Tech Noir Saturday Music

Styx famously sang:

"The problem's plain to see
Too much technology
Machines to save our lives
Machines dehumanize"

But of course that wasn't the problem at all. People were the monsters all along. Machines only suck because people program them to suck.

The solution is clear.

What I'm Watching: Time Trap

Apparently this is the season of low-budget time travel movies, because I get another one. This was a much better ride.

An asshole archaeologist goes caving alone except for his dog, trying to find some hippies who went missing 40 years ago. He passes thru a weird wet invisible wall and never returns.

So then his two students go looking for him. They pick up a random girlfriend, younger sister, and "Furby" who is (as they point out) like Chunk from the Goonies but not as heroic or competent. They rappel down thru the wet invisible wall.

The cave areas are mostly classic Dr Who quality warehouse floors with dust and plaster stalagmites, but the centerpiece tower chamber looks OK.

SPOILERS ahoy

They get many clues that something's wrong with time, even if they can't read the title, but don't put it together for a long time. The wet field is of course condensation at the time barrier. The "Furby cut the rope!" hypothesis is kept up much longer than is plausible, but they do eventually figure out why ropes break.

It's great that they all have gopros, so we can see the same scenes multiple times on tiny phone screens (or a projector but with no silver screen in a cave) in lieu of anyone talking it over. The mythology is finally explained in some detail, but it's after much too long of everyone saying "what is happening?!"

Finally the random encounters start. The cavemen are ridiculous, scampering on all fours. There ought to be generation after generation of invaders, instead of just cavemen, conquistadors, lone gunslinger, hippies, archaeologists, and spacemen.

There's some unexamined bits. What do the cavemen eat? Where do they get wood for fires, leather for clothes? Cannibalism and healing in the spring? Where does the Fountain come from? Why is it able to do this? No idea.

[Update: I just realized. This is set in Texas. Where the hell did they get cavemen? Native Americans got here only 15-20KYA, and they're the same Homo sapiens as everyone else, not these sorta-Neanderthal/Homo habilis looking grimy monkey men. There have never been non-Sapiens hominids in North America, Bigfoot claims aside.]

The final scenes are a bit neat and tidy, and really could've used a freaky post-Human Martian coming in to say something, but it did fine for a limited cast.

Minor point against it: The dog is never seen again, even though he should've been hanging around the truck when the students arrived. Maybe he survived, but probably the coyotes got him. I want a happy ending for the dog, too.

This is an interesting time for indie films, because even cheap cameras look good, so if you have a decent script and the special effects are just Photoshop on a few frames, you can make a professional film on a shoestring budget.

★★★½☆

What I'm Watching: In the Shadow of the Moon

So, a perfectly fine premise, well-acted, somewhat wrecked by the writers not thinking things thru at all. First hour I was fully on board, then nothing added up, and by the end I was annoyed. As with so many films, the color has been shat on with the orange/cyan filter, except where day-for-night scenes are grey filtered.

SPOILER land

There are two hypotheses about time travel. A is that everything forward and back has already happened, and if you vanish in the future it's because you already appeared in the past; you may be the cause of events but they can't be changed. This is the only rational argument, really. We know time is just part of space-time; each tick moves things "ahead" in the next frame.

B is that time travel rewrites the future; you kill a fascist and fascism vanishes and everyone's singing Kumbaya. But then there's no need for a time machine and assassin, so the fascist isn't killed and fascism spreads. Now you need a time machine again. This is madness.

The movie seems to be doing hypothesis A, but then ends as if hypothesis B happened. But only after decades of the original timeline.

Second, somewhat worse, is that the method of killing is preposterously convoluted. Why does the assassin need to inject targets now so someone in the future can push a button? She could just shoot them or give them a drug OD and not provide weird clues to make a cop go all Zodiac case on it for decades. I am disappointed the cop doesn't have a clue & string board in his car.

Third, completely nonsensical stuff about the Super Moon being a bridge between worlds or some shit. Absolute astrology-class woo nonsense.

Fourth, the idea that some newsletter about "real Americans" and a flag with 5 badly-placed stars is going to incite the Second Civil War, completely fails to understand our first Civil War, and the nature of populist movements. You'd have to kill millions to stop it.

Fifth, the idea that you'd use this to stop some bombings, no worse than what dozens of countries endure every day, including several at the hands of the US armed forces; rather than going back to stop Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or Nixon.

The writers previously worked together on Limitless, an equally vapid show about the "10% of your brain!" myth. I can't find their ages, but I'm pretty sure they're under 30, it has that earnest political certainty & lack of humor or irony. They've clearly never read a history book, especially none of the Presidential biographies they show.

★★☆☆☆ — definition of competent but unenjoyable.

What I'm Watching: The I-Land E4-7

Despite my contempt for the writing, I finished this off. I'm going straight to spoilers here; at least watch E1-3 cold.

So E4-E6 goes back to the I-Land, and there's a terribly-written argument of "you have to believe my incredible story!" "no you're a liar!" "waah, you bitch!" for half an hour or more; I barely exaggerate, it's a tale told by an idiot. Some light bondage but it's not very hot.

A couple claiming to be "Bonnie & Clyde" show up and deliver more preposterous threats and tell everyone remembering their past will make them sad. Then everyone splits up, has flashbacks, and yes they all suck IRL as well as on I-Land. The past is a land of crying people and shitty Instagram filters, and repeated scenes because they didn't film enough to pad the episode out. Now, serious SF moment here: I don't think any kind of memory suppression is plausible, the brain doesn't work like a database, something this targeted and reversible especially not, and it's completely contrary to the reformation attempt. So the main plot point technology is just nonsense fantasy.

Chase continues to be the only interesting character, so Cooper runs off after her to stay relevant and on-camera. We do eventually learn a whole sad backstory, except: It is implausible they would both be incarcerated together, both taken in the program, and hook up again despite memory wipe. It feels tacked on, or like Lost the soi-disant writers were just making up bullshit as they went along.

Taylor sails away to II-Land (second island, ha ha), which has the single dumbest plot element in the show; never drink free chicken soup! Bonnie & Clyde showing up to be shitty Rod Serlings is just salt in the wound. Said shitty plot element is never seen; is it another player or an NPC or just B&C?

Nothing at all is resolved, until KC and her bozo follower confront Chase & Cooper, violence ensues, B&C show up, and there's quite a good fight scene again. The fight choreography is quite good, someone competent was running that. But also here KC and her bozo just vanish when no longer relevant to the plot.

And finally in E7, back in "reality" more or less, Chase gets released because everyone believes a single thing Cooper says. Except we have to sit thru more of the Warden being an idiot, the doctor & academics being patronizing, everyone getting some kind of comeuppance which is very implausible; especially putting anyone new into the simulation.

The final twist about Chase isn't really shocking, since she didn't recognize any advanced tech in E3, it had to be some time ahead, but it's too far: A 50-year-old woman who's been in a sensory deprivation tank for 25 years cannot do the fighting we saw in E3.

The casual "Galveston is flooded" thing is cute, but a real post-Global Warming Galveston isn't going to be a temperature-habitable zone either.

They seem to think she's doomed, being discharged with pocket money & bus fare; that's stupid, she can go to any tabloid successor of Buzzfeed and make millions on the story, and any yellow rag journalist can write it better than these writers did.

The entire series is so terribly written it may as well have been improvised by the actors, except they did all the flashbacks, so it's actually scripted this badly. The same premise, if handled by a competent writer, director, and hiring more than one competent actor, and having more fight scenes, could've been much better.

★★½☆☆

What I'm Watching: The I-Land

10 very pretty people wake up with amnesia on a beach, on a deserted tropical island. As they wander, they find useful items for survival. If they go in the water… da-dum da-dum… They have some stupid interpersonal drama.

Then the very telegraphed "twist" happens; which given the staticky intro effect, and the unreal nature of many events, should be no surprise at all.

Up thru E2 it's a mediocre Lost with really terrible dialogue and deliberately no character development. Then E3 is the exposition ep, but the writing is even worse, with a fat moron not answering questions, then terrible caricatures of academics not answering questions. The only saving grace is one good action scene. But these supposed future police have no idea how to handle prisoners, they're like the idiot cops in Demolition Man trying to handle Wesley Snipes, but this isn't intended as dark comedy.

★★½☆☆ as of E3 out of 7 — If I hadn't seen Lost, The Cell, or Demolition Man, I'd think this was at least sort of creative. Probably some people will call out The Matrix, but that's a happier kind of prison.

The thing of casting only pretty people for the island and often ugly ones for outside is a shallow trick, and I find it kind of insulting.

What I'm Not Watching: Another Life

New Netflix UFO first contact series. It's rare that a show flunks out with me as fast as this one has. Maybe I'm unfair, maybe I have impossible standards of mediocre TV. Certainly my tolerance for bullshit like FTL, non-functional starships, and implausible human social structures in SF decreases asymptotically with the newness of the work; I ignore or even enjoy it in pre-'60s SF (H. Beam Piper and Robert A. Heinlein can do no wrong), tolerate it in '60s-70s (Star Trek TOS & TAS are cool, even if it's technical nonsense), eyeroll in '80s-90s (TNG is not cool; I tried rewatching recently and made it 8 episodes in before going insane. Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1 were competent and avoided most of my technical and social complaints), and just say "fuck that" in the 21st C.

So, this. Starts off badly with vapid people oohing and ahhing at maybe the shittiest CGI spaceship ever drawn, an overhead drone shot with fisheye lens for no reason, a shitty CGI impact & Photoshop crystals growing, and lens flares everywhere. Yeah, this is gonna be a chore to look at, isn't it?

Then the main character, Astronaut Niko (Vic from Longmire) & her trivial other are introduced and start "As You Know Bob"-ing each other. With an iPad with shitty plastic prosthetics on it so it doesn't look like an iPad. Apparently this is the distant future, not the present like the previous scenes and the lame Midwest honky fashion suggests?

Next scene she has a shitty CGI starship which makes no structural sense the size of a… tanker? The ring suggests it rotates for pseudo-gravity, but is so thin this thing would have to be city-sized instead. And it'd be vulnerable to radiation, especially when they cruise right up to a giant bright star like Sirius A (8.6 LY away). Rough estimate from on-screen size of the ring is 1mm thick, 10cm across, which would put a 20m thick ring around 20km wide & 30-40km long starship. So something is very wrong here.

She said she'd be gone 3 months each way to Pi Canis Majoris, 96 LY away. They have FTL, but haven't gone anywhere with it? So why does she have to go into what seems to be cryogenic sleep? You'd use cryo for a STL ship that would take centuries to get there, not for magic FTL.

Immediately we're informed that the star isn't where they thought (what, no) and there's a "dark cloud" in the way. And her first concern is maybe they'd hit a planet. OH FUCK YOU. Space is fucking huge; hitting a planet in light years of cloud would be like hitting a BB in the ocean, if you were a microbe.

Making a pit stop at Sirius to get to Pi Canis is like making a pit stop at Barstow on the way from LA to Poughkeepsie, New York; yeah, it's thataway (they are in the same direction from Earth), but you've barely started. The star map shown is ludicrously wrong in scale.

Now there's a black man hologram who's apparently the ship's AI. It's paranoid about the aliens being hostile, and is inexplicably Human-behaving. I loathe machines pretending they're people, and presenting your AI slave as black is some nasty shit.

The crew apparently don't know each other and have to introduce themselves, except they don't finish the introductions so the audience is left in the dark; there was no on-Earth briefing or training, they were just loaded aboard in cold-storage? They say spaceships haven't had uniforms in decades, which I find even less plausible. Shitty space teenager has to lounge in a sofa and text her parents during debriefing; so they have FTL comms, but decentralized command like an isolated exploration ship?

Everyone talks over everyone else, finishes their sentences, which would be fine if it was witty Howard Hawks banter but instead it's lame technobabble and bad leadership. The writers for this have never spent a minute in an engineering or military organization.

Now trivial other, left behind with the annoying child (best decision yet; I'm annoyed they're ever on screen), has gone crazy and is trying to use bird sounds to talk to the shitty CGI UFO, and explains this in a "Holo-Call", which is two actors sitting in the same room with some shitty CGI static to suggest they're light-years apart.

This is 20 minutes in and my hate for the incompetent writers and filmmakers could set fire to the planet. I'm done, stopping. Fuck this.

☆☆☆☆☆ I award you no points

What I'm Reading: Space Prison, by Tom Godwin

More commonly known for his short story "The Cold Equations", which has been infuriating people who think life is fair and kind for 65 years, he wrote a number of other novels and short stories. I've read this probably 20-30 years ago, but not as a single piece since then.

Spoilers ahead, go read the book, it's VERY short, a novella by modern standards.

Earth is being blockaded by an alien empire called the Gern, a colony ship of 8000 is sent to a newly-discovered planet Athena with rich resources which can be used to make weapons protecting Earth. They're defeated and half the population are set down on an inhospitable high-gravity planet Ragnarok, the other half taken as slaves to Athena to work for the Gern.

The Gern (derived from Hugo Gernsback?) caricature is, uh, problematic:

"The were big, dark men, with powerful, bulging muscles. They surveyed her and the room with a quick sweep of eyes that were like glittering obsidian, their mouths thin, cruel slashes in the flat, brutal planes of their faces."
… (much later) …
"Narth, like all the Gerns, was different from what they had expected. It was true the Gerns had strode into their town with an attempt at arrogance but they were harmless in appearance, soft of face and belly, and the snarling of the red-faced Narth was like the bluster of a cornered scavenger-rodent."

Well. And none of the Earth people are described in any racial way, except one Germanic psychopath.

As for the Humans, most of the "rejects" left on Ragnarok die in the first few days and are whittled down over years to 49, before the new generations acclimated to the gravity and atmosphere, harsh conditions, and carnivorous diet increase back up to 6000+ over another 200 years, which requires a rather high birth rate and low death rate; I don't think it's quite plausible.

It's notable that the first viewpoint character is a woman. She doesn't last long, and after that few women even get to speak, only one about anything except babies, and most of them die young. The final state of the Ragnarok barbarians is a totalitarian tribal society where women and children hide in caves, men go fight; the women are physically and mentally competent, as shown in one animal fight scene late in the book, but not consulted in war.

The transmission of knowledge, in a handful of books somehow written and preserved by these not-quite-paleolithic barbarians, is exceedingly implausible. They make technical and scientific leaps which would be extraordinary in societies of billions, let alone a few thousand. Meanwhile neither Earth nor the Gern make any technical progress in the 200 year course of the book, allowing ancient written knowledge of their blasters and ship systems to help 10th generation barbarians.

I'm not going to criticize a book from the '50s for having FTL drives and communications, but I roll my eyes at it anyway, especially when they propose building spaceships and FTL communicators with stone knives & prowler-skins, as it were.

Native life of Ragnarok consists of: Prowlers (wolf/big cat type hunters), Unicorns (psychotic bison with one horn), Wood Goats, a few species of small and large scavengers, and Mockers (telepathic squirrels), and plants not dissimilar to Earth. It's not much of an ecosystem, and is never explained sufficiently. To some extent, Godwin didn't understand the ecological energy pyramid. I have an untested, almost unsupported hypothesis that the erratic orbits of Ragnarok and its suns may be a post-apocalyptic situation, where these are the few survivors of a more complex ecosystem; that would help explain the intelligence of the few survivors.

They have a series of strong male leaders, willing and able to execute anyone who doesn't share everything with the group, are incorruptible, and single-minded on survival and the long-term ideal of defeating the Gerns. This is, to be blunt, maybe the least plausible thing. I can buy one or two such leaders, but getting a third is beyond impossible. Humans fuck everything up with politics and religion, there's no way they wouldn't.

The barbarians do make good use of all their resources, despite an almost total lack of metals on the planet. And yet at no point are cannibalism or hierarchical resource distribution discussed, which are the usual Human solutions to extremely tight resources. The Aztecs would be very disappointed in Ragnarok.

The rapidity of them adapting to spaceship technology and developing a new tactic against an ancient spacefaring empire is very unlikely; ridiculous, even.

And here's the thing, most of this I can criticize as unrealistic. But the idea of a Hell world breeding up super-soldiers who then seize power from the civilized and establishing their own Empire, that's an idea that appears in many other places.

Historically, the Spartans tried to make this work, despite being in one of the most fertile and pleasant places on Earth, and did make superior warriors… at a cost of crippling their economy and culture, and eventually twice being defeated by coalitions of everyone else in the region who hated them for it.

Germanic barbarians lived in much more difficult environments and had more meat-heavy diets than the Romans, and were physically more powerful; but that generally didn't help them win wars against civilized people until Rome started collapsing for internal reasons (maybe lead pipes, but just as much the abandonment of military traditions by filthy ignorant Christians).

The Zulu Empire rose with Shaka Zulu and his Spartan-like ideals, and almost immediate collapse after his murder by his idiot brother. South Africa ranges from Hell world to some of the most fertile places on Earth, so there wasn't an environmental pressure, only one strong leader.

So the reality of this idea does not work.

In Dune, obviously, with both the Fremen and Sardaukar. The Fremen women, unlike the Ragnarok barbarians, fight like the men do, and Leto II's Fish Speakers, descended from both Fremen and Sardaukar, are all women. Herbert revisits this in The Dosadi Experiment, though the Dosadi survivors are more politically treacherous than superhumanly dangerous.

Harry Harrison's Deathworld series has easily the most dangerous planet, vaguely habitable but every form of life trying to kill invaders, but the successful colonists adapt to the environment, rather than trying to fight and control it.

I honestly don't know how to rate this. It's a very enjoyable read, but there are so many cultural, literary, political, ecological, and technical things I object to that it shouldn't pass.

★★☆☆☆ / ★★★★☆ depending on how I think about it.

There's a sequel, The Barbarians, which I'll likely read soon, and see if that addresses anything or makes it worse.

Expanse Plot Holes

I forgot about these when writing What I'm Watching: Expanse S3, but these annoyed me to no end:

During high-G maneuvers, Prax's suit hose gets cut, and he immediately can't breathe. Amos unplugs his suit and gets up, spends 2 minutes crawling over to him and plugging it back in. Why can't Prax's suit hold 2 minutes of air? Also Amos is apparently such a badass he can hold his weight at maybe 3-10G by the fingertips. Don't arm-wrestle that dude.

Just before they rescue the kids, a scene establishes that Bobbie Draper's power armor is just about out of thruster fuel, and Holden says they have no hydrazine, they ironically don't need rocket fuel. Bobbie then spends the next 30 minutes flying up shafts and across vast expanses of open Ionian sky.

So, where'd the fuel come from? First, even an advanced Martian fusion torch spaceship probably would have hydrazine or some equivalent for maneuvering thrusters, and all the spacesuits have thrusters with kind of ridiculous amounts of thrust and range. Second, it's easy to make hydrazine with common chemicals, it's the easy part of rocket science (also drug manufacture). But there's no scene of them refueling Bobbie's armor.

What I'm Watching: The Expanse S3

So, I read these when they came out, some years ago. They ("James S.A. Corey" is a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck; I don't know why they didn't just use both their names) wrote a good hard SF STL setting, then there's an unfortunate "space zombies" episode, and then they kind of blow that up for a more traditional space opera thing.

The first season was great, but took a lot from the 1st & 2nd books; the second season was the rest of the first two books. Minor improvement in not having space zombies, but so much of the books are skipped for more standing around talking time.

So finally S3 is free with 'Zon Prime. Well.

The space battles and gunfights are generally very good, when you can see them; about half the time you can't see anything happen except on a tactical scanner, which is "realistic" in that there's no camera handy, but dull storytelling. The "Prax tries to rescue his daughter, but he's a botanist which isn't very useful" story works well.

Unfortunately, this is a politics-heavy season, and Earth politics are incredibly dull and preachy, and have maybe the most annoying character ever introduced since Jar-Jar Binks, Preacher Anna Volovodov (also, shitty translation, it should be Volovodova), blonde bimbo savior. Every scene she's in is a Boomer ex-hippie preaching about love and peace and ideals, or how scared everyone is but it's OK because "god" is with them. Ugh. She contributes nothing, has no real useful skills (supposedly she's a nurse but in the two times that matters, she doesn't do anything but "comfort" people; no medical skills exhibited) but fills about 30% of the screen time of the season. All her Earth scenes are created for the show, they have nothing to do with the books.

Once the politics are resolved, maybe we'll get rid of Preacher Anna? No, she shows up at the Big Dumb Object for no reason (which is where she comes in in the books), and preaches about how "There are things in the Universe much bigger than we are", but none of them are her god, so it's utterly pointless. The military characters try to ship her off with the other civilians, and she finds a way to stay just to annoy me.

I'm impressed that there's two full-on mutinies and lunatic captains shooting their own people rather than the "enemy". In real navies you don't get that kind of action too often, because nobody that insane is ever given control of a multi-billion-dollar vessel. Actual military people at upper ranks tend to be selected for calmness and sucking up to hierarchy, any rebellion is beaten out of them when they're cadets, but here we get a traitor and an actual space pirate deciding who walks the plank.

Bobby Draper is still very cute, and keeps showing what dicks the Martians are. Earth people are assholes with no redeeming traits, Belters are piratical but generally fun, but the Martians are like the Mitchell & Webb Nazi sketch, but none of them realize they're the baddies.

Finally a dumbass Belter, a girl hopped up on drugs screaming for "vengeance", two annoying paparazzi, James "What the Fuck Have You Done Now" Holden, and a hallucination of Joe Miller's Stupid Hat turn on the Big Dumb Object and go have the magic space opera part of this season. Most of this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, physics-wise or in Human psychology. But it turns on the Plot Device so they can go explore 1300 star systems next season.

★★★☆☆ but I fast-forwarded over a lot of Preacher Anna's preachin', I'd probably give it ★☆☆☆☆ if I had to sit thru all of it.