The Long Road

The Long Road

“The Long Road”

Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth.

Sitting in the lander’s snug cockpit, Brendan Eriksson heard the steady hiss of sand against the thick oval of the pilot’s port. Storm coming. Big one. The churning atmosphere was already making radio communication with the orbiting Athena difficult. Not that the good ship’s crew could help Brendan with his current problem. What he needed right now was an experienced search party, not a band of eager mars-nauts.

Brendan peered out at a landscape grown misty with blowing dust. Somewhere amid those jealous sands was a lone man. Brendan pressed the call switch on his mike and demanded, “Carter, where the hell are you?” Static and the occasional charged pop were all that answered him. Angrily, he tossed the headset into a corner and headed for the airlock.

Carter never checks the weather updates, Brendan thought as he clambered down the access tunnel to the lander’s workbay. He probably went off in a huff. Out collecting specimens or poking around any of a dozen sites. A good stretch he calls it. Stupidity I’d call it…going off alone. He knows it’s a violation of Mars Program protocols!

Brendan slipped on the last rung of the ladder. His shin banged the hard plastic and his curse filled the little workbay. His outrage soon faded as he focused on preparations needed for egress. Yet even while donning his cumbersome mars-suit Brendan found himself recalling the events of last night.

The message had come in around 1800 hours. The two occupants of Mars Site One were settling down for dinner. It had been a productive day, possibly their best after a week on the surface. The sample cases in the cargo hold were full. Their bodies ached from the day’s exertion. Still, they were smiling as they opened foil packages and gulped bulbs of juice. Carter had even toasted the day’s success.

Then the message bell chimed. The words from Earth were short and to the point. Funding for future Mars missions had been cut. They were to return to Earth immediately.

“This can’t be!” Carter exclaimed. “We’ve spent years getting this project off the ground. And it’s canceled at the height of our success? Impossible!”

Carter recorded a message and sent it up to Athena for immediate relay back to Earth. Forty-five interminable minutes passed while Brendan changed ‘cycler filters and Carter fumed over a quiet comm board. In the end, Earth’s only response was to acknowledge receipt. No further comment. Transmission ended.

Weary after the long day and the sudden blow, Brendan patted the old scientist on the shoulder and turned in. Carter barely responded. Instead he stared forlornly through the pilot port. Outside, Mars was deep shadow and sand-glitter as Phobos walked its hurried path across the night sky.

Suited up, Brendan ducked through a thick hatchway and prepped the airlock. The conical lander was divided into two sections: the cockpit-hab was on top while the workbay and airlock were down near the landing skirt. All else was dedicated to life support and the various organs of the lander’s ascent stage. The ascent stage consisted of their cockpit and the bell-shaped engine core with its associated propellant tanks. For their return to Athena most of the vehicle’s mass would be abandoned. Safe within the stripped down ascent stage the two marswalkers and their precious specimens would ride comfortably back to the waiting spaceship.

Despite their best housekeeping efforts ocher dust dirtied the airlock’s polymesh floor and bulkheads. Brendan opened a smudged closet door and removed a surface pack. The units were always kept fully charged. Brendan deftly shrugged a pack over the mars-suit’s thick shoulders. Serpentine tubes from the pack were quickly attached to nozzles on his suit. Straps then secured the pack to his back. Step by step, just as protocol demanded.

After the hatch was sealed the airlock was depressurized to Martian ambient. Through the deck Brendan felt a pump chug as air was compressed and then siphoned into a reserve tank. Through the airlock’s tiny porthole the ruddy mars-scape tugged at his heart.

Mars! It sang in his heart like a song. He had spent years helping put this expedition together. Five years of design and training and toil. And then came the real work: the long and dangerous nine months aboard Athena in order to actually get here, the orbital survey to find the best landing site, and then the wild ride down to the surface in the lander. Yet it had all been worth it! In the last week Brendan had trod more Martian soil than he had ever imagined in his wildest dreams.

Minutes later he was down the ladder and beyond the lee of a mylar equipment tent. Mars was gusty wind and cloying sands. Brendan tuned his secondary channel to the location chimer in Carter’s suit. Instead of a comforting ping he heard only the same static that existed on the comm frequency.

“Carter!” Brendan called once more. Then, angrily: “Carter this is one helluva time to take a walk! You’re the one constantly badgering me about protocol. Big storm coming, any fool can see…”

Nearby, something caught Brendan’s eye. One leg of a scanner tripod had collapsed and dropped its delicate hardware into an orange drift. Almost on compulsion he walked several paces to inspect it. Only a day before he had anchored the tripod into the ground. He knew it should be stable even in these strong winds. Had it been purposely knocked over? The only culprit could be Carter.

Brendan felt heat sweep his brow and he cursed. Even if Carter was angry the man had no reason to beat up on the equipment.

Brendan examined the scanner. One of its interchangeable control modules lay in the dust. The unit’s slim anemometer was also missing.

Brendan was scanning the ground for any other errant components when he noticed something odd at the base of an adjacent dune. Amid the swirling dust a gem twinkled. Could that be another scanner? He knew Carter had a temperamental side but this was ridiculous! Brendan sighed and moved toward the glittering jewel.

He reached the mound of dislodged dust and his gloved hand wiped away the grit that covered the tiny green eye. He lifted the object that the emerald LED was attached to and his heart went cold. In gravity roughly a third of Earth’s the Mark VI life pack was not very heavy. Indeed, even fully charged the thing weighed only a few kilos. Yet it slipped from Brendan’s hands as if it weighed as much as the pitted boulders that surrounded their lonely landing site. Brendan swallowed and tasted sourness. Without his pack the air reserve in Carter’s suit was good for only fifteen minutes.

Brendan rose up on shaky knees, imagining the unimaginable. There was no reason for Carter to abandon his pack! It violated every protocol! Was the old scientist intent on throwing everything away? No. There had to be a better explanation. Dr. Carter Jackson was made of tougher stuff than all of them put together. He was the main reason they had made it to Mars!

Yet last night, after the news of the Mars Program’s cancellation…

You can’t work a lifetime and then see it taken away overnight, Brendan thought. Even a stubborn old bastard like Carter can only take so much.

“Carter!” Brendan called into the static that filled his comm set.

Through the convex bubble of his helmet Brendan’s eyes stared up the slope of the dune. A series of oval depressions, swept by the gale and eroding even as he watched, climbed the sandy hummock. The boot prints were unmistakable. Brendan followed them.

Trudging over the rise the man from Earth stared into the darkness of a Martian world-storm. A wall of dust and cloud reared across the southern horizon, relentlessly enveloping the rolling tablelands that stood before the Tharsis range. Movement caught his eye and Brendan gasped. A kilometer away, a tall figure in a bulky mars-suit stood on a high hill, transfixed by the approaching storm.

“Carter!” Brendan called.

In the low gee Brendan loped forward, praying that the old scientist would stay still long enough for him to catch up. Crossing hummocks and staggering down dunes, stray thoughts licked across Brendan’s mind. What if Carter had abandoned the pack more than fifteen minutes ago? Mission protocol only allowed fifteen minutes once that pack was off. It might already be too late…

And then, instead of being a distant figure, Carter stood above him on the tumbled and dust-blown knoll. Halfway up the rise Brendan heard the other man’s voice in his earphones: “…visionless cowards…if they could only see this…the breath of a world.”

“Carter?” Brendan stepped within a few meters of his companion.

The old man turned to regard Brendan. Behind his visor Carter’s face was pale and tears filled his eyes. When those eyes saw Brendan they closed slightly and Carter shook his head sadly. “It was a good run, eh, kid?”

“Carter, you need to put your pack on. Protocol…”

Carter laughed bitterly. Below them the rolling highlands descended toward a wide valley. Carter’s black glove swept over the ruddy land. “You and I almost conquered Mars, Brendan,” the old scientist said.

“We can buddy breathe,” Brendan persisted. “Protocol allows that. Long walk back to the lander but…”

“Lowell started the conquest, you know? Burroughs and Bradbury breathed dreams into this dust. The team that landed the first probes here were a bold bunch. Bolder than any of the bomb-builders they had to compete against, that’s for sure.”

“Carter,” Brendan whispered. Tears stung the young engineer’s eyes. He had never seen his friend like this. So upset.

“They conquered Mars, all of them. But when you stop asking questions or feeling wonder or looking outward, then Mars laughs in our face. Mars always laughs in the face of cowards. This place knows when it’s won.”

“Let’s go back to the lander, Carter.”

Carter sighed. A long and tired sigh. He suddenly seemed as old as the dust curling around his boots. “When we got that message last night I decided that Mars had finally won.”

“Carter.” Still a meter away, Brendan reached toward his friend.

Before the baleful glare of the Martian hurricane Dr. Carter Jackson reached up and unlocked the seal of his helmet collar.

“No!” Brendan yelled. He scrambled for the top of the knoll. Carter pulled his bubble helmet up over his head and hurled it down the slope. Before Brendan could reach Carter the scientist’s legs folded and the old man crumpled to the ground.

“Carter!” Brendan dropped to his knees next to his friend. Muffled voices shouted and yelled in the back of the engineer’s head. “Carter!”

Brendan’s gloved hands shook the scientist’s shoulders. Carter’s eyes were wide and they stared at the cloud-choked horizon. The scientist’s head rocked and then turned toward Brendan. Remarkably, Carter’s mouth stretched into a smile and he mouthed something. Brendan leaned back and tried to comprehend what was happening. Then, before Brendan could react, Carter’s gloved hand snatched at Brendan’s collar and un-dogged the double seal. Air hissed hideously in Brendan’s ears. Carter began to laugh. For a moment, his laughter seemed to fill the vast Martian wastes.

“Dammit, Carter! You’re nuts!” The words were out before Brendan could stop them.

In response, Carter patted the engineer’s shoulder. He gasped, “Perhaps I am. But knowing when to quit is the first sign of returning sanity.” Through Brendan’s depressurized helmet the words sounded joyous.

From behind them they heard footfalls crunch through the dust. The pair turned to see a Martian Natural Territories Ranger approaching. The ranger’s uniform was a blue-green tiger-striped parka that made the wearer seem much taller than her lithe, two-meter Martian frame. The ID patch over her left breast bore a name: Fitzhu, Dali. That was a perennial Martian favorite when it came to naming children. After all, Salvador Dali could have created some of the landscapes that had been carved during the long centuries of planet-wide terraforming.

A puff of air gusted from the woman’s lips and she waved a datalogger at the two Earthmen. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” the Ranger said in her curiously clipped Martian accent. “But I’ll have to log that helmet removal as a violation of Mars Program protocols.”

Carter began to laugh again. Next to him Brendan protested, “But it’s the first time in nearly a year that we’ve tasted unbottled air! We haven’t violated anything!”

The MNT Ranger frowned. She hated tourist duty. Earthfolk were a strange breed and she had seen none stranger than this pair of astro-archaeologists…archeo-astrologers…or whatever the hell it was they called themselves. First they lay down all these tedious rules for their little experiment and then they howl when she calls them on a flagrant violation. Yes, indeed, she was going to be much happier when Tharsis Park HQ returned her to back country support. That’s where a gal belonged!

Dali Fitz said, “Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But the entire purpose of this Mars Program of yours was to copy historical artifacts from the 21st century and then use that so-called space technology to re-enact the first Mars landing. Removal of a suit helmet on the Mars of 2040 AD would have been deadly. I must log this as a protocol violation.”

Brendan was about to continue the argument when Carter stopped him. “It’s okay, Ranger,” the elderly scientist said. “No harm done. I think we’ve learned a great deal already. Thank you.”

The Ranger gave him a curious look and then smiled. As the two men rose to their feet she tapped her datalogger and then tucked it into a pocket of her parka.

Courteously, she asked, “Will you be removing any more specimens from the archeological sectors today? Some of the researchers from Barsoom University complained that the sight of you two in your mars-suits has been causing problems.”

“Really?” Carter said, his eyebrows raised. “How so?”

The Ranger sighed. “Wherever you go in those suits a flock of tourists seems to follow. Apparently the sight of you two has also been distracting Academician Kovik’s grad students. No work has been getting done.”

Carter snorted into the cold air. “No, we won’t be going back to the dig sectors. We’ve collected enough specimens to last us a while. My compliments to Academician Kovik.”

The ranger glanced toward the roiling clouds over the southern horizon. Lightning flared violet-white. She said, “Big blow in the outlands. Weather Control is keeping it over the Tharsis Reservoir. City planners in Bradbury want to erode away some of the Outer Dunes. They need a recreational harbor.”

“Why stop with a harbor?” Brendan grumbled. “Why not put in a few canals?”

The Ranger chose to ignore the comment. “If you should need anything today, gentlemen, I’ll be in the observer’s shack.”

“Thank you, Ranger,” Carter replied. “I think we’ll be wrapping things up in the next few days. We’ve gotten most of what we came for.”

The Ranger nodded curtly and walked back to the main trail. As she approached the path they heard a tourist with a real-cam complain: “I thought they weren’t supposed to take any of that gear off! What’s the matter with them? It spoiled my shot!” The Ranger said something placating and returned to the elevated observation platform.

“Martians,” grumbled Brendan. “Mustn’t upset the bloody tourists. Or those pumped up academics from Barsoom U.”

“Now, now,” Carter cautioned. “Those bloody tourists pay the taxes that keep this place open. I wish we had a few more tourists on our side. Maybe we wouldn’t have lost our funding.”

Sadness crossed Brendan’s face. “Without that funding we won’t even be able to fly Athena back home. The return flight would have proven conclusively that early 21st century explorers could safely journey to Mars and then return to Earth.”

“I know,” the senior archeologist shook his head. “I can’t believe it’ll take us a mere six hours to get home. I wonder what the first mars-walkers would have thought?”

“But, Carter, your dream…”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, lad,” Carter practically scolded. “Even without the return trip our contribution has gone far beyond anything that anyone in the field has ever attempted. There’s one hell of a design thesis in this for you. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see ourselves on the cover of Planetary Geographic.”

“But what about the Athena?” Brendan had grown to love the tough little ship, so carefully crafted, virtually hand made.

“I’m sure the park authorities will find a good home for the lander and the Athena. A historical display, perhaps? Athena is as good a reproduction of the First Expedition’s ship as is technically possible. And our journey here was epic. Heyerdahl would have approved.”

“Who?” Brendan asked.

Carter sighed. “An explorer from a chronicle I once read. The Heyerdahl Scroll actually pre-dates the Great Chronicle of the First Mars Expedition. If you believe the arguments.”

Brendan scowled. “I doubt if this Heyerdahl’s funding was ever cut. People back then, when they started something, they worked until it was done. The Mars of today would not exist if they hadn’t been so daring.”

Below the two men the morning sun glinted off scattered vehicles in the parking lot of the First Expedition Memorial Center. A road turned and twisted into a distant valley. Further away the golden spires of Bradbury City met the first rays of the new morning, defiantly shining in the face of the great storm.

“Fifteen hundred years since the First Expedition,” Brendan said. “I wonder if they knew what lay at the end of the long road.”

A thread of silver fire flashed through the dusty sky as a meteor announced its momentary passing. Below, in the ruddy light of dawn, the new world stirred itself from sleep.

“I suspect they did,” Carter whispered into the fresh Martian air.

*fin*

 

Originally published at scifidimensions webzine in December, 2000

Illustration found in National Geographic’s “Man’s Conquest of Space,” 1968, artist unknown although I believe it may have been an illustration from a NASA contracted TRW study from 1962

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore passed away today at the age of 89. Born on October 14th 1927, he was one of that generation of actors who seemed to have come to the profession from humble origins. Often, they had prior careers before going onstage. They also worked hard and took on many, many roles. Moore spent most of his working career as an actor, but also served in the Royal Army Service Corps, having been conscripted shortly after the end of World War 2. In later life he worked as a voice actor, UNICEF ambassador and an animal rights activist. Of course, like so many others, when I heard the news of his death I immediately thought of James Bond and Moore’s portrayal in many of the films.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Bond film on the big screen that didn’t feature Roger Moore. In the 1970s the Bond films did not have as much access to television as they do today. If you wanted to see one you checked the newspaper listings for show-times and went to a theater. I’m sure (as sure as I can be without data, at least) that somewhere today a Bond film is occupying a given 2 ½ hour slot on one of ten thousand cable channels. If not, then within the next 24 to 48 hours that will likely happen. I first saw the report that Sir Roger Moore passed away today on the BBC web page. I did a double-take. He was as much a touchstone of my 70s childhood as Star Trek re-runs, high polyester disco collars from Sears, and the Chevy Vega.

I enjoyed his suave portrayal of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. The movies were fun and like previous features in the series set the tone and pace for what is fairly common in cinema today. It was a controlled spectacle, of course, especially by today’s standards. Even when Moore was outrageously romancing a femme fatale or desperately fighting the baddies to save the world you might squirm but you were still safe within the darkness of the theater. And the one liners were durable yet potently silly.

Moore was the Bond of the 70s. The guy who was your Dad’s age. Somewhere beyond the safety of your home or school he was holding back the darkness. Yet there was something metacultural going on in the Moore films. It was as if Sir Roger, in his own modest and wry way, was out there helping civilization sort through the jumbled attic boxes of the late Cold War and Vietnam. The backgrounds of these movies, even places as exotic as far-off Asia, suggested a creeping globalization and trend toward universal marketing. Bond could hop a plane and effect change pretty much anywhere. The people in these far-off societies were always relatable: a mix of old friends or new rivals. Moore, with an almost trademark élan, could handle them all.

The locales were always a big draw for me. The places were new yet somehow familiar. And if Roger Moore as Bond could do it you knew that sometime in the near future you could hop that plane and go to those places as well, even if your adventure was as mundane as seeking work or merely sight-seeing. I would argue that anyone growing up in the 70s put together their “future travel list” based on his films.

The first Bond film I saw was The Man with the Golden Gun. My cousins in Boston took me and the sheer overwhelming spectacle of this over-the-top feature felt like a Paragon Park roller coaster ride. The film had everything, including a cool villain named Scaramanga. Say it again: Scaramanga. Anyone with a name like that was trouble. I knew it, and Roger Moore agreed with me. We were in this together.

During that first outing I was 12 and had not really seen spy fiction beyond television’s The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. At the time I had trouble following those plots. I had recently read a few Flandry novels, by a guy named Poul Anderson. And as dashing and brooding as Flandry was, he seemed a mere fop compared to the daring insanity that was Laumer’s Jaime Retief. Seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, I couldn’t help compare it to Laumer’s and Anderson’s novels. Indeed, sitting in the theater I became certain that Moore must have been a big fan of those writers.

I realize that the inevitable comparisons will be made to Sean Connery’s Bond. I’ve made those myself. Love Connery. Love his Bond. But I often feel that when those comparisons are made they are very unfair. They have little to do with the actors but more so to do with the times when the productions were made. We’re talking two distinct eras here. Connery’s films were made during an era of certainty. Certainty of path, certainty of role and gender, certainty, even, of moral justification in protesting those assumptions and then digging deeper to declare that it was all bad. In the Connery films this can be seen in the tone, production quality, and yes, even the certitude of Bond’s approach to the world.

Moore’s Bond is of a very different world than the Bond of Sean Connery. The 70s I grew up in seemed downright exhausted. Yet it was also a society that was choosing to honestly examine itself while trying to cling to a comforting insularity. The smoke of the 60s had become a ground fog. As it lifted the landscape was quite literally altered. It was also the time of disco, big glasses, Watergate, emerging access to the shining promise of very personal technologies, Three Mile Island, crazy hair, and silly trends like trolls and pet rocks. The economy was troubled and the world was pushing back on the West. The assumption of absolute certitude was questioned daily.

This tone surfaces amid the exotic locales and hectic pace of the Moore films. Certitude is on the decline. We see this immediately in Moore’s interactions with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. They tease one another, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the relationship is friendly yet platonic. Moneypenny is the boss’s assistant, not a plaything. Her job in the network of spies is perhaps just as important as Bond’s. Connery might have gotten a date with her, but Moore would need to find love elsewhere. Then in The Spy Who Loved Me the West needs help from the Soviets to stop a madman named Stromberg who wants to build an underwater empire. It’s a sign of the times when the emerging notion of détente enters a Bond film.

The last Bond film of the 70s is Moonraker. Hugo Drax, as if unwilling to be outdone by prior villain Stromberg, wants to create a perfect society of perfect people that he has hand-picked to live aboard a space station before re-populating the world. It will be a new world of like-minded demigods. Not the first utopian vision, surely. But there are echoes here of the baby boomers versus their parents. Indeed, the movie asks what is the formula for the perfect society? As was so often seen during the 1970s perhaps there isn’t one.

Moonraker’s final battle sequence is very similar to that in The Spy Who Loved Me and other Bond films. Yet the good-guys who assault Drax’s space station are US Marines. Enlisted men. Dogfaces. Unlike prior films these are not elite agents or ninjas. Watching it you get the impression they are a hodgepodge mix of working joes, doing a day’s job, albeit in Earth orbit. What I like about this is you get several platoons of everyday guys bringing down the perfect humans. It seems a very democratic end to the certainty of the 60’s superman.

The series features mis-steps of course. It may have been very lucky for Connery’s career that he didn’t star in Live and Let Die. That is as near to a blaxploitation film as I ever want to see. Of course, if Moore had Live and Let Die then Connery had Zardoz. Also, there’s a few occasions where the one-liners are a bit over-used and extremely groan-worthy. Yet to Moore’s credit he seems to realize this and in his later outings as Bond he went for a tone of self-parody before that was a thing. He was not the first actor to suffer through bad writing, I am sure.

And so the decade came and went and Roger Moore was very much a part of that. Sir Roger Moore’s Bond was a product of the 1970s. Moore carried the mantle of 007 through a decade that was a long and at times confusing metamorphosis.

And just like the song said, nobody did it better.

 

 

 

 

Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

New York City is history.

Not in the sense that the great metropolis is somehow over, ended, kaput. No, New York City is history. It is a family album of hope, work, dedication, good times and ambition. That album is also interleaved with mysteries, unspoken but well-known secrets, discouragement, and loss.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 captures this sense of past, present, and future. I’ve been a fan of Robinson since reading his Mars Trilogy a number of years ago. As an author, Robinson has big ideas based in hard science and he lays these out not as framed portraitures but as large tapestries. He shows this ability again in New York 2140.

The 600-page novel is set in a New York that has been inundated by a sea-level rise caused by global warming. Manhattan and environs experience a 50-foot increase in water level. New York has become a sort of super-Venice, with familiar streets serving as canals. The population goes about life and we see scenes of surprisingly familiar tasks involving work and daily living. Many of the buildings of the Manhattan we know have been saved using technologies developed as preservatives against the detrimental effects of floodwater. This includes advanced composite sky-bridges, a sort of diamond-based sealant that keeps salt water out of structures, and Syd Mead-like hydrofoils and streamlined, energy efficient watercraft. The city still hums with vibrancy, despite the wrath tossed down upon it due to worst-case climate change.

The novel features almost a dozen main characters. All have very different lives and they all interact via the central locale of the MetLife Tower near Madison Square. As New York is a character in this novel so is the MetLife Tower and it serves as a sort of anchor for characters and events. Here and there, Robinson discusses a sampling of its history, including its intersection with the lives of such New Yorkers as Melville and Teddy Roosevelt, all in the light of the goings-on within the narrative. Like the city, the building has a past that goes down to the bedrock. When we first gather at the entrance of its bacino the old structure has been preserved and reinvented to meet the needs of its residents within the 50-foot intertidal zone of the inundated city. The irony that the survivors of climate change might find a habitat within an old insurance company building is not lost upon us.

Most of the characters work best in pairs. There is the spritely Amelia Black who is a sort of internet star. Literally travelling on the four winds within a high-tech dirigible she provides a narrative for the world outside the city, giving us a big picture view of the forces that have changed the planet. Meanwhile, a more grounded character is Vlade, the superintendent of the MetLife building. Vlade is emblematic of the dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist who sees the bigger picture but is always willing to roll up his sleeves to do the dirty work. Vlade is dedicated, hard-headed, yet never unwilling to help his building or its occupants. This extends to a pair of street (canal?) urchins named Stefan and Roberto who go upriver and even under it in a manner that reminded me a bit of a futuristic Huck and Tom. The two boys are a key to the novel and represented both youth and the city’s future. They pair nicely with Mr. Hexter, an elderly denizen of a dangerously washed-out section of town who can remember the day New York was permanently flooded. Mr. Hexter is also a keeper of maps and old records and instigates a treasure hunt for a ship lost near the Bronx in the 1770s. This leads to a surprising find.

Other paired characters include finance trader Franklin whose specialty is inter-coastal property and Charlotte who is a social worker and activist. These two opposites find some mutual advantage despite their tensions. The reader comes to understand that like all government and free-market forces these polar opposites are, in a sense, symbiotic. This is a key theme in the novel.

Police officer Gen Octaviasdottir comes from a long line of NYPD cops and her personal motto, like her ancestors who kept the city running during its worst years, is Hold The Line. Gen is part of the glue that holds societies together and ultimately her partner is the City itself. And that flooded, urban landscape knows many a secret, including the whereabouts of two programmers with the handles of Mutt and Jeff, who attempted to hack the planet. They released a virus designed to interrupt computerized market trading and thereby disrupt entire economies. This didn’t work out for the pair of quants, and their disappearance is a key driver of the story.

And to me, this is where the story gets interesting. Years ago I read the works of Ayn Rand. Those novels and that philosophy have always left me very uncomfortable. I won’t go so far as to say that Rand’s novels left a stain on my soul, although I did have a friend express it this way to me once. The basic issue I have with the philosophy of the selfish ego is that unlike Rand I am the product of a democratic (little d) society, in which the common man can do great things while also recognizing that we are all in this thing together. Hence the winning of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, exploration, scientific advancement, the struggle for social progress, and the ending of slavery and the defeat of fascism in the 1940s are emblematic of what can happen when every-day people work together for a joint purpose. Hell, we even had the audacity to create rock-n-roll and build an amazing interstate highway system that is a veritable touchstone of our culture.

Since the Recession of 2008 there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not a taxpayer funded bailout of Wall Street was appropriate. I won’t go into that here, but such economic cycles, and even the ability to make a buck during a grievous disaster, are the paired blessing and curse of capitalism. These issues are confronted directly in Robinson’s novel, and his solution was something of an antidote to the things I read in those Rand novels many years ago. A bloodless coup for the common men and women over the powers of Wall Street? Maybe…this is a science fiction novel after all. But I cheered at how Robinson laid it out and I found his everybody-wins (including to a certain extent the financiers) scenario both hopeful and heartening.

Another plus to this novel was the fact that the characters offered virtually no hand-wringing and I-told-you-so’s regarding global warming. Indeed, the politicians and industries that are leading us into the world of New York 2140 are not even mentioned. The reader is left with a sense that the good people of this world are so busy surviving and getting by and at times enjoying their lives that the self-proclaimed masters of our age are not even remembered. Which, in a sense, is very fitting. The heroes of the past are engineers, doctors, police officers, scientists, construction workers, seafarers, and no few men and women of goodwill who manage to rescue both life and society.

I finished the 600 page novel with a sigh and a feeling of hope. It pleased me that Robinson opted to end his novel with several of the characters enjoying a very proverbial night on the town. Things may get bad, but we don’t have to lie down and accept dystopia.

Whatever comes, we’ll Hold The Line.

Together.

 

(New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, h/c 613 pages is available from Orbit Books)

 

 

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (my brief review)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (my brief review)

We saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last weekend at our local recliner-equipped cinema. The theater was packed and there was quite mix of movie-goers: families with little kids, middle-aged fans there for the fun, and groups of people, usually in twos or threes, that seemed taut with an intensity that might only be called fan-pensive; they came to enjoy but were ready to critique. I’m not a die-hard Star Wars fan, I enjoy most of the films for what they are: heavy space opera that offer many thrills, good laughs, and the occasional forays into pop-philosophy all set against a marvelous tapestry. Outside of two Star Wars novels I read in 1977 I know very little of the Expanded Universe, details about the Rebellion, or the inner life of one Darth Vader.

So I’m coming at this as someone who loves science fiction but has a limited depth of knowledge about the Star Wars Universe. Sure, I can name ship types and planets. I know what the Book of the Whills is and what a Khyber crystal does. But for other areas beyond the stories encapsulated in the films and those two books I read long ago I will always yield to more knowledgeable fans. So, consider this my approach to this little film review: benign reflection.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a good film. It was directed by Gareth Edwards with screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. The details and storyline were well done. The level of work involved on even the minutiae like languages or backgrounds is very impressive. I enjoyed the actors’ performances and I felt Diego Luna did a fabulous job as Cassian Andor. An opening scene set the tone for his character. He and the actor who played an informant worked the scene like the start of a Shakespeare play, with narration replacing on-stage action. It was tense, gritty, and superbly done. It also established Captain Andor as a rather tragic figure. His climb up a ladder at the scene’s end suggested a possible ascent toward redemption. Indeed, I don’t think I give too much away if I say that this was how the film eventually played out.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso had to maintain an almost frantic pace throughout the film as her character migrated from one physical or personal skirmish to the next. Like Cassian Andor, Jyn Erso is a troubled but tough character and Ms. Jones plays this exceptionally well. I liked how she established the character in her opening scenes: quite resilient if not world-weary. She had seen ample difficulties but always forged ahead, keeping up hope that she might one day find closure with the losses of her past life.

The supporting cast was quite good. Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook was my personal favorite. I liked how his character was developed through the film and I found his performance quite believable. He balanced the complexities of Bodhi as an Imperial traitor against the fact that Bodhi was, at the core, just an everyman with a conscience caught up in events that were far bigger than the worlds that served as backdrops in this movie. In addition, Alan Tudyk and Donnie Yen pretty much owned their roles. They were intriguing characters unto themselves, and not just sidekicks.

This being a Star Wars film I found the personal interplay between some of the characters a bit stiff. I found a real low point in the interactions of Jyn Erso and the unfortunately named Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker’s immense talents seemed lost in this film, either through the writing or directing or some combination of both. Although Gerrera rescued Jyn as a child and subsequently raised her, I had the impression the two had only just met. It was a road bump in the film and I was glad when the story just moved along. That being said Jimmy Smits as the senator named Bail Organa offered a line of dialogue about his adopted daughter Leia. One line, one moment, but the way it was delivered actually brought tears to my eyes.

One thing I will say about Rogue One was that it presented the Rebel Alliance in a very different light. Without offering spoilers the Rebels in this movie were in it for the win and definitely played hard ball. Over and over again, through the actions of the supporting cast, I realized that these guys were in it for keeps. To that end I felt that Rogue One added a certain vitality to the franchise and made me appreciate this complex backstory as an important part of the combined films’ overall dramatic arc. Indeed, Rogue One owes its lineage to such movies as The Guns of Navarone and Seven Samurai as much as it does to the creativity of George Lucas and the team at Lucasfilm/Disney. The plot was tense, gritty, and offered the characters no do-overs via the magical use of The Force.

The Force was definitely with the creative team and I liked how the film had a certain look that was reminiscent of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. The creators did not seem to go exclusively with green screens and CGI. Everything appeared tangible and alive. The one obvious exception was the use of CGI to animate Peter Cushing’s face over that of an actor named Guy Henry. This was exceptional and somewhat mind blowing, especially as Peter Cushing, who created the role of the despicable Grand Moff Tarkin, passed away in 1994. People who knew Cushing who have seen the film, including those who maintain his estate, were reportedly heavily involved with the development of this reanimated character. Many said it was quite “dazzling” to see Cushing back on screen.

I felt the effect was well done and Tarkin needed to appear in this story. Indeed, Tarkin’s  presence was critical to the plot. However, given what a great job Ben Mendelsohn did in creating the new character of the Imperial officer Krennic, I am left wondering why someone else couldn’t have stepped in as Tarkin. I know this is complicated, especially for “real” fans whose toes I wouldn’t step on, but after a while I did find the CGI Tarkin rather distracting. I kept thinking of his appearances in terms of levels of realism and not the performance itself.

Note that I did see this film shortly after Carrie Fisher’s recent death. So I’ll say that my next viewpoint was undoubtedly impacted by that event. That being said the arrival at the very end of the film by another famous but  CGI-rendered character was jarring. I really think it would have been best to take a different tack cinematically, especially with such an important character as Princess Leia. I can recognize a costume, voice, and persona without seeing a face. For me, this addition did not allow the film to end on a good note and actually stole something from the last scene with Luna and Jones.

So, overall, I found this film fun with some excellent moments, but it fell down in places so I would give it 4/5 stars.

Memories of Vanished Stars…

Memories of Vanished Stars…

 

As this is a SF/F blog (mostly) I would be remiss if I did not write something about the passing of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds.

I’m old enough…but not so old…that both actresses are actually a part of that firmament of childhood memories that arches above me and so many of my friends. When I was a kid in the early 70s Ms. Reynolds danced and sang her way into our living room in TV network specials. Somehow CBS or NBC managed to edit and run pseudo-full-length versions of Singin’ In The Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. These broadcasts always seemed to coincide with some major holiday. School was out and we were allowed to stay up late to see these now-legendary productions in their entirety. My mother was a big fan of Debbie Reynolds and, through some form of symbiotic convection, so was I and the rest of our family.

Watching these films now I never appreciated how young Ms. Reynolds was when she appeared in those movies. Dancing with the likes of Gene Kelly when she was 19 years old now seems to me like nothing less than some explosive phenomenon of nature. If you had some sort of instrument that could measure her special combination of talent-charm-chutzpah surely the meter would peg and her ability would register off the charts. We had the vinyl LP soundtrack for Unsinkable and my Mom would play it when cleaning house. I can still hear the ebullient Debbie Reynolds belting out “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” while furniture was polished and rugs were vacuumed. And I still smile at this song and the sheer youthfulness embodied in that voice.

I first saw Star Wars in May of 1977 when I was 14 years old. Up on the big screen that little blockade runner slides past our view just after the now-famous opening title scroll. Somewhere aboard that troubled ship are Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and two very worried robots. She appears briefly and is very enigmatic in those opening scenes. Yet Ms. Fisher establishes the character’s very determined persona and overall verve by defying the first deadly storm-troopers that she encounters. We are hooked not so much by the dazzling special effects and first shoot-em-up sequences but by a need to know exactly what will happen next to this young woman.

Yet despite being enthralled, like so many others, by Star Wars I would say that my favorite Carrie Fisher role was as the Mystery Woman in The Blues Brothers. Sure, the need to get the band back together to hold a concert that will save the orphanage is the story’s great MacGuffin. But the Mystery Woman very much propels Jake and Elwood along, reminding them that life and fate and the Mission they are on are very tenuous things indeed. The movie’s director timed her appearances perfectly. Like Jake, you almost forget about her until things get slow and she suddenly shows up at the door.

Ms. Fisher had her difficulties. But a gift for communicating through her books and appearances helped many, many people. She changed the map for the better in terms of how society should view people who have mental health disorders. She was also a strong female role model and someone I don’t mind my own daughter looking up to.

I think my favorite memory of Ms. Fisher will be a recent one. She appeared early this month on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She brought along her dog Gary. The diminutive and one-of-a-kind Gary sat next to her while Colbert conducted the interview. Carrie Fisher was equal parts adorable, mischievous, wise, and over-the-top funny. She gave me the first real and true laugh I had had in some time. The audience seemed to agree and was laughing as hard as I was at home. It takes real talent to lift the spirits of complete strangers who may be far or near.

And that is not a bad way to exit or be remembered.

 

(Note: The photo above was taken in 1963 by Lawrence Schiller. A story about this photo and Mr. Schiller is at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/movies/debbie-reynolds-carrie-fisher-photo.html)

 

“Arrival” (my very brief review)

“Arrival” (my very brief review)

We went to the 10:40PM showing of “Arrival” tonight. I’ve been wanting to see this film and this showing was literally the last one in our area. If I hadn’t waited I probably would have seen this film 2 or 3 times. It was amazing! A hard science fiction film for grown-ups. The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve based on a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. It had a moody, thoughtful, and intelligent plot.

I went with my  daughter the budding linguist and she was excited by what a wonderful job Amy Adams did as the protagonist. It was impressive to watch as pieces of the alien language were put together. The performances were very good and the subtleties and nuances of discovery were quite well-directed.

This film really went against the grain in terms of current shoot-em-up SF/F films. It was very well thought out and optimistic. The puzzle of the alien language kept it interesting. There was a brief homage to another of my favorite films, “2001,” when Jeremy Renner’s character reached out to touch the mysterious ship’s hull. I had been told this movie was good but it was really in a category by itself. I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll just put it down as 5+ stars.

Binti: A new read with an old sense of wonder

Binti: A new read with an old sense of wonder

I read a great deal of SF/F (surprise) and just finished a novella called “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor. The book was a Christmas gift from a friend. It was quite good with a very different protagonist from Namibia. This little story had a sense of wonder that was very reminiscent of older works in the genre. I liked the organic tech and the use of mathematics. Also, the alien Meduse were well thought through. If you like SF this would be something I’d recommend. A nice, uplifting story, with a few scares but a really interesting ending.

I note that Tor is publishing a new novella imprint (new to me anyway). I may look into more of these. Also, I’m told by a friend that Okorafor has a sequel to this story coming out soon. I will pick it up!