Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"The moon blew up without warning and with no apparent reason." I'm in love with Seveneves

"I learned more from Neal Stephenson's book than I ever did in any class."

Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is why you probably won't see me make many substantial updates for the next few days. I started reading it at six in the morning on Sunday and I'm barely a quarter of the way through, partly because of life, partly because I'm the slowest reader I've ever met when it comes to fiction—particularly Stephenson's fiction. If his writing were any denser, it would pass its Schwarzchild radius and devour us all.

For those of you who haven't read any of his stuff, I say "dense" in the kindest way possible, like the Gene Wolfe kind of dense turned up to eleven. You've probably heard critics accuse Stephenson of slipping into tangents in which he goes into meticulous detail about language, culture, history, science, and/or mathematics. Well, yeah, he does stuff like that all the time. That's, like, kind of his shtick. Or, to be more accurate, his shtick is he does it so damn well.

Savage warns you to turn the video off when the spoilers begin... I did, but can't wait to hear the rest.

I've written that Stephenson's Anathem was my second favorite SF book of the twenty-first century. (Having recently returned to Facebook and spied some stupefying status updates with no shortage of mindless support, I feel the "Sæcular" population he envisioned in that novel is a lot more plausible than I originally thought... hell, it may already be here.) I don't remember if I enjoyed Anathem nearly as much as I'm enjoying Seveneves right now. This really is my ideal summer book. It goes big in a way that would make Michael Bay weep while simultaneously pleasing the sensibilities of golden age grandmasters.

I'll try not to give too much away, but the moon explodes in the first sentence. At first, the damage is mostly cosmetic because, though spread out, all the moon's mass is still up there, mostly in seven large chunks. The moon's center of gravity is more or less where it was before its destruction so it's business as usual for Earth's tides. Unfortunately, it's not long before two of those seven chunks collide and create eight chunks. Scientists the world over realize that each time another chunk is created, the odds of another collision only increase. The collisions are eventually going to result in an earth-wide event called the White Sky, which immediately precedes the Hard Rain.

One character describes the Hard Rain like this: "Those fiery trails we've been seeing in the sky lately, as the meteorites come in and burn up? There will be so many of those that they will merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized."

Long story short, the Hard Rain is going to occur in two years, at which point Earth will be inhospitable for a period of five thousand or more. Humans only have a handful of months to prepare the preservation of their species. And it's going to require a ton of jury rigging and risk taking to complete such an unimaginably massive project in such a tiny timeline.

My favorite feat of shotgun engineering so far is the Luk, a makeshift space habitat hastily created for a group of Russian "scouts" who are sent to, but cannot live in, the International Space Station. They're part of the impromptu preparation team and not all of them are expected to make it.

Whoever was running things at Roskosmos had pulled up an old idea for an emergency crew rescue device and begun actually producing them. It was called Luk. The word meant “onion” in Russian. It was pronounced similarly to “Luke,” but English speakers inevitably started calling it “Luck.” 
In the best traditions of Russian technology, Luk was straightforward. Take a cosmonaut. Enclose him in a large plastic bag full of air. 
With any normal plastic bag material, the cosmonaut will suffocate or the bag will pop, because plastic bags aren’t strong enough to withstand full atmospheric pressure. So, fill the bag with only as much air as it can handle—some fraction of one atmosphere—and then place another bag inside of it. Inflate that bag with air at slightly higher pressure. That’s still not enough air to keep a cosmonaut alive, so put a third bag inside of the second bag and inflate it to higher pressure yet. Keep repeating, like with Russian nesting dolls, until the innermost bag has enough air pressure to keep a human alive—then put the cosmonaut inside of that one. All of those layers of translucent plastic gave it an appearance reminiscent of an onion. 

Naturally, Stephenson goes on one of his tangents in which he devises several ways for the Luk to believably screw up, putting the occupants, who weren't really expected to live anyway, in mortal danger. One of the main characters aboard the ISS, who doesn't have any way to directly contact the scouts scrambling about the outside of the station, becomes fascinated with the one whose Luk is just outside her window. It turns out there's a reason the Russians sent to assist the preparation project don't have direct contact with the members inside the ISS. The reason is as heartbreaking as it is logical. 

I'll say no more.

So far I haven't seen much of the reaction back on Earth, but the "Space Okies" is a brilliant bit. With Stephenson's call for optimistic fiction as of late (which I don't entirely agree with), you may think it's odd he's decided to destroy the world in his latest novel. But even this early in the book it's apparent the optimism is there and it's gleaming around the edges. There's a beacon at the heart of it all, pulsing with warmth. It seems to be saying, "Humans are capable of amazing things... at least when it really matters."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Blunt Talk is free on Starz.com

Although Blunt Talk doesn't officially premiere until later tonight, Starz put up the first two episodes on their website. Hopefully more and more networks will do the same. It only makes sense to get us addicted to the product before asking us to pay the unreasonable price for premium cable packages.


The washed-up television personality Walter Blunt (Patrick Stewart), who seems obsessed with one-upping Anderson Cooper, has found himself at the center of a media scandal following his arrest for drunk driving. The network has been waiting for an excuse to cancel Blunt's show for a while now and forces Blunt to see a psychologist to make sure he's stable enough to put on the air. The psychologist, as it turns out, is played by Richard Lewis.

If the mere idea of Richard Lewis playing a psychologist is funny to you, then you'll probably want to see Blunt Talk. I don't think anyone who's familiar with Stewart questioned whether or not he can be funny (if it's any doubt, see this clip, this one, and countless interviews), but I've never seen him in a leading comedic role. Although I don't think the series starts out as strongly as Better Call Saul, it's definitely worth watching the two episodes, especially for free. Maybe a third episode would have gotten me hooked, but I'll probably pass on this one until it hits Netflix or Amazon Prime's streaming service.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Just a reminder: Blindsight is free (legally so)

Peter Watts' Blindsight is probably my favorite science fiction novel of the 21st century (Neal Stephenson's Anthem is a close second). The official synopsis begs the question: Who do you send to meet the aliens when they arrive?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find--but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them. . . .

Yes, there's hard science fiction and a vampire in Blindsight, because Blindsight is fucking insane. I haven't read the sequel yet, but I'm kind of saving it until I get around to rereading Blindsight. Books like this just don't come around very often.

Get the entire novel, free, here.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

30+ months, 600+ pages, 100,000+ words...


And it's a pretty good ending if I may say so myself.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Netflix Pick of the Week: Creep


I've said I dislike found footage movies, but it's because they usually suck for reasons having little to do with the way they're shot. Against all odds, I kind of want to see M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit.

Oh, who am I kidding? It's going to suck. Found footage is a young director's game and Shyamalan's over that particular hill.

Creep, despite a run-of-the-mill trailer, doesn't suck. It's a simple movie, which involves a house, a sympathetic protagonist, and a creep of epic proportions. There's also an ax and a werewolf mask at play, insisting from the get-go we probably won't get a happy ending.

I'm not very familiar with Mark Duplass, who plays the titular creep, but great character actors are good at embracing the qualities which separate them from genetically blessed movie stars. Duplass looks so much like a real-life creep you wonder if he was born to play the role. It's a lot of fun watching him enjoy a character who's anything but glamorous.

The setup? Aaron (played by director Patrick Brice) answers a Craigslist ad placed by Josef, the creep. Josef says doctors have given him three months to live so he wants to shoot a video diary about himself. That way, his unborn son can see what he was like. Josef confesses he was inspired by the schlocky melodrama My Life, which starred Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. Aaron's job is to follow Josef and film him going about his daily routine.

The first thing Josef wants to do is have Aaron shoot video of him taking a bath. Reluctantly, Aaron agrees. Whereas most horror films make their characters too stupid or incompetent to get themselves out of a dangerous situation (because otherwise, the movie would be over then), Aaron's cast from a different mold.

There's a lot of people who think just about anyone would have high-tailed it as soon as they found themselves in Aaron's situation. Yet we all know people who are just too damn polite to say no to overbearing strangers with sob stories. Aaron is the kind of person who would probably loan his deadbeat brother money even when he knows that money isn't actually going towards rent. Because of this, Aaron's the kind of character who makes you want to scream at the screen, but not because he's stupid (although you could make that argument), but because he's buying into Josef's manipulative personality. That and it's also suggested he kind of needs the money.

Josef's antics, however, quickly escalate to the point even Aaron has had enough. To say anymore would give away more than the trailer does. The film's strength, other than its diabolical simplicity and surprisingly strong performances, is the fact you never quite know what kind of movie it is, where it's going, or how Josef and Aaron's qausi-friendship is going to develop. If you're expecting a slasher film, you'll probably be disappointed.

I will say I didn't completely buy the ending and there's a little scene following the climax which attempts to put a lampshade on the absurdity of one crucial detail. It's as if they only realized the problem after they shot it, and instead of reshooting the scene, they decided to offer a weak explanation for why it went down the way it did. That doesn't really matter. Movies like this rarely have good endings (see my previous pick, 13 Sins), but Creep brings the goods for the first two-thirds of the movie just the same.

You get the feeling Brice and Duplass are two actor friends who had an idea for a movie over drinks one night and decided to shoot it with little more than a vague outline. There's an energy to it that's charming. It's made all the more impressive when you take into consideration that a movie born of such simple seeds has no right to be as watchable as it is. If there's any justice, both of these filmmakers will move up another rung of the Hollywood ladder.