What I'm Watching: Tenet

A bit of Robert Heinlein's All You Zombies, a bit of Doctor Who, a lot of every buddy caper flick. Not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Or I've just read too many competent time travel stories to tolerate most of what ends up on film.

The first half does its best to never tell you what's going on, and at the point where you'd get an infodump, the scene just switches away. Obnoxious writing trick to avoid having to think some of it out.

I don't much like the brown-on-brown film coloring for much of the footage, but it's not constantly cyan-and-orange, so I guess I'll let it pass.

Denzel's kid John David Washington is OK, he's slightly snarky or unserious when he should be serious, but competent enough. Robert Pattinson is a mess, his fake accent is weird, and he has zero affect, either a robot or a sociopath, as has previously been noted: He was perfect as the vapid lead in Cosmopolis but anything else is asking too much of him. My Cocaine Michael Caine has a somewhat pointless but fun little cameo. Kenneth Brannagh's beard looks super weird and artificial, I'm distracted from his generally superb scenery chewing by that weird growth on his face. Elizabeth Debicki is leggy and sleek, but totally extraneous.

SPOILER

















So, the trick is you can reverse time flow on an object or person, by just walking through a big iron turnstile; zero special effects budget, literally all they ever use is running some film backwards.

If you reverse bullets, a forward-time observer sees them pulled out of the target. All the Protagonist can think to do with that is a few parlor tricks, go "whoa" like Keanu, and does occasionally avoid standing in front of bullet holes. There's a lot of interesting things you could do with this, the film never does. Shoot a bullet now, pull it out "later" (by one perspective or another), it's the best sniper kill. Nobody else pays attention to bullet holes, damaged cars, etc. until it's too late, which is probably supposed to be suspenseful but it leaves me in contempt of these idiots.

There's a point where they clearly just brain-farted: A reversed driver car chases the Protagonist… driving backwards, in front of them. No. The car isn't reversed, the driver just sees the world going the wrong way around. The entire bomb caper is weird, often confused, but that was the weirdest.

And while it's not a major plot point, suppressed pistols are not silent. It's not "thwip", dead, it's more like a gunshot down the block instead of in your ears. The locked doors all over are weirdly inadequate, they have both keypad and tumbler lock; most such are very low-grade security, where you want fast access but a key in case you lose power. The good keypad locks are keyless, or a high-security tumbler that can't be bumped like Protagonist is shown doing. This is kind of a major plot point, and I don't believe the villain would use such shitty locks to protect his doomsday machine.

Very quickly they jump to spending long periods of time reversed, mostly hiding in cargo containers or ships with sealed air, so they can go back and fix their previous screwups. Their "temporal pincer attacks" don't make any sense, the people in reverse just end up fighting people in reverse because they're moving back before go-time. Protagonist does eventually figure out how to do things right: See the aftermath of something, wait for the event, follow it back to the cause. But he does it very badly, continuously gets beaten up and rescued.

The entire plot of the arms dealer's wife is extraneous to the 2.5 hour film, and adds about half an hour to it; it should've been the first thing cut. The only thing I liked in that entire bit was the diving woman.

And turning the entire thing into "oh, there's nine Horcruxes and we have to stop Voldemort from assembling them" is just silly.

The finale is just a big messy gunfight in a California gravel quarry, no better than classic Doctor Who but wasting millions of times more money. I'd rather watch Jon Pertwee spinning out his jalopy than this.

And of course the All You Zombies twist: There's never been any other mastermind. But where do all you zombies come from?

This movie makes me greatly miss the Netflix series Travelers[sic], which made intelligent use of knowledge from the future.

★★★½☆ — there's a better movie buried somewhere under the flab and stupid characters, but this ain't it.

RIP Ben Bova

For me, Bova's main achievements were taking over Analog and turning it from a rag full of pseudoscience published by the most loathsome person in SF, into something like an Actual Science Fiction magazine.

And a long string of his hard SF novels, from Kinsman Saga, Colony, and Mars.

But my favorite thing Ben Bova ever wrote is a short, so good that I forgive its use of "telepathy" as a narrative device, "Stars, Won't You Hide Me", collected in:

The Final Battle had been lost.
On a million million planets across the galaxy-studded universe, mankind had been blasted into defeat and annihilation.
The Others had returned from across the edge of the observable world, just as man had always feared.
They had returned and ruthlessly exterminated the race from Earth.

I Think We're Property

Dangers of near approach -- nevertheless our own ships that dare not venture close onto a rocky shore can send rowboats ashore --
Why not diplomatic relations established between the United States and Cyclorea -- which, in our advanced astronomy, is the name of a remarkable wheel-shaped world or super-construction? Why not missionaries sent here openly to convert us from our barbarous prohibitions and other taboos, and to prepare the way for a good trade in ultra-bibles and super-whiskeys; fortunes made in [155/156] selling us cast-off super-fineries, which we'd take to like an African chief to some one's old silk hat from New York or London?
The answer that occurs to me is so simple that it seems immediately acceptable, if we accept that the obvious is the solution of all problems, or if most of our perplexities consist in laboriously and painfully conceiving of the unanswerable, and then looking for answers -- using such words as "obvious" and "solution" conventionally --
Or:
Would we, if we could, educate and sophisticate pigs, geese, cattle?
Would it be wise to establish diplomatic relation with the hen that now functions, satisfied with mere sense of achievement by way of compensation?

I think we're property.

I should say we belong to something:
That once upon a time, this earth was No-man's Land, that other worlds explored and colonized here, and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it's owned by something:
That something owns this earth -- all others warned off.
Nothing in our own times -- perhaps -- because I am thinking of certain notes I have -- has ever appeared upon this earth, from somewhere else, so openly as Columbus landed upon San Salvador, or as Hudson sailed up his river. But as to surreptitious visits to this earth, in recent times, or as to emissaries, perhaps, from other worlds, or voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to evade or avoid, we shall have data as convincing as our data of oil or coal-burning aerial super-constructions.
Book of the Damned (1919), ch. 12, by Charles Fort

Eerily repeated in a lot of science fiction. Ironically, H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" is nearly a "we're property" story, but Wells irrationally hated Charles Fort. Likes repel, I suppose.

A few obvious ones, but there are dozens more (put them in comments if you like; archive.org links preferred!):

What I'm Watching: Deathsport

Deathsport (1978) is a sequel, of sorts, to Death Race 2000 (1975).

It immediately starts with some funky electronic music (the whole soundtrack is excellent if you like beepy '70s electronic music), and the best voiceover ever, the setting of every science-fantasy RPG setting I've ever run:

A thousand years from tomorrow, after the Great Neutron Wars,
the world consists of desert wastes and isolated city states.
A few machines remain as a reminder of the past,
but only the city-dwelling Statemen use them.
Between the cities roam the dreaded cannibal mutants
and the Range Guides. Guides are legendary warriors
leading an independent nomadic life,
owing allegiance only to their code.

Carradine and another range guide chick (an extremely drunk/coked up Claudia Jennings a year before her death) have a few battles against silver lamé-clad Statemen, riding "death machines" which are dirtbikes with some plastic plates glued on. I'm quite enamored of the clear plastic swords and light-up tube "blasters", not even a pretense of any gear being usable.

There's a child abducted by the mutants, who becomes a later sidequest. Or mutant lunch.

Eventually they're captured and spend entirely too long in bad prison cells, making small talk through a teeny grill. Some light torture, girls forced to dance naked under swinging blinky-light cables, nothing too interesting. The Statemen leader (David McLean, his last role while he was dying from lung cancer) wears black and is going insane, his sidekick (Richard Lynch, the only competent actor besides Carradine) wears black and is a traitor Guide, very very obviously some Star Wars influences.

Finally the big event, they're thrown into an arena (a dirtbike rally pit) against the Statemen. Mostly terrible teenage bike riders, but a few good explosive and pyro effects set off more or less at random. They blow up the force field walls to roam the wastes, hunted by the sidekick and a nigh-endless supply of goons.

A little bit of a "dungeon" crawl with torches, marching order, rats, some boinking in a cell. A lot of dirtbike fights, with these savage guides knowing exactly how to use the "death machines" better than trained Statemen soldiers. A second dungeon crawl in a "cave" with mutants. A third on-bike dungeon crawl/DOOM level with explosive barrels. They know what I like to see: Tits and explosions.

I'm somewhat impressed by the bike-front camera shooting. Trivial with a GoPro™ today, but in 1978, strapping a film camera to a dirtbike and getting any usable footage is amazing. Had to be some kind of stabilized rig?

The truth needs no introduction.
When the Sun rises, there's no necessity to announce it.
Clearly we have lost.
—sidekick contradicting his own thesis.

At least one of the writers must have played D&D or Metamorphosis Alpha, there's too many obvious gaming bits. The writing is all over the place, parts are somewhat clever and deep, there's what looks like some real setting lore, the rest is mashed together clichés and other movies; there were 4 writers, and probably Roger Corman fiddled with it, too. Carradine got in fistfights with the director, and another director had to finish it. Everyone was on drugs.

Dumb, only half-competent, but far more amusing than I expected.

★★★½☆

Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine on Archive

I was looking specifically for Philip K. Dick's "Cantata 140", also found Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" and look at that great wraparound cover! But also all of F&SF is in there, and it's pretty much all good, the best of the more literary end of SF, fantasy, weird tales. Unfortunately it hasn't all been neatly organized in a category on archive.org, but you can just page down in the pulp magazine rack.

Anyway, there's your reading stack for the next year sorted.

LibriVox Short Science Fiction

Tons of audiobook readings of mid-20th-century short SF. Ran across #11 on archive.org, and "Accidental Death" by Peter Baily amused me. "Control Group" by Roger Dee is very talky but amusing, too.

Very much in need of downloading and playing back at higher speed, though, the readers are painfully, deliberately sssslllloooowwww, tolerable at 1.5x to 2x.

What I'm Watching: 12 Monkeys (1995)

Haven't seen this since the theatre when it came out.

So, 1995. Bruce Willis was familiar from Moonlighting, and Die Hard, and his mediocre blues album The Return of Bruno, but hadn't become quite the caricature and one-note joke he is now. Brad Pitt had just come off True Romance and Se7en, whining and crying "What's in the box? What's in the box?!" Madeleine Stowe was the A-list femme fatale from China Moon, Revenge, and The Two Jakes. Plenty of smaller familiar actors, like Chris Meloni (most punchable face in the world) as the asshole cop, years before Law & Order: Formulaic Rape Is Bad Unit.

This film's a massively extended (too much so) Hollywoodization of the French experimental… it's not quite a movie, except in the way Ken Burns' documentaries are… sequence of moving pictures, La Jetée. Which in some ways is very effective, but it's dry as hell, lacks any characterization, it's an idea without implementation. Hollywooding it up was inevitable.

The style of the future, the police station, the mental institution, the shitty New York corner they keep going back to, just every set except the outdoors and the mansion, are basically Terry Gilliam going crazy with his brutalism and industrial post-war England anti-aesthetic. Visually impressive sometimes, but good grief, Terry, not everyplace looks like the concrete cell you were apparently raised and beaten in. The man needs a psychiatrist, not a director of photography.

The closed time loop of James Cole's life is pretty obvious from the first flashback, if you have any science fiction background; I'd well forgotten the details, and immediately realized it. The people of the future can't find anyone honest and sane who's tough enough to survive time travel, so they send a stir-crazy prisoner; but everyone seems to be a prisoner or a guard, there's no indication of normal life in the future. Cole's inability to calm down, act normal, like he remembers people being from childhood, is what causes all of his own problems.

The Army of the 12 Monkeys are well-cast, I've known a few people in extreme environmental causes and they're… not well-adjusted. When you're "the only people who know the truth!!!", you can either work sanely to raise awareness; or wait for it to be a giant mess so finally people act at the last minute, which is what normally happens, see global warming; or scream like a maniac and discredit everything you stand for, which is how these groups usually work. Pitt's a convincing lunatic, he's always had that twitchy look and when he gets screaming & whining & making weird hand gestures, nobody can stop him. Is there a film where Pitt doesn't flip out?

There's a nice tight 60-90 minute story trapped in a flabby, repetitive 2 hours 10 minutes of film. There's no reason for the second or third trips back, or the side-jaunt to the more distant past. A tighter version: Cole goes back, gets nabbed, stays in the asylum a few years, escapes, goes on a road trip with the shrink, the finale happens. Nobody else from the future ever needs to show up, the shrink picks up the last clue in the airport.

I so want this to be better than it is. The premise is great. It's better to watch than La Jetée. Madeleine Stowe is very nice. But I had to take a few breaks and got out my phone during the long repeat acts. The slo-mo death scene with swelling music at the end should've been cut, it shits on the tone of the rest of it.

★★★½☆

Science Fiction on the Archive.org

In light of asshole publishers attacking archive.org: Hachette Book Group, Inc., Harpercollins Publishers LLC, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and Penguin Random House LLC.

Libraries are important, and we need to do everything to protect the biggest one in the world.

So here's some SF, mostly cyberpunk, mostly POC or marginalized protagonists, mostly collapsing urban environments. Plus Zeitgeist, which is an optimistic view from 1999-2000, remember when that was possible?

Snow Crash-Neal Stephenson

Synners-Pat Cadigan

Streetlethal-Steven Barnes-cover

Eclipse-John-Shirley

Cornelius Chronicles-Michael Moorcock

Zeitgeist-Bruce Sterling

True Names-Vernor Vinge

Hacker and the Ants-Rudy Rucker

Schismatrix Plus-Bruce Sterling

What I'm Reading: Network Effect, by Martha Wells

Finally the novel length treatment I've been asking for. Murderbot, calling itself just "SecUnit" in the company of friendly non-corporate Humans, does a perfectly adequate job protecting them from their poor decision-making, and becomes somewhat… not exactly social, but what passes for it.

“She grimaced. “Right, sorry.” Then she looked away and rubbed her eyes.

And I’d made her cry. Good job, Murderbot.

I knew I’d been an asshole and I owed Amena an apology. I’d attribute it
to the performance reliability drop, and the emotional breakdown which I
am provisionally conceding as ongoing rather than an isolated event that
I am totally over now, and being involuntarily shutdown and restarted,
but I can also be kind of an asshole. (“Kind of” = in the 70 percent–80
percent range.) I didn’t know what to say but I didn’t have time to do a
search for relevant apology examples. (And it’s not like I ever find any
relevant examples that I actually want to use.) I said, “I’m sorry for …
being an asshole.”
—Martha Wells, "Network Effect"

Then a rather familiar transport/gunboat shoots them up, and abducts them to another solar system, with some odd, hostile inhabitants, or "Targets" as Murderbot calls them.

Finally we get a little explanation of the wormhole transit system, much better detail on drone and network systems, and Corporation Rim colony setup. There's even a planetary surface described in… not great detail, but any detail? So that's different. Since reading this book I'm going back to reread the novellas with more background information.

There's as much internal chatter of Murderbot as ever, which is the thing that draws us weirdos to this, but also a lot of feed and voice chatter with others forcing some character development the novellas can't achieve.

It's organized almost along episodic A- B- plot beats, Murderbot kills everyone, there's a social/investigation sequence, backstory piece, repeat (four times? More or less).

The Targets and what's driving them takes a long time to be revealed, and how some of their software attacks are possible isn't clear until very late in the book.

And it's left set up for more stories, which is all Murderbot's after, too.

★★★★★ — inhaled it in a couple sittings.

Also, there was a prequel short story in Wired a couple years ago, which I just learned of:

What I'm Watching: Man From Earth

This is up on 'zon prime, and written by Jerome Bixby, who (very relevantly) wrote the Star Trek TOS episode Requiem for Methuselah.

An apparently 30-something history professor (David Lee Smith) is leaving his job and town, and a few colleagues and friends (hey, the asshole biker professor is William Katt! He looks like shit 30 years since I last saw him, but he's still alive!) show up for a going-away party. They notice some oddities in his furnishings, and he tells them a story, that he's a 14,000 year old caveman, and the things he's seen, people he's met. They react with incredulity, get a shrink in…

The entire thing is shot in and just outside a little cabin, with a fireplace. Mostly one-camera, calm, long shots, actors mostly in character and reacting appropriately. I could wish for them to all speak a little more Howard Hawks, New Yorker speed instead of slow and laconic, I don't buy that some of these people are professors, but you work with what you can get on indie flicks.

The writing's not fantastic; he does question & answer, with often terse answers, not technical or detailed, and often interrupted by snarky people. There's one or two, where he's recalling scenery or people, that get something like actual SF writing. What I would like is long monologues about his people, about life in Sumeria, or Rome, or Paris. There's a Poul Anderson book, The Boat of a Million Years which covers a similar character, which has much longer expositions of the nature of living forever.

He has a story of meeting another unnamed immortal, which he puts in the 17th Century. It might possibly be a reference to Le Comte de Saint Germain, a reputed immortal and courtier, though he did eventually die. This is the kind of detail that would've improved the story.

And then there's a religious argument, with a devout true believer, because apparently one random decade in the Mideast 2000 years ago is more important than the other 14,000 years. I think this argument scene is defective in a few ways. First, the believer thinks the King James Version is a "recent" and "accurate" Bible, when in reality it's 400 years out of date and a known shitty translation, most modern Protestants (the theist here is openly anti-Catholic, which is hilarious if you're screaming "blasphemy!" at someone; a "religion" that splits into reformations every couple years is obviously not divinely inspired) use the New International Version, New Living Translation, or New American Standard Bible (for hardcore Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek literalists). I mostly quote KJV because it's poetic and used in so much English literature of the last 400 years, but I'm absolutely not trying to receive "truth" from it.

And while the voices of reason in the room explain the places where Christianity is copied from prior less-shitty religions, the theist is only capable of denying and crying, can't make any rational arguments. SIGH. Look, I'm an aggressive, mocking atheist, but we should be better about presenting the opposition argument than the Christian God's Not Dead idiots.

But I do like his 100-word New New Testament better than anything Christians have ever written in the last 2000 years. They would all be massively improved by switching to this belief.

★★★½☆

There is a sequel, Man From Earth: Holocene, written by the director of the first with no input from Jerome Bixby who was by this time dead, and the comments are harsh: "I've just finished watching Man From Earth: Holocene and this is less a review than a warning." Well. Maybe if I'm angry at myself I'll watch that for punishment.

There's also a movie on Netflix, He Never Died, starring Henry Rollins(!!!), about another immortal, though it's more religious/magical, if played for… not comedy, but funny horror? ★★★★☆ for that.