There are good attempts at a personal story and some work towards the characters, but ultimately, after watching the film, it feels like there was a lot missing: tantalizing hints, such as Dalton's transformation and his subsequent relationship with his brother are largely left up in the air, as well as a couple of similar storylines that involve some of the other characters in the film (Sam Neill's character, Charles Bromley, and his daughter, for example), all add to a fascinating background and world that has been constructed for this story, and at points, it feels like there is elements or scenes that are missing that would really flesh out the film, such as the introduction of a vampire senator who harbors human sympathies. The film would have been further strengthened to better sort these out, and it's certainly possible that a director's or special cut would rectify this sort of thing.

Ultimately, Daybreakers isn't totally sure of what it should be: character or political drama with the coverings of a genre film, or something else. As it stands now, the film is a very good one, covering much ground and providing a nice addition to a fairly crowded speculative fiction genre. The film holds a good message, and has all of the right elements going for it, making it a really good, worthwhile film to buy, but it falls just short of being a really fantastic, must see watch.

She's Got the Medicine that Everybody Wants: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, the band's self-titled release jumps off a cliff with its opening track, Paris (Ooh La La), a remake of the hidden track If I Was from Paris from their prior album, This Is Somewhere. At least, that's what it feels like - a rush of adrenalin followed by fun beat that gets one moving to the song. With their fourth album, the Nocturnals have undergone some changes. Last year, the band lost its original bassist, Bryan Dondero over some creative differences, which in turn allowed the band to bring bass player Catherine Popper, as well as rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco.

With the new lineup comes a new sound for the Nocturnals. While this isn't something that's really unexpected (Original Soul and Nothing But The Water differed a bit, while This Is Somewhere also pulled away from their sound for a more mainstream classic rock sound and feel), it's by far the bigger departure for the group, sound wise. The guitar work is far bolder throughout the album, the lyrics more evocative and overall, this effort feels far more personal and intimate; Goodbye Kiss hits the listener right to the core, much like Apologies did in her last album. Most of the songs on the album really work well with the lyrics, coming out of the speakers with a nice, easy flow, songs like Oasis, Medicine and One Short Night.

Moreover, where her last album felt like a classic rock homage, this one veers into a new direction, inserting funk and soul into the album once again. Hot Summer Night exemplifies this sound excellently, as does That Phone, Oasis and Goodnight Kiss, which gives the album and band a bit of new flavor, which has been seen in some of their reworking of their older songs in recent concerts. There are some anomalies here though: Tiny Light feels free and light, with a real '70s feel, while Things I Never Needed feels a bit like a country ballad. Paris (Ooh La La) is in a class of its own, but then again, it's always been.

Like her last album, there is a good mix between the tone and feel of the album between songs - Paris starts off with a rush of energy, followed by Oasis and Medicine, but songs like Tiny Light and Colors draw the lights down for a closer, slower and more personal feel. This variety and range of sound is a trademark of the Nocturnals, especially at their concerts: They can jump, very easily from slow to fast, bringing out a wall of sound and rhythm. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is a further effort towards this image, and it does so wonderfully.

The strongest part of the album, and the band's music in general, has long been with their lead singer, the wonderful Grace Potter. Surrounded by the new sounds, musicians and songs, her voice is the one thing that really carries the band along, along with her fantastic lyrics. This album contains a number of gems from the group, which both highlight her songwriting and vocal talents: Oasis, Medicine, Tiny Light, Only Love, One Short Night, That Phone and Hot Summer Night, all fantastic songs that fit well within the growing catalog of songs that the band has been producing steadily over the past couple of years. While the sound feels different, Potter is the connecting point between albums, and while I focus on her voice and lyrics, a lot of the differences fall away between her old and newer songs.

What Grace Potter and the Nocturnals does for the band, however, is give them an incredible amount of face time with a sound that fits very well with the mainstream rock and roll scene, but there's just enough color and texture to the songs that they produce to push them over the top of quality. Where her last album was the breakthrough into the popular markets, this album feels like they've regained some of their footing and are beginning to push back with their own sound, which makes this album extra special. While I really loved This Is Somewhere and still constantly listen to it, it felt like there was something missing at points – looking back, it felt as though the band was reaching for something, and found a good compromise. Listening to this album though, it feels much like the color has flooded back into the room, and the sound's been turned up as high as it'll go. The Nocturnals have found what they’ve been looking for.

At the end of the day, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is simply a stunning album from a stunning band. Not content to recycle their prior successes, the band has once again reinvented themselves to attain a better, brighter and richer sound throughout their new album, with songs that are truly inspiring, interesting and most importantly, fun to listen to. It’s clear that they’re on the upwards path, but this new lineup shows that the group is maturing, and they’re bringing out a whole new sound that will really make heads turn.

On Reviewing

Over the past year or so, I've begun to read and write more critically about various books, television series and films, which alternatively gets people interested in some of the things that I am reading, but also drives my friends nuts by picking apart everything that is supposed to simply entertain. The bottom line is, my brain likes to see how things work, how they fit together and what makes things work. I view literature, music, motion pictures, photography and so forth; as art, and accordingly, they are often a series of fairly complicated elements that come together to create the final product that evokes emotion and thought. This is what makes things interesting, and looking alternatively at the flaws and perfections within each piece is what I find interesting.

Reviewing is far more than just writing down what you like about any given book, television episode or movie. While a lot of reviews are made up of what the reviewer likes, it's often a lost cause because everyone has their own individual tastes and appreciates things in their own way. The real trick comes in looking at the characters, the world building, the problems that cause the story in the first place, and the characters' reaction to said problems. The second level often comes when a reviewer looks to the overarching themes and tone of the story that they are looking at.

When I read a book, there are a couple of things that I tend to keep in mind as I read. The first is that I'm not a teacher, reading a homework assignment that the author has turned into me. This is largely because I don't have a good eye for what really constitutes good writing, so often, an author's writing style doesn't figure into things, unless there is something really strange about it. Grammar, spelling, and other technical things just don't come onto my radar, because when I'm reading, I typically focus on the thing that will make the book really stand out for me: the story.

The story governs everything. A story, simply, is a challenge that arrives to confront the protagonist, disrupting their life and causing them to reevaluate their life or examine things differently as a result. This is a pretty basic element of reviewing, and the evaluation here is looking at where the character reacts to the problem in a way that might be somewhat realistic, based on their environment.

While I tend to review a lot of science, fantasy and other speculative fiction, realism is the thing that I look for. While elements of the story might be fantastic, the book or motion picture is written for an audience who live in the real world, and are typically looking for realistic actions on the parts of the characters. Art is created within the contexts of its surroundings. Thus, I find it harder to excuse a book that really acts illogically or unrealistically, whether it's in the reactions that the characters have towards each other or their own surroundings. The mark of a good book is whether an author can properly balance the fantastic with the real, all the while creating something that the audience can relate to.

The actions of the characters and the problems that they face are elements that the audience can likewise relate to. The best works of science fiction and fantasy are ones that can connect to a large audience over numerous generations, either because there is a common connection between generations, exhibited in the themes of the stories, or the story is basic enough for a large number of people to really relate to it. Fiction is a way to look at the world through a different context. Stories take the problems that people face, and place their characters in similar instances. Science fiction and fantasy are especially good at this sort of thing, because they can take modern problems and really twist them out of context for a reader to see things differently.

Once the story is finished, the next step is to write down a sort of analysis of the piece - how did the story, characters and themes interact with one another, and do they work in a way that entertains, interests and provokes thought from the reader? There are a number of brilliant books out there, but often, the writer misses the entertainment point of the book. Ultimately, a good book is something that will be all of the above, and will make you want to re-read it, and buy copies for all of your friends. Precision is needed for a review, and throwing out terms like 'Great' and 'Brilliant' are things that are done far too often - the great books are few and far between, the rare gems that come rarely, but really make an impact. The really good books are far more numerous, and in all cases of reviewing, a reviewer must be accurate and precise with his/her words.

But, in the end, it does come down to one simple point: is this a book that you liked enough to read again, and something that your friends would like?