Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Uses of Nirvana
by Mark Silcox

A Place for Oysters
by Sandy Hiortdahl

by Steven Young

A Switch in Time
by David Steffen

by Richard Wren

Mostly a Question of Molecular Bonds
by Steve Bates

Panic Button
by Seth Chambers

When the Robots Struck
by Eamonn Murphy

John Cochran’s Amazing Flight
by J. Richard Jacobs

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Vegan State
by Mark Ayling


Mining Data on UFOs
by Preston Dennett

Trip the Light Fantastic
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

Damn Good Dirty Apes

FROM ABOUT 1973 TO 2010, THE “Planet of the Apes” was a bitter, uninhabitable place. A string of sequels and one badly misfired remake left it hollow and dead, sapped of all life and public appeal. All that remained was a pile of cultural references, ground down into clichés: a “damn you all to Hell!” here, a “damn dirty ape” there.

With 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Roddy McDowall and Dr. Zaius were relevant once more. “Rise” bore all the hallmarks of the original “Planet”: an imaginative eye for science fiction and a potent critique of what society was up to at the time (in “Rise’s” case, gene-splicing and genetic modification). And then there was Caesar. A continuation of the same motion capture tech that made Gollum so effective in “The Lord of the Rings,” (and with the same actor, Andy Serkis, to boot), Caesar was a technological marvel. He was a real, breathing chimpanzee, only one birthed from a CPU and not a mama chimp.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has all that weight squatting directly on its shoulders. The weight of Charlton Heston and science fiction legacy; the weight of photorealistic primates and sustaining a franchise that’s suddenly at the forefront of pop culture once more. And not only does “Dawn” match “Rise” note for note, it improves on its predecessor in nearly every capacity imaginable. Director Matt Reeves (taking over for “Rise” helmer Rupert Wyatt) has crafted a true ape epic, as though he glimpsed apes on horseback, and built a convincing chimpanzee “Ben-Hur” around them.

“Dawn” is a direct sequel to “Rise,” picking up ten years after the 2011 film, with Caesar and his genetically altered kin residing in California’s Muir Woods. And like “Rise,” the CliffsNotes for “Dawn” have been swiped from a previous “Planet of the Apes” film. “Rise” borrowed Caesar’s escape from captivity from “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” “Dawn” continues Caesar’s story by cribbing from “Conquest’s” sequel, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.”

Like “Battle,” Caesar is hard at work building ape civilization into something lasting, complete with wooden homes, schools and the beginnings of social stratification. Caesar is king, so to speak; advised with his orangutan consiglieri apesand his chimpanzee inner circle, he is the sole primate decision-maker. And in both films, conflict comes from both ape and human camps. On the hairier side we have Koba (Toby Kebbell), the scarred and sneering Bonobo whose time as a lab test subject has poisoned him against all humankind (in “Battle,” the villain was gorilla general Aldo, who hated humans just as much, albeit for different reasons). And on the human side is Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, whose hate for the apes is a neat opposite to Koba’s (Dreyfus’ “Battle” counterpart is the irradiated General Kolp).

Apes rise and humans fall, and as the furry clan ascends toward true civilization, mankind now lives in squalor, huddled into cold ruins like a massive congregation of rats. In “Dawn,” human society is one generation failure away from total societal collapse. Only Malcom (Jason Clarke), one of the few reasonable humans still alive, can breach a weary truce between the two worlds. Together, he and Caesar are the planet’s one chance of stopping their two hate-filled counterparts and preventing World War Ape.

As the film opens and we follow Caesar through a near dialogue-free deer hunt, “Dawn” immediately begins carving itself in the image of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with “Rise” and its genetic tampering as this franchise’s Monolith. Caesar and his cohorts bring down a few deer, and flashes of that “2001” ape and his first bone weapon are never far behind. Then, as the hunt ends, Reeves plus composer Michael Giacchino take their “2001” tribute a step further. Our first glimpse of ape civilization has an eerie choral twinge; an underlying hint of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Requiem” from Kubrick’s film (it must be the unofficial “Summer of Ligeti,” as “Godzilla” borrowed the actual “Requiem” for a HALO jump sequence). This is nature, pure and triumphant and upwardly mobile, says “Dawn.” Yet, still the shifting vocals linger as we glimpse its natural majesty, a reminder that this particular branch was the product of overzealous thinkers in lab coats.

This is where “Dawn” differs the most from “Planet of the Apes.” The ’68 original was about race and class and modern-day strife as much as it was apes on horseback. But its societal critiques had focus. “Dawn” widens its aim, to hit as many targets as possible.

One moment, we’re talking Mother Nature and “2001,” and in the next the apes are threatening mob rule as the film swaps talking points for war and peace. Because in “Dawn,” a single vicious act can domino into all-out war. Caesar and Malcom, as the respective voices of reason for their species, are responsible for keeping that one particular domino from toppling. But according to “Dawn,” once the seeds of violence are planted, there’s really no stopping them. All it takes is one disgruntled soldier (or, alternatively, chimpanzee) to incite all-out violence. Conveniently for the bad guys, there are plenty of minor characters with scores to settle.

What “Dawn” seems most concerned with is the idea that apes and humans, despite all the obvious cosmetic differences, aren’t really that different after all (in one of the film’s rare missteps, Caesar voices those exact thoughts, nearly word for word). Each side has a hero with a growing family, and each side has a villain whose past provides an unconditional hate for the opposite species. As war films go (and “Dawn” is very much a war film), it’s even-handed in its portrayal of both sides. But it also doesn’t beat around the bush: humans are on the losing side of this war.

Since the end of “Rise,” when the same gene lab that created super-intelligent Caesar also created a world-killing plague, humans have become a rare breed. They’re on a sharp slope downward, and by the time “Dawn” rolls around, it’s been years since ape and human have had any contact at all. At the onset of the film, each side considers the other to be extinct. And the biggest question that “Dawn” asks of its humans—the ones onscreen, and the ones in the audience—is this: what would we do without all that technology we’re so dependent on?

The short answer? Not much. The apes are an intelligent, thoughtful breed; they muse on life and family, power and war. The humans, by comparison, just want their electricity back. Malcolm and Dreyfus, the two semi-official leaders of the human population, talk of lost fuel as lost life. If the backup generators go down, that’s it. Humanity is officially dead, never to be revived. All, of course, while thousands of apes are getting along just fine with huts and fires. The humans talk of apes and their adaptability; how their closer tie to nature makes them a better fit in a world where modern convenience is long dead. And in “Dawn,” these are the musings of a soon-to-be-extinct species.

“Dawn” has a lot on its mind, but its many musings have a purpose: they’re here for the war effort. The action here is tremendous, bubbling up as the negotiations break down, and finally bursting out as mass carnage; a primate spin on World War II, as POWs are taken and genocide looms. And “Dawn” continually adds new layers to its war parable. It asserts that human-on-ape violence is a hate crime (apes are just another race, to be regarded with bigotry), or inserts a sequence where Malcolm evades ape soldiers in a bombed-out apartment building. The apes march down every street, wrecking homes and snatching humans from their hiding places for a place in the camps. Rarely do metaphors come in more explicit forms.

A chimpanzee World War II is, by nature, a ridiculous thing (and “Dawn” boasts its share of ridiculous images, like an ape on horseback with an assault rifle in each hand). But the forces of Weta Digital and their motion-capture primates carry “Dawn” through the ridiculous and into grim importance. There’s no snickering here—not when perfectly realized primates make primate warfare a reality. It’s a case of “seeing is believing.” An ape directs a cavalry charge, and for all intents and purposes it looks like the real thing. There’s no other option but to take it seriously.

But the strength of Weta and their digital apes extends far beyond photorealism —which, in some sense, is becoming old hat. Great chunks of “Avatar” seemed perfectly lifelike, while the combination of an expensive PC, the right video game, and a handful of software modifications will net you a playable version of real life. What “Dawn” grasps, that no one else has been able to, is digital emotion. More so even than “Rise,” “Dawn” paints over its ape actors with a computerized mask and creates a kind of symbiosis. The computer needs a foundation of human emotion, but the human element can’t be elevated to a new species without a computer or two. The combination is stunning, creating CGI creatures with as much acting range as any modern thespian. It’s borderline impossible to think that a live-action film could thrive with an animated lead character (in a serious drama, no less). That such a character is somehow leagues beyond his human counterparts seems like pure fantasy.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was the same, with a real, beating heart hidden in a bank of computers. But “Rise” also played it safe. Caesar was a supporting character, and all the major players—the hero, the villain—were plain old, every day Homo sapiens. “Dawn” has the audacity to shove its humans to the side andapes 2 put the ape drama at the forefront. Audacity pays off—that yearning urge in “Rise,” a wish that the humans would get out of the way so we could see more Caesar, is finally satisfied with hours upon hours of ape time.

But this also causes “Dawn’s” only real sag: sorely underdeveloped humans. There are only four humans in “Dawn” with any real significance—Malcom, his post-apocalyptic wife Ellie (Keri Russell), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Oldman’s warhawk Dreyfus. Malcolm’s family is little more than emotional weight—a motivation for him to navigate the human/ape peace talks. That leaves Dreyfus and Malcolm as our only humans with any gravitas, yet even these two feel underplayed. The underlying motives for Dreyfus’ all-consuming ape-hate are glossed over, given a quick explanation and then largely ignored, making him a villain of convenience rather than one of true menace. Malcolm, meanwhile, is a nice, attentive guy—and little else. He’s the de facto leader for any humans who’d prefer to avoid gun battles with gorillas, but there’s no real depth to why he fights the good fight. Malcolm just happens to be the one person who sees the apes for what they are—hairy extensions of our human selves.

The humans are underplayed in “Dawn.” There’s no doubt about that. But you’ll barely notice, because the apes and everything to do with them is such a special kind of tremendous. It’s a digital ape revolution; one built on the solid foundation of an introspective war epic. And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” knows its place, both in film and in the “Planet of the Apes” canon. Just look at its final shot, a slow push from ape close-up to extreme ape close-up to nothing but a pair of dazzling ape irises. “Dawn” ends by pounding its chest and announcing its dominance in the special effects world. It invites us for one last look into these ape eyes, which contain such marvelous ability, yet are nothing but a product of some CGI rendering farm. What a marvelous way to end a feature. (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Matt Reeves, 20th Century Fox) 5stars—Adam Paul


Competing for Immortality

MARK CAPELL, IN HIS DAYS AS AN AWARD-winning documentary television director, met “all sorts of weird and wonderful people, including a gangster who offered to kill anybody who upset me.” Capell says he never took up the offer, but he did put a killer-for-hire in his latest novel. He also says that a article on the ten terrifying downsides to immortality inspired “EDYL—Island of Immortality.”

“Edyl’s” dystopian themes may be familiar, but as Charles de Lint reminds us in his novel “Greenmantle” (1988), “When all’s said and done, all roads lead to the same end. So it’s not so much which road you take, as how you take it.” Capell takes us on a dark, winding road full of bumps and treacherous shadows, potholes and unthinkable twists. “The government would never go so far as to do that”—or did they?

“There are so many definitions of science fiction it’s confusing,” Capell tells me. He happened on a discussion of Philip K. Dick’s definition, where some argue that classic space operas should be judged “not as science fiction but as adventure,” whereas “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” would definitely count as science fiction. “I found this very encouraging. I like my entertainment to have flesh on the bones.”edyl

“Edyl” is definitely fleshy. A scientific discovery has been put to ill-use by a totalitarian mind-reading government. The story opens in 2117 and moves swiftly to conclude only one of the plot threads, leaving the door open to future adventures.

A prologue establishes “Edyl” as a story pieced together from the reports, thought-journal entries and thought-mails “left behind by a World Organizing Committee (WOCO) officer,” codename R77K. “We hope future generations will learn from the activities that took place during this particularly turbulent period in our history.” Who is telling us this, and how many books will it take to get to the center of the Tootsie Roll Pop?

“To be honest, I don’t know how many volumes Edyl will have,” Capell says. “I know for certain that there will be at least two more. I’m very eager to explore the island itself and the nascent resistance movement. I’m looking forward to playing with the contradiction that a group of people who have attained immortality aren’t satisfied, that they are prepared to fight for a different world.”

A quote near the end of the book sets that up: “Even when you’re immortal, there has to be something worth dying for.”

R77K is assigned his first mission on a ruined, colorless, sunless Earth of the future. Gadgets and futuristic technology seem to be the number-one bribe for living, for the vast majority who are passed over year after year when WOCO invites a select few to compete in the annual Edyl Olympiad. Eternal life on Edyl Island is the prize, but even a short stay on Edyl is the dream of a lifetime. It’s the only place on Earth that still has sunshine, flowers, green grass, blue sky, and real food. Science has found a way to make humans immortal, but only a chosen few. There are just too many people and not enough resources to go around. Losing the contest means going back to the dismal world of ordinary mortals, but winners must give up home, family, friends, and everything familiar for the good life. The social divide is excruciating, yet everyone craves immortality on Edyl.

The competitors are watched by a top-secret Reading Department to make sure they’re worthy of the prize. If not, the contest is rigged to make sure they lose. Our mind-reading narrator, R77K, has three targets, and one of them is a contract killer.

Why would the regime offer a killer a chance at eternal life on Edyl?

Capell skips the world-building to explain how Earth came to be so dreary and how one island happens to retain the natural beauty of Earth as readers know it today. No matter; dystopian fiction appeals to us because our worst fear is losing the ideal world we already have. We love our little blue planet, vulnerable as it is to environmental disaster and totalitarian regimes.

Death is the only way to permanently depose tyrants, not to mention stuffy old people who’d impede progress, so immortality sounds like a fairly bad idea. In this novel, even an immortal can be poisoned, shot, crushed, suffocated, burned or blown up. They just don’t die of disease or old age.

“Immortality is not natural and will affect people in different ways,” Capell says.

Still, everyone wants it. All but one contestant, that is, and the regime is not going to take no for an answer.

R77K keeps getting more and more involved with the people he’s assigned to read. Intervention is never allowed no matter what calamity might await the mind-reader’s subjects. R77K is an obedient, unquestioning member of the regime until he sniffs corruption in paradise. The thought-reading government he serves is holding the little guy down. Will our hero dare to rebel, at great risk to himself, and fight injustice no matter what the price?

Of course he will! We wouldn’t buy the book otherwise.

How he fights, who he’s willing to throw under the bus, how many rules he’ll break to save the people whose minds he can read, is what drives the tale. We know the bad guys won’t be deposed in Book One, so we can look forward to more of Lena Hart, the singer, Olegario Riley, the mute runner, and Darrick Brull, the mechanic; R77K, the mind reader, has been rising to unthinkable new skill levels. To say more would risk plot spoilers, but I’ll definitely have to read the next book just to see far he can go. (“EDYL—Island of Immortality,” Mark Capell, The Creative Criteria) 4 stars —Carol Kean


Smart Concept, Dumb Aliens

TAKING TWO GREAT MINDS AND combining them should result in an even greater idea. If an idea is truly vast, to the point of being almost incomprehensible, it may need some really smart people to explain it to the rest of us. But it is possible that two great minds can come together and trip all over each over.

Picking up right where the last novel left off (“Bowl of Heaven”), we see the two teams still on the Bowl (a giant starship, or shipstar that is as big as a solar system and powered by a captured star) running from the Folk (super intelligent giant birds). Cliff’s group is still in the wild having teamed up with some other rebellious bipeds in a fight against the Folk. Beth’s team has found a way to outrun the Folk using a subway type system. This second volume doesn’t bother to explain the first volume to any degree. So if you haven’t read the first book you will be hopelessly lost.

Beth’s team finds a way to “jump” back out to their ship, but they lose a member, Tananareve, on the way. The Folk capture Tananareve (who happens to be the one human that can understand their language) and start probing her mind so they can use information about the humans against them.

Meanwhile, Cliff’s team sees the destruction their fight against the Folk has brought to their allies, the Sil. The Sil take Cliff and his team on an adventure through various parts of the Bowl that basically explains how the Folk keep balance: pitting various aspects of nature against each other so they remain in control. The Sil also bring Cliff’s team to the true power behind the Bowl.

The Folk use Tananareve as a conduit for communication to tell the humans aboard the ship that they must surrender and become part of the Bowl—partly because they adopt intelligent species as they travel through galaxies, and partly because they have received a message from Glory, the star system that the humans originally set out for and the path the Bowl happens to be on. The message received is meant to scare anyone heading to Glory away. The Folk seeshipstar that they can use the humans to their advantage against the message senders. The humans decide they are going to show the Folk of what mankind is capable.

I do have to say that I did not like the first book in the series. While the concept was interesting, the execution was horrible: poor writing, bad characterization, and tons of editing errors. While the follow up seems to have fixed most of the problems with the first, it still suffers from plenty of its own.

Beth’s team reuniting with the human ship seemed like a way to have only one team running around in the wilderness instead of two doing essentially the same thing. The convenience of using Tananareve as a translator/communication device/conduit to the real powers that be seemed too easy. Cliff’s team was the violent survivalist in the first novel. In this book, they seemed to just give themselves over to the Sil. And Captain Redwing of the human ship was more interested in getting all this over with and moving on rather than exploring this amazing world they found.

Benford and Niven are science heavyweights and brought tons of science into this series. The first novel was fast paced and the science always felt awkwardly crammed in as an afterthought. In “Shipstar,” the pace is a bit slower and the explanations have a more natural fit. But the authors sometimes get too worked up into explaining things and they lose the narrative. They even added an afterword explaining how they used science to design the ship. They could have taken more out of the book and added to the end. It was just too dry, interrupting the story.

The aliens also presented some problems. The Folk went back and forth, being depicted as sympathetic creatures caught up in a situation that was new, to malicious bad guys who only want to win. There were long passages about their hierarchy and politics that should have been left out.

All in all, this was the better book of the series but still not very good. It did redeem the series a bit, but fell into the trappings of overexplanation and unlikable characters. The idea behind the Bowl and the beings that created it and control it is fascinating, but may have been better in a non-fiction book instead. Here the creatures were introduced so late into the storyline they felt like a deus ex machina. The series is worth a read for the ideas and the science behind them, but most should probably just skip it. (“Shipstar,” Larry Niven and Gregory Benford, Tor Books) 1 star —Adam Armstrong