"The moon blew up without warning and with no apparent reason." I’m in love with Seveneves

“I learned more from Neal Stephenson’s book than I ever did in any class.”

Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is why you probably won’t see me make many substantial updates for the next few days. I started reading it at six in the morning on Sunday and I’m barely a quarter of the way through, partly because of life, partly because I’m the slowest reader I’ve ever met when it comes to fiction—particularly Stephenson’s fiction. If his writing were any denser, it would pass its Schwarzchild radius and devour us all.

For those of you who haven’t read any of his stuff, I say “dense” in the kindest way possible, like the Gene Wolfe kind of dense turned up to eleven. You’ve probably heard critics accuse Stephenson of slipping into tangents in which he goes into meticulous detail about language, culture, history, science, and/or mathematics. Well, yeah, he does stuff like that all the time. That’s, like, kind of his shtick. Or, to be more accurate, his shtick is he does it so damn well.

Savage warns you to turn the video off when the spoilers begin… I did, but can’t wait to hear the rest.

I’ve written that Stephenson’s Anathem was my second favorite SF book of the twenty-first century. (Having recently returned to Facebook and spied some stupefying status updates with no shortage of mindless support, I feel the “Sæcular” population he envisioned in that novel is a lot more plausible than I originally thought… hell, it may already be here.) I don’t remember if I enjoyed Anathem nearly as much as I’m enjoying Seveneves right now. This really is my ideal summer book. It goes big in a way that would make Michael Bay weep while simultaneously pleasing the sensibilities of golden age grandmasters.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but the moon explodes in the first sentence. At first, the damage is mostly cosmetic because, though spread out, all the moon’s mass is still up there, mostly in seven large chunks. The moon’s center of gravity is more or less where it was before its destruction so it’s business as usual for Earth’s tides. Unfortunately, it’s not long before two of those seven chunks collide and create eight chunks. Scientists the world over realize that each time another chunk is created, the odds of another collision only increase. The collisions are eventually going to result in an earth-wide event called the White Sky, which immediately precedes the Hard Rain.

One character describes the Hard Rain like this: “Those fiery trails we’ve been seeing in the sky lately, as the meteorites come in and burn up? There will be so many of those that they will merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized.”

Long story short, the Hard Rain is going to occur in two years, at which point Earth will be inhospitable for a period of five thousand or more. Humans only have a handful of months to prepare the preservation of their species. And it’s going to require a ton of jury rigging and risk taking to complete such an unimaginably massive project in such a tiny timeline.

My favorite feat of shotgun engineering so far is the Luk, a makeshift space habitat hastily created for a group of Russian “scouts” who are sent to, but cannot live in, the International Space Station. They’re part of the impromptu preparation team and not all of them are expected to make it.

Whoever was running things at Roskosmos had pulled up an old idea for an emergency crew rescue device and begun actually producing them. It was called Luk. The word meant “onion” in Russian. It was pronounced similarly to “Luke,” but English speakers inevitably started calling it “Luck.” 

In the best traditions of Russian technology, Luk was straightforward. Take a cosmonaut. Enclose him in a large plastic bag full of air. 

With any normal plastic bag material, the cosmonaut will suffocate or the bag will pop, because plastic bags aren’t strong enough to withstand full atmospheric pressure. So, fill the bag with only as much air as it can handle—some fraction of one atmosphere—and then place another bag inside of it. Inflate that bag with air at slightly higher pressure. That’s still not enough air to keep a cosmonaut alive, so put a third bag inside of the second bag and inflate it to higher pressure yet. Keep repeating, like with Russian nesting dolls, until the innermost bag has enough air pressure to keep a human alive—then put the cosmonaut inside of that one. All of those layers of translucent plastic gave it an appearance reminiscent of an onion. 

Naturally, Stephenson goes on one of his tangents in which he devises several ways for the Luk to believably screw up, putting the occupants, who weren’t really expected to live anyway, in mortal danger. One of the main characters aboard the ISS, who doesn’t have any way to directly contact the scouts scrambling about the outside of the station, becomes fascinated with the one whose Luk is just outside her window. It turns out there’s a reason the Russians sent to assist the preparation project don’t have direct contact with the members inside the ISS. The reason is as heartbreaking as it is logical. 
I’ll say no more.
So far I haven’t seen much of the reaction back on Earth, but the “Space Okies” is a brilliant bit. With Stephenson’s call for optimistic fiction as of late (which I don’t entirely agree with), you may think it’s odd he’s decided to destroy the world in his latest novel. But even this early in the book it’s apparent the optimism is there and it’s gleaming around the edges. There’s a beacon at the heart of it all, pulsing with warmth. It seems to be saying, “Humans are capable of amazing things… at least when it really matters.”

Blunt Talk is free on Starz.com

Although Blunt Talk doesn’t officially premiere until later tonight, Starz put up the first two episodes on their website. Hopefully more and more networks will do the same. It only makes sense to get us addicted to the product before asking us to pay the unreasonable price for premium cable packages.

The washed-up television personality Walter Blunt (Patrick Stewart), who seems obsessed with one-upping Anderson Cooper, has found himself at the center of a media scandal following his arrest for drunk driving. The network has been waiting for an excuse to cancel Blunt’s show for a while now and forces Blunt to see a psychologist to make sure he’s stable enough to put on the air. The psychologist, as it turns out, is played by Richard Lewis.

If the mere idea of Richard Lewis playing a psychologist is funny to you, then you’ll probably want to see Blunt Talk. I don’t think anyone who’s familiar with Stewart questioned whether or not he can be funny (if it’s any doubt, see this clip, this one, and countless interviews), but I’ve never seen him in a leading comedic role. Although I don’t think the series starts out as strongly as Better Call Saul, it’s definitely worth watching the two episodes, especially for free. Maybe a third episode would have gotten me hooked, but I’ll probably pass on this one until it hits Netflix or Amazon Prime’s streaming service.

Just a reminder: Blindsight is free (legally so)

Peter Watts’ Blindsight is probably my favorite science fiction novel of the 21st century (Neal Stephenson’s Anthem is a close second). The official synopsis begs the question: Who do you send to meet the aliens when they arrive?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find–but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them. . . .

Yes, there’s hard science fiction and a vampire in Blindsight, because Blindsight is fucking insane. I haven’t read the sequel yet, but I’m kind of saving it until I get around to rereading Blindsight. Books like this just don’t come around very often.

Get the entire novel, free, here.

Netflix Pick of the Week: Creep

I’ve said I dislike found footage movies, but it’s because they usually suck for reasons having little to do with the way they’re shot. Against all odds, I kind of want to see M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit.

Oh, who am I kidding? It’s going to suck. Found footage is a young director’s game and Shyamalan’s over that particular hill.

Creep, despite a run-of-the-mill trailer, doesn’t suck. It’s a simple movie, which involves a house, a sympathetic protagonist, and a creep of epic proportions. There’s also an ax and a werewolf mask at play, insisting from the get-go we probably won’t get a happy ending.

I’m not very familiar with Mark Duplass, who plays the titular creep, but great character actors are good at embracing the qualities which separate them from genetically blessed movie stars. Duplass looks so much like a real-life creep you wonder if he was born to play the role. It’s a lot of fun watching him enjoy a character who’s anything but glamorous.

The setup? Aaron (played by director Patrick Brice) answers a Craigslist ad placed by Josef, the creep. Josef says doctors have given him three months to live so he wants to shoot a video diary about himself. That way, his unborn son can see what he was like. Josef confesses he was inspired by the schlocky melodrama My Life, which starred Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. Aaron’s job is to follow Josef and film him going about his daily routine.

The first thing Josef wants to do is have Aaron shoot video of him taking a bath. Reluctantly, Aaron agrees. Whereas most horror films make their characters too stupid or incompetent to get themselves out of a dangerous situation (because otherwise, the movie would be over then), Aaron’s cast from a different mold.

There’s a lot of people who think just about anyone would have high-tailed it as soon as they found themselves in Aaron’s situation. Yet we all know people who are just too damn polite to say no to overbearing strangers with sob stories. Aaron is the kind of person who would probably loan his deadbeat brother money even when he knows that money isn’t actually going towards rent. Because of this, Aaron’s the kind of character who makes you want to scream at the screen, but not because he’s stupid (although you could make that argument), but because he’s buying into Josef’s manipulative personality. That and it’s also suggested he kind of needs the money.

Josef’s antics, however, quickly escalate to the point even Aaron has had enough. To say anymore would give away more than the trailer does. The film’s strength, other than its diabolical simplicity and surprisingly strong performances, is the fact you never quite know what kind of movie it is, where it’s going, or how Josef and Aaron’s qausi-friendship is going to develop. If you’re expecting a slasher film, you’ll probably be disappointed.

I will say I didn’t completely buy the ending and there’s a little scene following the climax which attempts to put a lampshade on the absurdity of one crucial detail. It’s as if they only realized the problem after they shot it, and instead of reshooting the scene, they decided to offer a weak explanation for why it went down the way it did. That doesn’t really matter. Movies like this rarely have good endings (see my previous pick, 13 Sins), but Creep brings the goods for the first two-thirds of the movie just the same.

You get the feeling Brice and Duplass are two actor friends who had an idea for a movie over drinks one night and decided to shoot it with little more than a vague outline. There’s an energy to it that’s charming. It’s made all the more impressive when you take into consideration that a movie born of such simple seeds has no right to be as watchable as it is. If there’s any justice, both of these filmmakers will move up another rung of the Hollywood ladder.

Another night at The Admiral Twin Drive-In

my convertible Mustang @ The Twin

Here’s a short list of movies I’ve seen at The Admiral Twin: Batman, Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, two out of five Mission: Impossibles (I saw the latest one last night), and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. A few years ago I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders there, which is actually where part of the movie was shot. I think they show it every year alongside Rumble Fish.

Last night I saw two shooting stars, ate two hot dogs with a pretzel, and discovered the best movie theater popcorn in Tulsa. I’m not even kidding. I’ve seen AMC Theaters drag their pre-popped (read: stale) popcorn into the concession area in a giant trash bag and everywhere else I’ve had popcorn in the last ten or so years has disappointed. The Twin’s popcorn tastes the way I remember it when I was a kid.

Yes, the visual quality of an outdoor movie is pretty sorry and the sound is merely acceptable, but if that bothers you, you’re missing the point. Two of the greatest pleasures in life are cars and movies. It only makes sense to combine them.

* * *

from A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

I scheduled this post to go up around midnight and by then I’ll be at my second double-feature this weekend, this one paying tribute to Rowdy Roddy Piper. It’s been a long time since my friends put on an outdoor movie, so I’m stoked. You probably already guessed what the first movie is (if you really need a hint, see the video above). The second movie is Hell Comes to Frogtown. I’ve always wanted to see it, though I’m not entirely certain I haven’t, so it’s going to be a good night.

* * *
I probably won’t review Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, so I’ll just say this: Do you like Mission: Impossible movies? Yes? Then just go see it. It’s more of the same, but that’s not a bad thing with this franchise.

The Incredible Shrinking Ant-Man

Whenever someone complains about Superman wearing red briefs on the outside of his outfit, I want to pull my hair out. Are his red undies pointless? Maybe from a utilitarian point of view, but there’s a good reason they’re there: to provide contrast to the suit and to keep it from appearing artistically boring. Visually it’s perfect. Superman without underwear seems even more childlike to me, like a grown man wearing a onesie. If everything should have a function, then why not ditch the cape while you’re at it? I think the real question is why should an alien’s sense of fashion conform to ours, especially in the age of tramp stamps and UGGs? When you attempt to modernize that which is timeless, you stamp it with the misguided sensibilities of your own stupid era.

What’s great about Ant-Man is it embraces the fact the source material is a comic book. Sure, it sometimes pokes fun at the absurdity of the concept, but it’s more comfortable in its own skin than Bryan Singer’s X-Men, which literally went out of its way to trash the idea of superheros in yellow spandex (years later, the Watchmen adaptation managed to prove yellow spandex could look cool). Without giving too much away, if you were disappointed Ant-Man’s filmmakers appeared to be skipping Hank Pym’s story altogether then you might be pleasantly surprised. Michael Douglas gets some of the best stuff in the movie.

When I reviewed Avengers: Age of Ultron, I said I’d probably be skipping this one. I’m glad I didn’t. You can’t blame me, though, since we all thought Marvel was reeling from the standard set by Guardians of the Galaxy when we heard Edgar Wright had been removed from the director’s seat. There’s still no doubt in my mind Wright would have made a better, more entertaining movie, but his stamp is still there, albeit slightly. The final product offers something much more imaginative than a routine Marvel movie. Imagine The Incredible Shrinking Man with battles ripped straight from the pages of a legitimate comic book.

Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, hangs up the shrink-suit early in the picture. In present times he discovers Darren Cross, his villainous protégé, has uncovered his research and plans to sell it to some very shady individuals. Cross, played by Corey Stoll, makes a pretty decent bad guy. It all sounds awfully standard on paper (as will the subplot involving Scott Lang’s family), but each cliché has been given just enough of a tweak to feel fresh.

Then we meet Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a former cat burglar who’s trying to go straight so he can be a good father. Yeah, we’ve seen that a million times before so it’s nice the movie doesn’t dwell on it. The problem with the way Lang is written is he’s supposed to be a kick-ass cat burglar, but the filmmakers make him and his crew of misfits bumbling idiots for comedic relief. It’s just kind of hard to believe Pym, a brilliant scientist, would choose to pass the torch to somebody who gets himself captured by police so frequently. That’s a very minor complaint because the aforementioned comedic relief is, after all, pretty funny.

Lang’s first big outing as Ant-Man leads to a battle with an Avenger. I won’t tell you which one, because it might seem like a letdown until you actually see it, but it makes a lot of sense on more levels than one. The battle is unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Marvel movie. It sets the bar pretty high. Thankfully, the film manages to top that scene every time it tries.

This is not a normal movie. Normal movies just don’t have the audacity to make battlefields out of briefcases. Whereas most Marvel movies destroy entire cities, Ant-Man is content with destroying train sets. Although the trailers give away much more than they should have, that scene is still so good it hurts.

GeekyGlassesTV’s brutal review of Fantastic Four

Yeah, there are spoilers in the video above. No, I don’t think it matters. Here’s a not very rare example of a movie trailer looking like complete shit and the movie itself turning out to be complete shit. (As of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes reports eight out of a whopping ninety-three reviews give it a passing grade.)
Almost everyone who’s already seen it says this movie is so unbelievably shitty there won’t be a sequel. If the rights do revert to MCU, as the above reviewer predicts, I don’t think Kevin Feige and company should bother making a reboot for a very, very long time. Instead, give us a Silver Surfer/Galactus standalone while we let the disappointment of the first two FF films become a distant memory.
I’m not as certain this piece of shit won’t be a box office hit anyway, though. Let’s not forget that even the second Fantastic Four film didn’t lose any money. Which makes me very disappointed in anyone who actually paid money to see the fucking thing, including myself. (Full disclosure, I’ll probably go see the latest piece of shit since it’s playing at the local drive-in this week.)

The Deadpool trailer is glorious

For the first time in my life, I actually want to see a Ryan Reynolds movie.
While Deadpool is a character I think works best in small doses (e.g., miniseries), I did read quite a bit of the current stuff up to the famous wedding issue. It’s pretty great to see a movie adaptation hit its mark so well. (For an example of how not to do it, reference any promotional clip from the upcoming Fantastic Four movie… Jesus, that crap makes me want to sell my entire FF collection.) Hell, the stuff in the trailer made me laugh way more than any of the stuff I’ve read in the comics so far. 
* * *
I finished re-watching Seinfeld. Haven’t gotten anywhere close to finishing The Witcher 3. I’m not entirely sure I’ll finish it in time for Fallout 4 and, strangely, I’m okay with that.