Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Just Like [Illegible] Used to Make
by J.R. Johnson

by Molly N. Moss

Archimedes’ Gambol
by Eric M. Jones

Cynthia 2246
by Mark Ayling

Where the Rivers Meet
by Vincent Knight

A Woman’s Place
by Guy Stewart

Mindship Decommissioned
by Karl El-Koura

Anna Who Reached for the Stars
by Janis Zelcans

Mad Dogs Raid Mars
by Michael Andre-Driussi

Blissful Twilight
by Jessica Payseur


A Case for Nukes
by John McCormick

Nuns in Space
by Carol Kean




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

“Catching Fire” Never Catches Fire

THERE’S AN EXCELLENT PIECE of science fiction trapped somewhere within “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” With chunks liberally seized from “1984” and “Battle Royale,” the world created by author Suzanne Collins may not be the most original, but it’s a terrific vehicle for a few complex thoughts. Totalitarianism, class distinctions, celebrity, and a violent media—all can be wrapped in a dystopian future and its techno-driven teen gladiators.

But finding deeper thought in “Catching Fire” is a chore; two and a half hours spent wading through poorly structured, overly simplified narrative. And while “The Hunger Games” may be part of the title, there’s a ninety-minute piece of exposition to chew through—the length of an average featukatnissre film—before the actual Hunger Games begin. First, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) must struggle with her newfound, post—“Hunger Games” celebrity. She’ll be distanced from her poverty-stricken family, caught in the requisite teen lit love triangle and used as a public mouthpiece for the diabolically all-powerful President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But an uprising gains traction and Snow, desperate to hold onto his power, manipulates Katniss and the other Hunger Games survivors into a newer, deadlier competition.

Throughout all this, the dialogue is far too simple-minded to be of any interest. Veterans like Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are the only ones to succeed in wringing some charisma out of an unsubtle script. The remainder of the cast is stuck waiting in line to explicitly state their feelings—especially Lawrence, who’s given almost nothing of value to work with. In the character of Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence does little more than toggle a switch between sullen silence and shrieking agony. On occasion, Katniss will briefly assume the savior role she’s meant to inhabit, and in those moments Lawrence takes on real authority. For the rest of the film, she’s little more than dead weight.

But when the Games finally begin, the film puts those flaws aside to become a perfectly enjoyable piece of action entertainment. Barely a minute goes by without some gruesome set piece chasing after Katniss and her companions—genetically modified apes, toxic fog and bloodthirsty competitors are all prepped and ready to shed blood (and despite the PG-13 rating, “Catching Fire” is certainly not one to cut away from impalement or a grisly open wound). Director Francis Lawrence wisely abandons the camera shake that plagued the first “Hunger Games,” bringing to the table a style that’s neither intrusive nor particularly inventive. Yet despite a final act that’s far more engaging than those preceding it, Lawrence can’t quite stick the landing. Unlike its predecessor, “Catching Fire” is not a self-contained story, and its ending provides so very little in terms of closure. Instead of denouement, we’re treated to a sudden series of plot reversals and the CGI equivalent of a “To Be Continued.” Clearly, we’re meant to leave the theater with smartphone in hand, ordering advance tickets for next year’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.”

However, were you to judge “Catching Fire” solely on the way it looks, it would be a tremendous piece of science fiction. The opening sequence is enthralling, Katniss a silent hunter in a forest of washed-out grays and blues. Seeing natural imagery without its typical lush greens casts a deathly pallor over the fictional world of Panem; without uttering a single word, the film communicates how totalitarian influence has sapped the life from the Earth itself. The jungles of the Hunger Games convey the opposite: artificially perfect greens and browns match the artificial creatures lurking within.

Panem is a color-coded world. Blue and gray are the colors of the common man, while the preening Victorian upper class communicate in rich purples and golds. Hairstyles, foodstuffs, architecture—all are painted in the colors of royalty. As uprising begins to spread through Panem, graffiti appears only in bright bloody red. When President Snow’s champagne glows in an eerie red light, his fate is sealed. One of these days, the revolution will catch up to him. As well, an early shot of the Victor’s Village (the housing development where Hunger Games champions reside) is part gated community and part concentration camp, where a metalwork entranceway bears more than a passing resemblance to Auschwitz and “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The physical realities of a dystopian future are all over “Catching Fire,” even if the story details can’t keep up.

Try as it might to stand out visually, the narrative problems of “Catching Fire” end up serving as an anchor around the film’s neck. Slash-and-burn editing and a dialogue tweak might have rendered it a standout among science fiction blockbusters, but as it is, “Catching Fire” caters more to a teen lit crowd than a science fiction one. (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, Lionsgate) 2 stars —Adam Paul


From the Ashes of “Farside”

IT’S NO REAL SECRET THAT Ben Bova’s last novel, “Farside,” wasn’t very good, flirting with really bad. From its one-dimensional characters to its flimsy subplot, “Farside” was just begging to be forgotten. So when the follow-up book in the Grand Tour series, “New Earth,” came out, I didn’t have very high expectations.

Earth is in the grip of runaway climate change. Most of the major cities are being wiped out by colossal flooding. After using Farside’s interferometer to see that Sirius C is very similar to Earth, a twelve man mission is sent up to explore. After eighty years in cryosleep, the group is awakened to find that they have reached their destination. Upon arriving the group finds something startling, the planet is almost the same as Earth in every way, with the exception of a giant laser shooting up into the sky beckoning them to land.

Upon arriving, the two brothers, Jordan and Brandon Kell, find a man in the forest. The man greets them in English and welcomes them to New Earth. Right here new earthBova almost lost me and I’d assume most other readers. This whole thing was reminiscent of old timey science fiction movies where all aliens just happened to look like humans and just happened to speak English. Convergent evolution is one thing, but for things to be exactly the same is too far of a stretch for us to take. But, hang in there; it gets better.

The scientists explore the city where the entire population of New Earth live and note that while their technology looks way behind humanity’s, it is in reality light years beyond. Though their leader Jordan is quickly accepting of the aliens, even to the point of falling in love with one of the natives (we kind of trip and fall into that cliché), the rest of the scientists are quick to point out that everything is wrong with what they see. For example, the planet is roughly 500 million years old; not nearly enough time has passed for the type of evolution to happen that they are seeing. The planet seems hollow but we find out that it is entirely something else.

While this part of the novel was fascinating, it did bother me quite a bit that the scientists hemmed and hawed around instead of just asking the aliens. The aliens answer all of their questions but go no further than answering what is asked. It bothered me that such inquisitive people wouldn’t just sit down at the start and begin asking questions.

Eventually the group discovers the aliens’ plan and real motivation. But what can they do about a race that has the technology to wipe humans out with little effort? And is the plan that is revealed the aliens true intent?

Bova still gives us one-dimensional characters. He’ll never be confused with a writer like Stephen King, who populates his novels with richly developed characters that create emotional attachments with the readers. But that is not why one reads Bova. Bova is read for the science. And while the science is good and fascinating there isn’t anything really new here. He takes quite a few common ideas and combines them.

The novel has some rough going moments along the way. Apparent plot holes keep jerking us out of our suspension of disbelief. But Bova does eventually get around to explaining each one, smoothing out the ride. One thing that is particularly aggravating is the fact that the ethnicity and job title of the secondary characters has to be brought up over and over again. I know that these characters aren’t the main focus but we don’t have to be told about the Iranian astrophysicist when we could just get the character’s name. There is also some wardrobe cataloging with one of the aliens in particular. I’m not sure if there was a deeper meaning in pointing out the love interest’s clothing or was it something that slipped through the editor’s scissors.

Overall, this isn’t a bad little book and it is a great improvement over the previous one. Sure, there are some blemishes on it here and there, but looking back on the novel as a whole it shines brighter than I was expecting. Some parts of the narrative are a bit utopic but it does leave us with the hope that we can successfully explore other worlds without killing everything we see. (“New Earth,” Ben Bova, Tor Books)3stars—Adam Armstrong


Comics Get Weaponized

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO ON these pages we reviewed the uniquely original webcomic, “Weapon Brown.” by Jason Yungbluth (12-JAN-2013). Since, the saga has been completed. It is now being rerun on the Whatisdeepfried website. Of greater importance, Yungbluth, with the help of a jawdroppingly successful Kickstarter campaign, is on the verge of releasing his magnum opus cartoonus as a 396-page graphic novel.

As reported back then, the science fiction parody presents a post-nuclear-holocaust populated by reimagined versions of all your favorite (and maybe not so weapon brownfavorite) comic strip characters. At the center of this Sunday Funnies gone mad scenario is an adult, beefed-up, out for blood and revenge Charlie Brown of “Peanuts” fame, half-cyborg, going under the nickname of Chuck “Weapon” Brown.

Weapon Brown is introduced in the first chapter entitled “A Peanut Scorned.” Weapon Brown and his dog Snoop cross the ravaged landscape of post-World War IV Earth looking for Chuck’s kidnapped girlfriend. Along the way they encounter gritty adult versions of the entire “Peanuts” cast. At story’s end, Weapon Brown and Snoop are on the road again, heading for parts unknown.

Explains Yungbluth of the rest of the adventure: “Weapon Brown has returned to bounty hunting and scrapes out a living earning the only things of value his world has to offer: electricity and famine rations. When his latest quarry turns out to be carrying something valuable, something that could save what’s left of humanity from extinction, Chuck ultimately finds himself throwing in his lot with a tribe of refugees that guard a secret coveted by his creators, the evil Syndicate.”

Nearly every comic strip icon is revisioned, adapted, and cast in an all-new, often surprising, role—from Beetle Bailey, to Popeye, to Little Orphan Annie, to The Pointy Haired Boss from “Dilbert.” Probably the only thing keeping Yungbluth out of the courts for massive copyright infringement is that the work is clearly, and hilariously, a parody of the first order. It is also some of the best science fiction adventure I have read in a very long time.

The “Weapon Brown” graphic novel will collect years of comic book stories published by Death Ray Graphics starring Yungbluth’s eponymous cyborg warrior. It will also include additional materials such as sketchbook work, a cover gallery, and pin-ups by talented comic artists including Phil Hester (“Green Arrow”), Stuart Sayger (“Shiver in the Dark,” “Bionocle”), Stephen Notley (“Bob the Angry Flower”) and Matt Allison (“Dark Horse Presents”).

Yungbluth has been producing controversial comics for years. His underground comic anthology “Deep Fried” was hailed by “Wizard” magazine as “the funniest comedy series to hit stands in years,” and his haunting “Clarissa” comic strips, about the agony of an abused child, are a frequent topic of conversation on the Internet, from 4-Chan to Reddit.

Only slightly less incendiary are the cartoons Yungbluth regularly contributes to “Mad” magazine. However, it is Weapon Brown’s epic tale of a dystopian tomorrow that has taken up the majority of the cartoonist’s life for the past four years. During that time “Weapon Brown” has also been published in a series of print comic books, earning thousands of fans. The collected work in graphic novel format is expected to be available by the beginning of January, distributed by Diamond Comic Distributors. (“Weapon Brown,” Jason Yungbluth, Death Ray Graphics) 5star—Sam Bellotto Jr.


A Game of War and Peace

ORSON SCOTT CARD’S ORIGINAL “Ender’s Game” is such a finely-honed piece of fiction that a film adaptation could never be truly awful. Stay loyal to the source material, and the worst-case scenario is something bland; a faithful-yet-forgettable retelling. Luckily, what director Gavin Hood has created with “Ender’s Game” is certainly a few steps above the worst-case scenario. The strength of Card’s characters keeps the film engaging to a fault, while the story of Ender’s military upbringing remains relatively unchanged (save, of course, for the natural compression that occurs when a 300-page novel becomes a two-hour film). Great care has gone into the visuals—practical effects are the norm here, the Battle Room standing head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a real room with real props and real child actors careening off each other, and a much-needed gasp of fresh air in modern, CGI-laden science fiction.

Yet science fiction does not live or die by its special effects. A work of classic science fiction is built around a piece of intelligent thought—some political or societal idea that’s extrapolated upon with levels of otherworldly detail. In the case of “Ender’s Game,” it’s the politics of war and peace. A duality exists within Ender Wiggin, a simultaneous desire for swift, brutal decision-making and for peaceful non-violence (the latter often occurring immediately after resorting to the former). In Card’s “Ender’s Game,” the pull of Ender’s twin sides is ever present. The alien Formics (colloquially referred to as Buggers) launch a hostile assault on Earth, only to realize their targets are sentient. They, like Ender, are quick to pull back and wallow in the shame that comes directly after an act of savagery. And if the Formics are violent action, humankind is violent reaction—perfectly content with planet-sized genocide if it removes any potential threat of later conflict.

All this is present in Hood’s “Ender’s Game”—to a reasonable degree. The two races still act as the two sides of Ender, yet both have been dumbed down considerably. What’s left is Ender, repeatedly debating with his superior, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), in the simplest of terms. Ender questions whether the violent solution is the right one and if the Formics might be peaceful after all. Graff enderstates that violence is the surest method to victory—the Formics had to be exterminated for the good of Earth. This continues back and forth until the message is all but hammered into the audiences’ skulls. Add in a mention or two of overpopulation as the source of the Formics’ woes and an equally brief description of child-birthing limits on Earth, and that’s about all you’ll get.

Yet the novel’s greatest source of duality was in Ender’s siblings, Peter and Valentine, and the film’s most disastrous mistake is excising them almost entirely from the story (bizarrely enough, it’s Card himself who chose to remove their major subplot from the film adaptation, arguing that it would amount to nothing but “watching people type things into the computer”). It’s through the two older Wiggins that the politics of “Ender’s Game”—the politics that tether its futuristic society to modern-day affairs—come through. Peter is war; intent on conquering the world from the age of twelve and casually threatening to kill his younger siblings on a regular basis. His namesake, Saint Peter, was tortured to death on an upside-down cross. Not surprisingly, Peter routinely inflicts the same punishment on any small animals unfortunate enough to cross his path. Valentine is peace; she loves Ender unconditionally and is most likely the only soul on Earth who genuinely cares about him after he departs for Battle School. Why Card chose to name her “Valentine” is readily apparent.

As Peter and Valentine achieve notoriety through Card’s 1980s proto-blogs and message boards, a political argument solidifies within “Ender’s Game.” Strict adherence to one side or the other, to war or to peace, is ineffective—the real solution for a post-Formic Earth comes at the crossroads between the two. Ender was bred, quite literally, to be the perfect middle ground between his psychopathic older brother and his touchy-feely older sister. Yet all of that, contained within the mind of a single child, is far too great a burden to bear. Ender buckles under the pressure, lashing out against his military superiors and unknowingly wiping out an entire race in a single instant. Despite the combined efforts of his family and the military, the true path to a middle ground between Peter and Valentine is simply collaboration between the two. The political thoughts of the older Wiggins, both forcing themselves to write from the other’s perspective and slowly merge beliefs, end up creating a non-violent solution to a war-torn, Formic-free Earth.

All this is excised from the film adaptation of “Ender’s Game,” leaving a product that’s perfectly entertaining but profoundly hollow. There’s essentially zero political thought to provide depth or detail to the science fiction setting. The film makes amends with a few slight visual touches (framing spaceship takeoffs like NASA shuttle launches or swapping out Card’s computer-controlled “desks” for tablet computers) but it’s not nearly enough make up for what’s been lost.

In Hood’s “Ender’s Game,” it’s Graff and Anderson—the two commanding officers who watch Ender from afar—who take on the mantle of his dueling ideologies. But grafting the novel’s complexities onto a pair of simplistic characters is not a pleasant combination. Anderson and Graff are essentially the Greek Chorus of “Ender’s Game,” commenting on the action from afar and providing a bit of extra commentary on those willing to destroy a child for the greater good. By having these two spout the novel’s twin arguments, the audience is forced to suffer through extended repetition of the film’s themes in the plainest of terms—themes that no longer have any relevance in the science fiction setting.

Worse, having Graff and Anderson embody war and peace renders one of the key points of “Ender’s Game” null and void. Ender rises so spectacularly through the ranks because he has to do so alone. In the novel, Graff states outright that Ender is allowed to make friends, but must go through this experience without parents. But Hood grants him a set of parents, making Graff the primary source of tough love and Anderson (who, unlike in the novel, is a woman) the primary source of compassion, accidentally branding them as a surrogate mother and father. Now, Ender has a pair of guardian angels easing him through what should have been a solitary journey.

Alien races and zero-gravity child soldiers mark Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game” as a work of science fiction, but those elements that made Card’s novel such an enduring part of the genre simply aren’t there. It’s the first successful attempt at bringing “Ender’s Game” to theaters after nearly two decades of trying, and in that regard it deserves at least some recognition. Yet all that recognition doesn’t amount to much—a scant two hours of entertainment and a footnote on Orson Scott Card’s original work. (“Ender’s Game,” directed by Gavin Hood, Summit Entertainment) 4starsAdam Paul




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