Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
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Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Fiction

Water for Antiques
by Robert N. Stephenson

Debunked
by Sierra July

Skipper Jeremiah Dudd
by Mark Ayling

If You Could Choose One Day
by Simon Kewin

It’s the Martian Way
by Bob Sojka

Know, Oh Emperor
by L. Joseph Shosty

Abernathy’s Snowflake
by Aaron Polson

Lost and First Men
by David Barber

Certainty
by Mark Bilsborough

These Undiminished
by Conor Powers-Smith

Epitaph
by George Sandison

Articles

Inside Death Valley
by Eric M. Jones

Is Global Warming Good?
by John McCormick


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Perihelion Reviews

All Just May Be Lost

WHILE THE SEQUEL/PREQUEL PHENOMENON is long past the point of tired in Hollywood, it is a common staple in video games. Fans of series generally look forward to the next sequel or prequel as it can inject new lifeblood into the series and keep more titles coming. Unfortunately, they can inject poison as well, killing the franchise entirely.

In Capcom’s “Lost Planet 3,” we arrive at E.D.N.III 150 years before the first game, before the terraforming attempts and the subsequent war. Earth needs a new source of power and E.D.N.III has what is known as t-energy. If it can be rendered stable, it can be used to power Earth. But our hero, Jim Peyton, isn’t overly concerned about that. He is here to get a paycheck. With his Rig and multiple guns, he is here to work for the corporation, NEVEC, as they mine the planet for t-energy.

We play as Jim Peyton in a third-person shooter/first-person MechWarrior type game. The first missions are simple: such as fixing generators that have frozen, planting t-energy posts to harvest, and fighting the indigenous life form, the Akrid—an almost-insect type of life that has t-energy for blood. (T-energy is also the form of currency in the game, so make sure you gather as much as you can.) But as Jim starts to work, he notices something strange is afootlost planet 3. He is seeing people where there can’t possibly be any. Jim finds an abandoned NEVEC base even though he is supposed to be working from the first and only base. A giant Akrid attacks Jim, damaging his Rig and leaving him for dead. A mysterious woman named Mira saves Jim and takes him back to the Camp Of The Forgotten that has existed on E.D.N. III for 40 years. Jim promises to keep the camp secret for a little while longer.

Months drag on while Jim helps both sides keep secrets. The scientists are making breakthroughs on how to control the Akrid and harvest t-energy. And Jim stumbles upon a secret the planet itself is trying to hide. Before Jim can do anything, a paramilitary group sent by NEVEC takes over. It is only a matter of time before they discover what Jim has been hiding. So he has to fight to save the Forgotten and his friends from the expedition.

I have to admit that as far as stories go, this was a pretty intriguing one. Not only are we treated to good writing, the acting is nicely done. There are more than enough human elements put into the game to make us really feel for Jim and see his struggle as he juggles with too many secrets and loyalties to two different parties at once. The story isn’t as good or rich as the Bioshock series or the Mass Effect series, but better than expected.

Most gamers don’t play games for the stories, however.

The game play itself is a mix between “Dead Space 3,” “MechWarrior,” and the “Batman Arkham” series. It has a faux open-world layout. (You can travel anywhere in the world but there are limited paths you can take; also, there are parts where your Rig actually gets stuck on certain aspects of the landscape.) The Akrid don’t pose much of a challenge unless you allow them to overrun you, and when you battle the NEVEC troopers, they don’t appear much more intelligent than the bugs. You spend about half the time on foot in third person shooter mode and the other half in your Rig smacking the Akrid around with your winch or drill.

The travel time to get anywhere is too long. Even in your Rig you just kind of plod. All the battles are too simple, including the boss battles that actually tell you when to block and when to strike. Everything comes at you in a simple pattern that is easy enough to figure out and overcome. The campaign itself is relatively short at around 15-20 hours.

Game re-playability is a big selling point, especially for games that have shorter campaigns. There is no game+ option, but there is a multiplayer. This is where “Lost Planet 3” really could have shined but fell completely flat. The game has been out long enough to correct any bugs and release enough DLC to keep it interesting. Not only are there few options in game variety, new players automatically start at a disadvantage in terms of weapons available. This makes versus games aggravating when you are outgunned from the get go, and have a harder time to advance up and obtain better firepower.

The game didn’t sell up to projections, which may mean it is the last in the franchise. But that also means that it is being sold now for quite the discount. It you are looking for a good story and a time killer, pick it up but start on hard difficulty. And if you are glutton for punishment, jump into some multiplayer games. If you play through a dozen or so times it goes from infuriating to annoying. “Lost Planet 3” is beautifully laid out and well written, which just makes it so much more of a disappointment. (“Lost Planet 3,” Capcom, Windows, PlayStation 3, XBox 360) 2 stars —Adam Armstrong

 

Space Ship of Fools

“WHY DO WE HOPE FOR ALIENS, our hypothetical long-lost brothers somewhere out there in expanding infinity? What does this yearning tell us about ourselves?” The hero of “Voyage to Alpha Centauri,” by Michael D. O’Brien, wants to know, but all the age-old human questions he would pose defy answers.

Niel Hoyos has plenty of time to speculate while aboard the Kosmos, a flying city that makes the Titanic look like a tugboat. With streets, parks, restaurants, living quarters and libraries, the spaceship will take eight years to bear 677 people from Earth to planet Alpha Centauri A-7, “our closest neighbor in the galaxy, just next door, a mere 4.37 light-years away.” Dr. Hoyos, a physicist whose Nobel-winning research makes intergalactic travel possible at the end of the 21st Century, is along for the ride. “Some scientists turn to art in old age,” he explains, “some to golf, some to philosophical reflection, seeking a unified theory of simply everything, with a door wide open to the meta-everything ... a yearning forward to something. Something bigger than our petty selves.”

Misanthropes like Niel form the backbone of science fiction, and with that stereotype comes the certainty that his reverence for reason and technological triumphs is certain to be threatened.

Niel is stunned by his first glimpse of the Kosmos. “Photos had not imparted her three-dimensionality and size ... her ovoid form, like one of those beautiful white stones one finds on beaches ... the kind you hold in the hand, not wanting to let it go. You always take it home with you. Always. Beauty is radiant wholeness, balance, harmony. The ship was a perfect manifestation of these. It was also the apotheosis of latent power. A week from now, the power would be unleashed.”

But even Niel has no way to imagine the Pandora’s Box of disasters that the Kosmos will unlock.

Among the 677 souls on board, Niel finds several kindred spirits. It may seem that little happens outside of brilliant people engaging in conversation during their long flight, but in fact, a lot of ground is covered. Below the surface, a tremendous conflict gradually escalates. This duality pervades everything from a simple observation of the sea, “Infinite it seemed, always peaceful, sometimes alpha centauridangerous in its powers, sometimes serene; sometimes harming mankind, sometimes aiding us,” to a pointed argument on “the old cliché of tools reshaping those who use them—the slave becoming the master.” Niel the cynic notes, “Remove all tools, all potential for evil through such tools, and a man is still capable of picking up a rock and hitting his brother over the head with it ... The tool has no will, no intelligence of its own. It is man who is ever the problem.” Man’s solution to that problem, “limiting freedom in order to prevent evil,” leads to “governmental reaction, control, suppression—fostering even worse evils.” In Niel’s world, the worst sort of tyranny disguises itself as a benevolent, reasonable administration. Always, that double-edged sword of keen observation. Another aspect of this theme is manifested in Niel’s flashbacks to his childhood. Sharp, shocking and vivid, the atrocities inflicted by human authorities haunt Niel in his old age, and he has yet to internalize his father’s advice: “If you hate them, if you kill them in your heart, they will not die. They will rise up again and again within you, and they will kill your heart.” Young Neil’s response to that is, “I will make them suffer!”

As an old man, Niel still fights for the oppressed, spares not the oppressor, and pays a hideous price, which might have been averted had he found answers to his questions: “Where are the frontiers? Where does pursuit of knowledge become folly; and where should prudence prevail?” He tackles those follies and impales them on the pages of his journal as a cautionary tale as well as an elegy.

Niel’s Earthly world in 2097 is more than an updated version of Orwell’s 1984. He presents the same conundrum Matt Haig’s alien faces in “The Humans”—people are so terrible, yet so endearing. Every character is vividly and memorably drawn. The prose is masterful, poetic and literary, rich with meaning and metaphor, from the turquoise cube and the horse’s skull on page one, to a banned book and a deer statue that survive the centuries, to the mysterious spiral staircase of St. Joseph’s chapel in Santa Fe (which Niel’s father shows to him as the answer to a question, but Niel doesn’t get it), to the repetition of a particular number (3179 or 0.03179). The voice of humanity rings across ages of abuse and injustice.

The novel celebrates and laments “the mystery and grandeur of what the Kosmos expedition had attempted, its strengths and weaknesses, its heroism and its errors, the hopes and failures of all those who had journeyed in the great ship in the heavens.” Unfortunately, the first leg of Niel’s journey unfolds at such a slow pace, fans of pulp science fiction are likely to grow impatient with this book. Let me assure you, every incident, every conversation, builds inexorably toward the mini-disasters and major catastrophes that will confirm the folly of man. (Yes, “man.” If male pronouns seem abundant in this novel, if patriarchal values offend you, you might miss out on a good story.) Stron reminds Niel they’re on a "Ship of Fools" and quotes the Old English verse of Sebastian Brandt's classic 1497 tale. (Did I mention that this novel is literary?) For all the power and beauty of man’s seafaring inventions, the ultimate theme is that “Man on this ship had not been free, but he had brought the longing for freedom within him, carefully guarded within himself, secret and silent until it was finally released. He had also brought evil.”

There’s irony enough in Niel boarding a ship of fools, but even more when it finally lands. He’d fled like Molière’s “The Misanthrope”  to “seek some spot unpeopled and apart, where I’ll be free to have an honest heart,” only to find that the new world holds horrifying secrets and new terrors just waiting to be launched.

Spoiler: Niel the loner makes many good friends aboard the Kosmos, but don’t get grow too fond of anyone. Michael O’Brien is as ruthless as Hugh Howey (“Wool”) in allowing decent people to suffer at the hands of evil men posing as benevolent government leaders. Sarah Hoyt says science fiction authors “shouldn’t leave anyone feeling like they should commit suicide for the crime of being human, or like humans are a blight upon the Earth, or that the future is dark, dreary, evil and fraught with nastiness, because that’s all humans can do, and woe is us.” Lest “Voyage to Alpha Centauri” leave a reader feeling this way, O’Brien tacks on an epilogue which shows how much good has come of the ill-fated flight of the Kosmos.

Early in the novel, Niel recalls a scene from his childhood as “a small boy dancing in the desert, yearning upward, and ringing a bell.” This incident forms a theme throughout the story, reminiscent of another observation of Molière’s: “All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.”

In all, I can’t help but love this novel. It is not the escapist, feel-good kind of story I needed during the coldest, longest, most unrelenting winter I can remember in 50+ years of living in Iowa. The science is sketchy, and the Catholic underpinnings could weaken the story for un-religious readers, but I find the author’s beliefs no more off-putting (and no more convincing) than trendy New Age physics or positive thinking. “The infinite horizon and the horizon within you are one horizon,” O’Brien tells us—and that’s about as didactic as he gets.

Anyone can see the poetry of the final message: “Look up, sang the little flame as it danced. Look up to the heavens beyond the heavens.” Readers like me may see that as a cheap consolation for the horror of our final look at the Kosmos, and I’m pretty sure “horror” isn’t the effect O’Brien intended, so I want to emphasize that the novel is worth reading even if readers hate parts of the whole.

“And does the story end well?” Niel asks when Stron speaks of the Ship of Fools.

“Only if the reader pays attention,” Stron replies. (“Voyage to Alpha Centauri,” Michael D. O’Brien, Ignatius Press) 4 star—Carol Kean

 

This Time, It’s Not So Zany

THOSE OLD MR. PEABODY SHORTS (formally known as “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History”) had a lot going for them. They had imagination, dry wit, and a quick history lesson for whatever tykes or adults (the original “Rocky & His Friends” was hardly aimed exclusively at kids, if at all) happened to be plopped in front of the TV. But they also had a fatal flaw: a five-minute running time. And stretching five minutes of “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History” into ninety of “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is a Herculean task; essentially impossible without a little creative re-tooling here and there.

And so the dog and his boy are made over for feature length. Much of their story remains the same—the world’s foremost (and only, presumably) dog genius stumbles upon an orphan boy on the street. Lacking for companionship, he takes the boy in, adopting him after a lengthy court case. And as a gift, the dog builds his boy a time machine—the WABAC Machine, or Wayback Machine, get it?— prompting a series of time-spanning, mildly educational adventures.

But the Mr. Peabody and Sherman of decades past had a chilly relationship, where boy was pet and dog was his owner. Here in the modern day, they’re very much father and son. When Peabody (Ty Burrell) finds Sherman (Max Charles) in peabodythat alleyway, he’s an abandoned babe instead of a growing boy. When the WABAC is gifted, it’s with a “happy birthday, darling son” rather than a “stop destroying all of my things.” Expect Peabody to tuck Sherman in at night, drop him off at school, and utter a phrase the old Peabody would shudder at: “I love you.”

It’s this new relationship—strange, yet almost affecting—that’s the crux of “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” in a story that hinges not around time-travel, but parental drama. When Sherman gets into a fight at school, a brutish administrator threatens to take him away, claiming Mr. Peabody as an unfit parent. Desperate to make amends, Peabody invites his son’s bully, Penny (Ariel Winter) and her parents over for dinner, but one thing leads to another and soon Sherman and Penny are ping-ponging back through time. Now Mr. Peabody must intervene, desperate to set things right and prove that he’s every bit the parent that he is the molecular physicist, philosopher, inventor, etc.

As far as kids’ movies go, it’s not half bad. Bizarre as it sounds, the relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman clicks—mostly due to the work of Burrell as Peabody. Burrell is genuine; his Peabody seems truly devoted to being the best father a super-intelligent beagle could ever be. Sappy, yes, but given that this “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is largely family drama, Burrell’s voice work keeps the film watchable (and reasonably entertaining) throughout its running time.

But there’s a downside to all this. What should be “Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s” defining factor—the time travel—is severely underplayed. The cartoon’s habit of finding a historical event in disarray (a Beethoven who’s abandoned music for baking; a Great Wall of China that stretches up vertically rather than horizontally) has been abandoned, save for a quick one-off gag with the Mona Lisa. Instead, dog and boy hit a time period. They hobnob with the local famous figures. Then, following a requisite action sequence (this Mr. Peabody is also a master of slow-motion, “Matrix”-like kung-fu), the WABAC launches everyone into the next era. The middle portion of the film, where dog fatherhood is downplayed and time travel is the main event, comes across like a series of weak sketches with little to bind them together.

As the film wraps up, time travel and father/son drama finally coalesce, ending on a note that’s satisfying, if a little on the schmaltzy side. But like a thousand other remakes of 50+ year old properties, “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is in an odd, existential bind. In reformatting itself for feature length in a modern world, it’s abandoned much of what makes it “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” It’s a perfectly acceptable kids’ flick, but that target kiddy audience won’t give half a thought to the original series. And those who do will find a Peabody and Sherman who’ve been chopped up to suit someone else’s needs. One can’t help but wonder if “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” would be better off having nothing to do with Mr. Peabody or Sherman. (“Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” directed by Rob Minkoff, Dreamworks Animation) 2 stars —Adam Paul

 

      

 

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