Another Day, Another Blog

July 30, 2007

Words, words, words

Filed under: books, sci-fi, science fiction — iamza @ 12:27 pm

It amazes me how quickly the body becomes accustomed to time off. It’s like the brain is in a perpetual holding pattern, just waiting for that precious vacation call so it can skip gleefully onto the runway. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your holiday. Please remain seated until the brain-plane comes to a full and complete stop.”

This time around, at least I was in the mood to read. Too often, my days off are lost in a haze of DVDs and movies. I can still remember the bemused expression on the face of the cinema clerk back in South Africa when I returned to the ticket counter for the third time on the same day. Ah, how I miss 09h15 screenings…

So, books what got read:

Linnea Sinclair: Wintertide and The Accidental Goddess. Both novels are both set in the same universe, but a goodly time apart — a fact which completely bypassed my sister, who liked the first novel, but hated the second. 

In Wintertide, orphaned Khemsin finds out she is somehow connected to a sorcerer, a fact which does not make her particularly happy. She decides to go have a chat with him, to see if she can persuade him to keep out of her life.

This novel is a quick and mostly entertaining fantasy (ideal for skim-reading). Its biggest flaw is the romantic subplot, which is all too predictable. 

The Accidental Goddess is more my speed: space opera. After a space battle against a vicious foe, Captain Gillaine Davre of the Raheiran Special Forces wakes up on a space station to find out (a) she has somehow travelled 342 years into the future, and (b) she is now revered as a goddess. Add to the mix the disconcerting presence of Admiral Makarian, a Raheiran crystal ship with a knack for humming wedding tunes at just the wrong time, and the re-emergence of an old foe, and Gillie’s beginning to wonder if life could get any more complicated…

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Both Gillie and Mack are engaging characters, and Mack’s lieutenant and Gillie’s ship add some much needed humour. All around good read.

Elizabeth VaughanWarprize, Warsworn, and Warlord. A fantasy romance trilogy, which came highly recommended.

In the first book, Xylara, daughter of the King of Xy and Master Healer in her own right, is claimed as Warprize by the Firelander Warlord, in exchange for peace between their warring nations. Initially unhappy, Xylara gradually learns that the Firelanders are neither as hostile nor as uncivilized as she’d been brought up to believe.

In Warsworn, Xylara and Kier are diverted on their path to the Firelander homeland when they run across a diseased village. As Master Healer, Xylara tries to aid the village, but then the plague spreads to the Firelander army, and Kier.

Having successfully retained his title of Warlord, Kier leads the Firelander army to the Great Plains, and home. But he travels alone, as Xylara has been taken by the Firelander Council to the heart of the Great Plains. There, Xylara must prove to the council that she is truly worthy of the title, Warprize.

I must admit that I was not keen on the first few hundred pages of this epic, what with the idea of a woman being claimed by the leader of an opposing nation as his just reward for peace. I disliked the slave imagery, and the feeling that Xylara had no say in her future. Even once the true status of what it means to be claimed as Warprize is revealed, it left me uncomfortable, because, essentially, Xylara’s position was unchanged. Xylara did not choose to go with Kier of her own free will — she was forced into it because if she did not go along as Warprize, Kier and the Firelanders would have destroyed her home and killed her people. Call it what you want, but that strikes me as blackmail.

I had fewer qualms with later books, once it became clear that Xylara wanted to stay with Kier. I’m still thinking Xylara’s suffering a bout of Stockholm syndrome, but, hey, that’s barbarian romance for you. Also, I guess in some ways, she’s made a political alliance for her people through marriage. 

On the whole, an engaging story with a huge dose of romance. Still not entirely sold on the notion of the Warprize, or the Firelander way of life, but it all ends on a relatively happy note. All three books are good pageturners, and well worth reading, if you can keep from chucking the first book across the room for the first hundred or so pages.

James Rollins: Deep Fathom is an adventure novel in the Hollywood blockbuster sense of the word. The new millennium brings with it a series of catastrophic natural disasters, culminating in the crash of Air Force One and the re-emergence of once lost continent off the coast of Japan. The discovery of a mysterious crystal with peculiar gravitational properties in ancient ruins on the continent may forecast the destruction of the Earth, or a way to save the world. 

This is switch-off-your-brain action of the highest order. Great (skim) reading for airports, or after long journeys when your brain is tired but you just can’t sleep. It has everything Hollywood looks for in action adventure: a down-and-out hero, romance, talking computers, big special effects, nonsense science, and the requisite super, ultra, really bad, bad guy (because, God knows, saving the Earth from blowing up just isn’t enough of a challenge sometimes).

Frank Schatzing: I know, I know, I keep bringing this book up, but The Swarm is hands down my favourite read of the summer thus far. Seriously, if you read one science fiction novel this year, make it this one — it is that good.

The oceans are rebelling against man. The coasts around the world are being ravaged by marine creatures, some known, but some which appear to have been artificially evolved. Meanwhile, a huge tsunami triggered by the collapse of the continental shelf off the coast of Norway wreaks havoc all around the North Sea. An international group of scientists struggle to understand what is behind the sudden surge in disasters, and come to a very disturbing conclusion: We are not alone.

This book has it all — an excellent story which is thoroughly absorbing; a great cast of characters; loads of action and adventure; the destruction of whole countries; and a bunch of seriously alien aliens. And it’s thick enough that you only have to pack one book for your holiday! :-)

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June 27, 2007

The Lady cried, for she longed for a castle beside her tear-drop pool

Filed under: in for a penny, sci-fi — iamza @ 1:25 pm

I finally got around to watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the superintendent and general handyman for The Cove, an apartment building complex populated by some interesting people. One night, Cleveland falls into the pool, and stumbles across Story, a water sprite/narf on a mission to offer enlightenment to one man before flying home by way of a giant eagle escapee from one of the Lord of the Rings films. Unfortunately, Story’s nemesis, a giant grass-covered hyena, has also travelled to The Cove, and he’s determined to make Story miss her flight (rather like the train driver on my last trip to London Heathrow, when I think about it).

I think I’m growing away from M. Night Shyamalan’s stories. I loved The Sixth Sense, because I saw it early enough that I hadn’t been warned there was a twist at the end. I enjoyed Signs because I wasn’t expecting the water glasses to play such an important role. I thought Unbreakable was all right, and quite liked the idea of a supervillain struggling to find a superhero worthy of his attention. I hated The Village and, aside from Cleveland Heep, I didn’t really care about any of the characters in Lady in the Water.

Also watched Howl’s Moving Castle, directed by Hayao Miwazaki of Spirited Away fame. Hatmaker Sophie is cursed by the Wicked Witch of the West (I think), and transformed from her youthful self into a ninety-year-old woman. Terrified of what her mother will think, Sophie runs away from home, and finds a new life for herself in the magical moving castle of master magician, Howl. Along the way, Sophie collects some interesting companions, including: a bouncing scarecrow with an attitude problem; the fire demon, Calcifer, with whom Sophie strikes a deal; a shaggy dog with very short legs; and, of course, Howl, who is battling a curse of his own.

I loved Howl’s Moving Castle, though, as with most Japanese animated films, I walked away at the end wondering just how much of the film I’d missed. Japanese films and comics seem to me to rely on the reader/viewer grasping subtle complexities, and understanding what I regard as non-intuitive leaps in storytelling; I’m pretty sure I miss out on an awful lot.

Still, if you choose to watch one fairy-tale this week, I know which of the two I’d recommend…

June 26, 2007

Excuse me, Sir, but your dark matter just ate my moon!

Filed under: curiosities, sci-fi, when natures strikes back — iamza @ 3:51 pm

Why is the science in made-for-TV movies often so laughably bad? Not that Hollywood blockbusters are all that much better, but at least the blockbusters have bigger budgets, giving them sparkly special effects and other assorted eye candy.

In Dark Storm, a bunch of scientists come up with a way to super-charge dark matter, and transform it so that it disintegrates matter. Of course, one of the scientists decides super-charged dark matter would make a really handy weapon of mass (literally!) destruction, and sets in motion an evil scheme which puts the fate of the world in jeopardy. Also, Stephen Baldwin gets infected with dark matter and becomes a lightning mage. Stephen Baldwin’s movie wife is less than enthusiastic about the new spark this introduces into their relationship. Oh, and the Smoking Man from X-Files makes an appearance — he’s now General Smoking Man.

I think my favourite moments in the movie were when the super-charged dark matter made tornadoes that ate famous landmarks. Lesson learned from disaster movies: Never buy a house near by a famous landmark. You’re just asking for trouble…

Someone in Sci-Fi UK’s  programming department has a wicked sense of humour. No sooner was Dark Storm complete than Stephen Baldwin returned to the screen in another disaster flick, titled Earthstorm. A massive asteroid impact knocks the moon from its orbit, and sends debris raining down on Earth. Tides and weather are affected by the changed lunar orbit, but, more critically, the asteroid impact has cracked the moon, and it is slowly coming apart. It is up to a demolitions expert (Stephen Baldwin) and crackpot scientist to save the planet…but first they must overcome the resistance of egomaniac and sceptic Dirk Benedict.

Biggest pet peeves: (1) The ease with which the shuttle became available for launch to the Moon — with turbo-boost nuclear pulse engines, to boot! (2) As far as I know, the crew aboard a shuttle in high Earth orbit is weightless. (3) Sealing the crack, if it’s even possible, would do nothing to stabilize the lunar orbit. “Too bad, so sad” for the Earth on that score.

I’m quite intrigued by the idea of using an electromagnetic bomb to collapse the chasm walls of the Moon in towards one another. I don’t know how the bomb would work — how does it impart a sufficiently large charge to one wall of the chasm without similarly charging the other wall? How magnetically susceptible are Moon rocks, anyway? 

I started off scoffing at the notion of a satellite-cracking asteroid impact. But the leading hypothesis for moon formation suggests that the Moon formed when a Mars sized body collided with Earth, knocking out a huge chunk of the planet. That debris later acreted to form the Moon.

Funnily enough, one of the strongest  arguments in favour of the impact origin for the Moon is the lack of a significant iron-rich core — results from the Lunar Propector experiment back in 1999 suggest that the lunar core makes up maybe 3% of the Moon’s mass. In contrast, the Earth’s core accounts for roughly 30% of the planet’s mass.   

Images of the Moon’s magnetic field are fascinating. Unlike the Earth, the Moon does not currently have a global dipolar magnetic field. This does not negate the possibility that, in the past, there was a functioning geodynamo on the Moon, but, given the small size of the lunar core, any such geodynamo was likely short-lived. The magnetic anomalies observed on the Moon are isolated and, on average, have an amplitude less than a hundredth of those observed on the Earth. Given their spatial correlation with significant craters (the strongest anomalies are located on the opposite side of the Moon from the youngest and largest impact craters), it is possible that the magnetic anomalies we observe today on the Moon were created by transient magnetic anomalies during impact

If nothing else, Earthstorm succeeded in one respect: it piqued my interest sufficiently that I found myself googling the Moon’s magnetic field. It’s a pity the same cannot be said for dark matter and Dark Storm.

June 2, 2007

Filed under: bright ideas, elsewhere, humour, sci-fi — iamza @ 10:53 pm

April 7, 2007

Cry me an ocean of stars

Filed under: ficlet, sci-fi — iamza @ 1:32 am

“We could try the orbitals?” James suggested, voice uneven, and broken by panicked breaths.

I hesitated. The orbital engines could, in theory, get us home. If we knew where we were, and how to set the navcom back on track. But the reset after the asteroid avalanche had killed the navcom’s memory, and left us stranded in deep space.

We were lost. Looking out at a river of stars banked by an empty void that stretched to infinity. James had the chair, and I had the wheel, and we neither of us knew what we were supposed to do next.

“If we use the orbitals without the navcom,” I said, “we could end up anywhere. Or nowhere. We should wait. Mitchell will get the system back up.”

But I was lying, and we both knew it. Mitchell’s AI chip was reset when the navcom went down.

For once, James didn’t argue. He wanted to believe that we’d be fine just as much as I did; that miracles could happen, even out here on the edge of the known universe. 

I ran my hands over the stained cherry wood of the wheel. When the Captain had first had it installed, the shipping world had scoffed. Crazy Captain Pete and his bunch of ragtag hangers on, lost in a time so out of step with the rest of the United Federation that we might as well have been outcasts. Throwbacks to a history that nobody else wanted to acknowledge.

I confess, at first I’d agreed with the scoffers. Whoever’d heard of a wheelhouse in a spaceship? What need had spacecraft of sails of spun silver to propel them between the stars when orbitals allowed ships to surf wormholes between galaxies?

And yet, and yet. The Titania was the largest spacecraft ever designed for intergalactic cruises. And Captain Pete was smart enough to realize that a wheelhouse and sails were anachronisms that would draw wealthy voyagers from far and wide. Why travel by cryotank and orbitals like the common riffraff when one could travel in style aboard the Titania, enjoying endless starlit nights beneath solar sails?

The wheel was smooth and cold beneath my fingers. Habit had me hold it steady, even though I knew the sails and rudder were gone. The avalanche had seen to that.

“Do you think–” James stopped, his mouth still moving but no words coming out. 

I shook my head. I knew what he was trying to ask, and I didn’t want to have to answer. Were there any other survivors? Could the passengers have lived through the avalanche? Was Captain Pete still alive, lost amongst the shredded remnants of silver that drifted about the breached hull — driftwood caught in seaweed in a vast black ocean? 

The sad truth was that it didn’t matter. The wheelhouse was cut off from the rest of the ship. We couldn’t help the passengers, and we couldn’t help Captain Pete.

We couldn’t even help ourselves.

***

  

March 26, 2007

Planetia

Filed under: ficlet, sci-fi — iamza @ 8:18 am

Planetia, being the last stop before the Great Void, was a constant hive of activity. Billboards across the tiny planetoid glaringly proclaimed in neon reds and greens and pinks: “Spend a few days in Planetia, and you’ll never leave!” Sadly, this was a fact to which most of the locals could attest.

Bernie had been a local for 93 years. Like so many other travellers who passed through Planetia, Bernie and his wife, Marnie, had wanted to explore the universe, and also to get as far from Marnie’s father’s shotgun as was physically possible. Sadly, as was often the case on intergalactic adventures, things had not gone according to plan.

Space travel through the Great Void was hazardous in more ways than one. When they’d reached Planetia, Bernie learned the cost of the trip had quadrupled; “New inter-galactic tax, I’m sure you understand.” The ship had undocked three days later, but Bernie had been left behind.

Bernie was a survivor. A year of washing dishes, and some good luck at the card tables, and he’d remade himself into a businessman. Regulars knew to avoid the Pressed Beds Motel and Whistlestop Cafe; the coffee tasted like boiled gum shoes, and the bedding was only as clean as the last traveller who’d spent the night. But there were enough first-time travellers – mostly young explorers or newly-weds – that the two did a roaring trade.

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