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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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Black Sun Rising (Book 1 of the Coldfire Trilogy) by C.S. Friedman, published in 1991. Rating: 3/5.

The Coldfire Trilogy is sometimes described as a successful fusion of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So what better work to start reviewing on this site?

I will be forthright: By far the most wondrous and intriguing element of this series is the world Celia S. Friedman built. Not really in the details – names are generic, and cities have no character of their own – but in the metaphysics. This is a world where simply thinking about something can bring it into being. This is reminiscent of other fantasy worlds like Solaris, numerous Philip K. Dick creations, and The Wheel of Time’s Tel’aran’rhiod. If you’re the type who has a lot of nightmares, living there probably wouldn’t be your cup of tea: “Erna is a harsh mistress.”

The interrelations between the cognitive and physical realms are mediated by the fae. The fae are a sort of energy current that can be manipulated, or “Worked,” by conscious minds to produce what we might think of as magic. But don’t call it that! For as the main hero of the story points out, “The fae is as natural to this world as water and air were to our ancestors’ planet.” Nor is it all bad: It can reinforce buildings against earthquakes, and cure wounds (giving faith healing an altogether more literal meaning!). The natural world, as a result, is subject to Lamarckian evolution: “Here, if trees grow taller, the next gaffi calves are born with longer necks.”

As it is now more than a millennium since humans first settled the planet, the concept of a world without fae is hard to imagine. Even though Damien Vryce, the main protagonist, serves a Church that is committed to the extirpation of the fae, he himself reacts to a vision of such a world with terror:

Explosives fire like a sharp drumroll in the distance, the crack of a hundred pistols perfectly synchronized. He feels a sharp bite of fear at the sound, at the unnaturalness of it. What kind of Working must it take, to make it possible for so many guns to fire successfully, with such planned precision? … For the first time in his life, he knows the rank taste of terror. Not the quantifiable fear of assessed risk, but the unbounded horror of total immersion in the unknown. Guns fire once more in the distance, and for the first time since coming here he realizes why they can function with such regularity. Man’s will has no power here—not to kill and not to heal, not to alter the world and not to adapt to it. The whole of this world is dead to man, dead to his dreams, impassive to his needs and his pleas and even his fears. The concept is awesome, terrifying.

This vision was created by Gerald Tarrant, the anti-hero of the story, to evoke fear in Damien. He is a centuries-old sorcerer who escaped death by pledging himself to demonic forces, gaining immortality and great power over the dark fae in return for regularly engaging in murder and feeding off the fear and terror of his victims – hence, his psychological torture of Damien, which the latter agrees to. But Tarrant is also the original founder of Damien’s Church, even if he has long abandoned its ideals (albeit he says it’s not that simple). This makes for an uneasy and tension-filled relationship between the two that looks like it will evolve in interesting directions in the next two books. It is also the main reason that I will continue reading the series to its end.

So why the rather mediocre rating? Plot. Characters. Consistency. It is not entirely clear why Damien became so committed to Ciani in the course of a weeks-long fling that he would literally travel to the ends of human civilization to bring back her stolen memories. Nor do I even recall why she was singled out in particular. The Big Bad’s fortress is originally described as a massive, physically-impossible structure of “naked stone” that “rose up from the earth like a basalt column,” but soon afterwards it becomes a citadel that was like “a jewel, a prism, a multifaceted crystalline structure that divided up the night into a thousand glittering bits.”

The very title of the book is “Black Sun Rising,” but there is only one reference to a black sun that I can recall. And unless it’s a metaphor for Tarrant, I don’t see it leading anywhere:

In the far north, across the Serpent’s waist, a midnight sun is rising. Black sphere against ebony blackness, jet-pure; a thing that can only be Felt, not Seen. Into it all the light of the world is sucked, all the colors and textures that the fae contains: into the crystalline blackness, the Anti-Sun. He stares at it in adoration and horror and thinks: There, where all the power is concentrated, like matter in a black hole . . . there is the power we need for this quest. Power to shake the rakhlands and make our kill and move the earth besides!

Apart from the stolid Damien Vryce and the darkly seductive Gerald Tarrant, the other characters are quite wooden, Senzei in particular giving off the vibes of an expendable (and accurately so, it turned out). Despite or rather because of his inherent intrigue and dark mystery, Gerald Tarrant is – looking at it in another way – a quite banal product of the feminine erotic imagination. Like a fusion of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires, and the serial killers who get bags of love letters in the mail, as channeled through Ciani:

With consummate grace, Tarrant walked to where she stood, took her hand in his, and bowed gallantly. Gritting his teeth, Damien was forced to acknowledge the man’s charm. … With a sinking feeling Damien realized just how drawn she would be to the Hunter, and to the mystery that he represented. It would mean little to her that he tortured human women as a pasttime, save as one more fact for her to devour.

It’s all the same power to her. He’s just another adept. More interesting than most, perhaps—but that only makes him more desirable. The cost of it means . . . nothing.

Essentially, the sheer awesomeness of Gerald Tarrant paradoxically cheapens him as a character, especially when he decides to slum it with mere humans. But maybe I am missing something big that explains all this in a later book.

Finally, there is also an ecological and anthropological element to the story. There is “The Forest” that Gerald Tarrant had engineered into existence with the force of his will, his need, and his intellect; sunlight and its solar fae are deadly to a man of the dark like himself, so over the long centuries, he created an entire ecosystem that could thrive without sunlight. There are the rakhlands, home to the rakh, a cat-like species that – under the avalanche of human fears over a rival species – evolved intelligence. The humans tried to exterminate them out of existence, with the result that the rakh retreated to an isolated part of the continent and erected a barrier called the “Canopy” to protect themselves from humankind. In a world where thinking really is existing, the Canopy can be seen as an “extentsion of their communal protection [and of] their need for protection [against man].” We also meet the “Lost Ones,” subterranean-dwelling relatives of the rakh who eat creatures from the above – including their cousins – for sustenance. They are the Morlocks/Falmer of Erna.

Have no illusions: This is not a landmark fantasy series. The characters are forgettable, with the partial exception of Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant (although the latter has his own issues). The plot meanders considerably, and is barely discernible in places, like the earth fae over the ocean. I think there are too many points of inconsistency for them all to have been a result of errors on my part as a reader (if so: Apologies. Maybe somebody was stealing my memories when I was reading the book?). There is also one character’s miraculous and unexpected survival at the end that, much like Sherlock Holmes’ faked death, strains the bounds of credulity. I wonder if the author will explain this sometime, or whether its a deus ex machina that will lie buried – unlike the unlikely survivor – to the end.

But it intrigued my just about enough to download the second book. I guess that means that aura of Erna can still draw you in even despite quite significant flaws in execution.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Literature, Sci-Fi 
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“World Made by Hand” by James Howard Kunstler, published in 2008. Rating: 3/5.

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[easyazon_link asin="0802144012" locale="US" new_window="default" tag="httpakarcom-20" add_to_cart="default" cloaking="default" localization="default" nofollow="default" popups="default"]WORLD MADE BY HAND[/easyazon_link] is a speculative fiction book about how a sociopolitical collapse may be experienced by small-town Americans. It is of a reasonable length, engaging and generally well-written, although far from a literary masterpiece – not that that is necessarily a minus, since it serves a polemic rather than a purely artistic purpose, and it is from the latter angle that we shall approach it.

Kunstler depicts a collapsed world where by the 2020’s the engines of commerce have grounded to a shuddering halt, the arm of the state has withered into oblivion, and the electric lights (‘juice’) of modern civilization petered out, ushering in a new Dark Age, both literally and metaphorically. The largely listless and apathetic population is wracked by super-high mortality rates as that Malthusian trinity, famine, disease and war, stalks the land and reaps down the weak and stupid. Although life is dirtier and more violent, at least for some, like Robert Earle, the narrator and hero of the story, it is also more wholesome and fulfilling. With ‘machine noise’ silenced and its noxious, hallucinogenic fumes and toxins curtailed, man is free to rediscover nature, revealing a world much realer and richer than the rows of bland metallic boxes and suffocating serpents of asphalt that symbolize our consumer society.

The economy is almost entirely local, as cart and boat are the only means of transportation. Its mainstay is agriculture and salvage. Chaos and banditry have choked off the import of luxury goods like coffee, and ownership of horses is a great symbol of status. Modern antibiotics and anaesthesia are history, with natural herbs and opium taking up the slack, respectively. The President’s power does not extend beyond his capital and the voices of crazed preachers fills the airwaves whenever the electricity briefly flickers back on.

Race wars, religious persecution and forced displacement of peoples rended the former United States of America into a patchwork quilt of small city-states, tin-pot despotisms and power vacuums. The rule of man has displaced the rule of law, hostage and ransom rackets are flourishing industries and most disputes are resolved ‘personally’. A big theme of the book is Robert’s struggle to stand up against injustice, fighting extortionist kidnap racketeers impiously pretending to be taxmen and judges and a thuggish motor-head gang making its living mining the detritus of the prior age, garbage dump and suburbia, for valuables.

So far so good, and more or less what one would expect. Except for Kunstler mentioning the electricity sporadically coming back on for a few minutes. That is unrealistic – either you have people maintaining the grid, or you have a permanent blackout. Since the former is very obviously not occurring, you’re not going to have a few drops of juice now and then – you’ll have to do without, period. And with that, it’s time to shift from summary and praise to hard-headed criticism.

In the world made by hand, women are being dealt a bad one. We do not come across a single woman occupying an important political or even social position. Long skirts and shawls are back in fashion. Now it is true that in times of social and economic collapse, as during the 1990’s in the post-Soviet world, people yearn for a ‘strong hand’, which implies masculine power with all its implications for women’s political standing. It is also to be expected that a whole-scale collapse of industrial civilization and even the most basic state functions will entail an even greater shift within the power of the sexes to the detriment of the fairer.

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As such, it is not at all surprising that the mayors, constables, judges, gang capos, dockyard ‘bosses’ and religious leaders we come across are all men. However, the absence of women from the town council or professional occupations (medicine, dentistry, etc) is another kettle of fish. Today, a big percentage of the latter are women, and since Kunstler’s skills-starved world needs all the expertise it can get, one can only assume that Union Grove was an unusual town in this respect. Secondly, transformational change typically requires two generations to saturate itself into society – although the Soviet Union was an atheist state from its inception, mass irreligiousness only became reality in the 1970’s. The book was published in 2008; textual clues indicate that the summer story it recounts is no later than in the 2020’s. So I very much doubt women will lose political representation and slip into bulky dresses a mere two decades or so after collapse.

Another major point of disagreement is the sheer speed of the collapse. As noted, the book implies the collapse starts in earnest from, well, today, and that all the amenities of late industrial civilization will have disappeared by the 2020’s. This implies that the collapse will be a cliff-dive back into the so-called Olduvai Gorge, which is an extreme ‘doomer’ scenario. I am a peaknik and believe there is still huge scope for oil consumption to be scaled back without die-off (if anything, forcing Americans to do without SUV transport to the nearby Wal-Mart will improve their health – after the end of subsidized Soviet oil imports into Cuba, their rates of obesity and diabetes fell dramatically) and that there are still a few decades left of liquefiable coal and natural gas, and uranium reserves. Even discounting the promise of wind power, solar and paradigm-shifting technological breakthroughs, society will continue to have access to energy sources with a sufficiently high EROIE – which will allow us to sustain an ‘emergy’ plateau until the middle of this century with all the things it allows (railways, the electric grid, the Internet and cell phone network, etc).

Contrary to what one might think from my optimism on the timing of the collapse and women’s status after it, I am much more bearish on the degree of violence that will prevail in a failed world. It is absurd that in a world of natural law and survival of the strongest no marauders have come across and sacked and looted Union Grove, a (relatively) prosperous but undefended outpost of civilization. In practice we can expect nomadic armies, something like Mongols with machineguns, wage war against sedentary societies that retain some semblance of manufacturing capacity.

The idea that the utility of firearms will diminish due to a shortage of bullets, to the extent that some actually resort to fighting with swords, holds no water. Bullets can be manufactured with en masse with relatively simple equipment, lead will be one of the few things there will certainly be no shortage of and gunpowder is a medieval technology. The rate of depreciation on many firearms is extremely low – things like Mausers, AK’s and Colts can be kept in perfect working order for centuries. Union Grove should also be bourgeoning with ethnically diverse migrants from the collapsed formerly high-density societies of the eastern seaboard, whereas in the book the town is largely local and lilac white.

The Western-style gunfight between the heroic band of brothers (Robert, Joseph, Minor et al) and professional kidnapper Dan Curry’s minions was simply unrealistic. Bad guys can’t aim only in the movies. Also, the way Joseph and Robert just entered Dan’s office, with their weapons, is unrealistic – mob bosses are not idiots and they would have been searched and disarmed before being allowed in.

I doubt the hyper-inflated US dollar will survive as a universal currency in the absence of unified authority. It is far more likely the units of exchange will be locally issued coupons or durables like bottles of whiskey or even oil barrels (now that would be poignant!).

It is very unlikely that communication networks will unravel anywhere near as fast even in the event of total collapse. There exist solar-powered radios, and as Kunstler noted, some enterprising people like Stephen Bullock will continue generating electricity on a local scale. So practically all electronic devices will function. Granted, complicated things like computers will break down quickly and will not be replaced, since they use specialized components that could only by produced in highly complex manufacturing operations, but any committed amateur could repair or even build a new radio from scratch (a small population surrounded by junk produced by a prior much larger and much richer population will have no problems scrounging the necessary materials). This will allow local power centres, the government and other major organizations to keep in touch with each other across great distances. Rumors and word of mouth will take a very long time to reclaim their old status as the major medium of communication.

I was somewhat disappointed with how little attention the effects of climate change received, but considering that a) it’s only the 2020’s, b) widespread anthropic emissions of greenhouse gases ceased in the 2010’s and c) it is, after all, a novel specifically about the post-peak oil world, I will not complain.

Finally, I’d like to defend Kunstler from some of the criticisms levelled against him. Although Asian pirates attacking the western US seaboard is unrealistic (Americans are a well-armed people, and there are much easier pickings closer to home), race wars, particularly in the South, are a real possibility. After all, visioning unpleasant futures is not the same thing as endorsing them. Granted, it is obvious from his writings that Kunstler yearns for the end of industrial civilization and the bucolic charm of the early American settlement. But I don’t condemn him for that. This death-instinct is a universal trait of our species – just observe the runaway success of the post-apocalyptic genre in film and video games.

Looking at matters from a historical perspective, industrialism is a very short and unnatural aberration in the human condition, and it is not surprising that many should react against it. Machines will be initially missed, but man will adapt to the simple satisfactions of a world made by hand and the reappearance of intimate connections with Gaia and her elusive elemental spirits. Unlike some reviewers, I appreciate Kunstler’s inclusion of some unexplainable supernatural phenomena at the end of the book (the Mother Bee and the death of Wayne Karp). The end of age of the Machine will usher in a new age of magic and mystery.

[easyazon_link asin="0802144012" locale="US" new_window="default" tag="httpakarcom-20" add_to_cart="default" cloaking="default" localization="default" nofollow="default" popups="default"]WORLD MADE BY HAND[/easyazon_link] is well written and a page-turner, but is most certainly not a literary masterpiece – chapters are too repetitive, characters are too one-sided and dialog is too clichéd. Although successful at capturing the spirit of earlier ages, I feel that too often Kunstler simply substituted an imagined past in place of visioning the future, which is a more challenging enterprise. Although I like many of Kunstler’s theme choices, they are undermined by the difficulty of suspending disbelief in too many places. The lack of literary merit compounded by failure in the nuts and bolts of serious futurist visioning means I cannot recommend this book too highly.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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.