Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Mortality, Eternity
by Joseph Green

Absolute Pony
by Alisa Alering

Quisic Smith and the Russian Puzzle Doll
by Sean Monaghan

Clever Bubble
by Antha Ann Adkins

by Matthew Wuertz

To Walk the Earth
by Rebecca Birch

Five Stages of Future Grief
by Gary Cuba

Lost Planes, Lost River
by Michael Hodges

Funny Money
by Chet Gottfried

Insanity Machine
by Lawrence Buentello

Ten Minutes
by Eamonn Murphy


A Quantum Mind
by Eric M. Jones

What is Science?
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

Gate to Familiar Territory

AN ICE AGE HAS FROZEN the world; a ruthless villain known only as One wants to exterminate the human race; a Canadian man with a degree in Engineering Physics wants people to question what reality really is and what it means to be human. Which of these statements is true? Leaning out my front door, I’d say the first one, but our recent, record-breaking “polar vortex” hasn’t gone global (yet). The Canadian, however, has. Edmonton author Isaac Hooke has broken records with “The Forever Gate,” said to be Amazon’s No. 1 bestselling science fiction serial of 2013. In the first two weeks, a thousand copies sold “without any promotion whatsoever,” according to Hooke, a self-proclaimed smart aleck, rogue scientist and pie connoisseur. How does an experimental story from an unknown author turn into a cult hit and go global?

“The Forever Gate” began in January 2013 as a 21,000 word experimental science fiction novella and morphed into the five-volume “Forever Gate Compendium.” In a similar publishing phenomenon, Hugh Howey says the first edition of “WOOL” sold without any effort to promote it. Both Howey and Hooke say they responded toforever gate reader demand and wrote sequels. Each new installment consistently shot to the top of the Amazon short-story best-seller list. Howey’s 2011 short story evolved into “WOOL: The Ominibus Edition”with five novellas under one roof. Book reviewers who normally shun indie works have five-starred these books. Readers honor the authors by writing fan fiction, some of which (inexplicably) sells, launching more new authors into the e-book world. Print editions and movie deals grow ever more possible.

WOOL not only scored a movie deal with Ridley Scott, it became the No. 1 work of fiction in Taiwan in 2013. Howey’s publisher is sending him to The Taipei International Book Exhibition. “Wild, I know,” Howey says in an email to his blog subscribers. He has traveled the world, the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook, promoting the fiction that began as a self-pub he “never promoted.” So far, Isaac Hook hasn’t established that kind of social media presence, nor does he have a Wikipedia page at this time (Howey does), but the popularity of “The Forever Gate“ is sure to get Hooke out of Canada and onto the busy book tour bandwagon. He’s already done the blog tour and a Labor Day “book blast” in which various bloggers mention the same book and promotional sale of said book.

Call me mystified. “The Forever Gate” may be well-written, but like too much of today’s science fiction, it retreads paths we have trod before. An ice age—what else? Why not a solar pulse, for a change?—has set Earth back to the Dark Ages, even though it’s 3740 A.D. A mountainous wall seals off Earth’s quasi-medieval cities from the uninhabitable outside—not “Stargate,” not the “Star Trek” gate, nor Jack Williamson’s “The Stonehenge Gate,“ but a Forever Gate. An inexhaustible army of pseudo-human entities called gols rule society. Humans have evolved seemingly magical electrical powers, which they’re forced to block by wearing metal collars. Rebels who escape their collars engage in cinematic sword fights with cyber-human gols and Direwalkers. All too often, the rebels are executed by guillotine. Add to this brew a protagonist named Hoodwink who would sacrifice anything, even an entire world, to save the woman he loves. Ooh, and a space station that hovers at the edge of a weird space-time anomaly. To say this novel covers no new ground is not a valid criticism; the truly original plot is virtually non-existent. How the author twists the tropes is the key to the story’s success. 

From the opening line we know our protagonist is doomed: Hoodwink stared at the sword that would take his head tonight. That's a great opening hook, similar to the one that worked so well for Howey in “WOOL”:  The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.

And so Hoodwink fights the good fight against man’s mortality and that of the woman he loves. In the first story she is not identified, but Ari and fellow-rebel Tanner loom vividly and memorably in the following sections. Like Hoodwink, they enter new dimensions and cheat death with smoke and mirrors—literally, a person stares into a mirror until convinced that the reflection is real and the person staring into the mirror is the illusion. Quantum mechanics tells us the observer plays a huge role in how reality is observed, but the mirror trick is a trope I don’t buy.

Humans with super-powers battling cyber-humans is another trope that will never die, and doesn’t need to, but I also don’t need a thousand detailed fight scenes in a 160,000 word book. I kept hearing the theme song of a TV show I had forbidden my son to watch years ago: "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers! They've got a power and a force that you've never seen before!” The ear worm, er, theme song, and the show, saw unbridled overnight success. In mere months, Power Rangers became a staple of 1990s pop culture. My son won a Power Rangers VHS tape in a school spelling bee (“now you have to let me watch it!”), or I might not have those fight scenes so clear in my mind after twenty years while a friend’s name falls right out of my head.

Super powers are fun to read about, and Hooke conveys that zeal: “He made a fist. He could almost feel the electricity within, the power that was shielded away by the collar at his neck, the bronze bitch. The gols had bitched him when he was fifteen, just when he'd started to develop his powers, like all the other humans who came of age,” but I was speed-reading through most of the fight scenes: “He spun to the right, and the incoming Direwalker accidentally sliced into the one that clung to his back. He flung the injured Direwalker away and brought his sword down on the other,” and proceeded to unleash a river of blood; when wounded, his handy star-device allowed him to heal instantly. “Not that skill mattered much in a fight like this. Hack, stab, release flame, stab again. There was no room for fancy swordplay or deft footwork, just butchery as the ranks bore down upon them,” page after bloody page.

Another trope involves a machine that robs a person of his humanity while leaving the body intact. Hooke’s villain takes special delight in this: “I'm going to suck out all your memories so I can view them at my leisure.” He says of the human body, “... individual cells die by the millions every moment. Again, no joy in such infinitesimal deaths. But when you put 100 trillion of those cells or code fragments together and form a human being or machine, and the complexities of life, real or artificial, arise, that’s when the real joy of killing manifests. Destroying those frail complexities, erasing that fragile thing known as consciousness, that is where the real pleasure lies.”

Science hasn’t quite explained human cruelty of that level, and we've not yet evolved our way free of it. Dying is sad enough, but humans who inflict suffering and death on fellow creatures give us even greater reason to despair. Pass the pulp fiction, please, and fortify us with the triumph of good over evil.

“I'm afraid of the Gate and what lies beyond it,” Hoodwink says. “Afraid of death. There's a reason why we have a Forever Gate. A reason why not even the gols will cross it.”

The “–gate” trope is one that contemporary readers love. A person may cross the mysterious Stargate, er, Forever Gate, and feel as if he or she has been gone for years, though only a moment has elapsed for persons on the other side of the gate. Theoretical physicists support this idea. Space and time are mental constructs, they say—tools of our mind. Space and time don't behave in the hard and fast ways our consciousness tell us it does; therefore, death and the idea of immortality exist in a world without spatial or linear boundaries.

Death used to be such a simple thing. A man stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating, and that was the end of the man. Now we have all sorts of fantasy, physics, and science fiction stories convincing us death is just a state of mind. Everything that can possibly happen is occurring at some point across multiverses, and this somehow means death cannot exist in any real sense, either. Novelists, apparently confident that the Golden Age of science fiction is over, are hammering this concept thin. I complained about it in my December 2013 review of “The Eidolon,” a death-defying novel by physician Libby McGugan, in which the atom-smasher at CERN unleashes a fifth force that blurs the line between life and death. Or something like that. Novels tend not to explain the physics but to feed us visions of what physics might someday unveil.

Writers can unite physics and biology, put observers firmly into the equation, and sell books about man’s search for the elusive theory of everything, which “has stretched for decades, without much success except as a way of financially facilitating the careers of theoreticians and graduate students,” or so says stem cell pioneer Robert Lanza in his own book “Biocentrism,” which has drawn rave reviews from Deepak Chopra and Art Bell; from scientists, not so much. The scientific study of death has evolved into the career-facilitating field known as thanatology, which led to the rise of narratology in the 1980s. Narratology tells us that we are constantly creating ourselves by telling our stories, and that the self is not a fixed entity but is constantly evolving. (Yes, we need scholars to tell us this!) The thanatological narrative manifests our current culture of death denial, popularized in a gazillion zombie, vampire, cloning, cyborging, and mind-gate stories, in which mortals can heal instantly from injuries and even become immortal. But Hoodwink says it so succinctly: "The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache." And back we go to the pulp-fiction racks.

Reading fiction allows us to escape unpleasant truths, especially the truth that we all die, and that our lost loved ones do not come visit us, phone us from heaven, or give us any evidence that they are aware and alive in some sense that eludes we the living. If Hooke seems to reach too far at times, his highly caffeinated prose and impassioned characters keep us involved in the mind-bending plot. Science fiction does have its origins in pulp magazines, and even today is still regarded a little disdainfully by the literary elite, so my pleasure was not so guilty as I kept turning pages. “The Stonehenge Gate,” Jack Williamson’s last novel at age 97, is said to be a fine idea nearly ruined by poor execution; “The Forever Gate” is a questionable idea that works because it is so well executed. (“The Forever Gate,” Isaac Hooke, Hooke Publishing) 4 stars —Carol Kean


Love and the Operating System

“HER” IS NOT “BLADE RUNNER,” even if both films are technically science fiction. There’s no grand opening sequence in “Her” where the camera swoops across a dazzling futurescape and shouts to the audience, in no uncertain terms, “Welcome to the future!” Watch any one sequence in “Her,” and you might not even realize Spike Jonze’s latest film is set a few years after the modern day; unless you happen to spot a hologram or a character mentions human-computer dating, it might just look like the present. And from a visual standpoint, “Her’s” science fiction is all about the little details, like the total absence of both collared shirts and the color blue. And of course, there’s the pants. In at least one scene, every male character in “Her” will likely sport the same article of clothing: a pair of fuzzy grey-brown slacks that buckle up well above the bellybutton. They’re subtle yet distinctly noticeable, a mildly futuristic take on hipster chic, and a neat little summation of “Her’s” piecemeal take on science fiction.

But there’s more to “Her” than just future fashions. Like the progression from dress casual to wearing your grandfather’s slacks, “Her” takes another modern trend and runs with it: what if one of those teenagers with his head buried in a cell phone grew up to become romantically attached to one? To its credit, “Her” spends a fair amount of time justifying what kind of future world could see a lonely man fall in love with his brand-new operating system. An early scene finds protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) searching for sexual release in some future version of an anonymous chatroom/party line. Here, the anonymous sex of the future has been boiled down to its barest essentials, where two people looking for a hookup can do so without ever getting out of their own beds.

So when Theodore and his new operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) consummate their relationship, the situation is already a familiar one. Theodore lies in his bed, and Samantha is nothing but a voice in his ear. Here, sexuality has been simplified so much that contact between a computer and a living, breathing human being is an indistinguishable act. Jonze even goes the extra mile and cuts out all visuals, her leaving the audience stranded in pitch-black nothingness during the film’s major human/computer sex scene. We’re forced to focus on the sex we’re hearing, in an environment where a partner can only exist as a voice.

It helps that the two performances anchoring “Her” are so vividly realized. Theodore is far from your typical romantic lead; sweet and soft and extremely in touch with his emotions. Phoenix is a chameleon here, disappearing entirely into the role and letting Theodore grow as naturally as his girlfriend’s programming does. Samantha is just as captivating, as Johansson expertly maneuvers a role that requires humanity, but never too much humanity—the greatest possible simulation of human life. It’s never a stretch that a lonely man could fall in love with the OS 1 operating system (Samantha’s official nomenclature), yet Samantha is consistently peppy—perhaps a little too peppy—at the start of the film, and only as she maneuvers out of the bonds of her programming does Johansson’s performance take on more nuance.

As Samantha develops, so do the ideas behind “Her.” The film’s stance on computerized relationships finds new depth when Samantha invites a human surrogate into her and Theodore’s (mostly Theodore’s) bedroom so he can experience physical contact during sex. Yet the surrogate’s services are free of charge; she simply wants to share in what she views as a beautiful, loving relationship. Such a sentiment might feel strange at first, but then one remembers exactly what Theodore does for a living: he’s a top writer at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, an online company that writes love notes and thank-you cards in the heart-wrenching emotion your average consumer can’t muster. Professionally, Theodore has been inserting himself into loving relationships for years. Multiple times throughout the film, he’ll reminisce on the years of letters he’s written for the same families, understanding a grandmother’s love for her grandson just as much as the actual letter recipients do. Like so much else in “Her,” the film’s deeper ideas all tie back into the same theme—that technology has altered relationships so much that a man/machine love story seems perfectly commonplace.

Towards it’s end, “Her” grows headier and headier, and eventually it reaches the destination you’ll realize it’s been building to the whole time. But despite all the complexity layered within “Her” (a complexity that’s far less flashy and far more affecting than Jonze’s previous work), its greatest achievement is also the simplest. “Her” makes the relationship between a man and his computer into something truly moving. (“Her” directed by Spike Jonze, Warner Bros. Pictures) 5 stars —Adam Paul


Mobile Game is Console Strong

AS GAMERS I THINK THAT at some point we became spoiled. From our early 8-bit days to the modern 7th and now 8th generation consoles, little surprises us for more than a few minutes. Though we have games with oodles of graphics and in-depth stories, there has been a drift back toward the simpler times with mobile devices. These games have been looked at as nothing more than time filler or another type of social media as we play against friends. But the folks at Edios Montreal decided to merge the two worlds and gave us “Deus Ex: The Fall.”

In the year 2027, you play as Ben Saxon, an ex-soldier turned mercenary working for a group called the Tyrants. Like the previous games, the playable character is heavily augmented mechanically giving him all sorts of interesting skills such as seeing and punching through walls, temporary invisibility, silent walking, and superior hacking abilities. Ben starts off on an assassination mission only to find out that the Tyrants have been lying to him. Ben goes rogue but has little time to investigate the Tyrants’ wrongdoing as he and his friend, Anna Kelso, begin suffering from mechanical augmentation-rejection. Neuropozyne is used to treat the symptoms, however there is a worldwide shortage. A new drug has hit the street, Riezene, but it may do more harm than good. As Ben begins to investigate, he finds that there is something more sinister going on other than a new drug being stolen and resold to those in need. Someone might be leaking the drug on purpose to test it on the public.

I played the first “Deus Ex” (too much) when it came out and was blown away. The game was famous for its combination of various genres. Though all of the games are first-person shooters, they combine elements of role-playing, adventure, and even sandbox in the later games. The first game, along with the sequels, have gone on to win or be nominated for a slew of awards, including best PC game of all time by “PC Gamer.” The sequels and prequels have thus far lived up to their predecessor, leaving giant shoes for this little game to fill.

The story line is nothing new. It follows the same formula that all the “Deus Ex” games have: main character thinks he is doing good, is betrayed/or finds out a horrible truth, and then discovers a larger conspiracy underneath it all. It is a deusexfollow up to the novel, “Deus Ex: Icarus Effect,” and takes place simultaneously with the last console game, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution (HR).” The story itself is somewhat intriguing, though a bit tired at this point.

“The Fall” really shines in the fact that it provides console quality in a mobile format. Starting off, players will be amazed at the level of graphics, details, and options in a mobile game. The controls are a bit challenging at first but it starts you off in a tutorial mode that trains you to be an expert in no time. Though it is a more compact version of its PC and console siblings, it contains almost all of the same options for game play.

Players still have the options to increase and add various augments, making the game somewhat easier, especially for stealth players. Unlike HR, you don’t have to remember where stores are to buy upgrades or ammo for your weapons. If you hit pause, a store opens where you can spend your credits on all types of weapons, praxis kits, upgrades, and explosives. (There is also an option to use real money to buy in-game credits, but that is unnecessary. You can buy everything in the game just by playing it through a few times.) Players are able to hack electronics the same as in the console version.

I would say that nothing is lost in switching to the mobile platform but that would be a little bit of a lie. For all of the advancements taken place with the controls, world building, and storyline, they are almost lost in combat. While stealth and non-lethal combat is awesome, engaging in an actual firefight starts off cumbersome and ends up enraging. There is an auto aim feature, but it is next to worthless. If you get in a shootout with more than one bad guy you’re as good as dead. While you used to be able to go toe-to-toe with machines without using EMPs, that isn’t a possibility in this game.

There are a few other concerns; that doesn’t make it a bad game, but it could have been better. Edios seems to like using a gold filter over their camera work for some reason. There is still a bug in the latest version—you can get stuck in a wall when you do a take down. There is no real Boss to battle. And the firing controls are a little too close to the movement controls; oftentimes I would be sneaking around in stealth mode only to accidentally shoot a civilian while trying to turn a corner. Speaking of which, in HR you could mug civilians and take their money, which you can’t in this version. It seems mean, but money is hard to come by. While your behavior toward characters changes how they react to you in this version, it doesn’t really have a big impact on the outcome of the game like it did in the previous games.

“Deus Ex: The Fall” is a major advancement in mobile gaming. While it is far from perfect, it is amazing in its own right and if it is the first step in what’s to come, I can’t wait. It is currently available for iPhone 4 and newer, and iPad 2 and newer. There should be an Android version released very soon as well. (“Deus Ex: The Fall,” Square Enix, iOS, Android) 4 stars —Adam Armstrong




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