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Faren Miller reviews Ian Tregillis

The Rising, Ian Tregillis (Orbit 978-0-316-24801-3, $16.99, 534pp, tp) December 2015.

Like The Mechanical, first of Ian Tregillis’s Alchemy Wars trilogy, The Rising deftly inter­weaves three viewpoints and plotlines, but this sequel raises the stakes in its fantastical North America devoid of Brits and rife with industrial magics. The strained detente between colonies of French Catholics and Dutch Protestants reaches a crisis point when an act of sabotage (shown in book one) triggers a violent response: hot for vengeance, the Dutch invade New France with an army of their mechanical slaves and warriors, the Clakkers.

Early on, as panicked refugees flood into Marseilles-in-the-West from devastated villages, captain of the guard Hugh Longchamp (now with his own plotline) knows the sophistication of Dutch alchemy gives them an overwhelm­ing advantage, but he’s determined to go down fighting. Though the two returning viewpoint characters spend most of this book on very dif­ferent paths, both explore the nature of pain in a world where magic grips the soul. Berenice, former spymaster for New France, delves into the rigorous structure of Dutch spellcraft, seeking a ‘‘calculus of compulsion’’ – spells that Jax the freed slave knows as ‘‘the agony of geasa.’’ Alone in a far northern wilderness, on a quixotic quest for legendary Queen Mab and the Lost Boys of Neverland, his old traumas lead to deeper questions: would a God who abhors murder ‘‘punish rogue mechanicals like Jax, or only soulful humans? And what of his soldier kin…?’’

If Berenice and Jax can survive their latest ordeals and share their hard-won knowledge, it might change the course of history – in New France and beyond.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Ben Bova

The Best of Bova: Volume 1, by Ben Bova (Baen 978-1-4767-8121-1, $16, 432pp, trade paperback), February 2016

Editor Cele Goldsmith, helming Amazing and Fantastic during the early 1960s, famously fostered the careers of such budding talents as Thomas Disch, Roger Zelazny, R. A. Lafferty and David Bunch. Less commented upon is that she also published, in 1960, the debut short fiction of a certain ambitious twenty-eight-year-old named Ben Bova.

In the subsequent fifty-six years, Bova has racked up an impressive bibliography and CV, certainly commensurate with SFWA Grandmaster stature. (Hint to any committee members planning the next recipient!) He continues to produce fine fiction still, but a look backwards at this juncture is certainly in order. Under this banner arrives volume one of his Best of, sporting a gorgeous Eggleton cover, with the second installment firmly scheduled for July, and a third one lurking somewhere down the pike.

That Goldsmith-purchased maiden voyage, “The Long Way Back,” kicks off Volume 1, but after that point the two dozen subsequent stories hop all over Bova’s chronology. In my overly analytical, semi-scholarly fashion, I usually enjoy seeing the stories in such a collection presented in order of publication, so as to discern growth, trends, tics, etc. But I can readily admit that such a fussy presentation can have its drawbacks as well, so I am happy overall to have the tales arrayed to Bova’s choosing.

Barry Malzberg once opined that an author’s entire career lay nascent, overt or implicit, in their debut story. Is that true here? I’d probably say yes.

“The Long Way Back” opens with a desperate mission into orbit some eighteen years after nuclear war has wiped out civilization. Our protagonist, Tom, is not a Heinleinian robust Competent Man, but rather a desperate, soured amateur sent on what proves to be a one-way trip. Battling the harsh forces of physics and human cultural inertia and fear, as well as his own neurotic bugbears, he nonetheless manages to do something that points humanity down a new hopeful path. These tropes — space travel, societal pressures, the fragility of our accomplishments, the mixed angel-devil nature of each soul — all seem highly characteristic of Bova’s subsequent fictions.

Highlights from the rest of the book consist of numerous allied instances.

The second offering in the collection, “Inspiration,” veers into Harry Turtledove territory, a realm most folks, I think, would not imagine Bova necessarily exploring. In the year 1896, a time traveler maneuvers young Albert Einstein, Lord Kelvin and H. G. Wells into conversation. The laidback tone and pacing of the story—no chases, explosions, or assassinations—conceals a taut suspense and weighty outcome.

Humor was one trademark Bova element missing from his debut, but it makes a rousing appearance in “Vince’s Dragon,” wherein the business relationship between a “made man” gangster and a giant fire-breathing reptile proves somewhat combustible.

Set in day-after-tomorrow Greece, “A Small Kindness” more or less reconfigures Clarke’s Childhood’s End in ultra-compressed synoptic form, full of both thrills and intellectual gambits. Bova’s concern for humanity’s ultimate goals and destiny, a recurrent theme, shows up strongly here. The sequel, “Born Again,” offers a deepening of the plot. And I might mention at this point that Bova’s engaging introductions to each story serve as a mini-autobiography and careful critical assessment of the field.

The first tale to chronicle Bova’s contrarian, egocentric trickster, Sam Gunn, is titled, of all things, “Sam Gunn” and starts with that fellow’s death, meaning all the long saga that came after has been a prequel! SF loves such figures—think Harrison’s DiGriz and Laumer’s Retief—and Bova’s contribution to the ranks of such protagonists is exemplary.

A tribute to Jack Williamson, “Risk Assessment” reinvigorates a lot of Williamson’s prime concerns found in The Humanoids, revolving around human progress through confronting necessary danger.

A trio of stories—“Zero Gee,” “Test in Orbit,” “Fifteen Miles”—tells a fraction of the achievement-filled biography of Bova’s contrasting counterpart to Sam Gunn, the contemporary, naturalistically portrayed astronaut named Kinsman. (Anyone else hear echoes in that surname of a certain Lensman?) These mimetic tales show a kind of near-journalistic ability that Bova has, where he uses the toolkit of SF to explore the realpolitik workings of the world rather than any far-out edges of the future.

To conclude with my favorite tale, I point you toward “Foeman, Where Do You Flee?”. After discovering alien structures on Titan, mankind sends out several expeditions to the stars to learn more about these mysterious forerunners. We follow the exploits of the ship that goes to Sirius, where a nicely individuated crew must play delicately through a First Contact situation. The initial kickstart of this 1969 story obviously owes something to the then-dominant 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it quickly becomes stranger, eerily prefiguring later outings from writers as diverse as Nancy Kress, James Tiptree and Michael Bishop. It’s a long, masterfully crafted investigation of the foundational elements of the human spirit.

Any preconceptions that readers might have had about imaginary limitations regarding the kind of fiction that Ben Bova produces will be blown away by the broad spectrum of stories here, constituting only one third of his lovesong to SF.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews China Miéville

This Census-Taker, China Miéville (Del Rey 978-1-101-97632-4, $24.00, 224pp, hc) January 2016.

Most of China Miéville’s fiction describes a spectrum between the almost formal preci­sion of novels like The City & The City and Embassytown and the more exuberant textual irruptions of Kraken or Railsea, and his style can range from a kind of ornate dialectical Mervyn Peake to the hardboiled irony of the post-Raymond Chandler school. His new no­vella, This Census-Taker, approaches neither extreme. Narrated in a subdued, almost muted tone by an apprentice census-taker recalling his troubled childhood in a thinly sketched-out world in which Something Bad Has Happened, it shifts suggestively between first- and third-person voices (and even into second-person for a bit), lending it an ominously unstable feeling as the narrator tries to grapple with what has happened to him and, by extension, to his world. His present ‘‘line manager,’’ in fact, advises him of his writing that ‘‘You can tell it any way you want… you can be I or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying.’’ The trademark grotes­queries are kept to a minimum – lizards grown in bottles, a group of children who basically go fly-fishing for bats off a local bridge, an aban­doned movie theater, rumors of a time when people were ‘‘scared of all the engines and they smashed them all up’’ – and the plot is basically that of a murder mystery.

The story begins with the unnamed boy at the age of nine, running frantically from his remote hilltop home into town, claiming at first that his mother has killed his father, then quickly recall­ing that it was in fact the father who was wield­ing the knife. But there is no body, bloodstains in the house have apparently been scrubbed clean, and a handwritten letter turns up in which the mother says she is leaving. But the boy has seen his father kill animals and throw them into a deep ‘‘dump-hole’’ in a nearby cave, and sus­pects that he’s killed and dumped a number of men there as well. The narrator comes under the protection of two scrappy kids named Samma and Drobe – part of that near-feral bat-fishing group – but the father regains custody, even though the townsfolk don’t really trust him any more than the boy does (he’s a foreigner, and makes his living selling keys with supposedly magical powers). The answer to what really happened to the mother may lie at the bottom of that mysterious pit, which is too precipitous and deep to climb into.

The father isn’t presented as especially vi­cious, though – he expresses sorrow after the mother’s disappearance, and tries to act reassur­ing when he recaptures the boy from the towns­people (there isn’t much local government, and law enforcement is up to part-time deputies like a window-washer and a teacher), and at first this adds to the sense of dread. But as we learn what little we do of the father’s background – that he ‘‘came from somewhere else,’’ ‘‘a bigger city a long way off, because of trouble there,’’ that he originally spoke a different language – another layer of dread is hinted at, with references to ‘‘a contagion from a vast other country.’’ This becomes more apparent when the census-taker arrives at the house, ‘‘needing information’’ from certain people, including the father. This enigmatic figure tells the boy his job is ‘‘count­ing people from my home,’’ because they had dispersed ‘‘after troubles.’’ Those ‘‘troubles,’’ referred to in oblique ways throughout the novel, are what really expands This Census-Taker’s scope from an odd small-scale murder mystery into a more apocalyptic narrative, with its suggestions of wars, refugee crises, and dia­sporas. When the boy decides to sign on with the census-taker as an apprentice (not really a spoiler, since we learn early on that he’s writing from the perspective of a functionary reporting to a ‘‘line manager’’), we’re not entirely sure if he’s being rescued from a deranged parent or co-opted into a shadowy system whose pa­rameters we barely understand. While this am­biguity, and the generally understated tone of the narrative, may disappoint some looking for the usual Miéville fireworks, it may well haunt those readers who have valued his fierce intel­ligence and provocative nuances as much as his more baroque fancies.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Karen Burnham reviews AfroSF v2

AfroSF v2, Ivor W. Hartmann, ed. (StoryTime 978-91-982913-1-5, $16.00, 488pp, pb) December 2015.

In 2015 editor Ivor W. Hartmann returned to the theme of his 2012 anthology, AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers. While the original volume contained stories by over 20 authors, this second volume takes a riskier approach, present­ing five novellas by six authors. The novella is sometimes called the perfect vehicle for science fiction: long enough for all the necessary world building without getting too bogged down in details. However, they have often proved a tough sell in a marketplace that prefers fiction short enough to read on a lunch break or epic trilogies to fill the reading hours of several months.

Still, anyone willing to take a risk on a collec­tion of long short fiction will find their attention immediately grabbed by ‘‘The Last Pantheon’’ by Tade Thompson & Nick Wood. It opens with two superheroes battling it out for supremacy, both members of an alien race that crash-landed on our planet 50,000 years ago. The tale is told in the mod­ern era (2015), the 1960s and ’70s, with flashbacks to earlier times in the 19th century and all the way back to the original crash landing. Thompson and Wood use these superheroes as a lens for examining the last 50 years of African history. Superheroes aren’t necessarily known for their political acu­men, and Black-Power and Pan-African are clearly more comfortable throwing punches than dictating political realities. The one thing that the story has to elide is the question: where were these guys when the European powers were initially infiltrat­ing Africa, starting the slave trade, and carving up the continent? None of the flashbacks happen to hit the 15th through 18th centuries. That said, there is a lot here for those interested in politics of different African countries and how superhero tropes can be used to illuminate political viewpoints.

‘‘Hell Freezes Over’’ by Mame Bougouma Diene is a post-apocalyptic tale. In this a post-climate change future much of the world is underwater. The human race has split up into Fish, Moles, Bees, and Beasts, each sub-race specializing in different tasks in order to keep the whole alive. For a while the Fish are ascendant and enslave the Moles; later the tables turn and turn again. Political intrigues between the different races dominate the story. The first half suffers from the lack of a clear protagonist, but in the second half the power dynamics play out much more clearly. The story wisely rejects utopian solutions to a dystopian future.

‘‘The Flying Man of Steel’’ by Dilman Dila also imbues a central character with superpowers. At the beginning of the story a young man named Kera is fleeing as his village (in a country not specified) is attacked. As he and his father seek to hide they break through to the hiding place of an ancient race, and something changes his father. As the village regroups and seeks to deal with their new reality, Kera’s father starts channeling new technology. Kera takes it and tries to wield power, but his ac­tions generally make matters worse. The mayor and school teacher from the village start radicalizing, and as an individual Kera isn’t very effective against government troops. The ending of this story is very dark, even darker than the preceding two stories.

‘‘VIII’’ by Andrew Dakalira involves a series of mysterious happenings in Malawi that resolve into an alien invasion scenario. There are some particularly interesting characters here, and a good selection of viewpoints. The downside is that it reads like the beginning of a novel instead of a complete story in its own right.

Hartmann closes this volume with a piece of political satire by Efe Tokunbo Okogu. ‘‘An Indigo Song for Paradise’’ is by far the weirdest story here. The main characters come from many different segments of this city surrounded by wasteland, a setting adaptable to many different kinds of story – and Okogu wants to tell all of them, all at once. With tirades about corporations, Christmas, Colonialism, and chemicals, there are no end to his targets. But the fascinatingly odd setting and over the top characters somehow keep the whole thing from going off the rails.

It is gratifying to see science fiction from around the world getting a little more traction. Hartmann should be commended for giving voice to authors who haven’t gotten much genre attention, and for providing us with a wide sampling of what African authors have to offer. Focusing only on science fic­tion and, in this volume, only on novellas, are risky moves that mostly pay off. I look forward to future volumes in the series, if and when Hartmann is able to continue the project.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Russell Letson reviews Nancy Kress

The Best of Nancy Kress, Nancy Kress (Subterranean 978-1-59606-721-9, $45.00, 558pp, hc) September 2015. Cover by Thomas Canty.

Theodore Sturgeon used to append to his autographs a Q-pierced-by-an-arrow glyph that stood for ‘‘Ask the next question’’ – advice that would seem to be particularly apt for writers of science fiction. The phrase ought to be the motto on Nancy Kress’s escutcheon. (Appropriately enough, she has won a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.) Kress can be relentless and even merciless in the posing of next questions, as the elaboration (and deconstructive trajectory) of her Beggars sequence demonstrates. Nor is that intensity of examination limited to science-fictional speculation – her stories are as much about the limits, possibilities, and contradictions of human conduct and character as about what­ever futures we might construct.

In The Best of Nancy Kress, the writer herself has assembled 21 stories ‘‘that I like the best’’ (minus some novellas too long to include) and added to each a brief Afterword reflecting on thematics or the story’s place in her career and/or affections. Original appearances range from 1981 to 2013 – five early items from the 1980s, with the rest distributed evenly between the 1990s and 2000-2013. All but the two most recent stories have appeared in one or more of Kress’s half-dozen major collections, but having this selection in one set of covers, accompanied by her com­ments, makes for a useful career-so-far overview.

When I started reviewing Kress’s short work more than 20 years ago, I used terms such as ‘‘expressionism,’’ ‘‘literalized metaphor,’’ and ‘‘literary-fantastic’’ to describe the way she often occupies a territory between conventional fantasy and SF of the harder sort. In ‘‘Out of All Them Bright Stars’’ (1985) and ‘‘People Like Us’’ (1989), for example, aliens serve as catalysts in dramas of social tension. In the Afterword to ‘‘People Like Us’’, Kress acknowledges the metaphorical nature of Mr. C’lanth, the alien dinner guest. Like the ‘‘polite blue guy’’ in ‘‘Out of All Them Bright Stars,’’ he is brought on stage to highlight some observations about class and lack of same. Every uncomfortable social detail in ‘‘People Like Us’’ can be justified as repre­sentational rather than exaggerated, but putting them all into a single frame results in a rather brittle, New Yorker-cartoonish piece of satire on the genteel and vulgar rich.

‘‘Out of All Them Bright Stars’’ has a rather sharper bite. The narrator’s situation is compre­hensively unpleasant – her waitressing job, her co-workers, her boss – but an encounter with a visiting alien serves mainly to remind her of her situation, because no matter what the significance of the larger universe, it’s her bullying boss and the bullying government men that she has to live with, no matter how kind and sympathetic the ambassador from the beyond is. She wonders,

What the hell difference does it make what I think? Why does he have to come here…? Why can’t they all go someplace else be­sides here? There must be lots of places they can go, out of all them bright stars up there behind the clouds. They don’t need to come here where I need this job….

A meeting with an alien also provides the pivot point in the volume’s earliest-published story, ‘‘Casey’s Empire’’ (1981). In this case the encounter is a metaphorical road-not-taken, though it’s not the only wrong turn made by its protagonist, a would-be SF writer caught between the rational and romantic sides of the science-fictional imagination. The aliens behind the nightmarish ‘‘Laws of Survival’’ (2007) could also be seen as enabling devices – if they would make an appearance instead of sending their robots and computerized domes to carry out their enigmatic program. But what’s at the center of the story is less alien encounter than the twin nightmares of our own foulness and being treated (not entirely inappropriately) as something between vermin and lab rats.

One (rather oversimple) view of Kress’s career might be that she hit her stride as a science-fiction writer with her stories of biological and neuro­logical innovations and their psychological and social results – ‘‘next questions’’ that wonder what might happen should some of our wishes come true. ‘‘Beggars in Spain’’ (1991), with its unfolding of unintended consequences and frustrated hopes, would be a central piece of evidence for such an account. Certainly by this point in Kress’s career, scientific and technologi­cal motifs operate as more than metaphors or bare enabling devices, so in ‘‘Beggars’’, she follows the economic, social, and political implications of a neuroscience idea as well as its implementa­tion. Much of that working-out seems particularly foresightful 24 years on: how well the story’s concerns map onto 21st-century conversations about privilege. It’s hard to read the passages that provide the title and not think about political-moral arguments that reach at least as far back as Adam Smith – or about the recent ‘‘job creators’’ meme, or the anger and resentment that drives our tabloid/blogospheric paranoia-and-conspiracy-theory subculture. It’s equally hard not to read the frustration and pent-up anger of ‘‘Out of All Them Bright Stars’’ into the later story-sequence.

From the 1990s onward, Kress has produced a run of quite unmetaphorical near-future tech­nothriller novels, with a sharp eye for bureaucratic and domestic environments as well as bioscience-run-amok. Their short-form cousins here include ‘‘Evolution’’ (1995), ‘‘Dancing on Air’’ (1993), ‘‘End Game’’ (2007), and ‘‘Pathways’’ (2013). Even at her most science-fiction-y, though, Kress retains a sharp eye for class and domestic tensions and rivalries. In the Afterword to ‘‘Dancing on Air’’ she writes, ‘‘From much science fiction, you’d get the impression that nobody whizzing around space and time has any familial ties. Yet… such ties exert powerful claims on the choices we make. I wanted to write about that.’’ The families need not be human, as in ‘‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’’ (1996), which is both character-driven and mainstream SF. The character in question is an alien woman coping with her own guilt over killing her sister, her punishment (profound psy­chological and spiritual separation from the rest of her people while serving as an informer), and her job of spying on a visiting human (another part of her punishment).

‘‘Trinity’’ (1984), Kress writes, comes ‘‘from my pre-hard-SF days.’’ It gradually reveals a complicated backstory – of estranged sisters, a failed research project, a cross-gender clone, and a technologically based search for spiritual certainty – as its narrator runs an emotional maze, now revealing and now concealing her intentions and motives. The story’s tangle of familial ten­sions gets a bit disturbing, in a Lazarus Longish way. (I see that in my review copy this story has more marginal notes and dog-eared pages than any other except ‘‘Beggars in Spain.’’)

A similar sibling conflict drives the chilling ‘‘Margin of Error’’ (1994) – a pattern of kinship strife that might have moved Kress to write in the Afterword that yes, she does have a sister, but that their relationship is not ‘‘even strained,’’ let alone murderous. Nevertheless, Kress has a way with difficult, disturbing, and unhappy characters, family or not. ‘‘And Wild for to Hold’’ (1991) is uncomfortable in part because Anne Boleyn is an uncomfortable personality: entitled, arrogant, inflexible, and manipulative. But the Holy Hostage project that, in the name of peace, abducts her from her own time has its own issues with arrogance and manipulation. I find no comfortable place to settle in this situa­tion, and no appeal to Anne’s implacable drive for autonomy and agency can divert me from seeing the pathologies arising from feudal aristocracy.

My attempts at categorizing and anatomizing are now at their limits and I am reduced to the ‘‘Oh, and look at this!’’ portion of my reactions. The situation in the romance-of-astrophysics ‘‘Shiva in Shadow’’ (2004) is reminiscent of Greg Egan: interstellar explorers and their computer-simulated avatars work on solving a puzzle at the galactic center, while the expedition’s social and emotional dynamics are overseen and man­aged by the ships’ captain/facilitator. If ‘‘Shiva’’ is Eganesque, then the metaphysical parable of ‘‘Grant Us This Day’’ (1993) is a tad Heinleinian – think ‘‘The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag’’. And I’m not sure exactly where the time travel of ‘‘The Price of Oranges’’ (1989) fits in – it’s just a little sentimental, but quite sweet and satisfying, somehow occupying a space between Heinlein and Jack Finney. In any case, it has one of the best short speeches in the book: ‘‘History is cheap. Everybody gets some. You can have all the history you want. It’s what you make of it that costs.’’

What strikes me about this volume – 21 stories from more than three decades of production – is how Kress’s sensibility remains intact across the range of science-fictional subtypes she employs. She remains always an observational writer who manages to get inside her characters’ skins – working stiffs or middle-class moms or heiresses or narcissistic nobles. She offers sharp observa­tions of class boundaries and of the imaginative limits that come with limited social options. And like Auden’s imagined Old Masters in ‘‘Musee des Beaux Arts,’’ no matter how exotic or excit­ing the events at the center of the canvas, Kress notices – and makes sure that we notice – how ‘‘the dogs go on with their doggy/life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.’’ Next questions do that: widen the world and our peripheral vision.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Michael Cobley

Ancestral Machines, by Michael Cobley (Orbit 978-0-316-22118-4, $15.99, 496pp, trade paperback) January 2016

When Bruce Sterling ended his fabled zine Cheap Truth in November of 1986 and urged his readers to take up the torch with their own zines, I responded by producing twelve issues of Astral Avenue, one per month steadily for the next year, before tiring of the expense and effort and ceasing publication. Text laboriously typed into a Commodore 128 computer and saved to floppy disks; outputted on a dot-matrix printer; pasted up with collages by hand; xeroxed at Kinko’s; stuffed into envelopes and mailed to about one hundred folks at the height of its circulation. Ah, such memories!

One of my correspondents back then was a young lad from the UK named Michael Cobley. We had a nice correspondence for a time. Like me, Cobley had sold a couple of stories and wanted deeply to become a fully professional SF writer. Simpatico soul.

When Astral Avenue ceased independent publication (it did later morph into a column in New Pathways), Cobley and I fell out of communication, right down to the present moment, for no specific reason. Pre-internet, such interregna were common.

Here we both are, thirty years later, having realized, I think it is safe to say, the dreams of those ancient days, at least in part. And so, coming full circle to some extent, I get to renew my acquaintance with Michael Cobley through the medium of his new novel, Ancestral Machines. It feels good to reconnect.

The new book takes place in the universe of Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire trilogy, but is a standalone, we are assured. A good thing for me, who unfortunately has not read the trilogy.

In his prologue, Cobley wastes no time in flaunting his honed, merciless skills. He plunges the reader, without hand-holding or apologies, deep into a complexified far future whose essence is conveyed by strange actions embodied in a plethora of clever neologisms. This is red meat to me, and to many others, I hope. In short, Cobley is taking the techniques pioneered by van Vogt, Charles Harness and other bold visionaries and ramping them up for a purely twenty-first-century kind of SF that others such as Paul McAuley, Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod have hitherto essayed.

Thanks to Cobley’s talent, we quickly grasp the essential McGuffin. A strange, superscience polity more or less friendly with another power-nexus, the “Earthsphere,” is sending its representative, an AI embodied in a powerful drone shell and named Rensik, to liaise with a human soldier named Lt. Samantha Brock, so that both may travel together to investigate the arrival of a deadly intruder to the galaxy. That intruder is the Warcage, an ancient yet still potent megaconstruct of some two hundred separate planets entrained around a single sun. The Warcage travels through space and hyperspace as a unit, almost like a single ship, under the direction of the evil Shuskar. Their intentions must be investigated and stymied if necessary.

Meanwhile, two other threads are opened up, where action will flow separately, until all three sets of players converge in lively, logical, yet unpredictable fashion.

The outlaw ship Scarabus, captained by one Brannan Pyke, hosts a motley crew of loyal yet irascible aliens. They have recently been swindled by a fellow named Khorr, and now seek revenge. But it eventuates that Khorr is an agent of the Warcage, and more than a match for Pyke. Pyke and his crew will eventually end up on the worlds of the artificial system—a variety of exotic venues full of deadly action—and be subject to various adventures and exploits, some which they initiate, some which are thrust upon them.

Lastly we experience chapters where we get some insight into the life of First Blade Akreen—a loyal solider of the Shuskar who eventually turns his coat.

Cobley takes all these characters, plus others, and pushes them along a non-stop, unrelenting, madcap set of adventures. The brio and joy of this storytelling is contagious. Here is a space opera which unashamedly honors the roots of the genre while expanding the remit of the mode. To convey his incredible narrative thrust and whacked-out panache, I would have to say that the book is like Ringworld retold by Basil Wolverton, or perhaps some John W. Campbell-penned 1930s adventure rejiggered by Jodorowsky along the lines of The Incal.

A predominant feature of Cobley’s storytelling is an exuberant humor, a kind of high spirits that is exactly the opposite of so much of the ultra-serious gravitas seen in other space operas. Even when Captain Pyke (surely not a coincidence that his name echoes that of a famous captain from ST:TOS) is being morphed into a posthuman condition, his wisecracking bravado is undiminished.

One possible role model for Cobley that I would further adduce would be Poul Anderson in his Polesotechnic League saga. But whereas Anderson always reset his cast back to square one at the end of every adventure, as in most franchises, Cobley is not afraid to put his characters through major changes that leave them quite different at the end of the tale than they were at the start.

If you want a rousing space adventure full of sense of wonder that is also ideationally challenging, then you need look no further than Ancestral Machines.

I am proud to say I knew this guy way back when the world was young, and lived to see him accomplish so much.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

A Divergent Hunger Maze Game: A Review of The 5th Wave

by Gary Westfahl

It seems to be the new pattern for Hollywood success: write a young adult novel about an apocalyptic future society wherein likable teenagers are oppressed by evil adults, ostensibly for some noble purpose; stretch the story out into (at least) a trilogy; sell the rights to film producers anxious to exploit a pre-sold property, designed to appeal to a coveted target audience, that requires no expensive stars; and achieve fame and fortune from the resulting three (or four) popular movies based on your work. As I argued in a previous review, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) provided an early model for these stories; then came Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010), James Dashner’s Maze Runner tetralogy (2009-2012), and Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy (2011-2013). Now, having begun his own as-yet-incomplete trilogy with The 5th Wave (2013), Rick Yancey is stepping forward to claim his piece of the pie.

Though the film series launched with Divergent in 2014 somehow escaped my attention, I have been dutifully watching and reviewing all adaptations of the other listed texts, and confronting a year that is not offering an over-abundance of meritorious science fiction films, I reluctantly selected The 5th Wave to complete my quota of 2016 reviews. For there is only so much one can say about films that relentlessly celebrate the unalloyed wonderfulness of young people and reprehensible perfidy of adults (with some rare exceptions), and in my last examination of such a film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015), I fear that I was beginning to run out of things to say (so I will decline to provide the link, though I can’t prevent you from searching for that review, or the other six that fall into this category). As I consider The 5th Wave, therefore, the only logical strategy is to focus on what is different about Yancey’s approach to this lucrative genre.

The obvious innovation is that whereas the other series featured human adults in charge of repressive regimes as the villains, The 5th Wave involves sinister aliens who are seeking to conquer the Earth (though all the aliens we see happen to look like human adults). So this film is also part of a long tradition of novels and films about alien invasions, dating back to H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) and still thriving today, as evidenced by this film and another one on my 2016 list, Independence Day: Resurgence. But how might an author shoehorn the Collins-Dashner-Roth formula into a story about an alien attack? It is hard to imagine aliens who would only target young people, or aliens who would forge an alliance with human adults to terrorize young people. Yancey’s answer is ingenious and revelatory: his aliens begin their assault by disabling all of Earth’s technology with an electromagnetic pulse; they then trigger a massive earthquake that floods the world’s coastal cities; they unleash a deadly virus that, in the novel at least, kills all but a handful of Earth’s people; and they unveil an army of human quislings, secretly implanted long ago with a controlling alien intelligence, to begin slaughtering the survivors. Finally, as their final and utterly devastating “5th Wave,” the aliens turn to the most terrifying weapon that humans could possibly imagine: their own children.

Yes, that is Yancey’s story (though describing it in full requires a mild “spoiler”): as heroine Cassie Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz) struggles to stay alive in her devastated world, aliens pretending to be human soldiers recruit her kid brother Sam (Zackary Arthur), her heartthrob Ben Parish (Nick Robinson), and other youths and send them through basic training so that, imagining they are killing aliens, they can be sent out to shoot down any humans who managed to live through the pulse, earthquake, plague, and alien snipers. In the minds of these aliens, in other words, there is no reason to bother with trivial menaces like another global earthquake or another lethal disease when they can now deploy the ultimate, unstoppable force, a well-trained twelve-year-old. (Orson Scott Card nods approvingly.)

It is at this point that Yancey’s saga begins to seem very, very similar to other stories about alien invasions. He begins his novel by announcing that he is taking a different, more realistic approach, as narrator Cassie sarcastically describes “the aliens we imagine”: “They swoop down from the sky in their flying saucers to level New York and Tokyo and London, or they march across the countryside in huge machines that look living mechanical spiders, ray guns blasting away, and always, always, humanity sets aside its differences and bands together to defeat the alien horde. David slays Goliath, and everybody (except Goliath) goes home happy.” Such stories, Cassie concludes, are “crap …. like a cockroach working up a plan to defeat the shoe on its way down to crush it.” And Yancey has a point: if advanced aliens with superior technology did decide, for some reason, to attack the Earth, they would undoubtedly possess weapons that humans could not possibly resist, making their victory inevitable.

However, Yancey is eventually forced to contradict his own logic, knowing that Hollywood is never going to purchase the rights to a story about a successful alien invasion that concludes with the death of the last person on Earth and the triumph of the alien assailants. Like all other authors who have sought to profit from such adventures, he needs to assume that, despite their formidable resources, the aliens would begin to make one stupid mistake after another, enabling the beleaguered humans to defeat them. Thus, Yancey’s aliens failed to consider the possibility that some of the alien-infested youths who grew up as human beings might retain some affection for the species, or that it might prove counterproductive to train children to become efficient killers if they manage to figure out what is really going on. In other words, the aliens’ fatal flaw was making the common adult mistake of underestimating the intelligence of Earth’s brilliant children – interestingly, also the mistake that doomed Cassie’s father Oliver (Ron Livingston); for when soldiers suddenly appear and begin barking out orders, a properly suspicious Cassie advises her father that they don’t need to obey people who happen to be wearing uniforms, yet Oliver naïvely trusts the soldiers until it is too late. These crafty aliens, then, may be able to outwit Earth’s adults, but they have clearly met their match in Cassie and her fellow teenagers.

So, his saga is still unfinished, but based on the conclusion of The 5th Wave and events in its sequel The Infinite Sea (2014), it seems likely that Yancey will end up telling yet another story about how “humanity” – young humanity – “sets aside its differences and bands together to defeat the alien horde.” Still, there is one aspect of Yancey’s novel that does raise the possibility of a slightly different conclusion: we are told that the aliens were initially divided about the plan to eradicate the human race, as some supported an effort to achieve peaceful “Coexistence” with humanity. Perhaps, then, there will emerge a faction of “good aliens” who join with humans in order to defeat the “evil aliens.” But unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s proclivity for the black-and-white simplicity of melodrama, the film says nothing about dissenting (and potentially sympathetic) aliens; instead, one of the alien-occupied snipers announces that people in his situation must make a choice between being an (obviously evil) alien or being an (obviously good) human, and the film thereby conveys the message that the only good alien is a dead alien.

The other differences between the novel and the film are relatively inconsequential; one of the secret of Collins’s, Dashner’s, Roth’s, and Yancey’s success is to write novels that read like screenplays in the form of prose, so that turning them into screenplays is relatively effortless. Here, all screenwriters Suzannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner had to do was a little polishing and streamlining: an early account of an awkward date between Cassie and another boy is replaced by a scene at a party, where Cassie has a cute encounter with Ben; the characters of the subtly sinister Dr. Pam and the viciously sadistic drill instructor Reznik are combined into a subtly sinister, female Sergeant Reznik (Maria Bello); one of Ben’s fellow soldiers, Dumbo (Tony Revolori), now makes an early appearance as a survivor of the flood; the young man who rescues Cassie, Evan Walker (Alex Roe), no longer bakes bread, but he is observed engaging in the appropriately manly task of chopping wood; and the novel describes the aliens as disembodied intelligences, while the film more evocatively suggests that they are physical parasites resembling large insects residing inside human brains. Discussing more substantive alterations in Walker’s character and other changes would again take me into spoiler territory, but there are no significant surprises in the film, and if you have recently read the novel, you may find the film rather boring. Trust me on that. (And even people who were not familiar with the novel may have felt the same way; the audiences for the films I watch usually respect the no-cell-phones rule, but during an early showing of The 5th Wave in Glendora, California, I regularly glimpsed the glowing screens of smartphones.)

There is also one way in which the novel is superior to the film: its sense of humor. While Dashner departs from the norm in writing a third-person narrative, Collins, Roth, and Yancey allow their young protagonists to narrate their own stories, granting them the opportunity to display distinctive personalities and present themselves as perceptive and occasionally witty. The above quotation is one of many examples of Cassie’s amusing language, and when Ben enters the alien base with a story that he knows is implausible, he states that “I don’t need” the commander “to buy it. Just rent it for a few hours” – and provide him with time to take action. Yet there are few if any times in the film when Cassie or Ben is funny, even though Cassie provides some voiceover narration that would have allowed for greater use of Yancey’s prose. Also recalling Jennifer Lawrence’s doggedly dour Katniss Everdeen, one wonders why these young adventurers are always so serious, particularly when adult heroes who wisecrack their way through one dangerous situation after another are so commonplace. Perhaps this is yet another sign that young people today have an exaggerated sense of their own importance: “Hey, the fate of the entire human race rests upon my sixteen-year-old shoulders,” the film’s Cassie might say, “and you expect me to be telling jokes?” (Strangely, the only mildly amusing thing that Cassie says in the film relates to the youthful tendency to take things too seriously: “When you’re in high school, just about everything seems like the end of the world.”)

Another small but telling difference between the novel and the film relates to our increasingly secular society. In previous films about alien invaders, it was not unusual for the survivors to thank God for saving them (as in the original The War of the Worlds [1953] and The Day of the Triffids [1963]); the scene that opens both the novel and the film – Cassie mistakenly shoots a man who is holding a crucifix, not a weapon – suggests that individuals in her world are similarly seeking solace in their religious faith; and when Sam has trouble falling to sleep, first he and Cassie, and later he and Ben, jointly recite the prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep ….” However, the film bizarrely replaces that prayer with the Coldplay song “Don’t Panic” (1999), about living “in a beautiful world,” and the only other references to religion that I recall were sacrilegious curses, as Cassie and another character almost simultaneously react to a bleeding wound by screaming “Jesus!” (Perhaps there is a hidden meaning here, for this comes at the time when Cassie has been rescued by a man, literally her “Savior,” who is both a human and an alien – and this is also one way to describe Jesus Christ).

As a final topic for discussion, viewers bored by a film must search desperately for something to be interested in, and I found myself obsessively trying to sort out the film’s geography. The novel establishes that the story takes place in southwestern Ohio, as indicated when Cassie smells Cincinnati burning and characters’ plans to make their way to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and the film seems to reinforce that setting by showing a map including Antioch College and making Cassie a student of Franklin High School (presumably the Franklin High School of Franklin, Ohio, though that school’s nickname is the “Wildcats” while the film refers to the school’s nickname as the “Panthers”). However, the refugee camp that Cassie, Sam, and Oliver reach, Camp Cuyahoga, would most likely be found at the other, northeastern end of the state, either in the town of Cuyahoga Falls or the surrounding Cuyahoga County, and that is also the only logical place where an earthquake-induced tsunami from Lake Erie would imperil Cassie and Sam within one minute, a dramatic moment added to the film. Perhaps someone belatedly noted the film’s confused geography, which would explain why the film’s closing disclaimer unusually states not only that the film’s “story” and “characters” are “fictitious,” but that its “locations” are as well. (Were the producers afraid that Ohio’s Franklin High School would sue them for misrepresenting their nickname?) There are other, even more trivial issues that fleetingly caught my attention, including the significance of the film’s odd references to Spider-Man, Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003), and “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” but these merit no extended discussions.

By now, it should be more than evident that I really didn’t enjoy watching The 5th Wave, though it is hard to explain why, for by any conventional evaluation, it qualifies as a well-crafted diversion, not unlike many successful films of the recent past. Perhaps the problem is that the film is artfully following an overly familiar, even an exhausted pattern; considered as yet another effort to foreground the plight of virtuous and wrongly persecuted youth, Yancey’s creation, counting Card, Collins, Dashner and Roth as one through four, might indeed be described as a “fifth wave” of this kind, but this film feels more like a fifteenth wave – or a fiftieth wave. To mix metaphors, Yancey may have jumped on board this gravy train a bit too late, precisely at the moment when it was about to derail, and his dreams of endless wealth may be crushed by this film’s unexpected failure. At least, I’ll frankly admit, that’s the outcome I’m hoping for, since this would prevent the production of the sequels that I am most definitely not looking forward to reviewing.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone, soon to be available from Wildside Press.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor 978-0-7653-7994-8, $25.99, 320pp, hc) January 2016.

Charlie Jane Anders takes a number of fascinat­ing genre risks in All the Birds in the Sky, her first SF/F novel, and one of the most prominent is implied by that slashmark between SF and F: the basic concept of the story revisits the aging but indomitable trope of science versus magic, centered around the two best-friend main char­acters, one of whom is a powerful witch and the other a brilliant, cutting-edge scientist. In the long history of magic vs. science stories, magic nearly always wins out in the end (even when they’re written by stone-cold materialists), so most readers will have a pretty good suspicion of how this tension is going to resolve itself. And, over in the romance arena, the familiar trope of inseparable childhood pals who drift apart in adulthood and later meet again, bouncing off each other like pool balls for a while, is almost always going to end up exactly where we expect it to. Finally, one of the most beloved tropes in SF is the Big Experiment That Goes Really Badly Awry, and Anders has one of those as well. In brief, there ought to be little to surprise us here – and yet All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most surprising novels I’ve read this year, and for the most part one of the most delightful. Anders manages to make all these risks pay off, even when she goes all cosmological in the end, and her main tool in accomplishing this is something as simple as tone.

For its first third, All the Birds in the Sky is an absolutely terrific YA novel about two bril­liant misfit kids coping with the triple threats of dunderheaded parents, school bullies, and their own private obsessions. As a six-year-old, Pa­tricia Delfine learns that she can talk to animals and even visits a Parliament of Birds in a giant world-tree, but her parents just see her as ‘‘act­ing out.’’ Laurence Armstead is a PlayStation junkie and genius tinkerer who even builds his own ‘‘two-second time machine’’ (from sche­matics he finds on the Web), but whose clueless parents think he should just get out more, and whose schoolmates find him an easy target. The two form an unlikely alliance, and this is where the ingratiating and somewhat goofy tone becomes almost irresistible. Anders’s approach to writing about childhood echoes that of Daniel Pinkwater, and there are two classic Pinkwater gestures early in the story. When Patricia and Laurence are improvising scenarios based on the footwear of people they see on an escalator, Patricia guesses that a man in black slippers is an assassin, ‘‘a member of a secret society of trained killers’’ – and he turns out, we are told, to be exactly that. The point of view then leaps to the assassin, Theodolphus Rose, whose as­signment is to kill Patricia and Laurence. The paranoid Rose, foolishly suspecting that people are always trying to poison him, decides to en­joy his Cheesecake Factory sundae anyway. Of course, it’s poisoned.

Rose makes for a pretty heinous if inept vil­lain, scheming to get Laurence shipped off to the scariest reform camp since Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘‘The Pelican Bar’’, but it’s hardly a spoiler that the kids survive, since the next chapter is a decade later, after Patricia has graduated from an elite magic school and Laurence has become a tech wunderkind involved in Elon Musk-like schemes to save the world. At first tentative, their reconnection eventually leads to a bit of it’s-about-time steamy sex and eventually to romance, but not before Patricia finds herself in trouble with her fellow magicians. It seems the small good works she does on a nightly basis are viewed as Aggrandizement, one of her magic community’s more serious taboos. Laurence has an aggrandizement problem of his own, as his major project, an antigravity device, causes one of his colleagues to disappear in a premature test, and Laurence summons Patricia in hope that her magic skills can help.

Anders isn’t really very interested in exploring the competing worldviews of scientific material­ism and magical belief, and it’s just as well; that almost never leads anywhere worthwhile in tell­ing a story. But she does set up some interesting ambiguities, such as the question of whether Patricia’s noble but small-scale fixes (like curing a friend of HIV) are more or less useful compared to the global-scale idealism that motivates Lau­rence and his colleagues, but which carries its own hazards. The question that dominates the second half of the novel is whether some sort of accommodation can be reached, and that in turn inevitably gets caught up in the vicissitudes of Patricia and Laurence’s own tangled relationship. The masterful, wacky, and sometimes hilarious control of tone that’s so inviting in the early chapters gets a bit wobbly from time to time later on, as the scale of the narrative spirals outward from fixing a relationship to fixing the world, but by now Anders has pretty much sold us on the sheer likeability of her flawed characters, and even if her ending may depend a bit too heavily on gonzo cosmology, these characters manage to bring it off, and so does Anders.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Morgan Llywelyn

Only the Stones Survive, by Morgan Llywelyn (Tor/Forge 978-0765337924, $25.99, 304pp, hardcover) January 2016

Have I ever discussed the “Ronald Firbank Test” with you? It’s a very rough-hewn, dubious, but possibly still useful internet metric of my own devising.

Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) was a cult writer, a fellow of limited but intense appeal whose mannered, fey works were often brilliant, hilarious and sometimes fantastical. Nonetheless, whatever his merits, his readership and profile nowadays are minimal—just as they were in his own lifetime.

When I googled his name just now, in quotation marks of course, I got roughly 40,000 hits.

To me, that’s the benchmark for authorial obscurity. Below One Firbank Unit is really obscure; any higher numbers advance by stages to One Stephen King Unit (twenty-four-million hits). And this test does not, I believe, reflect only a tendency toward internet self-promotion, as the reclusive Thomas Pynchon earns over half-a-million hits.

I myself hover around 110,000 hits. Wow, almost Three Firbank Units!

Morgan Llywelyn’s name, submitted just now, brought up only 70,000 links, not even Two Firbank Units.

That seems to me a distinct undervaluation for someone who’s been writing fine, well-received, much-admired novels since 1978.

But such is the fickleness and unfairness of public attention, which should not divert us from enjoyment of her newest, which she delivers at the top of her game as she approaches her eightieth year.

Only the Stones Survives is a melancholy, elegiac yet ultimately life-affirming tale, written with bardic simplicity, clarity and elegance. It concerns a pivotal era of change, the moment when the more-than-human Túatha Dé Danann (whose origins here are quasi-SF, cited as “from beyond the stars,” reminiscent of Zenna Henderson’s “the People”), long-settled peaceful inhabitants of the mystical island of Ierne, are driven to the brink of extinction by the invading Children of Milesios, who are a warlike race self-exiled from Iberia due to climactic and environmental issues which Llywelyn parses in a sophisticated manner akin to the famous anthropological researches of Jared Diamond.

Our viewpoint characters are numerous, with the sole, and thus privileged, first-person narration being given over to one of the islanders, Joss, son of the leader of the Túatha Dé Danann. Other potent points-of-view inhere in the primary general of the Milesians, Éremón; his brother, the bard Amerigen; a Phoenician servant, Sakkar; and the young Túatha Dé Danann woman Shinann, who is miraculous and odd even for this weird clan.

By following Joss’s life from earliest days, before the invasion, we get a sense of the blessed, fairylike existence of the Túatha Dé Danann. Joss’s unwilling accommodations to the new days of brutality will provide the bridge from one era to the other. Of course, as readers we naturally sympathize with the natives, whose reluctance to employ all the most deadly weapons at their command, lest they become as horrible as their enemies, is what dooms them. The eternal debate between pacifism and aggression gets a fresh airing. But Llywelyn won’t allow us any simplistic allegiances or empathy. Her in-depth, sympathetic portraiture of the Milesians, who are hardly a homogenous set of characters, forces us to consider the inherent virtues and vices on both sides of the battle lines. She even adds topicality to the plight of the invaders when she refers to them as “refugees,” a loaded label in our day and age.

Llywelyn succeeds in invoking the glamour and mystery of pre-history in a manner patented by, of all people, Robert E. Howard. You’ll see a type of overweening, less ethical Conan in the person of Éremón. And then her somewhat Tolkienesque stylings will delightfully intervene, to summon up misty, mythical eras that preceded our human times. The rousing opening section of Chapter Sixteen, when the very land and creatures of Ierne come to the aid of the Children of Light, might have been found on the pages of LOTR.

Although the rough rudiments of the near-extinction of the Túatha Dé Danann might be foreknown to the reader from previous exploration of these myths, Llywelyn succeeds in keeping the twists and turns along that familiar route utterly surprising. Her particularization of the personages involved, the strategies and outcomes of battle, the motivations and doubts of the participants, all conduce toward an utterly fresh treatment of this ancient material. And her climax, the hybrid solution to all the competition, is brilliant and highly emblematic.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed the works of Evangeline Walton, Andre Norton, Thomas Burnett Swann or T. H. White would be well-repaid to pick up this charming book, deceptively simple, yet cosmically rich, by turns meditative and brawling, accepting of fate and rebellious against destiny.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

“It’s Gravity Meets Night of the Living Dead!”:
A Review of 400 Days

by Gary Westfahl

Note: if you don’t happen to live near the fifteen American theatres where 400 Days is opening on January 15 (listed here), you may find that the film is available through your cable services as a Video on Demand, which is how I watched the film. Indeed, this might be an ideal way to watch the film, since it is described as the intimate drama of four astronauts being confined in a small underground chamber for 400 days in order to test their ability to endure a lengthy space flight. And even when, inevitably, the film expands beyond that setting, it retains a quiet, claustrophobic aura, with no spectacular, IMAX-friendly special effects best observed on the big screen. While definitely a different sort of science fiction film, however, 400 Days is also a disappointing film, as it abruptly changes direction to follow a well-worn, very familiar path.

As you surely deduced, my title describes how one imagines writer-director Matt Osterman might have pitched the idea of 400 Days, in a stereotypically succinct fashion, to skeptical Hollywood executives. Like many pitches, no doubt, it is not entirely accurate, for there are few if any specific plot similarities between this film and the referenced classics. Yet the pitch would be broadly defensible, inasmuch as 400 Days begins like a realistic depiction of near-future astronauts and devolves into a standard-issue horror film. This is hardly a novel phenomenon: one could describe two recent films I reviewed, Pandorum (2009; review here) and Apollo 18 (2011; review here), in precisely those terms, and in my book The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), I devote one chapter to over twenty films and television programs from the 1950s and 1960s that follow the same trajectory, ranging from the respectable (The Quatermass Experiment [1953], The Angry Red Planet [1961]) to the risible (The Crawling Hand [1963], Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster [1965]).

The question to ponder is: why this pattern is so commonplace? To be sure, outer space is a frightening place to be, and films like Gravity (2013; review here) and The Martian (2015; review here) convincingly demonstrate just how horrifying it is to find oneself stranded in a freezing-cold environment lacking air, food, and water. And I suppose one could regard the incongruous appearance of menaces like rampaging zombies and homicidal crab monsters in those other films as metaphorical representations of the horrors of space, provided for audiences who cannot appreciate the subtler threat of a slow leak in a spaceship hull. Yet I suspect that something more disturbing is going on, a fundamental aversion to the basic argument characteristically embedded in the spacesuit film.

But before discussing how the film diverges from expectations, one should evaluate how it fulfills expectations – because, for much of its length, the film does address the issues it is supposed to be addressing: can a small group of people actually endure a space flight lasting more than a year, which would be essential for missions to other planets? What steps could engineers and administrators take to maximize their chances for success? Both 400 Days and The Martian, because of its occasional scenes on board the spaceship that journeys to Mars, can be viewed as a list of recommendations for any nation or company planning extensive space initiatives, and even older films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) can contribute to the discussion.

The first prerequisite – choosing astronauts who are psychologically stable and compatible – is better illustrated by the harmonious crews of 2001 and The Martian, since the astronauts in 400 Days all come equipped with built-in problems. Captain Theo Cooper (Brandon Routh) and Dr. Emily McTier (Caity Lotz) were planning to get married, but the executive in charge of the project, Walter Anderson (Grant Bowler), inexplicably instructs Emily to end the relationship, sending Theo on a “four-day bender” right before the flight that lands him in jail and seemingly proves that he is not astronaut material, and leaving Emily to constantly brood over her insincere rejection. Needless to say, they have several tense moments during the simulation. Meanwhile, Cole Dvorak (Dane Cook) remains bitter about his distant parents and lonely upbringing, while Bug Kieslowski (Ben Feldman) is tormented by his extended absence from his young son. Still, if you’re writing a film that foregrounds four characters in confined quarters, there has to be something about them to generate occasional conflicts, and for the most part, Osterman’s astronauts do not allow their personal issues to interfere with their responsibilities.

Second, it seems important to provide the astronauts with a lot of room. The spaceship of The Martian is positively palatial in its dimensions, a mansion in space that will probably be forever beyond the budget of any spacefaring nation, and 2001’s Discovery is rather spacious as well. The simulated spaceship of 400 Days is not nearly as big, but there are still a large kitchen and private rooms for each astronaut. Third, it is important to keep everyone busy with regular tasks. The job of cooking rotates among the four crewmates; Theo has the burden of leadership, since he must decide what to do during any crisis; Cole has been asked to prepare a weekly video report on crew activities; Bug is in charge of the scientific experiments; and addressing another requirement of any successful mission – keeping a close eye on the crew – Emily is assigned to regularly interview and test her crewmates to evaluate their mental status and presumably intervene to avoid major problems (another one of HAL 9000’s jobs in 2001). The astronauts are also given personal journals and playing cards, recalling Frank Poole’s game of chess with HAL, and exercise machines are available in both The Martian and 400 Days (though Poole had to jog around Discovery’s circular chamber).

It is finally deemed necessary to keep isolated astronauts in regular touch with their family members and friends, as evidenced by messages in 2001 and The Martian, and that was planned in 400 Days, since Walter promised to contact them every day and crewmates were supposed to have access to the internet. However, on Day 26 of their mission, the astronauts hear mysterious explosions and thereafter find themselves entirely cut off from the outside world – which they assume is one of Walter’s simulated problems, designed to test their performance during adverse conditions. And in fact, the astronauts do adjust to the absence of communication, and they do suggest that such lengthy space missions would be feasible: the astronauts have some arguments, one fistfight, occasional hallucinations, and moments of disquieting behavior, but they manage to remain sane and functional throughout their simulated flight. In this way, the film affirms the traditionally optimistic message that has long resonated through sagas of space travel: outer space may be a dauntingly challenging environment, but resolute, well-trained humans will be able to prevail and lead their species onward to gradually conquer the cosmos.

However, the real reason behind the astronauts’ loss of communication stunningly contradicts that optimistic message – and while I have so far strived to remain vague about later events, it will now become necessary to state exactly what happens in the final half of the film. So, if you haven’t seen the film and wished to be surprised, read no further.


(As it happens, though, I actually think the film is more enjoyable if you already understand what is going on, as was the case when I watched it a second time, since on first viewing the developments only seem bizarre and irksomely incomprehensible.)

Basically, we are increasingly asked to believe that, 26 days after the simulated mission began, some enormous object struck the Moon and sent a massive storm of debris hurtling towards Earth. This polluted the atmosphere so severely as to leave the planet in eternal darkness, bring an end to agriculture, and cause massive numbers of human and animal deaths. A small band of survivors, obviously unbalanced even if they have not entirely descended to the mindlessness of zombies, travels from city to city, staying alive by killing and eating any other survivors they encounter. After one of them briefly invades their enclosure, the astronauts emerge to investigate and are greeted with transparently insincere friendliness by people who are eying them as their next meal.

In responding to this threat, the astronauts are hindered by recurring suspicions that all of this is actually another one of Walter’s phony problems, a staged scenario designed to evaluate their reactions to a stressful situation; so they regularly pause to search for hidden cameras or microphones. This is just barely possible: after all, football players traditionally practice by jumping through automobile tires, even though they will find no tires on the field during their games, and some misguided administrator might have strangely resolved to test the astronauts by presenting them with a problem that they would never encounter on an actual mission, like a toned-down version of the Zombie Apocalypse. Yet the sheer size of the transformed environment, and the actual violence that starts to occur, force them to recognize the reality of their plight – even though the film’s conclusion is not entirely unambiguous.

The audiences of 400 Days, then, ultimately find themselves watching what they have seen many, many times before: the impending end of the world, brought about elsewhere by events ranging from climate change and asteroid impacts to lethal plagues and alien invasions. Humanity’s future will not involve gleaming-white spaceships taking astronauts to new frontiers, but a dark terrain of despair and depravity, brightened only by the possibility that a few capable heroes, like this film’s astronauts, might somehow manage to resolve the crisis and launch a revival of civilization – which is the way the typical Hollywood apocalypse concludes. But it is hard to regard a story about a future of struggling to restore a devastated Earth as fundamentally optimistic.

Still, even those who continue to believe in a hopeful future of space travel must acknowledge that this sort of disaster is hardly impossible, though the usual concern is an object striking Earth, not the Moon. (Personally, I suspect that since it is so far away, an impact on the Moon would have relatively little effect on Earth, but someone might be able to do the math and prove me wrong.) Yet science fiction stories about space travel often combine optimism and pessimism to argue that space travel might represent the best way to cope with such impending catastrophes: in the short run, well-equipped astronauts might be able to prevent an asteroid impact (like the heroes of Deep Impact [1998] and Armageddon [1998]), and in the long run, even if Earth is doomed, spaceships would allow people to establish colonies in space and on other worlds and thus keep the human species alive.

In contrast, this film never establishes any connection between dreams of space travel and Earth’s devastation. When the leader of the sinister survivors, Zel (Tom Cavanagh), complains that the authorities provided no warning of the impending impact, that might be interpreted as a criticism of Earth’s misguided priorities, as no one was vigilant enough to notice, and perhaps take action to avert, the crisis. But the film itself never makes that point. And to emphasize the potential value of space colonization, Osterman’s screenplay might have had the astronauts undergo their simulation within the actual spaceship they would someday be flying; and upon discovering the ruined landscape around them, they might have restocked their supplies, recruited a few other not-quite-insane survivors, and concluded the film by launching the spaceship to take the human race to a new home in space.

However, I very much doubt that such an idea ever crossed Osterman’s mind, because with a few exceptions – like Interstellar (2014; review here) – popular culture has largely abandoned the once-common notion that humanity’s future lies in the outer space. Instead, if one accepts the conclusions of most science fiction films, television programs, and video games, our descendants will long be obliged to continue living on Earth, coping with one devastating crisis after another – like evil robots, totalitarian societies, and homicidal aliens, all scenarios that I will be encountering in other films I’ll soon be reviewing. There are a few outbursts of optimism – the generally benign future of the Star Trek franchise, and occasional films like this one that dangle the possibility of a better future before our eyes before plunging us into disaster – but the relentless pessimism one usually encounters, despite massive amounts of evidence indicating that life on Earth has steadily been getting better and better during the last seventy years, is both incongruous and disheartening. However, this tendency has been debated and deplored on many previous occasions.

I am left to comment on several small details, jotted down as I watched the film, that reflect varying degrees of attentiveness in developing the screenplay. As a key plot point, the astronauts first recognize that something unusual has occurred when Bug’s analysis of the dust now covering the landscape includes armalcolite, a mineral we are told is found only on the Moon. In fact, while this was initially believed to be the case when the Apollo 11 astronauts discovered it, armalcolite was subsequently found in several places on Earth – as can be ascertained by less-than-painstaking research, namely, looking it up in Wikipedia. The private company in charge of the simulation is called Kepler Enterprises, possibly referencing the recently-launched space probe, but literary scholars know that Johannes Kepler also wrote a pioneering work of science fiction, Somnium (1634), in which a journey to the Moon is accomplished by means of witchcraft; perhaps there is something similarly suspect about the company’s plans for space travel. While exploring the surface, the astronauts discover a map showing the towns of Jedona, Eagle Pass, and Tranquility before making their way to Tranquility; it is impossible to associate this map with an actual location (I can find no towns named Jedona; the only Eagle Pass is in Texas; and the only Tranquility is in New Jersey), but the names “Eagle Pass” and “Tranquility,” and the American flag shown flying in the second town, must be ironic references to the Apollo 11 flight of the Eagle to Tranquility Base. Despite visible efforts to achieve diversity in casting, there remains a tendency to prefer Caucasian astronauts, as evidenced by this film, yet 400 Days also announces its own exclusion of minorities when Bug discovers a menu in Zel’s diner indicating that the original owners were an African-American couple named Terry and Judy Garrison – who presumably either died in the original disaster or were killed and eaten by Zel and his friends. And it seems the rule that every serious space film must refer in some way to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and this film’s moment occurs when, as they walk through the darkness, one crewman sings “Daisy Bell,” famously performed by the dying HAL 9000. Perhaps, as in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the song is intended to signal the conclusion of a mission in which everything went wrong.

400 Days is also a film in which everything goes wrong, and it’s a shame; at some point before filming, I wish someone had advised Osterman, “Hey, instead of bringing in the crazed cannibals, why don’t you just finish the story you started?” – namely, a study of how humans might react to the experience of a long space voyage. My own research has shown, repeatedly, that it is possible to produce an involving film about astronauts without introducing murderous monsters, and since the film’s publicity makes no mention of the astronauts’ ultimate fate, it will only attract viewers who are interested in the realities of space travel (since people who want to watch otherworldly mayhem will seek out other films and television programs). Such viewers, like me, will likely be displeased by a film that ultimately fails to entertain them, even as it lurches out of focus in an effort to provide more entertainment. But resorting to clichés only takes an instant, while crafting a persuasive film about realistic space travel may require much more than 400 days.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone, soon to be available from Wildside Press.

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