Archive for the ‘space’ Tag

[50/50] Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Science Fiction or Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”—Frederick Pohl (1977)

gatewaynovelIn Good News/Bad News news this week, it was announced that “Gateway,” Frederick Pohl’s bleak ’70s masterpiece, has been optioned for development as a TV series. Considering how dark and full of existential dread television has gotten in the last decade, Pohl’s novel of desperate humans on an abandoned alien starbase will fit right in. On the flip side, the production team that snagged the rights is one half De Laurentiis and one half the people who brought us the awful wild west mess “Hell on Wheels.”

Which is a shame. If any novel is well suited to episodic TV, it would be “Gateway” — but only if it was done right. Set years after the discovery of an asteroid full of alien ships is found orbiting the sun, the book chronicles the horrible living conditions humans endure on Gateway, all in the slim hope they might strike it rich. Unable to control, dismantle or decipher the pre-programmed ships, people gamble their lives by climbing in the alien vehicles and hitting the launch button. Most of the time the ships never return, and when they do the crew is frequently dead — on rare occasions, however, someone returns with an alien artifact or other great discovery, one that sets them up for life. Crossing a gold rush with Russian Roulette, the novel is, according to this reviewer, “coated in dread.”

While the core of the book is the unpacking of the mystery of what happened to the protagonist — and the slow unraveling of his post-traumatic stress — the most powerful parts of “Gateway” are the one-page ephemera that divide chapters. Official mission reports that detail the fates of random prospectors, made all the more horrific by the memo’s cold and bureaucratic language, bolstered by snippets of classifieds from Gateway’s newspaper of people reaching out for a connection — any connection — in an uncaring universe.

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[50/50] Book #11: “The Forever War”

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Book #11: “The Forever War” — Joe Haldeman (1974)

(I’m going to cheat a little here and just post my review of the novel from “What our writers are reading” in the 12/23/09 issue of Indy Week.)

the_forever_warWhen Joe Haldeman returned from the Vietnam War, having experienced combat first-hand, he felt compelled to offer a “reply” to Robert Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers.

Set over thousands of years, The Forever War follows a soldier fighting against the first aliens encountered by humans. Due to the relativistic speeds of space travel, his unit returns from every battle to discover that centuries have passed on Earth, with their families and the generals who ordered them into combat long dead.

Haldeman struggled to find a publisher for his anti-war book, as it was deemed too controversial, too close for comfort in the early ’70s. The Forever War eventually went on to win the Hugo and the Nebula, science fiction’s highest awards, and is now considered a masterpiece of both sci-fi and anti-war novels such as Catch 22. (It should also not be confused with the book of the same title—recently issued in paperback—by New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins, which is about a different “forever war.”)

Earlier this year, Haldeman released his definitive version of the book, restoring a center section that was originally considered “too downbeat.” Interestingly, he left in several anachronisms (the book opens in 1997, and we are already colonizing other planets) because he realized it doesn’t matter when the story is set or whether the analogy is of Vietnam—or Iraq and Afghanistan. The effect of war on soldiers is still the same.

[50/50] Song #28: “Heaven & Hell/Movement 3”

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Song #28: “Heaven & Hell, Movement 3” (aka the Theme to Cosmos) — Vangelis (1975)

satpicAh, the instrumental. Do you know how hard it was to track down an instrumental you heard in passing, even after the internet and iTunes arrived? Song ID software now makes it easy, but before that, with no lyrics to google, instrumentals were songs that could haunt you for years. I once overheard a photographer at the Herald-Sun complain it took him weeks to find out the name of that Booker T. and MG’s tune was “Green Onions,” and I spent even longer trying to find out the name of the song AND the band on a mix tape a college girlfriend made for me after I lost the playsheet. (It was “Someone up there likes you” by Simple Minds by the way.)

Of course, an instrumental could still haunt you, even if you knew exactly who did it. This was certainly the case with “At the Heart of it All” by Aphix Twin, done with Nine Inch Nails on their “Further Down the Spiral” album.

And who could forget the still-freaky-even-after-30-years of Herbie Hancock:

For me though, the winner has to be the first Vangelis I ever heard, Movement 3 to his Heaven & Hell album, or as it’s better know, the theme to “Cosmos.” The PBS show that made a household name of Carl Sagan in 1978 also showcased Vangelis’ elegant, grandiose, and occasionally bombastic electronica long before he would go on to win the Academy Award and American Top 40 for “Chariots of Fire” or do the soundtrack for “Blade Runner.”

It turned my brother and I into such fans, we even got his weirdly experimental stuff, which for Vangelis meant teaming up with Yes frontman John Anderson for the strange ode to film noir, “Friends of Mr. Cairo,” a favorite late-night staple of DJs on Starview 92 who used the 12-minute epic whenever they needed a bathroom break or to go get stoned.

None of which takes away from the angelic ambiance of “Movement 3,” which I once thought would make great music at my funeral. While I realized now that would probably be a mistake, it was certainly the perfect pick for Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.”

[50/50] Short Story #16: “They’re Made Out of Meat”

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Short Story #16: “They’re Made Out of Meat” —Terry Bisson (1990)

StarryNightBacon-thumb-500x363You think you’re existential? This snappy kick-to-the-gut will leave you cold and reeling. Comprised solely of dialog between 2 characters, “They’re Made of Meat” has a twisted Twilight Zone vibe that would have made Rod Serling proud. Which is pretty impressive considering this short short story is essentially a humor piece. Black, black gallows humor, to be sure, but still. I’d say more singing its praises, but then I’d run the risk of writing a commentary longer than the original. Just go read it:

http://www.terrybisson.com/page6/page6.html

“Bacon Starry Night” courtesy of instructables.   See the rest of the countdown here.

[50/50] Video Game #19: Tail Gunner

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Video Game #19: Tail Gunner (1979)*

Tail_GunnerAnother space shooter, Tail Gunner put you in the back seat of starship where you had to fend off wave after wave of starfighters intent on blowing up your ride. Unlike the many pixel-based games that came to dominate the arcade in the 1980s, Tail Gunner was vector-based, using straight lines generated by electron beams to create objects. The glowing wireframe images certainly made you feel as if you were playing in a high-tech computer, and lent itself very well to space settings, as you will see.

I actually missed this game when it first came out and only discovered it years later in a forgotten corner of the massive arcade at Hersheypark, the summer I worked there. The amusement park had been collecting video and pinball games for decades, and with each new generation of releases, older titles were pushed further and further back into the building. The version they had — virtually the only one I ever saw, in any arcade anywhere — was a large enclosed cockpit with the joystick and controls on the side of the gunner’s chair. This unusual set up made Tail Gunner particularly challenging, and immersive in way few video games were at the time.