Book Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Six Wakes is the latest novel by Mur Lafferty, author of the Shambling Guides series. In this book, however, she takes a left turn from urban fantasy to a sci-fi mystery story. From the central story of a perfect locked-room mystery, Lafferty weaves a sprawling tale of politics, conspiracy, and what it means to be human in one very unique vision of the future. And she does a pretty good job of it.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

So here’s the story: in the Year 2493, cloning technology has become commonplace, and better yet, it’s possible to copy a person’s memories into their clone. People can clone themselves into new bodies over and over again when they die, extending their lifespan indefinitely. Some clones are over 250 years old, adding up their various lives.

But there’s one catch. In addition to being condemned by many religious groups, clones are kept as second-class citizens to keep them from becoming too powerful with their centuries of life experience and amassed wealth. Multiple clones of the same person aren’t allowed to exist at the same time. Clones aren’t allowed to have children. And most controversially, it’s illegal to modify the DNA of a clone, even to fix a genetic illness.

Of course, these laws are often broken by illegal cloners, with serious consequences even for unwilling cloning victims. Various crimes have led six clones to become the crew of the Dormire, a sleeper ship traveling to colonize the Tau Ceti system. The clones will run the ship through the multi-generation flight in exchange for having their criminal records wiped clean.

But then, halfway through the mission, the whole crew wake up in cloned bodies to find their previous selves have been murdered, and worse, their memories haven’t been copied over. The last thing they remember is coming aboard the ship. It’s the perfect crime: six victims, six suspects, all of them with criminal records, and none of them remembering what happened, not even the killer themselves. And now they have to solve the mystery before it happens again.

Lafferty expertly spools out this mystery piece by piece, and along the way, she reveals the backstory of each of the crew, what they did to get themselves on the Dormire, and why they might have a motive to kill everyone. It’s not perfectly done. Some of the crew are obviously bigger suspects than others, but the truth doesn’t fully come out until the end, with a couple of major twists along the way. And in the meantime, the themes of what cloning means for every aspect of society and the very nature of humanity, which run throughout the story in a very entertaining and thought-provoking way, more than make up for these shortcomings. Six Wakes is just as much about exploring this uncanny future and its implications as it is about the mystery, and that, in my opinion, is what makes it a real quality read.

Posted in Book reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ant-Man is one of the sillier entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that goes double for the science in it. (Yes, comic books in general consider the laws of physics to be more like guidelines, but Ant-Man takes the cake.) But it was still good enough to get a sequel: Ant-Man and the Wasp. In fact, I think the sequel was considerably better than the original.

Also, be sure to stay all the way to the end of the credits. That last line is a doozy.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

Continue reading

Posted in Movie Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

So, I wasn’t going to review this one for a while, not because I didn’t want to, but because I haven’t had time, and my writing process has been more chaotic than usual lately. Plus Incredibles 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp came out before I got it up. But then I remembered that I already had this review half-written, so let’s dive into it!

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the big dinosaur movie of the year. It’s basically Jurassic Park 5, if you’re counting, although I’m still not entirely clear whether they wanted Jurassic World to be a sequel or a reboot. Jurassic World was definitely a rehash of Jurassic Park in a lot of ways, and it’s perhaps even more obvious that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a rehash of The Lost World: Jurassic Park (also known as Jurassic Park 2).

But did I like it? It’s middle of the pack, as Jurassic Park movies go. I do believe Fallen Kingdom was better executed that the first Jurassic World. It even told a better story…but it wasn’t Jurassic Park.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

Continue reading

Posted in Movie Reviews | Tagged , , ,

Movie Review: Incredibles 2

Weirdly, the sequel to The Incredibles is titled Incredibles 2. No “The.”

Pixar’s newest offering is one of the most anticipated movies of the year—dare I say it, even more than Infinity War. This is a sequel 14 years in the making: Incredibles 2. More supers, more crimefighting, more…villains with a weirdly good point than ever.

So how was it? I’d rank the storyline slightly below the original The Incredibles. The original was just too good to beat. On the other hand, the pacing (it’s Pixar’s longest film ever at 1 hour, 58 minutes) is markedly better. Re-watching the original, I thought it ran a little fast, jumping from scene to scene too fast for the impact to fully land—not always, but fairly often. This one was spot on, though. So in a word: great!

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Also, I feel the need to warn you that there is a seizure warning on this movie. (And I’m honestly surprised they had to add it, and it wasn’t shipped with one.)

Spoilers below.

Incredibles 2 picks up literally the minute The Incredibles left off, with the Parr family fighting the Underminer. Unfortunately, the fight doesn’t go well. Despite the Parrs’ and Frozone’s highly-praised defeat of Syndrome’s Omnidroid three months earlier, superheroing is still technically illegal, and they actually cause more damage fighting the Underminer than he would have done on his own, without even catching the bad guy.

Unable to return to hero work and with their house still destroyed from the last movie, the Parrs need a break, and corporate tycoons Winston and Evelyn Deavor step in to help. Winston is a giant superhero fan and wants Helen (Elastigirl) to go out crimefighting again (still illegally) as a corporate-sponsored hero to try to gain the sympathy of the public to “make supers legal again!”

Cue hilarious scenes of Bob (Mr. Incredible) struggling (though ultimately succeeding) to be a stay-at-home dad while Helen fights the nefarious villain Screenslaver, who can hypnotize people through TV screens. After saving an ambassador’s life, she gets the public back on the supers’ side…only to find out that Screenslaver was a setup from the start.

The interesting thing about both Incredibles films is that the villain not only has a point, but is…kind of more right than the heroes—you know, aside from the killing people part. As screwed up as Syndrome was in the first movie, he may well have had the better argument when he said the supers’ powers shouldn’t make them better than everyone else. Now contrast the Parrs, who basically embrace their superiority and let their son who can outrun a Bugatti join the track team in the final scene. It may not technically be cheating, but it’s certainly against the spirit of the competition—and not very heroic.

A little unfair? Maybe, but you can definitely see the thread. Now, in Incredibles 2, we have Evelyn Deavor (Seriously, who didn’t see that coming?) who believes that people have come to rely too much on the supers (and this from painful personal experience), tying it into how they have also come to rely too much on technology. Just read Screenslaver’s speech, courtesy of the Villains Wiki (yes, that’s a thing):

Superheroes are part of a brainless desire to replace true desire with simulation. You don’t talk, you watch talk shows. You don’t play games, you watch game shows. Travel, relationships, risk; every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t free themselves to rise from their couches to break a sweat, never anticipate new life. You want superheroes to protect you, and make yourselves ever more powerless in the process.”

There’s more, but you get the picture. If that’s not a commentary on the state of society today, I don’t know what is—especially with the juggernaut that is Marvel playing on the screen next door (pun intended). And to top it all off, Screenslaver says all this while the movie is drawing the audience in with a big action scene.

The point is, Evelyn is obviously wrong to restrict the supers’ rights to use their powers and help the world, but she’s right that their influence on the world hasn’t exactly been healthy, whereas Bob and Helen (at various times) are just enjoying the hero game and not paying attention to her concerns.

The movie ends on a positive note for the supers, with the government (via a judge, weirdly) reinstating their legal status. But we can hope that after what they went through to get there, they will be a little more socially conscious in the future and try to help the world in more ways than just fighting crime.

Posted in Movie Reviews | Tagged , ,

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Okay, I really need to put out my review of Solo. I don’t review every movie I see, either because I haven’t had time (see Deadpool 2) or because I’m not really sure what to make of it (see Annihilation and, oddly enough, Early Man). But I can’t pass up a Star Wars movie, so I need to get this one out there. (Maybe I’ll make an anthology post for the others later.)

Unlike the others, the biggest reason I’ve been slow to review Solo is that I’m just not that excited about it. Mind you, it was good in some ways. It certainly wasn’t actively bad like the prequels were, and it wasn’t a love it or hate it kind of thing like The Last Jedi either. It was just…meh.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

Continue reading

Posted in Movie Reviews, Science Fiction | Tagged , , ,

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

This is it. The one we’ve all been waiting for. Avengers: Infinity War!

Eighteen movies have led up to this point, the culmination of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. We first saw the villain, Thanos, all the way back in Avengers 1 in 2012, and with a major role in Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, he’s back and badder than ever, wielding the universe-destroying power of the Infinity Stones, and it’s going to take all of the Avengers to stop him. It’s a wild ride. Full of action from start to finish. Its biggest flaw is that you have to have seen so many of the earlier movies to understand it, but if you have, it’s very well done, especially the ending.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Massive Spoilers Below

Continue reading

Posted in Movie Reviews | Tagged , , ,

TESS Lifts Off

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) lifted off on a SpaceX rocket last night. TESS is a follow-up to the wildly successful Kepler mission that will hunt for transiting planets—that is, planets that pass in front of their stars, blocking some of the light. TESS is a bigger and better mission that is expected to discover five times as many planets (20,000 compared with Kepler’s 4,000) and around closer stars. Even the nearest stars to Earth will be observed by TESS (although only a small fraction of planets orbit at the right angle to be seen in transit).

I say “bigger”, but it’s actually more complicated than that. Kepler used one medium-size telescope (by spacecraft standards) to look at a single 10 x 10 degree patch of sky for years on end. TESS uses four small telescopes only 10 cm (4 inches) wide, each of which images an area 24 degrees wide, and which rotates to a new part of the sky every month. Over the course of a year, it will image an amazing 85% of the southern sky, followed by 85% of the northern sky the following year. Most parts of the sky will be observed for only one month, but areas near the celestial poles watched for the full year to look for longer-period planets.

This is a counterintuitive spacecraft. A 10 cm telescope is tiny. It’s the kind you can buy on Amazon for a couple hundred bucks. Compared with the 2.5 meter (8 foot) mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope, it seems like it would be useless. So how does it work? The difference between TESS and your average backyard telescope is—well,  it’s in space, where there’s no air and no light pollution—but the main difference is having really, really good electronics.

This isn’t your cell phone camera that NASA’s using. It’s not even your fancy DSLR if you’re a photographer. True, it’s the same CCD technology, but NASA gets the best-quality chips that can read light levels extremely accurately—to one part in ten thousand—and that’s enough to spot an Earth-sized planet.

The other thing to remember about TESS is that it’s looking only at bright stars. For bright stars, having a very big telescope is actually a disadvantage because as faint as the stars are, a big telescope collects so much light that they’ll saturate the chip. There will be a big white splotch, and you won’t get good readings. This also sounds counterintuitive. Your cell phone camera can function in broad daylight, after all. But your cell phone camera is exposed for a hundredth of a second to take a photo in daylight. Maybe a whole second in low light, but TESS’s cameras are exposed for a full 2 minutes to take a single photo.

Looking at bright stars is especially important because we need bright stars to easily measure the masses of planets by radial velocity, which is what we need to tell planets that look like Earth, but bigger, apart from planets that look like Neptune, but smaller. So while it probably won’t turn up any potentially habitable planets, it will still give us a much better estimate of how many of them there are out there.

TESS has to go through a weird flight path including a gravity assist around the Moon to get to an orbit that is ideal for its operations, so observations will not start until June, but I’m eager to see what new discoveries it turns up starting this summer.

Posted in Current events, Planets, Space exploration | Tagged , , ,