The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

Ken Liu is one of the major names in modern short science fiction, and I’m a big fan. When I heard he had a novel out I jumped at the chance to buy it–only to be disappointed when I found out it was a fantasy novel instead of sci fi. But I got it anyway, and I’m glad I did.

The Grace of Kings is not your average fantasy novel. It feels almost like an alternate history novel, a realistic alternate world, with very few unexplainable happenings. That a pantheon of different gods and goddesses take part in the story does very little to detract from the realistic feel of it, and adds a lot to the charm and culture of the world Liu has created.

This is a large scale story that takes place over many years, with many characters and many places. Yet all of the characters and places, despite their number, manage to remain vivid and full and memorable.

One thing I really enjoyed, and what sort of seemed to be a theme in the novel, is the misinterpretation of intentions, and the importance of perceptions throughout the story. We get to see two opposing characters, both wanting to work together, but both misinterpreting the other so often that it becomes impossible.

The number of different opinions and ways of doing things between the characters in this novel makes the world feel real, even despite the mythical way the story is told.

If you are a fan of intrigue and politics and characters in stories like the Song of Fire and Ice series, but not so much a fan of the brutality of it, then you might enjoy this novel. If you enjoy stories with a historical feel to them–the stuff of legends, then you might enjoy this as well. If you just like plain good storytelling, you’ll like it to.

I’m a fan and hope to see more in the series soon–but Mr. Liu, please write a sci fi novel next!

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

I’m not sure why I read this. The only other thing I’d read of McCarthy’s was The Road, which I read back when I thought I wanted to write a post apocalyptic novel (barf). For some reason I pulled this one off the shelf at half priced books and read a couple pages, then decided I had to buy it.

McCarthy has a strange writing style. He doesn’t use quotation marks. He often doesn’t use apostrophes for contractions. He often writes long sentences filled with many ‘and’s and no commas.

But the story was engaging, and the characters were real. The themes of growing old and the inevitability of death and the recklessness of youth were poignant and dark.

I’m sure most people have seen the film, I have.  But I felt the book really drew out a deeper feeling. It felt more visceral and real. The action was messy and consequential and the characters changed in reaction to it.

The story is simple. A man stumbles across the aftermath of a shootout, and finds a bag full of money. He takes it, and chaos begins as everyone involved tries to recover the cash.

But from a simple story, McCarthy is able to draw out powerful themes and create interesting, memorable characters, once again proving that you don’t need a crazy twist or surprise betrayal to have a good story. You just need well crafted characters who do things that make sense for reasons the reader can understand.  It’s amazing how far that will go.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t think it’s for everyone. You’ll need to be accepting of an unconventional writing style, but if you can accept that, it’s definitely an enjoyable story. Recommended for crime, western, and action fans.

Advantageous

It’s not often you get to see a sci fi movie like this one. It’s really more of a drama within the setting of a future world and a new, world-changing technology. The sci fi elements are there, for sure, but the focus is more on the characters. And that’s something that it seems sci fi hardly ever does anymore.

Jacqueline Kim plays a single mother trying to take care of her daughter, while being pushed out of her job due to her aging looks. It’s about the extreme measures a parent will go to for their child, even if the child never knows it. It manages to be heartfelt, dramatic, interesting, and somewhat disturbing all at once.

Kim is really great in this movie, and though I’ve never seen her in anything else, I’m interested to see more of her. Her portrayal of Gwen’s desperation is powerful, and made me feel for her. That sense of helplessness when she’s cut from her job for a younger person to be the face of a company that markets youth–it’s something that can’t be argued, or fought against. Knowing that her skills don’t matter, just her looks, is frustrating and she shows it well.

The sci fi aspects of this movie, like I said, are not the focus. And you don’t specifically learn what her company does (though you can probably guess) until much into the story. This movie does it right with the buildup, the dramatic tension, the emotions.

And the end is not an explosion, in fact there is not one act of violence in this entire movie. There is no twist, there is no badguy to catch, there is no mystery to solve. And I found it very enjoyable to, for once, have a sci fi movie completely about the story and the characters, with nothing else to distract you from them.

Though, I will admit it was slightly jarring seeing Ken Jeong in a serious role, but he did well, and the mental interruption only lasted a minute.

If you want a thoughtful, feeling, interesting movie about people, instead of about guns and aliens and superpowers, then check this one out.

Looper

This is another sci fi action movie that I never got around to watching because I figured I already knew the story.

You can get a pretty clear idea of it from the trailer. A hit man who kills future people sent back in time from the mob. Then one day he has to kill himself. Action happens.

What I didn’t expect is how fun and tense it would be, and how… unexpected certain parts of it were, some of it quite disturbing, even.

But there were major things that  made no sense to me–time travel nonsense aside.

The big one being… why do they need to send the victims back in time alive? If the point is disposal of the bodies, then just send back a corpse and your problem is solved. You wouldn’t even have to hire anyone to burn or bury them, just have them sent back to the bottom of the ocean or something.

But, I’m not too worried about that because it makes for an interesting story about having to kill your future self. If we worry too much about uses for time machines, we’ll start wondering why any group who had one would bother being a criminal organization at all and wouldn’t just send a volunteer back in time to make billions in the stock market or gambling and put it in a bank account for the group to access in the future– but we could do this all day. It doesn’t matter.

Mostly the movie held together and was really fun and exciting, and had an interesting plot and characters, who for the most part had clear motivations.

The other things that didn’t make sense are Major Spoilers, so skip ahead if you haven’t seen it.

SPOILERS!!>>>>>

So, one thing introduced early on in the movie is the fact that some people in this future world have a mutation that allows them to control some small objects with their minds, like float a quarter over their palm, or move a lighter around. They are called ‘TK’s’, which I assume is short for telekinetics. This has nothing to do with anything happening in the story, and no character ever uses any TK skills to do anything of consequence.

Until… the very end, when suddenly we are shocked to learn that the future killer man who is currently a little kid has super powers that let him explode people with his mind.

I can’t understand why this is in the movie. When we’re learning about the ‘rain man’ who is closing all the loops by killing the loopers, we never hear about him doing any unexplained things. There is never any suggestion of him being anything more than human, or doing any impossible acts. The only thing we hear from future Joe is that ‘he saw his mom killed and has a prosthetic jaw’ which nicely foreshadows the events of the climax. But this telekinetic stuff? The only hint we have of that is the quick mention of it at the start of the movie that relates to nothing.

It’s my opinion that in the original script–and maybe even an early version of the movie–the ‘rain man’ was just a normal guy, maybe still a super genius like the kid was, but not superhuman. Then some producer said ‘hmm, are people going to understand why this person is dangerous? Give him super powers or something!” So they had to shoehorn in this TK nonsense.

If they really wanted to include it in the movie wholeheartedly, then Joe should have been a TK. Then he could have used his powers to help him kill people, which would have lent a bit of believability to the ending action sequence where he KILLS EVERYONE somehow. As it is, he’s a retired ex-drug addict who’s been out of the killing business for at least a decade, judging by the timeline, yet somehow he’s a super powered terminator machine.

But it’s a fun action movie, so whatever.

And finally, the other major thing that makes no sense is him killing himself in the end because he wants to… what? Protect a future that he doesn’t care about? He was perfectly willing to kill his older self and spend the rest of his days living in the now. Old Joe is the one who cared about the future, cared about what had happened to his wife and wanted to change things. Young Joe wanted everything to go back to normal. Up until the very end his motivation is to kill Old Joe so he can get his life back. It never, that I can tell, becomes a want to protect the kid or some wish to make the world a better place. That kind of idealism is never shown as being a part of the character. And even if he WAS interested in saving the future, what a crazy amount of trust must he have in a woman he just met, to think that the sole act of preventing her death would magically fix everything.

But I guess it was a neat way for the movie to tie things up without having to kill a child.

END SPOILERS>>>

Despite some head shaking and wol’ing (saying What?? out loud) this movie was really rather enjoyable, and kept my attention the whole time. I thought the acting was very good–Willis and Gordon-Levitt did a great job of matching each other’s mannerisms, and were a believable pair. Emily Blunt was also really great, as well as all the bit players.

Over all this was a really entertaining movie, and I’d recommend it to any sci fi fans, or anyone who just wants a fast paced action movie.

Elysium

When I first saw the trailer for this Sci Fi action movie, I found myself rolling my eyes a bit. The theme is a bit played out: rich versus poor, social commentary, etc. You kind of know what to expect. So I didn’t watch it for a while.

After watching it, it sort of was what I expected, but was more entertaining than I thought it would be.

The message is clear, of course. The average working person is screwed by the rich elite who actively avoid providing healthcare and would rather just let people die than suffer the inconvenience of being around poors.

The idea that the rich up in space have these magic machines that will cure all illness with the press of a button, but they won’t send any down to earth because…? Isn’t really that hard to believe because people are shit in real life too. And companies will gladly deny  healthcare and let people die if it saves them a few dollars. So I didn’t find that hard to believe at all. They didn’t even need to try to explain it.

The action was fun and exciting, some of the dialogue was a bit ham handed, Only one scene really irritated me and that was when after someone had their face …damaged, lets say, he is put in one of the healing machines and it regenerates his face back together. The annoying thing is that the guy had a beard, and after the regeneration his beard is all back to normal too. How is this machine gunna know how long his chin hair was? It would have been a lot cooler if part of his beard was missing after his face grew back, and would have made the technology seem a lot more real instead of just a magic fixit button.

Overall I liked the movie and would recommend it to Sci Fi and action movie fans alike. Even though the theme might be a bit overdone, it’s one I think most people can identify with.

A flash of light

I recently watched this video on YouTube, which is a brief (ten minute) history of the universe, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is an interesting video, and Dr. Tyson is always nice to listen to, but one part stood out to me and got me thinking.

I’d heard it said several times before, that in the early universe everything was made of matter and anti-matter pairs that annihilated each other, giving off heat and light. And the only reason that there is any matter at all is because of an imbalance–that there was slightly more ‘normal’ matter, the kind we are familiar with–than there was anti-matter. But I never realized how small that difference was.

One extra particle of normal matter per billion, gives us our entire universe. This is such a slight difference, the tiniest imbalance, without which our entire universe would contain nothing but light. It got me thinking… what if this imbalance was a mistake?

Perhaps our universe was meant to be nothing but photons, a burst of energy to provide some incomprehensible being a flash of light as they flip a switch. Perhaps that one part per billion imbalance is a fault in the design, and all the galaxies and black holes and nebulae we know are byproducts of that inefficiency. Maybe the universe was meant to be an expanding, bursting, ball of light, and now it’s got all this extra …stuff floating around in it.

The universe makes a certain kind of sense intended as a clean, efficient flash of light. If we look at matter as an error in calculation, a grinding of gears, a malfunction– then all the chaos and confusion we observe seems natural.

If only we could observe the beginnings of other universes for comparison… maybe some day!

Pluto!

It’s been all over the news and social media for the past few days, but in case you haven’t heard somehow, the New Horizons probe has taken some amazing pictures of Pluto, after nearly a decade of travel and three billion miles.

Distances like this are so hard to grasp, the numbers are just so huge that they don’t really make sense to our human minds. Trying to think about it really makes me feel a lot of respect for the people that engineered and planned this. It’s so easy to take things like this for granted. “Oh, cool we got pictures of another planet, great.” you might say.

This planet is three BILLION miles away, and we were able to fire this tiny probe at it with such accuracy that it flew by within 8000 miles. That’s like trying to hit a target an inch across from nearly six miles away, if I did my math right. And not just hit the target, take pictures of it then turn around and broadcast them back to Earth.

So I’m feeling pretty impressed, and proud of humanity for doing something so awesome. And I’m enjoying having all these pictures we’ve been getting. And there is even more to come as the probe continues to send the images back.

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Maybe one day we’ll be sending a robot to land there… or even people?