Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


19th in Love
by Gerard Mulligan

Nelay and the Blunt
by Clint Spivey

Fletcher’s Mountains
by Michael Hodges

Robert and Sarah, Across the Multiverse
by Matthew S. Dent

Boccaccio in Outer Space
by Chet Gottfried

Invoking Fire
by Guy Stewart

Seven Seconds
by Charles Payseur

by Simon Kewin

Coming of AGE
by Bob Sojka

A Journey Through the Wormhole
by Brian Biswas


A Taste for Physics
by John McCormick

Scale of the Problem
by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

No Defiance of Convention

THE FIRST MINUTE OF AN episode of “Defiance” is, more often than not, the most enjoyable minute of that episode. It’s in these initial moments that the titular town (founded when warring human and alien armies threw down their arms and made peace in a post-apocalyptic Earth) actually behaves like a real-life one. The camera leaps from merchants peddling their wares to back alleys littered with drugs and criminals to Defiance’s wealthiest sitting in their ivory towers. Rarely do these moments ever have any impact on the plot of the episode that follows; usually the show’s protagonists—sheriff Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter/deputy Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas)—don’t even make an appearance. Instead, these moments provide a support for an episode to build off of, and a way to allow the viewer to experience life in a world that is at once familiar and alien.

It’s a shame that the actual episodes that follow display none of the intelligence of those openings. The inner workings of city life are thrown aside for overly simple action-movie stories that boil down to little else than catching the bad guy and saving the day. A villain is introduced with some hazy link to an established defiancecharacter’s mysterious past (because on “Defiance,” every character has some terrible secret that must be hinted at through jumpy, over-saturated flashbacks), the villain tries to betray our heroes or destroy the town, but evil is foiled and moral order is restored. This is especially troubling when “Defiance” tries to paint itself as a place where right and wrong are shades of gray and no character is a shining beacon of morality—in reality, characters rarely, if ever, stray from a rigid moral path. Nolan and Irisa may appear to be loose cannons who lash out violently at a moment’s notice, but any and all acts of violence are soon revealed to have been the right decision all along. They act on impulse, and on the slightest suspicions (without any real evidence) that someone may be a villain, but those suspicions are always correct and their victims are always revealed to be vile villains of the worst kind. Thus the two heroes appear to be perfect, with the innate ability to always take the moral high ground even by accident. Similarly, the town’s mayor (“Dexter’s” Julie Benz) will consider making a dirty political move but never follow through, while the slimy alien gangster Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) may occasionally aid the heroes, but does so only when he has something to gain. No risks are taken when defining these characters, and the rough edges the show seems to tout never materialize.

The relatively poor quality of the dialogue and the acting certainly doesn’t help. Bowler, Curran, and Graham Greene (as the industrious owner of the town’s largest mine) do their best with lines that bluntly announce plot points and characters’ inner emotions, but the rest of the cast doesn’t fare nearly as well. Leonidas has only two settings: screaming rage and a wide-eyed stare that’s meant to visualize her brief moments of vulnerability (but instead showcases little else besides an actress with her eyes open very, very wide). Most of the more minor characters give wooden performances in dull, meandering side-plots—the star-crossed lovers from different races, the prostitute with a heart of gold, or the rookie deputy who slowly learns the ropes. Jaime Murray gives one of the better performances (as the wife of Curran’s alien gangster), but her role is clearly lifted in its entirety from the character of Cersei on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Murray’s Stahma Tarr, like Cersei, is the wealthiest of the wealthy elite, manipulating those under her domain from behind the scenes, arranging marriages to extend her sphere of influence, and is even the spitting image of “Thrones” Lena Headey clothed in a similar gossamer wardrobe.

This exemplifies one of “Defiance’s” biggest failings: its total lack of cohesion. That universe that shines in each episode’s opening minute spends the rest of the hour as an awkward pastiche of countless different styles and genres. Defiance is a remote mining town styled after the Old West, situated in a barren landscape that is both post-apocalyptic wasteland (a la “Mad Max”) and alien futurescape; Nolan is a rugged treasure hunter with more than a passing resemblance to Indiana Jones, while his adopted daughter shares the same face, hair, dress and doe eyes of Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element.” The villains equip themselves in steampunk outfits while space cowboys straight out of “Firefly” visit an alien cantina straight out of “Star Wars.” In this world nothing is unique and nothing fits together quite like it should. No single element can shine because countless other contradicting styles are all pushing and shoving to be the one to stand out. So on the rare occasion when “Defiance” actually comes up with something new and exciting, it feels less like a creative accomplishment and more like the rare strand of spaghetti that actually stuck to the wall. The Tarrs’ home is a breathtaking set where every single element is pure, shimmering white; two characters make conversation outside a bombed-out dog food factory; a hulking alien beast takes his Jack Russell terrier for a late-night walk. In any other show these moments would be sparks of genius. In “Defiance,” they are beaten down by a thousand others that aren’t nearly as clever.

“Defiance” could be a fun bit of summer escapism if it would only slow down and think things through. Its charismatic anti-heroes need real charisma and a few negative characteristics to make them seem real. Its world should take a few elements and stick to them, rather than trying and failing to use every science fiction element under the sun. Even the action sequences don’t quite work. CGI often overwhelms the screen and creates a repetitive, video game aesthetic (not surprising when the show invites viewers to play along in an online “Defiance” MMO/shooter video game), and the level of violence fluctuates between tame gun battles and sequences drenched in entrails and arterial spray. Lying deep within “Defiance” is the spark of something truly exciting. Unfortunately for those tuning in, that spark is just that—a spark, and nothing more. (“Defiance,” Mondays 9/8c, SyFy) 2 starsAdam Paul


No Laughing Matter

“LAUGHING INTO THE FOURTH Dimension” by Larry Lefkowitz is a collection of short, humorous stories. But mixing humor with science fiction is a difficult accomplishment. This collection did not succeed. Most of the stories in the book appear to be introductions into longer works, and then cut off. A beginning to each story ... the end. A build up ... then it’s over.

All of the stories are science fiction, with some fantasies. They vary widely in subject matter and character types. In “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the protagonist is a tax collector with questionable ethics. It builds up to something funny, then the story ends, belaughingfore we get the laugh. “The Law of Matter” is a bit longer than the others, with humor reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. They were funny once—but to me that kind of humor is dated now. There is something close to humor running through many of the stories, but most end before the punch line or the irony can be delivered.

The stories appear to have been written throughout the career of the writer, resulting in an uneven quality assembled into a collection he believed made sense. It does in some way. Every story is very short and leaves the reader feeling as if the time spent reading could have been better spent watching re-runs of “Lassie.”

One of the stories, “Ghost Steer Ballad,” was not only short, but ended on a note that leaves this reader scratching her head and wondering why it was included in the collection at all. A cowboy chases a bull into a box canyon and the bull disappears. Then the cowboy wishes on a silver bullet to be taken from the canyon, and finds the wishing bullet really does work. It’s fantasy, but is it funny?

Not really.

Most of the works in this collection are not complete stories. What’s missing is the middle and end. In “Ben Franklin’s Time Machine,” Franklin invents a time machine, tests it by sending his servant to the future of 1946, where the servant waits nearby hoping to be returned to his own time. In between these two events are journal entries by Franklin which have nothing to do with the story line.

“May not all the phenomena of light be more conveniently solved by supposing universal space filled with a subtle elastic fluid which, when at rest, is not visible, but whose vibrations affect that fine sense of the eye as those of the air do the grosser organs of the ear?”

Perhaps they were placed there to show the preoccupation with science by the character? Regardless, the expected laugh (again) is absent.

A book of humor that is not funny, is bad enough, but typos and grammatical errors compound the problem. A lackadaisical editor does this anthology no service.

The best of the collection is a full story. “The Cup Bearer of Lethe” is engaging and well-written, but is it worth reading through the entire book to get to this one shining gem? I don’t think so. (“Laughing Into the Fourth Dimension,” Larry Lefkowitz, Wayman Publishing) 2stars — Carla R. Herrera


Leaving Earth in a Mess

“AFTER EARTH” IS THE RARE film that truly stretches the limits of hyperbole. It is wholly unsuccessful in every aspect of its filmmaking; as a piece of science fiction, as a popcorn action flick, and even on the most fundamental levels of cinema, “After Earth” is nothing but an endless series of catastrophes. Not a single positive element emerges during the film’s one hundred minute running time (although it could be argued that the relatively short length is its sole saving grace), and its failures are so listless and unimaginative that it even misses the so-bad-it’s-good glee of M. Night Shyamalan’s previous fiasco, “The Last Airbender.” To call “After Earth” a trainwreck is far too generous; it implies Shyamalan could construct a train that runs competently enough to derail.

The film’s science fiction is surprisingly childish. Elements integral to the plot are introduced without context or reason, then quickly ignored. In 2025, human beings render the Earth uninhabitable and are forced to flee through space, eventually rebuilding civilization on the distant planet Nova Prime. Yet Nova Prime is not uninhabited, and a hostile alien race fills the planet with ravenous beasts called Ursa, forciafterearthng the human settlers to fight a long and bloody war. Years later, human general Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) are on a routine mission when their ship is damaged and crash-lands on a wild, feral Earth. The father-son duo must now fight to escape the savage planet.

This exposition is presented plainly, and the film expects its audience to accept these facts at face value without addressing the numerous holes and unexplained confusions within them. The humans triumphed against the Ursa, but the sentient aliens that started this conflict never appear onscreen and are never mentioned after the first five minutes of the film. We are left wondering whether these aliens continued to fight against humans and the film never bothered to mention it, or whether they dropped a mass of bloodthirsty creatures on a planet’s surface in an attempt to reclaim it, then immediately packed up and left, never to be seen or heard from again. Even Shyamalan’s concept of Earth makes little sense. Cypher (mere mention of the name Cypher Raige tends to induce severe eye-rolling) claims that in the thousand years since humankind left the planet, every one of Earth’s species has evolved solely to kill humans, yet with no humans left on the planet to drive such specific adaptations, this is clearly impossible. And when young Kitai fights to protect a nest of baby eagles, the mother eagle ignores this apparent evolution and instantly gains a conscience, going so far as to nurture Kitai like its own offspring. Mistakes like these litter the film, and are obscured even further by a mumbly future accent spoken by the denizens of Nova Prime. A vague blend of several present-day English dialects, no two characters speak this future affectation the same way and often flit from Southern American to British to Caribbean within a single line of dialogue.

Underneath “After Earth’s” science fiction exterior lies an equally poor action movie, and one with a fundamental lack of excitement. Shyamalan seems incapable of filming an action sequence—during a number of set pieces, Shyamalan focuses the camera unwaveringly upon his heroes’ heads and leaves the action to exist offscreen. Handled with competency, this could be an ingenious idea, but in Shyamalan’s hands, these sequences are bafflingly uninteresting. The warriors of Nova Prime train to rid themselves of all fear. Onscreen, this translates into actors staring blankly into space while never moving from a rigid posture. When the protagonists’ ship fights through asteroids to land on Earth, all we see is the elder Smith gazing at something out of the frame, totally emotionless with only a few jolts of shaky camera to remind the audience that this is an action movie. A similar idea is attempted during the actual crash-landing, but the film is content to let the back of Jaden Smith’s head dominate the camera. The end result is the cinematic equivalent of riding a roller coaster and staring into the haircut of the person in front of you.

These failings point to the root of “After Earth’s” problem: between 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” and today, Shyamalan has somehow lost his ability to piece together the most basic building blocks of filmmaking. POV shots are consistently placed in areas they should not be. They disorient when inserted into bits of shot/reverse shot dialogue, and action sequences cut to and from POVs so quickly that it’s difficult to register what was just seen. Similarly, Shyamalan can only coach two types of line delivery from his actors: screaming rage or flat monotone. Will Smith, whose natural charisma can usually peek its way through the dullest dud, is completely neutered here. He is the fearless ideal others aspire to, but in the context of the film, total absence of fear requires him to hold those endless blank stares more frequently than any other character. Even the few scraps of comic relief he is given end up tainted by the cardboard nature of the role. Yet the dialogue may be the worst offender of them all. Characters shout at each other about exposition, plot points and conflicts, basic character motivations and the film’s moral messages without the slightest hint at subtlety. Any entertainment value the film might have held is instantly obsolete—we know everything that will happen in the film before it occurs, and we know it because the characters slowly and plainly explained it to us.

The conflict that drives “After Earth” is something inherently simple. The Raiges land in one portion of their aircraft, but the only functional rescue signal is in another piece one hundred kilometers away. The elder Raige is wounded, so the untested youth must make the journey alone. Yet this adventure is stretched into a painstaking mess by an endless stream of screw-ups and poor decisions. “After Earth” is irredeemable in every respect; avoid it at all costs. (“After Earth,” directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Columbia Pictures) 1starAdam Paul


From Light Into Darkness

THE INITIAL “STAR TREK” REBOOT just a few years ago reset the entire franchise and politely bowed its head to the original expansive universe that came before it. “Star Trek Into Darkness” explodes out of the gates as a much darker and more mature effort that is just as accessible to non-Trekkies as it is to exuberant fans. Taking ever so slightly from more recent conventions developed in American blockbuster cinema, “Into Darkness” is action-packed with only a few moments to breathe restfully, and only briefly waves the social and political relevance that made the franchise such a hit.

The film begins with Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) running away from a threatening indigenous tribe on a distant planet a lá “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in hopes of saving it from extinction. When the Prime Directive is breached, and the events are covered-up, Kirk is demoted to First Officer and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is re-assigned to another ship. When a terrorist attack takes out an archive and scores of innocent bystanders, the entire Starfleet Command is also attacked by key suspect John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the hunt is on.

The contemporary themes of mixed ethnicities and race were explored in “Star Trek” and this sequel staunchly places contemporary political issues in the forefront. The opening scene denotes the very real issues of indigenous cultures disappearing, but their confrontation with advanced technology beyond their atmosphere has similarities with theories regarding our own ancient stories of visitors from other planets. Revenge and political cover-ups are just as present, but identity is by far the most outspoken theme of “Into Darkness.”

The expository elements of Kirk and Spock’s elevation to greatness were fleshed out in the 2009 film; themes of identity also sprawl out to this film’s central villain and a new character aboard the Enterprise. We later find out that John Harrison is not exactly who he says he is, and when his identity is revealed, the name itself star trekconjures up immediate distaste regardless of your knowledge of the franchise. A new officer (Alice Eve) boards the ship with clever social engineering and brutal verbal force. Her presence becomes an incredible asset to the crew, and a warm face to a fledgling reboot.

The film’s appropriate subtitle relates to the increasingly sinister intentions of the villain, and a few key scenes in the film are gently taken from the conventions developed in “The Dark Knight.” The terrorist attack on the archive building and on Starfleet Command correlate with real world terrorism and anxieties that require vast defense systems and resources. Although the events of the Boston Bombings took place long after “Into Darkness” wrapped post-production, Kirk’s success in discovering a suspect is similar to how authorities found and captured the real-life suspects in Boston. It is among the many examples of how “Star Trek,” and science fiction in general, represent issues that affect our contemporary lives.

As assumed with big budget summer blockbusters, “Into Darkness” is filled with unrelenting action, and the quieter moments are filled with quippy dialogue that suitably evokes famous lines and interchanges made famous in the franchise. The original Star Trek universe, held sacred by most, is touched upon as an alternative contingency that dictates the potential course of “Into Darkness,” and seemingly subsequent iterations. For a non-Trekkie like myself, this aspect feels respectful for an expansive franchise and universe that existed for nearly untouched for fifty years. Then again, the relationship to the past and the present, linked by a slight convergence, could easily disrupt the hearts and minds of fans throughout the world, much like a breech in the prime directive could disturb the normal evolution of a distant civilization.

Director J.J Abrams, who is now the sole link between “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” debates, has scaled back on an aspect of the 2009 film that was heavily criticized: lens flares. This effect had been an undesirable consequence of scattered light washing out a visual image, but New Hollywood filmmakers began to welcome the imperfection, and J. J. Abrams allowed it to dominate the 2009 film. These flares existed to express the serenity of the final frontier as well as blind us from a future that is just as treacherous as it is bright. With “Into Darkness,” these flares are almost non-existent, perhaps to evoke the film’s darker, more ominous nature thanks to the relentless menace of Harrison’s character and other impeding obstacles.

“Into Darkness” is a much more mature effort for this rebooted series, but it still retains its humble beginnings and the weight of delivering a colossal concept to a mass audience. It is an action film that takes advantage of all that cinema and computer generated imagery can provide. It does so confidently, and offers a safe passageway for another sequel.  (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” directed by J.J. Abrams, Paramount Pictures) 3 starsAaron Weiss


Saving Humanity in Spite of Itself

HUMANS SUFFER A CURIOUS CONCEIT that we must be the envy of angels, immortals, gods and aliens. Never mind that people “have besmirched everything bestowed on them,” as the 1999 film “Dogma” reminds us; “They were given Paradise, they threw it away. They were given this planet, they destroyed it.” Instead of hanging our heads in shame, we tend to buy books written by humans to make us feel better about being human—and Matt Haig’s “The Humans” is just the tonic.

Haig confronts a vast and indifferent universe with the charm and audacity our race is known for. Uncomfortable with apathy and meaningless existence, humans tend to cherish the notion that a loving God deliberately created us, then wonder why God doesn’t give up on us and start over. The answer—“God is crazy in love with us!”—goes back at least 700 years, when Italian mystic Saint Catherine of Siena proclaimehumansd that God simply fell in love with his creation in spite of all our failings. This is the revelation that plagues our alien protagonist in The Humans. Incarnated as a man, he is sent from a galaxy far, far away, not to save humanity, but to save the universe from us. An English mathematician has solved a great math riddle, and if this knowledge isn’t swiftly erased, humans will spread into outer space faster than European invaders were driven by Manifest Destiny. The alien’s job is simple: kill a few humans, come home again. However, like St. Catherine’s God, the alien is soon smitten with us. And if he doesn’t get the job done, another alien will.

The alien’s home planet is a Utopia of immortal beings whose only god is math. Their sketchy rulers, The Host, sound like earth’s heartless communist regimes. Their devotion to prime numbers has never been polluted by poetry, Australian wine, peanut butter and The Beach Boys, so the idea of their assassin abandoning his Earthly mission and giving up immortality for the aches and pains of a short human life is, well, so alien, they just didn’t anticipate it.

Our nameless hero assumes the identity of Professor Andrew Martin, who was already captured and killed before the story opens. The chosen alien has morphed into a body identical to Martin’s and traveled light-years to Earth. Like the comic Mr. Bean of British television, he arrives naked as a newborn on the busy streets of Cambridge. He’s equipped with surprisingly little information on how humans dress, communicate and behave. Luckily he’s a speed reader, so he does some catch-up research at a magazine rack. Unluckily, the latest issue of “Cosmopolitan” is his first source of information about humans. The expected scenes of chaos and confusion occur as Haig employs the ironic humor of “unreliable narrator” and various tropes of science fiction to introduce our displaced alien.

Haig skips the science fiction tradition of world-building. How did a society light-years away find out about a human’s mathematical discovery, and what makes them fear that humans will conquer the universe with it? Kill the man and the knowledge today, but those pesky humans are sure to figure it all out in another generation or century, so why not just kill all humans now? Never mind: the point of the novel is to show that humans have redeeming virtues; the setup is secondary. The alien’s marvelous technology is an echo of ET’s, but what matters is the alien’s willingness to give up his powers in order to be fully human. Ancient Egyptians, the gods of Olympus, even Jesus set a precedent for that. Worse than the “cup” of dying on the cross, though, are the alien’s orders from above to murder his own family and anyone else who has knowledge of his Earth-shattering mathematical breakthrough. Better to suffer and die alone than to see our loved ones harmed, right? This is where Haig hooks the reader. However implausible the imposter’s presence may be, the way he becomes attached to his intended victims endears us to him. Everything about us is new, diverting, delightful. Our coffee is terrible, to him, but wine, hey, and Emily Dickinson, wow! Even the suspicious dog comes to love the alien, who is so much nicer than that awful Andrew Martin was. And, in spite of ourselves, we applaud the insights of our alien as he comes to love those simple, daily details that distinguish us as humans.

Hailed as science fiction with the “brilliance” and insight of Vonnegut, this novel is very readable, engaging and emotionally honest, but not startling. Page after page of observations about humans ring true, but we’ve heard it all before. E.g., the term “news” means “news that directly affects humans,” not the other nine million species on the planet, much less anything beyond the solar system. By renaming a cow “beef,” we make it okay to eat the creature. Few readers will be shocked that “The humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. They have taken their home planet, the only one they currently have access to, and placed it on the road to destruction. They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities among themselves.” And so on. And oh, too true.

We know our flaws; what we want to know is how to love ourselves in spite of them. The alien shows us. He even compiles a list of advice for humans, and it can be viewed on YouTube, with fans of the novel reciting lines from the novel: "If there is a sunset, stop and look at it. Knowledge is finite. Wonder is infinite," or “Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. Do not fall for categories. Everyone is everything. Every ingredient inside a star is inside you, and every personality that ever existed competes in the theatre of your mind for the main role.” Such insights seem more the province of Facebook memes than a novel, but Haig does put a unique spin on the delivery of these warm fuzzies.

Commercial success is assured for this novel. Haig is writing a screenplay of The Humans” for producers of the Harry Potter movies. This is a realistic yet romantic look at people in a mainstream novel that contains elements of science fiction. As the alien himself tells us, there is only one genre, and it is “book.” A man ponders his own existence in a meaningless universe where life is short, nature is brutish but beautiful, and humanity, for all its pros and cons, is worth experiencing. Fans of Nicholas Sparks and Thomas Kincaid are more likely to love this book than fans of science fiction. I did enjoy this, and on the heels of “Apocalyptic Organ Grinder” by William Todd Rose, a dose of “The Humans” was just what the doctor ordered. (“The Humans,” Matt Haig, Simon & Schuster) 4starsCarol Kean



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