Reviews In Review (2015Jun09)


Tuesday, June 09, 2015                                              5:10 PM

I’ve just finished reading:

“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu,  (Ken Liu -Translator)

“(R)evolution” by PJ Manney  (‘Phoenix Horizon’ Book 1)

“The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi

And watching:

“Jupiter Ascending” (2015) –  Written and Directed by The Wachowskis and Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Eddie Redmayne

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) –  Directed by Matthew Vaughn and Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, and Samuel L. Jackson

[Note: the following three book reviews were published on Amazon.com yesterday]

20150610XD-TheThreeBodyProblem_byCixinLiu

In “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, I was treated to some rare Chinese historical fiction, as the story involves both alien invaders and their contact on Earth—and, in a fresh take, someone on Earth other than an American establishes First Contact. The protagonist’s story begins with her childhood during the most horrific times of the many Reform movements that swept China early in the second half of the twentieth century. Starting that far back, we are given a small primer in modern China’s history and culture by the time the story’s climax reaches the present day.

But there’s more. There’s science too—radio astronomy, virtual-reality gaming, extra-dimensional manipulation, near-FTL travel, and a planet with an unusual orbit, to say the least, are only some of the highlights. Things get technical enough that I glimpsed one reviewer in passing, complaining that this book ‘read like a tech manual’—but I found it refreshingly reminiscent of Clarke and Asimov. This is still a nerd’s genre—if you can’t take the heat, you’re not going to enjoy the story.

The characters and relationships are, however, as fully fleshed-out as one could wish—this is no space opera—and the plot is so clever that I hesitate to give even the slightest of spoilers. You should discover this book for yourself. And—good news—it is the first in a series—so there’s even more to come!

20150610XD-(R)Evolution_byPJManney

In “(R)evolution” by PJ Manney, I found an entertaining and involving thriller based on the idea of nanotechnology used to facilitate the brain/electronic interface. While there is little new in the scientist who experiments on himself, or in super-secret societies that control our businesses and governments from the shadows of limitless wealth and power, there’s still a freshness to the storytelling that kept me turning pages until late into the night. Good writing, if not especially great science fiction.

20150610XD-WaterKnife(WHOLE)

“The Water Knife” by the reliable Paolo Bacigalupi is a story of a near-future America suffering through the destruction of the American Southwest due to water shortages. The draining of the aquifers, combined with the lack of snow-melt from the Rockies, leaves California, Nevada, Arizona, and displaced Texans all struggling in a world where rivers are covered to prevent excess evaporation. Water rights become life or death matters for cities Las Vegas, LA, and Phoenix, AZ—where most of the action takes place.

The ‘water knife’ is a euphemism for an enforcer of water rights and a hunter of anyone trying to access water without legal authority. Angel is one of the best, in the employ of the sharp female administrator of Las Vegas’s Water Authority, Catherine Case. He becomes involved with a hunt for a water-rights treaty granted to Native Americans—a priceless document so old that it would take precedence over all existing agreements—and in the process, becomes involved with a female reporter who’s gone from being an observer to being in the thick of the life and death struggle of everyone in Phoenix as the water runs out and the dangers only grow more unbeatable.

However, the most frightening thing about this novel is its basis in fact—much of the disastrous environment described has been warned of in a non-fiction book, “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water” by Marc Reisner. That book was published in 1987, and much of what he warned about is starting to manifest itself—such as the present severe drought conditions in California.

Like most doomsday-scenario stories, “The Water Knife” describes people on the edge, people in trouble, and twisted people who take advantage of chaos to create their own little fiefdoms of violence and tyranny. I never read such stories purely for the goth-like rush of people being cruel and dark—but in cases where I feel the story will give insight into something real, I put up with it—especially from a writer as good as Bacigalupi. And this is an exciting, engrossing tale of intrigue, passion, and ‘history as a hammer’, for all its darkness.

[Here ends the text from my Amazon.com reviews]

Having just finished “The Water Knife”, right on the heels of “(R)Evolution”, I’ve had my fill of dystopian cynicism and game-theory-based ethics—or lack thereof, rather. “The Three-Body Problem” was the worst, however—a Chinese woman endures such a horrible childhood under the Red Revolution’s Reform Era that she wishes for aliens to take over the Earth—how’s that for misanthropic?

Science Fiction at its best can be wildly hopeful and uplifting but let’s face it—the vast majority of it deals with rather dark subject matter. I can only hope that my next read will have a little leavening of the stainless-steel truth in it. At heart, I’m a Disneyfied, happy-ending kind of guy.

In between, I watched a few movies. The latest include “Jupiter Ascending” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service”. Talk about dark!

20150610XD-JupiterAscending_TheMovie

“Jupiter Ascending” is a science-fiction movie based on the premise that Earth—that is, all the inhabitants of Earth—are just a crop being grown only to ‘harvest’. Our unknown alien overlords are just about to harvest (i.e. slaughter) the Earth’s population for the purpose of creating the ‘rejuvenation juice’ that makes them immortal.

Our only chance is a young lady who is surprised to learn that she is the genetic double of Earth’s former ‘owner’, a wealthy noblewoman of the alien master-race whose death left her planetary holdings to her evil son, including the fabulously overpopulated Earth. The evil son is none too pleased to learn that a mere Earth girl is capable of confiscating his prize planet—and the hunt is on. Helping the girl evade the evil son and realize her destiny is a grizzled veteran of the alien military special-forces who’s been unfairly drummed out of his squad.

Some romance between the two slips between the non-stop CGI laser-beams and space destroyers, but even with a happy ending, it’s hard to get past that nightmarish premise.

20150610XD-Kingsman_TheMovie

“Kingsman: The Secret Service”, being a more straight-forward action movie, might lead you to expect a lighter tone. But this Cinderella/James Bond story has several scenes of wholesale slaughter in hand-to-hand combat. Poor old Colin Firth ends up killing an entire congregation of a church—and while their preacher prefaces the scene with rankly bigoted ravings beforehand, it’s still not very enjoyable to see them all slaughtered for their ignorance.

The fight scenes (though in this context, I’m tempted to call them ‘slaughter scenes’) are so busy that the film has to freeze into slo-mo for each death-blow (or death-stab, or head-squish, etc., etc.) just so the naked eye can follow all the mayhem. This is one of the bloodiest films since ‘Reservoir Dogs”, but it has all the trappings of an arch re-mix of James Bond meets Agent Cody Banks.

The director seemed to have trouble fixing on a genre. Samuel L. Jackson is a chipper, lisping arch-villain; Colin Firth is a chipper, upper-class Brit in the style of Patrick Macnee in ‘The Avengers’ TV series; and Taron Egerton gives us a well-meaning but troubled English lad thrust into an unusual situation. But all the set dressing, style, and verve is drowned in a sea of blood that leaves little room for those delicious bits of comic relief that leaven the best action thrillers.

Having said all that, I must admit that as far as quality goes, these were two exceptional movies compared to the dreck that comes out of Hollywood most of the time. Had “Jupiter Ascending” had a gravitas more in keeping with its somber theme, or had “Kingsman” relied a little less heavily on squibs, they might have been great movies. As it is, they were merely good.

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