Posts Tagged ‘science fiction


Ted Chiang – “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” review

Like any good boyfriend, I have an uncontrollable urge to push good science fiction on my geeky girl of choice. After sort of striking out with Neuromancer, I have rallied the troops by recommending a Ted Chiang short story. I like it so much I decided to push it on you as well.

You can find an audio recording that is performed quite well by James Campanella for free here. It’s about an hour and ten minutes long.

Who’s Ted Chiang? It’s okay, I hadn’t heard of him either. He’s a science fiction author who has only written a few stories, published at an incredibly slow rate. However, he’s won and been nominated for a truly ridiculous amount of science fiction awards. Each story has been truly labored over… and you can tell. I’ve read four or five of Chiang’s stories, but my favorite by far is the one I have linked above.

It’s a time travel story. Wait! Don’t run if you don’t like time travel stories! It’s a very different kind of time travel story. It’s told in a kind of Arabian Nights sort of way, cloaking the science fictiony aspect of the story in the words of myth and legend. If you don’t like time paradoxes, you can actually rest easy here. I won’t spoil too much, but just know that you should give this one a shot even if time travel isn’t your thing.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” feels like several mini stories that are all connected. It tells the tale of many people that use a “gate of years” to go through time and details the effects that their travel has on their lives, and more importantly, their understanding of their lives. The narrator himself also journeys through the gate of years, giving the story a sense of immediacy so it doesn’t just feel like several tales being repeated for you to hear.

The real beauty of this story is that it’s just as much about storytelling as it is about time travel. It’s about the effect (or lack thereof) that a story can have on a person. It’s about fate, the prewritten “story” of your life, and how many people attempt to rewrite their own story, improving themselves along the way. Of course it’s also left to you to ask yourself, would you change your destiny? Meet yourself? Rob yourself?

It’s a tiny little story, but the characters are all surprisingly strong. I can’t help but mentally compare this to Steven Erikson, the author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. He can have you spending time with characters for hundreds of pages and you don’t feel you know them like you do the few people in Chiang’s story. Granted, Erikson’s characterization has gotten better in the second book, which is the one I’m still on, but that is for another review. This story makes you understand and care for it’s characters in a truly tiny amount of space. It’s really something to admire, especially in a science fiction story, where many people read just to get to the “gotcha” ending or the preachy moral.

A quick word about Campanella’s audio version of this story… it rules. He narrates it almost like The Prince from the Sands of Time video games, giving it an authentic sort of tone. The male voices are all really good; my only complaint would be with his female voices, as a few of them sound a little chipmunkish. To me though, this is absolutely the way to experience the story… so go listen to it!


Season 3 – BSG- Breaking Scifi Greatness

Now we arrive at season 3 of BSG, and things really start to get out of hand. Let’s take a look shall we? If you haven’t been keeping up, at least go read my season 2 post, where I state the Golden Rule of BSG.

All these spoilers have happened before, and all of them will happen again.

We are dropped into this season on the planet, and we spend several episodes dealing with getting off of said planet. The escape sequence is really great, and it will go down as one of the best special effect sequences in this show. There’s one episode about suicide bombings where the writers really don’t have the guts to get into the morality of it, they seem to be using it more as politically hot window dressing than anything else.

“A Measure of Salvation” is one of those profoundly irritating Golden Rule of BSG type episodes. Cylon physiology is not something that the writers have nailed down at all, but it’s something that they keep using in their plotlines. The virus that infects and kills them, but not humans makes no sense for reasons I won’t get into. It also commits the same Battlestar sin that the Pegasus arc did, by giving Roslin the “tough decision” of using biological warfare, but then robbing her of the consequences of it by having Helo disrupt their plan.

“Hero” is truly one of the worst episodes on the show in terms of Cylon Detection and Battlestar’s retroactive writing. Here, we see a guy get on the ship and get tested by the cylon detector, by the doctor on the ship, without the nuke, and it works and shows him as human. So…. if we remember waaaay back to the earlier episodes, we saw the same detector display red for Boomer, when Baltar lied to her. So, the detector can display both a correct positive (Boomer) and a correct negative (Bulldog) without baltar and without the nuke. Therefore, the thing works. Therefore, they should have tested people in key positions with a tribunal of 13 people (they know there are 12 cylons) and bam, they could have caught them all.

Although, “catching them all” isn’t all that important (unless you play pokemon). The cylons, at this point in the show, carry little to no menace at all. We keep hearing about “the final five”, but this is a race of machines that can’t get the job done with their unlimited army and the spies they do have. They’re no longer a believable threat, they’re these generic antagonists that the heroes occasionally swat at, because the heroes are the important ones.

Here is when I really realized that the Cylons as a race are written so that they don’t have to be written. There are way too many examples, but the writers seem to come up with a fact about the cylons only when it’s absolutely necessary to the story they are telling, and this fact never needs to be binding. One easy example is the number three stating that six killing her with a rock was “the first cylon on cylon murder in their race’s history”, when this just isn’t the case, since Boomer shot a six in one of the very first episodes. This is easy fact checking type stuff, guys!

The standalone episodes towards the end of the season return, once again showing us the Golden Rule of BSG in full force. “The Woman King” has everybody on the crew be extremely concerned with what colony people are from (their treatment of racism) for one and only one episode. “Dirty Hands” addresses the working class dudes in the fuel ships, whom we never hear from again.

This season also starts a new running trick that the show pulls. Whenever the writers need to make anything important, they say that it somehow “points the way to Earth”. Even the Final Five supposedly “know the way to Earth” at some point in the show, but this is given up in favor of Starbuck’s magical ship knowing the way instead.

Starbuck’s return is hardly surprising, since the show is absolutely in love with the character. What is surprising is the nature of her return, which is something I’ll address in the next post.

She’s important though, so you can bet she knows the way to earth.


Season 2 – BSG – Bumpy Second Go

Here we are on season two of our review of Battlestar Galactica. I advise you to read the season one post first, but if you’re a rebel or a Cylon you might not want to just to spite me.

Spoilers are hidden throughout this post, there are many copies.

Season two starts off with a really great series of episodes following the finale of the first season, which I neglected to mention in the last post, but it’s shocking and pretty excellent. Several episodes are devoted to getting several groups of characters back together and restoring the status quo.

We need to stop here, because we have hit the first truly hate-worthy episode of BSG, “Flight of the Phoenix”. In this episode, Boomer hooks herself up to a temporarily networked Galactica computer to repel the Cylon computer virus. She manages to somehow make a counter virus or throw the virus back at them or something, because it shuts off all the enemy ships and makes them easily killed.

This, once again, raises several questions about Cylon Detection which are certainly still looming from season one. We’re told they’re identical to humans in every way physically and therefore they cannot be detected, but she can hook into a computer and hack it with her blood or her neurons or whatever. Alright… no.

Moving on, the way she shuts off the largest force of cylon ships is an easy way to get a dramatic ending to the episode. I don’t know why the colonials don’t use her to shut off EVERY cylon ship they encounter from then on. They have the equivalent of a technological superweapon.

This is where we must stop and forge what I will call the Golden Rule of Battlestar Galactica:

The creators of Battlestar Galactica will sacrifice ANYTHING they have built up or previously established in favor of the moment”

The show is very good at drama and has some really good actors (Mary McDonnell rules), but we’ll see as time goes on that again and again this show feels no obligation to stay consistent with anything if it makes for good drama. As I said, the drama is really good, but it’s falsely earned, and doesn’t fit into the series in a meaningful way, it’s just drama in a vacuum.

The pegasus arc is a pretty satisfying series of episodes that puts the crew of BSG up against a parallel crew, offering for a great contrast in command structures and whatnot. It’s tense, but it also starts the second problem with the later seasons of this show, where they get their key figures to make “tough decisions”, but unlike Lee in season one, they don’t have to actually live with them. We see this very clearly when Adama resolves after much deliberation to have Cain murdered. Of course, the show makes it so he doesn’t have to live with this decision by having the escaped Cylon prisoner do it instead. It’s an uncharacteristically neat ending to the arc, but not a completely awful one.

After this, we have a series of one off episodes, most likely because the show is now a 20 episode season instead of 13. “Black Market” is truly atrocious, and it demonstrates the Golden Rule of BSG very well. Lee is shown to have been sleeping with a prostitute for a while, SHOCKING! This is dropped after this episode and never mentioned again. The moment wins out in BSG every time.

When I first saw this show, I was bothered by the way Moore shakes up the series at the end of this season. Looking back on it now, I’ve warmed to it a little. It’s a little bit of a hollow gesture, since all the ramifications are dealt with by episode 6 of the next season though.

This is the last season of Battlestar that is at all salvageable. Get out while you still can… or follow me to the next post, where we’ll tear down season 3.


Season 1- BSG – Beginnings Start Great

This series of posts has been on my back burner for quite a while now. We’re going to take a little journey and travel through all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, as I talk about the rise and fall of one of the best and then most irritating shows I’ve ever seen. Today on the mineshaft? Season one.

Oh, of course there will be spoilers in this post and the next three, but never once will I use the word “frak”.

BSG started off as a truly ballsy and interesting show. The miniseries that starts the story begins with one of the most grim openings I’ve seen in a TV series. We see a truly rag tag fleet on the run from a mechanized army of infinitely respawning clones that are truly out to destroy them. They’re shrouded in mystery, but not only that, there are several of these Cylons hiding in the fleet, ready to strike when the humans least suspect it.

Holy shit. For season one, this series is a truly white knuckle ride as we see the Cylons constantly dogging Galactica, sabotaging their water supplies, and sending in a suicide bomber.

The characters need to make tough decisions, as we see Lee haunted by his choice to blow up a ship that was potentially full of innocent people. Roslin, a school teacher, becomes the long shot president and needs to shoulder the responsibility of leading the human race. As Marty McFly would say, this is heavy.

There’s not a bad episode in the bunch this season. Honestly. It’s really strong throughout. As a season of tv, it’s a really strong unit, giving a variety of space battles and good character episodes. Every crisis that comes up is new and compelling as we see the colonials run low on water, trying to rebuild their political system, and of course, trying to discover the Cylon menace hidden in their fleet.

There is some weird stuff too, such as the enigmatic “head six” that Baltar sees, guiding him around and seemingly bringing him kicking and screaming into making heroic acts that he doesn’t seem ready for. We see the direct consequences of these actions, but we don’t know what the larger scheme is. Questions loom in the viewer’s mind, the good kind of questions.

The only negative I will bring up is the bad kind of questions that loom in the viewer’s mind. This comes mainly from the Cylon detection device, which brings up the question of Cylon detection in general. This device is definitely weirdly handled both in season one and in the rest of the show, but it doesn’t really start bothering me until later. If you’re going to read through all of these posts, just make a mental note of the cylon detector now, because unfortunately the writers brought it back later.

Season 1 of BSG is totally worth watching for any science fiction fan. As you might expect from this post, my opinion will only sour from this point out, and I think many fans had a similar experience. Even the most hardcore BSG supporters must admit that the show went downhill in some capacity since the first season. The steadily slipping ratings as viewers leave the show seem to agree with me as well.


New Mineshaft Feature : Loving the Craft

Well I’ve yet to top my (unimpressive) Robotron score from a while back, so I need an ongoing feature to keep me coming back to the mineshaft. In addition to the normal posts, I will be spending a paragraph or two at the bottom to explore an H.P. Lovecraft story, since I think in general he is a writer that is known of, but not known well enough outside of a few key stories.

Some of the stories might warrant a whole post, though I’m sure I can capture how I felt about one of his short stories in a little blurb at the end of a post, taking the place of the Robotron Diaries (unless I top my score). We’ll be kicking this off in style, with a story that helped renew my interest in this author : “The Silver Key.”

This story is the third in the series of Randolph Carter stories. It’s not completely necessary to read the other two first, but if you wanna be hardcore about it, go for it and read “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Unnamable” first. True Lovecraft fans will point out that in terms of chronology there’s really another one you should read first, “The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath”, but i’ve found that reading them in the written order to be more enjoyable than the chronological order. Plus, these first three stories are much more manageable in size and complexity for those who want to start reading a bit of Lovecraft and don’t want to plunge into Unknown Kadath just yet.

Randolph Carter is one of Lovecraft’s few repeating characters. By this story, he is an old man who has “lost the key to the gate of dreams”. Like several of Lovecraft’s stories, it begins with almost an essay that sets up the mind of the main character before leading in to the story itself. Carter makes several attempts to understand the meaning of the world around him, but finds himself unsatisfied, so he must find a way to retreat back into his dreams from childhood.

The story is both very different from Lovecraft’s other works and very typical for him. It very carefully walks the line between the total cosmic and ghoulish hopelessness of his stories and a kind of childlike belief in the sheer power of dreams and fantasy. It’s almost like Peter Pan with a fog machine… I love it.

Supposedly when this story was published, it wasn’t a big hit. It doesn’t have any monsters or Elder Gods or cults, so maybe that’s why. I can see how it could be less memorable and perhaps less shocking than some other Lovecraft tales. Still, this story is incredible, especially when read in the context of the previous Randolph Carter stories.

I won’t completely spoil the ending, but it is neither completely uplifting nor a total downer, but it does set up a sequel of sorts. I haven’t had time for it yet, but I’m really excited to read it and feature it soon!

July 2018
« Jan