Currently viewing the tag: "sci-fi"

A libertarian podcast where ranting is optional, and talking about aliens is mandatory for this one episode.

Our fearless panel of libertarians looked into their hearts and at the skies and asked, what if we’re not alone in the universe? And what are the most awesome movies about space aliens? And — Mr. Skeptical Libertarian — does believing in aliens do any damage, like disbelieving in vaccines does? Or is it harmless — albeit spine-tingling — fun? And is Bier’s credibility dashed because he was scared after watching “Signs” as a child? (No.) We asked Seavey about his readings lately in the subject of “most credible and mysterious sightings of UFOs” and we believed him extra hard, because he’s usually a skeptic. We also enjoyed his story about Kevin McCarthy, or at least Steigerwald did. We dabbled a little bit in the mothman, Big Foot, and ghosts of all sorts. We came to very few conclusions, except that we should all go to Mothman Fest and Roswell at the next available opportunity. We forgot to even mention important concepts like the Great Filter and the Fermi Paradox, which would have given us a lot more cred. Maybe next time.

Host: Lucy Steigerwald: writer for Antiwar, VICE, Rare, and The Stag Blog; wry human of Bourbon and Bitches@LucyStag
Meg Gilliland: Social Media director Voice and Exit, cofounder Creative Destructors deadpan sass goddess of Bourbon and Bitches; @MegGilliland
Dan Bier: Skeptical Libertarian, official killjoy; @SkepticalDan
Todd Seavey: ghostwriter, excellent and tragically infrequent blogger, sometimes podcaster, former cable news producer;@toddseavey
Seth Wilson: Writer of things; cultwestern.com; @TheJackaLopeTX
Zach Fountain: Writer and musician; rushmorebeekeepers.com; @rbeekeepers
Resources:
Fortean Times magazine

endisnighThe End is Nigh, edited by John Joseph Adams, Broad Breach Publishing, 350 pages

Poor short stories. That near-dead art form which is represented at its very worst in The New Yorker, yet is a factory-regular writer like Stephen King’s best, most literary work should get more love. It doesn’t, no matter how much people who bemoan this keep right on bemoaning it.

As previously noted on Tuesday Apocalypse, while reviewing a piece by io9’s Charlie Jane Anders, the apocalypse goes rather well in a short format. I haven’t read enough sci-fi in my life, partially because of the genre propensity to give us novels 600 or 800 pages long. (I keep looking at Lucifer’s Hammer on Amazon, then thinking, “but it’s just so long.”) Not to mention, my lack of patience for sci-fi voice, which is all I can think of when I try to read David Brin.

Here, the vaguely artful, plotless quality of New Yorker short fiction (they’re all poor man’s Raymond Carver, except Carver had things happen, I swear) is replaced by ruminations on humanity, and the end; all that good, forever praying-it’s-not-topical stuff. And sci-fi voice appears in this June, 2014 compilation, but it does not take over.

This is only round one in the so-called Apocalypse Triptych, and it it deals with the cusp of things. It’s, as Adams writes in the introduction, the grizzled prophet with the familiar sign. Several authors’ stories apparently tie together across the trio, making me immediately prepared to fork over another $4.99 after digging the first story, and then wishing it were longer.

Like any good novel with different point of view characters, or even nonfiction that switches locale, a short story collection is always about wanting more. You resent each switch to each new place, person, and thing, and then you resent the fact when that in turn ends. Nearly every story in the collection provokes this reaction, to greater and lesser degrees. The only one that truly didn’t is the penultimate story, which brought only nausea. Each story is big, but small, and sympathetic, even in the face of everything coming down upon our point of view character’s ears. Here they are, in order:

“The Balm and the Wound” by Robin Wasserman: Charlatan gets his. A sympathetic enough portrait of a cult leader who pretends to be able to predict the end of the world, and what happens when he is left with a long-lost son who becomes all too true a believer.

“Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Deserina Boskovich: Fun combination of alien invasion, oppressive government, and potential for it’s all a fraud anyway. (Because, oh God, the things our characters do, when they are told to. Terrible things.)

“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders: As much as I dig Anders, I was vaguely disappointed at the ratio of unknown to known about the end here. On the other hand, she may have actually followed the guidelines most of all. “The match” that lights the end only happens after a character-heavy story of a boy obsessed with being a stuntman, and it’s in a great big mob that is about to turn into a massacre. The political situation, and the cult or militia that seems to be spreading is intriguing, but it is not enough.

The Gods Will Not be Chained” by Ken Liu: Girl loses dad, dad is turned into emoji-using AI, who still loves her, but often chats with other conscious computers who are losing patience with humanity. Good, touching look at death and losing someone, with a satisfactory level of open-ended “uh oh” at the end.

Wedding Day” by Jake Kerr: A sweet, sentimental, but still stomach-clenchingly anxious look at a lesbian couple trying to save themselves in the face of an asteroid headed squarely for the United States. (Gay marriage, y’all. In case of just such an event.)

“Removal Order” by Tananarive Rue: I always say I get bored by mechanism of survival stories, unless they’re survival in the wilderness stories, and I am nine (or they are true). Apocalypse-wise, I want my money shot of misery and dread when It hits. I want my waiting for the end and the incomprehensible horror that brings (Lovecraft ain’t got nothing…). And yet, this story of a girl staying in her ruined neighborhood her with cancer-ridden grandma as a plague draws ever closer, and fires burn, worked. Some people would read it and assume Nayima should have left her dying grandma ages before, and some won’t. And neither of them is wrong. I also like the cop character, who is both a human being, and believably menacing.

“System Reset” by Tobias S. Bucknell: Future hunters go after a cyber-libertarian-terrorist, who once tried to hack a senator’s car into crashing. But turns out he’s worse than that, and has a plan to set off nukes and EMP the whole damn world. His villain’s explanation is that governments leech off of the tech know-how of those who know, while trying to control them and their skills. Solution? Send the world back into the stone age, then flee to Nerd’s Gulch. Our hero’s partner scorns this Randian vision, noting that trade and exchange makes things possible, not hunkering down and hugging your server tight, while feeing superior. Villain sets off the nukes anyway, but hero’s partner manages to magically have the previously-hidden skills to hastily change the ICMBs to not spare Nerd’s Gulch. Misery must be equal. This bothered me, because dammit, even if it’s unfair and the creeps broke the world, you might want there to be working tech in the world somewhere. The entire story seemed to shift between condemning and then endorsing cyber-libertarianism multiple times. For a second, I really thought it was a libertarian response to Objectivism. Probably not. But the shift mostly works, and does the detective vibe, and the ending which really is properly “nigh.”

“This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces” by Jamie Ford: Half-Chinese Hotel worker in San Francisco waits for Hale-Bop to kill everyone, or not, and pines for hotel maid. Nice mostly-historical setting, nice picture of idle/in denial rich waiting for the comet.

“BRING HER TO ME” by Jamie Winters: Oh man, this one is great, and this one KILLED ME with its ending. How dare it end there, and bless it for ending there, and all the other emotions one feels when something ends there. A collapsing cult city (the lack of clarity about the size of the outside world, or whether it is there at all is frustrating and intriguing) has almost reached the day it has been waiting for. A woman goes door to door to remind people. A mother is terrified that a secret about her daughter will be revealed, and she argues about it with her husband. The daughter can’t come on the journey that has something alarming to do with the careful preparation of poisoned meat. Is the daughter deaf, as seems to be suggested? No, she’s just deaf to the voice of God that has been booming in every single other person’s head for the past 30 years. The parents are hearing “BRING HER TO ME” but does that mean the daughter can complete the act, or that God has (somehow) even worse plans for her? She can’t hear, so she can’t believe. The night before the God-commanded ritual suicide that will help them all cross over, the deaf girl meets a boy who has a crush on her, who has his own unshareable secret. It’s human, and hopeful, and alarming, and sweet, and I punched the couch several times while reading. I love the lack of obfuscation: that yep, it’s just God in everyone’s heads. It just is. But run anyway.

“In the Air” by Hugh Howey: Michael Crichton-y, and not in a bad way, and not just because it’s a terrifying countdown to nanobot-induced armageddon. A stressful portrait of a dad trying to hide the truth from his family while saving them, and of a quiet war fought with nanobots, that feels more tangible than all that gray goo talk.

“Goodnight Moon” by Annie Bellet: A sad, carefully-paced story of residents of a moon base. This is the only story that ends not on earth (though earth is about to have a rough, albeit not-apocalyptic time). It has the boldness to involve heroic self-sacrifice for the sake of a pregnant woman, a drunk Russian, and colleagues facing death holding hands, without apologizing for how badly done that could have been. It therefore isn’t.

“Dancing With Death in the Land of Nod” by Will McIntosh: A loser with an Alzheimer’s-ridden dad who bought a drive-in on a whim faces what is basically a plague of advanced Parkinsonian paralysis. A neighbor girl helps him realize that helping people who are probably dead anyway is better than falling apart. Nice story; kind of “Testament”-like in its doomed optimism.

“Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg: Finally, a real disappointment, though one with promising elements. As the earth dies of slow asphyxiation, thanks in part to the Yellowstone Caldera, a scientist working on perfect virtual reality and a woman whose job it is to build memorials for tragedies room together in DC, and try to pay tribute to the earth. There’s something trying to come out here with the woman’s polar opposite jobs, and the emptiness of the virtual reality that was supposed to include the five senses, but has no other people in it. It’s not there, though. The whole thing is ephemeral. I’d be pleasantly satisfied by this story in The New Yorker, but not in a collection this strong.

“The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” by Scott Sigler: Old Michigan men! Snow! Aliens! A stalwart older man who won’t let them panic, and then it ends! There had better be more in the next volume.

“Enjoy the Moment” by Jack Sigler: A well-crafted story of an astrophysicist trying to find a legacy, and who unfortunately discovers the rogue star that is going to smush us all out — albeit, in 20 years. The tone, and the weight of the characters, and the events feel like a novel, without feeling like you’ve missed the rest of the book. There’s a bit of the small things in life hope, hence the title. The only wrong note is the last paragraph, which is too much of a punchline.

“Pretty Soon the Four Horseman Are Going to Come Through” by Nancy Kress: A poor trash kind of mother wonders why one of her daughters is so passive, and why some of her schoolmates are the same. It has something to do with a volcano. And maybe aliens. Not a bad story, it just doesn’t quite work as credible.

Spores” by Seanan McGuire: An OCD-ridden lab tech and her wife and daughter, plus some deadly mold that resulted from the lab tech’s colleagues playing God, all for a crisper apple and more succulent peach. The love and the snotty teen daughter the couple shares, and the horror of the mold are all equally well-described.

“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” by Jonathan Macberry: Hard-boiled snatcher of youths who end up in drug houses or cults has to go after a serene 19-year-old who is right about the end of the world after all.

“Agent Unknown” by Dave Wellington: Is it zombies? Plague? No, just virulent prions. And the only way to potentially save humanity is such a horrifying bummer — especially to a libertarian — that it’s harder to leave the story than some. It also opens the possibility of a novel-length story about what happens after. Even if it’s not feasible. Decent story, with only so-so, thriller-type writing.

“Enlightenment” by Matthew Mather: Fuck you, Matthew Mather. Is this story about eating disorders, sustainability, collapse of society? Is it an indictment of sacrificial religions, self-harm, or meat-eating? I don’t know, but fuck you, the only thing I have had close to meat since reading it is tuna salad. Autocannibalism cults: officially the worst way for us all to go out. The writing is okay, then excessive. Because come on. Come on, dude.

Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi: Decent story of a photojournalist roaming the Southwest, in a world where all of dehydrating Texas is desperate to cross the border back into the United States. Journalists in the bad future thing could be fun, but this feels like a chunk of a novel in the more unfinished way. I wouldn’t mind more of it, though.

“Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan: An asteroid is coming to hit earth, and a very messed up teen is trying to save himself and his equally messed up friend — or, more to the point, save his baby sister from his creep, abandoning parents who have left their blue collar horror town with her in tow. Ugly, but well-written, it might be my post-“Enlightenment” uneasiness that made me not appreciate the story as much. The final lines are fitting to end the compilation, but I almost wish it had ended on “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride.”

Conclusion: Not enough aliens, but more than worth the $4.99 I paid. No story was a complete waste of time (just dinner), and each had impressive world-building, and a palpable, lingering feeling of the decay, exhaustion, and ruin of those worlds.

serenityOriginally rambled out over at Liberty.me. Spoilers for the 2005 film Serenity, proceed with caution

Joss Whedon’s painfully-beloved, endlessly-missed, didn’t-even-get-a-God-damn-full-season sci-fi Western Firefly had its libertarian moments. Hell, the pilot has the main character, the funny, but wounded Captain Malcolm Reynolds, say the following piece of dialogue: “That’s what government’s for — get in a man’s way.”

Mal has a reason to feel this way. He’s the the survivor of a losing war with the government known as the Alliance, whose noose around the rest of the universe grows tighter and tighter all the time. Mal simply wants to be left alone, with his eight other crewmates, and his beloved spaceship Serenity. Included in his crew are Simon Tam, who watches over his sister River, a damaged, psychic genius who has been experimented on and is on the run from government agents; as well as Inara, who is basically a registered courtesan (sexual freedom! Kind of!). The rest of the crew is a well-rounded, albeit Joss Whedon-archetypal group of men and ladies. We’ve got goofy guy, the badass warrior, the adorable chipper girl, but well, it’s better than all that, and if you don’t love it, well, I don’t know what to tell you.

Alright, so, Captain Mal is not a libertarian saint. The crew of the Serenity does some good, old-fashioned smuggling to keep going.  They also commit some theft. Even with some attempted justification for this by virtue of their residing in a crony capitalistic government, it doesn’t quite work. They’re not perfect.

Still, the libertarianism is not incidental. Whedon is definitely a liberal, but he has described Mal as “if not a Republican, certainly a libertarian.” Whedon built the show out of his own beloved and quippy character types, out of Western tropes, anime like the similar motley crew in space-themed Anime Cowboy Bebop, and the Civil War novel The Killer Angels. The rough and tumble group surviving after a lost war for independence is deliberately intended to invoke Confederates after the Civil War.

This is maybe why Whedon has previously mentioned that he isn’t necessarily on Mal’s side in all things. Perhaps the Alliance is not objectively the big villain that an individualist like the Captain believes it to be. But then, it doesn’t matter. The show endorses, if nothing else, Mal’s desire to live his own life. Whedon’s occasional attempts at neo-historical distance don’t really hold up against this basic need of Mal’s to be on his own, and out from under the thumb of the government.

(The self-described “more of a libertarian” producer and writer Tim Minear, who penned my favorite episode “Out of Gas also helps enhance that feeling of righteous leave me alone-dom.)

In 2005, fans got the movie Serenity, which more or less wrapped up the story of the crew (a few mysteries were left to successive comic books).

The struggles of River, who has been mentally unstable since the Alliance messed with her brain, are the highlight. She is being followed by a deliciously nuanced and unnerving villain known only as The Operative. He pursues her not just because, as in the series, River fled from the Academy that messed with her mind. Turns out River also knows a horrible secret about something the Alliance has done (maybe don’t bring a psychic into a room full of government men with secrets). In one of her moments of bewilderment she tries to tell her brother what she sees in her head: “old men covered in blood — never touched them, but they’re drowning in it.” (It may be a crazy girl’s confused cries, but that sure sounds like the state.)

The movie actually begins with one of River’s mixtures of a childhood memory, a nightmare, and a psychic vision. In that scene, young River tells her school teacher, “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome. ”

As perfectly, toe-curlingly libertarian as that is to see, especially on the big screen, it gets better.

Our plot culminates with the crew of Serenity discovering what River knew — the horrors the Alliance unleashed upon an entire planet called Miranda.  There is a convenient piece of future-video evidence where a woman involved explains that they “meant it for the best.” It being the use of a new type of drug intended to make the population of 30 million become calm, complacent, and nonviolent. It worked so well it killed most of the people of Miranda. A minority of them became the terrifying, cannibalistic killers known as Reavers.

Our (big damn) heroes are horrified, but the question now is what to do with the information. With the Operative following close behind, they decide to visit their friend Mr. Universe, a kind of unpleasant, but useful character who hacks and broadcasts pirate communications.

But before they make that decision, Captain Mal has to give the speech — he has to convince his crew to follow him, to risk their lives to reveal this information. They can’t let this crime be covered up anymore. They have to “speak for these people.” Says Mal:

 Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.

These words may have been penned by a softy liberal like Joss Whedon, but do we libertarians need fiction better that that? It’s perfect. The movie could end right there, and it would still be satisfying.

The final scenes involve a last ditch fight between the Reavers and the crew, while Captain Mal fights the Operative in order to access the equipment that will broadcast the proof of the Alliance crimes. Mysteriously, it took me half a dozen watches, and a post-Edward Snowden world before I realized — they’re whistleblowers. The entire premise of the climax is that simply leaking information is work risking the lives of Mal and his crew. Indeed, the unstated assumption is also that by showing the universe what happened to the people of Miranda, thanks to the Alliance’s terrifying experiment, they will weaken that government.

It is an optimistic idea. The Alliance probably has more than one small group of evil-doers. Like the National Security Agency, or the Pentagon, or God knows who else, their presumption is mighty. Here in our world, we have seen attempts to reign in the NSA, but we haven’t seen them get anywhere yet. The most jaded say, yeah, we already knew what Snowden gave up his home to tell us about. We knew in 2005, and probably before, and nobody gave much of a shit. We also know that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are out of control. Hell, they are part of the same mechanism. Showing that the NSA spies on innocent people isn’t guaranteed to shut it down any more than knowledge of the DEA’s immoral purpose has stopped it from becoming a spy agency in its own right.

Last year, as the skinny, soft-spoken, earnest Snowden first revealed himself, and explained why he had leaked the NSA documents, I was giddy with admiration. He left a comfy life, and all his loved ones behind in order to tell a truth he thought we needed to know. Snowden was, indeed, a big damn hero. 

But so what? Chelsea Manning is one, too. And she has 30 more years to linger in prison because she wanted to show people what war really looked like. Not enough people cared about “collateral murder”or the Iraq war logs. They didn’t want to know. She was just as well-spoken, just as certain that the government has far too many secrets about far too many important issues than Snowden. But nobody wanted to see it, or go head to head with the cult of the military. The NSA is a much easier target, and we still haven’t come close to beating it. Today The Intercept revealed that No Such Agency built its own Google-like search engine in order to share 850 billion documents with the FBI, CIA, DEA, and others.

As much as I adore Serenity, I have to wonder whether Mal and his crew’s effort to show the ‘verse the horrible crime of their government mattered much in the end.  And maybe that’s the point. The movie doesn’t prove that they changed the nature of the government by revealing its evil acts. They certainly didn’t destroy it. The movie simply gives us nine brave characters who want to live their own lives, and one villain who thinks that doing wrong is alright as long as you keep your far-off noble end result in mind. Serenity isn’t about overthrowing the big, bad authorities, it’s about folks who subscribe to the notion that “if you can’t do something smart, do something right.” This is something Manning and Snowden understand all too well.

165341)  Cigarette Smoking Man (The X-Files)

Strangely calm — maybe it was the Canadian accent — and occasionally vulnerable (seemingly) in later seasons, there was something compelling about this guy. We seem him as the top villain for Mulder, but then we see that he is just a part of the much bigger conspiracy. He’s the guy they go to for clean-up and it has cost him a normal human existence. His centric episodes are never dull. (Always wondered why he didn’t just take out Mulder, though.) He smokes not like a villain trying to intimidate someone, but like a man with all the time in the world, who isn’t even thinking about any of it.

2) Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Iconic, duh. Think of him in the first movie when he’s the terrifying cyborg, but is beneath Grand Moff Tarkin. And he has that strange commitment to this mysterious religion. We learn more about him. He blows up a whole planet. He can choke people with his hand. He is willing to get into a TIE Fighter and fight — albeit, not very well. And though people usually mock Mark Hamill’s acting when he discovers the terrifying truth about his parentage, well, think how you would feel. Look at Luke Skywalker’s reaction and realize, it’s serious, horrifying stuff to be the son of this man.

3) The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The late Heath Ledger really did deserve those accolades, regardless of their inevitability after his tragic death. Ledger plays the Joker in a transformative, uncomfortable, annoying (those fucking sounds he makes, aaaugh!) disturbing way. It’s such good acting that it’s fun to watch. He’s the best part of the movie, and is on my short list of highly praised things that are not remotely overrated. The greater meaning of the anarchic character isn’t important. Just fucking watch him act.

4) Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones TV show)

Not the sadistic King Joffrey? Not the real power, Tywin Lannister? Nope. Give me Cersei, because we see her struggling to be a villain. She’s a woman, she’s maybe not as smart as she thinks she is, but she’s wily enough to fight hard for what she thinks is hers. She’s funny as hell. And she loves her scary-ass son, because he is just about all she has, but she knows he’s sick. She knows how women gain power, but she still yearns to be playing at the big kids table. You see her when her villainous swagger is on, and you see her being completely dismissed by her father and intellectually trailing behind her brother. She’s fascinating. And she has the world’s most flawless bitch face.

5) O’Brien (1984) and The Operative (Serenity)

Like all good top villains in a dystopia, O’Brien knows all the counter-arguments with which our hero has struggled. He knows them all and can beat them with authority, charm, conviction, and the terrifying certainty of his position. He inflicts the pain, and he is someone to whom Winston Smith can finally speak freely. He knows what he does and he does it because power exists to keep itself alive. No grand motives. Just keeping the system going.

The Operative sees even more clearly than O’Brien does that he does terrible things. But he thinks he is doing them to build something better. Yet, he also thinks there is no place in that world for people like him with so much innocent blood on their hands. He’s the mechanism for improvement at a terrible price, but he has no illusions about being warmly invited into into the new society. Strange character. Very human for a villain, but very frightening.

6) Angelus (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

God damn was he a better monster than a hero. Bland, self-hating (understandable, but still), earnest, when he had a soul, he was playfully sadistic without one. He tortured a woman into insanity, he toyed with a lovesick Giles (best character) after killing his ladyfriend. The contrast between that guy and the guy trying to do right makes even the dull fellow more interesting, just because we know what nastiness is inside of him.

What are some of your favorites, dear readers?