Language is a virus from outer space.
—William S. Burroughs
Burroughs, who would have turned 100 yesterday, liked to repeat this quote and variations on its theme in his speaking and writing. Like with much else that he put out there, it’s not meant to be taken with complete seriousness, but he certainly believed in the metaphor of words and ideas as a virus that can spread with disease-like rapdity.
Along those lines, check out China Mieville’s science-fiction novel Embassytown, in which (among other oddities) he invents an alien race which is actually sickened by words and the transmission thereof. I wrote about the book for The Millions.
Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her’: Loving what’s not there
Everyone always says that they just love this phone or that gadget. So it makes sense that Spike Jonze’s visionary but powerfully naive new sci-fi rom-com Her would take that romantic displacement to its ultimate conclusion by having a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) fall in love with his new operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
Her opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:
In the future, computers will be not only our friends and lovers, they’ll also help us discover our better selves. That seems to be the message of Spike Jonze’s partially genius, often infuriating yuppie sci-fi fantasy about love and meaning in the post-smartphone era. It’s a film that spends so much effort perfecting the sun-dappled look seen in digital-tech commercials, and squinting to see how technology will operate a few years hence, that it doesn’t have much energy left over for its humans. Jonze seems more truly engaged by Samantha, who is the most well-rounded character in the film. Notably, she’s not human…
‘Her’: Happiness is an advanced operating system
Here’s the trailer, soundtrack by Arcade Fire:
‘The Last Days on Mars’: Anybody out there?
Ruairi Robinson pitched his sci-fi horrorshow The Last Days on Mars as “United 93 in space.” That’s a pretty gutsy presentation, not to mention almost entirely miscalculated.
The Last Days on Mars is opening this week in (highly) limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International:
Outer space is the new haunted house. There was a time when films about first contact involved actual contact—sure, everybody might end up running in terror from the laser beams, but there was at least some attempt at communication. Failing outright conflict, filmmakers wanted to show mankind coming to grips with some unfathomable extraterrestrial phenomenon (2001 to Mission to Mars). But more recently, from Prometheus to Europa Report, humanity ventures to distant planets only to end up kibble for varied alien nasties. That dulling trend continues in Ruairi Robinson’s imagination-challenged astronauts-meet-zombies flick The Last Days on Mars…
You can watch the trailer here:
Los Angeles shows its 22nd century age in ‘Elysium’.
There’s a stark and revolutionary allegory about privilege, capitalism, immigration, and even access to healthcare inside Neill Blomkamp’s new dystopian sci-fi actioner Elysium. Though it gets a little lost around the time Matt Damon gets a metal exo-skeleton riveted to him (two words: bone saw), this is still heady stuff for an escapist summer thriller.
My review ran in PopMatters; here’s part:
The year is 2154 and everybody still living on earth is having a miserable time. The Los Angeles where paroled car thief Max (Matt Damon) ekes out a living as a robot-making factory worker looks like a congested favela. Instead of the dark alleyways and cloud-piercing skyscrapers of many dystopic noirs, this city is familiar to anybody who’s spent time in chaotic megacities like Lagos, Cairo or Mexico City, where Blomkamp shot much of his film. The onetime infrastructure is decimated, with overwhelmed social services, no civic government to speak of, randomly authoritarian robot-police, and a relentlessly hand-to-mouth existence. It’s ripe for revolt…
Check out the trailer here:
Tom Cruise contemplates ‘Oblivion’.
Just one of this year’s post-apocalyptic mega-budget sci-fi projects, Oblivion is a somewhat ambitious piece of work that doesn’t ultimately know what to do with itself. In part, that could result from the ever-amped presence of Tom Cruise, who doesn’t ever seem able to tamp down the Maverick long enough to register any true doubt in his own abilities to save the world. Again.
Oblivion hits Blu-ray and DVD today. My review is at Short Ends & Leader; here’s part:
Oblivion starts as some blissed-out spread in a post-apocalyptic edition ofArchitecture Digest before moving into Big Revelation science fiction. Tom Cruise plays Jack, a happy-go-lucky tech who’s one of two humans left on the Earth’s surface in the year 2077. Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, lithe and ghostly) live in a gorgeously sleek pod of a place elevated hundreds of feet off the blasted landscape. It’s like one of those moderne postwar glass bungalows in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, only it floats above the clouds and is packed with all manner of gadgetry that would make an Apple fetishist’s heart beat dangerously fast…
Here’s the trailer:
David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas is one of those books that has been long assumed to be unfilmmable. But then the Wachowskis jumped into it, bringing on board Run Lola Run‘s Tom Tykwer for additional directing help. The result is a nearly three-hour karmic sci-fi epic that just keeps hitting crescendo after crescendo and made for one of 2012′s most memorable, if under-seen, epics.
Cloud Atlas is available today on Blu-ray and DVD. My full review is available at PopMatters, here’s part of it:
Eager to entertain and suffused with nervous energy, Cloud Atlas spans many continents and about half a millennia of human history. As faithful to David Mitchell’s novel as any $100 million enterprise could be, it’s the most daring, thrilling, satisfying, swiftly churning engine of big screen adventure to come along in some time. It even works in a halfway decent Soylent Green joke, which one would imagine wasn’t possible anymore. And oh yes, Hugh Grant plays a bloodthirsty cannibal…
You can watch the extended trailer here:
Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth try to figure out whose memories are whose in ‘Upstream Color’
Almost a decade ago, Shane Carruth made a tight little puzzler of a science-fiction film called Primer about engineers who accidentally create a time machine; the results make Inception look as easy to decipher as a Michael Bay film.
For his second film, a just-as-puzzling but wider-ranging psychological experiment going under the name Upstream Color, he broadened his scope and palette, throwing a love story into the midst of a mesmerizing thriller about a bizarre kidnap plot. The result is obfuscating, but in a gorgeous and possibly life-illuminating way.
Upstream Color just opened in limited release; it should be sneaking into smarter cinemas around the country over the next couple of months. Expect it to show up on a lot of most-loved and most-hated lists at the year’s end.
My full review is at Film Journal International.
You can watch the trailer here; it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
The military has ever been one of the structural supports of much American science fiction. Whether they’re heroically battling off alien invaders or corrupting scientific research for their nefarious and war-mongering needs, the boys in green have a long history in the genre.
That’s why it’s particularly interesting whenever you run across a science-fiction writer who actually served in the military and then brought that sensibility to their writing. The responses can vary widely, from the jingoistic Reagan-era militarism of Jerry Pournelle to the ironic action of David Drake to the highly satiric and jaundiced Kurt Vonnegut.
Over at i09, Charlie Jane Anders does a superb job of studying all of the ways these authors brought their experience of war to bear in their fiction, as well as other fantasy and sci-fi authors who were less vocal about their military service (from Tolkien to Clarke).
Every now and again the good people over at the online used-book emporium AbeBooks put up collections of grand book covers. Those who like this sort of thing enjoy just trolling through all the glorious old designs, with their funky and outmoded typefaces and abstract illustrations. But every now and again they do more of a curated thematic listing. That’s the case with their recent “50 Essential Science Fiction Novels.” As Richard Davies notes, it’s a fairly impossible task:
I wanted to show the unbelievable breadth of this galactic-sized genre and, of course, I failed because this is just the tip of the spaceberg – there are probably 500 essential science fiction books, not 50.
The list covers everything from William Gibson (pictured) to Jules Verne and J.G. Ballard. It’s not just a piece of literary eye-candy, but a welcome reminder that there’s plenty out there still to be read. (Note to self: need to add more Theodore Sturgeon to the must-buy list.)
Davies notes that selecting these books ”was a virtually impossible task.” Still, there are worse tasks out there in the universe…
As we head into the second-to-last weekend of Christmas shopping, some of you may have a problem: What to get the big reader on my list? Well, the stores are full of great options, but if the person you’re buying for has an adventurous mind (i.e., doesn’t limit their science-fiction intake to The Hunger Games-type YA material), then may we recommend Joe Haldeman?
The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates published a short, wonderfully fannish piece on Haldeman’s classic The Forever War last week that mixed up his appreciation of the book (and its take on permanent militarism and homosexuality, along with other themes) with his love of E.L. Doctorow historical fiction and hip-hop. Check it out.
Shocking that somebody like Coates, who seems to have a particular interest not just in military history but also fantasy and sci-fi, never got around to The Forever War before (it’s in the sci-fi welcome packet, along with Canticle for Leibowitz and any number of early Ballard and PKD).
But in any case, take his word for it, this is one hell of a book—even before you consider that the nation is in the middle of at least one unending conflict right at this moment.