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SPOILERS UP TO END OF SEASON 6

Review: 6/10

I am no longer a big fan of the series (the only TV series I follow through the excellent cable alternative qBittorrent). It’s not even that I’m a stickler for book accuracy, or a “bookfag”; as I have pointed out, I believe that some things the show did do better. A few characters and organizations – Tywin, Bronn, the Faith Militant especially come to mind – were fleshed out better. The absence of Lady Stoneheart was a welcome departure from the book. Even Sansa’s “ordeals” with Ramsay Bolton were a bold, if questionable, plot decision.

Still, as the book/show timelines have continued to diverge, it has become increasingly clear that Benioff & Weiss (or “D&D” as they’re disparagingly called) are talentless hacks incapable of maintaining interest in the story without a constant stream of illogical “surprises” and shock deaths. The Dorne episode has been universally panned as a disaster from start to finish, and yet IMO it was still good in comparison with the ridiculous fate of Show!Stannis, who rage quit on the Baratheon family line thanks to Ramsay Bolton and his 20 good men. And Brienne just had to be there in the midst of a chaotic battle to personally put Stannis out of his misery.

Season 6 hasn’t much much of an improvement over the disaster that was the previous one.

Kingslaying is supposed to be this great taboo in Westeros, but we are to believe that the Dornish guards stood by by as their popular and benevolent ruler was cut down by his dead brother’s consort and her bastard daughters. It doesn’t even make any sense from Ellaria Sand’s viewpoint; are we really to believe that the dying wish of the man she loved would have been for her to avenge Elia Martell by… killing all of the rest of the family line? (Not even going to go into the mechanics of how the Sand Snakes managed to instantly kill that massive black dude, the captain of Doran’s guards, with a single dagger in the back). That entire scene made no sense from either common sense or the ethical framework of Westeros.

Anyhow, I found that particular scene so overly ridiculous that, on seeing it a year ago, I didn’t even bother watching the rest of the season in disgust until a week ago.

The Dorne debacle could have perhaps been excused as the price the show had to pay for putting an end to all that nonsense with the Sand Snakes. To the contrary, kinslaying and kingslaying have actually become entirely normalized affairs – in a society where Jaime Lannister faces widespread opprobrium for betraying and killing the “Mad King.” Euron openly bragged about killing his king and brother at the kingsmoot of the ironborn, apologizing only for not doing it sooner, and was duly elected king to voluble applause; at which point he immediately proceeded with a further attempt at kinslaying. Ramsay stabbed his father, Roose, and assumed lordship of House Bolton without any major problems or resistance… even though the Boltons kill and torture peasants pretty much at will, surely that should have been a step too far even for them. But apparently not.

That said, I can’t say it was too bad, especially relative to the low expectations I had developed for it. I would even say it was better than Season 5, though perhaps primarily because that was when we had to come to terms that GRRM’s story was finished, and that D&D didn’t have a tenth of his talent.

It also featured what is IMO the finest soundtrack of the entire show, by Ramin Djawadi:

What’s going to happen in Season 7? (no spoilers)

The newly crowned Cersei is in a completely untenable position. The Tyrrells, the single richest House in the Seven Kingdoms, with an army of 80,000, are now her sworn enemies; with all its direct heirs dead, the House’s matriarch Lady Olenna has nothing to lose, and has made common cause with Dorne, with its army of 50,000 spears untouched by the War of the Five Kings.

As if that isn’t enough, they have made an alliance with Daenerys, who has a host of 50,000 Dothraki horsemen, 8,000 Unsullied, a bunch of mercenaries, an armada, and three dragons. The North and the Vale are also hostile; the former has been wracked by years of war, but the latter are at their prime strength, having remained neutral in the war. At least there is the hope that the northern kingdoms are going to have their hands full now that winter has come and the White Walker invasion is imminent.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, the Lannisters’ gold mines have run dry, and the Crown owes untold amounts of septims to the Iron Bank of Bravoos (my pet theory: The Iron Bank also has the Faceless Men at their beck and call… there’s presumably a good reason why the Bank always get its due. And who’s the conveniently located Faceless Man in Westeros with a grudge against Lannisters?)

The Lannisters have, at most, perhaps 40,000 worn down troops, including the King’s Landing city guards. Furthermore, if the first episode of Season 7 is anything to go by, a significant propotion of their army now consists of green recruits.

The commonfolk, the septons, and the nobles whose friends and relatives were burned to a crisp by wildfire at the Sept of Baelor all hate Queen Cersei.

Their only allies are the Freys, who are of questionable worth in the first place, and whose continued existence is, in any case, open to doubt following Arya’s assassination of their patriarch Walder in the final episode of last season.

What do these ominous comparisons presage for the Lannisters? Their triumph, of course.

Yes, this is going to be my bet for this season. For Daenerys to put Cersei out of her misery and team up with Jon against the White Walkers would be too logical, boring, and predictable. The game of thrones will not stop even as the song of ice and fire reaches its apocalyptic crescendo – and for that to happen, Cersei will have to hang on for just a bit longer.

Here is how I think the season will go, to be proven or disproven in the next seven weeks.

Euron’s Iron Fleet will triumph over Daenerys’ armada. I don’t know how he will deal with the dragons. In the books, Euron has a horn that can “bind” dragons, but including it in the show would be too much of a deus ex machina (though nothing can be excluded with D&D). In any case, Daenerys’ armada will be destroyed and a large percentage of the Dothraki and Unsullied will have to pay their mite to the Drowned God. She herself will be confined to Dragonstone, like Stannis after his defeat at the Battle of the Blackwater.

This will demoralize the Lannisters’ enemies. The Dornishmen will start asking WTF they’re doing fighting for kingslaying usurper bastards, and the lesser Houses of the Reach will rebel against the ruling Tyrrells and their Redwyine allies (the Tarlys are prime candidates to head this betrayal). Highgarden finishes the season under the gold-red flag – as well as its vast grain, manpower, and monetary resources. The Iron Bank is satiated, and extends Cersei a new loan.

Seeing no realistic chance of furthering her claim to the Iron Throne in the near future, coupled with Jon’s insistence that the real struggle is the one against the White Walkers, Daenerys will decide to follow in Stannis’ footsteps, taking her dragons and what remains of her army and fleet to the North – as well as copious dragonglass supplies. Since this is the penultimate season, the final highlight will surely be hordes of White Walkers and the undead poring south over the Wall.

Cersei will eventually meet an exceedingly sticky end, her murderer’s hands wrapping about her pale white throat and choking the life from her – at least, going by the valonqar prophecy – but that is for the last season.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Film, Game of Thrones, Review 
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the-martianWARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

RATING: 8/10. (Please note my ratings system is harsh and virtually no films get a 10).

In 2011, American sci-fi giant Neal Stephenson bewailed the pessimism prevalent in the genre and called for writers to start thinking more positively about the possibilities of technology in order to inspire new generations to “get big stuff done.”

Of course, he himself hardly set a great example in the next four years with his latest tome.

But the Martian most definitely did. In this hard sci-fi scenario, an astronaut stranded on Mars has to figure out how to survive until a rescue mission could be organized. To do this, he has to, in his own words, “science the shit” of the scarce oxygen and food resources at his disposal, while a NASA that is much better funded than in real life has to solve its own set of problems, which at first glance appear intractable.

Making the story of one solitary man’s struggle to survive is not a enviable task, but the creators pull it off with ample wit and verve. The protagonist Mark Watney is constantly cracking Nerd Lite jokes with himself and mission control in his struggle with the remorseless but indifferent main villain, the Red Planet itself.

nasa-survival-on-the-moon Scientific and technical problems are explained in a way that is neither patronizing nor unintelligible to the average viewer. These problems, though varied, all tend to be in the general spirit of the classic “Survival on the Moon” exercise compiled by NASA, in which different options have to be weighed against each other in a way that in a way that could tip the otherwise dismal odds of survival in your favor.

There are frequent references and homages to NASA themes. The “Rich Purnell manoeuvre” that ultimately enabled Watney’s survival is a direct nod to NASA mathematician Michael Minovitch’s idea of a gravity assist to propel Voyager past all four of the gas giants and into deep space (though the theoretical basis for it had been as early as the 1930s in the Soviet Union).

The film appears to be faithful to NASA culture, down to the contrast between the formal and besuited setting of NASA HQ and the more casual setting of its Jet Propulsion Laboratories. As in real world space exploration, duct tape is the solution to a lot of problems. The “no duct tape on Mars” trope is most decidedly averted.

Most of the challenges faced appear to be technically accurate. This is not surprising, since the book by Andy Weir that the film is based on was rigorously researched and initially published chapter by chapter on his website, where space nerds with encyclopedic knowledge on everything space related continuously corrected him.

There are certainly errors now and then. (I have not read the book and probably will not anytime soon, so these apply exclusively to the film). Gravity on Mars appears a bit too Earth like, with astronauts having to really physically apply themselves to scramble up ladders. Although Mars has the occasional storm, the much thinner atmosphere means that even the most furious tempests will be perceived as a light breeze; certainly nowhere near strong enough to uproot a pole and spear it into Watney. For a novel ostensibly set in 2035, comms systems act as if they are half a century out of date, just to serve a couple of plot points (if otherwise very elegant and clever ones). An astronaut propels himself around the outside of a spacecraft without a tether, while making an appearance in the one case in which a teether would have actually been redundant.

mars-radiation Another criticism of the film is that the astronauts should be all dying of cancer by the end of the film because of all the cosmic radiation (there are no obvious attempts to shield them from it). I am rather skeptical of this. The radiation dose Mars explorers receive will only be 3x as great as that received by astronauts who spend half a year on the International Space Station. But those guys aren’t keeling over dead. Theoretical research shows that the lifetime risk of cancer will only increase by three percentage points over baseline for astronauts who go to Mars, and in real life perhaps outcomes will if anything be even less dire because of the hormetic effects of radiation exposure.

Has anyone actually performed any concrete demographic studies of the death rate from cancer for astronauts (as opposed to theoretical projections)? Let me know in the comments.

But all these are ultimately minor triffles. At its root, it is a highly optimistic, positive, and inspirational story about the victory of technology and human ingenuity over the challenges posed by the last frontier. There should be more of these kinds of cultural products for civilization to continue to flourish.

The Martian is an excellent film, by far the best sci-fi flick this year along with Ex Machina, and incomparably better than the banal Hollywood fare that was Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and by all indications, the final Hunger Games movie.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Film, Review, Sci-Fi, Space Exploration 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.