Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Remy’s Town
by Megan Neumann

by Andrew Hook

Her Robot Babies
by Brent Knowles

Beyond the Reach of Proof
by Seth W. Kennedy

Here Is a Fighter
by Eric Del Carlo

Invasive Species
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Deciphering an ET Opening Screen
by Marilyn K. Martin

I Once Was Lost
by Edward Morris

by Melanie Rees

Respect of Headwaiters
by Tais Teng

Toy Soldier
by Leon Chan


A Case Against Saucers
by John McCormick

Atomic Light Bulbs
by Popular Mechanics




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

Wild Ride Through the Galaxy

ADAPTING THE “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” into a feature film seems like an exercise in poor decision-making. Unlike its fellow Marvel comics, “Guardians” is not popular by any stretch—there’s no built-in fan base, nor a long stretch of pop-culture relevance boasted by someone like The Incredible Hulk.

“Guardians” is also far stranger than your average irradiated scientist. It tells of a band of roguish outer space antiheroes (in the comics, their numbers are numerous—thankfully, the film pares it down to a healthy five): sarcastic scrounger Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), secretive assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), forever-vengeful savage Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), fast-talking raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Zen tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel). When a fundamentalist alien nut named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) decides the path to salvation is a galaxy-wide ethnic cleansing, it’ll come down to this grab bag of almost-heroes to set things right.

Making that into a coherent two hours is a task of Herculean filmmaking. Making it as good as “Guardians of the Galaxy” is—and rest assured, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is very, very good—is either a minor miracle or a work of genius. Yet it comes across as effortless, as though Marvel and director James Gunn were just goofing around, and the byproduct was a piece of science fiction as alluring and easily digestible as the original “Star Wars.”

A lofty comparison, maybe—but an all-too-appropriate one. Both “A New Hope” and “Guardians” follow a hastily-assembled crew of heroes on an intergalactic journey. Both are pulp fiction in space—“Star Wars” was inspired by the old “Flash Gordon” serials, but remember that “Gordon” was a comic in its original state. Thus, “Guardians’” comic origins are just as valid. The smaller touches make our comparison complete, like a hulking brown alien of a sidekick only understood by his longtime partner—Groot, or perhaps Chewbacca. And on the other side of the galaxy is our primary villain, a lieutenant under the command of a shadowy evil visible only via hologram. One film bears Vader and Emperor Palpatine. The other, Ronan and Marvel mainstay Thanos.

Where “Guardians” differs is its willingness to go weird—far weirder than anything in a Mos Eisley cantina. Look forward to a sequence set in the hollowed-out skull of an alien god, or a pitched final battle for the fate of the universe that abruptly becomes a dance-off. Much of this comes from director Gunn, who started his career churning out oddball horror films for Troma Entertainment, then graduated to larger (yet no less freakish) indies like “Slither” and “Super.”

Yet “Guardians” is a manageable kind of bizarre (that is, one that’s not likely to alienate the summer crowds). Thank the cast for that one—an assortment of comedic actors, pro wrestlers and the occasional bona fide celebrity that keep “Guardians” grounded during its flights of comic fancy. Pratt bears the makings of a young Harrison Ford (albeit with a six-year-old’s sense of humor); Bautista galaxydisplays formidable comic timing for a WWE star; Cooper gives his tough-talking raccoon an empathetic heart (truly, from last month’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” to the pathos of a digital raccoon, we’ve entered the age of sympathetic CGI); Diesel builds layers of subtlety in the three words his character is capable of speaking: “I am Groot.” If there’s one actor getting short shrift, it’s Saldana, but her Gamora is also the group’s straight woman—a necessary burden so the wackos can shine all the brighter.

And from this ensemble comes humor. Loads of humor. More humor than an average comedy (it would be perfectly appropriate to label “Guardians” an action-comedy, yet somehow it doesn’t sound quite right). And each uniqueness of character holds a similar kind of joke. Star-Lord, our Indiana Jones hero, is a juvenile quipster. Rocket and Groot are an old-timey comedy duo, with Rocket the motormouth and Groot the well-meaning simpleton. Drax is a being entirely incapable of wordplay (when remarked that metaphor goes over Drax’s head, he shoots back, “Nothing goes over my head ... my reflexes are too fast. I would catch it”). Saldana, again, is the straight woman, but by the end even she’ll get a few good ones in.

That humor is indicative of “Guardians’” greatest strength: its sense of style. It’s funny, it’s colorful, and it bears one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, set to the greatest hits of the 1970s. Don’t worry—it’s entirely justified, as such a mixtape happens to be one of Star-Lord’s only Earthly possessions. Count “Guardians” among the only films that could set a space battle to “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and make it seem entirely justified.

It’s a film that bears more than one viewing, just to savor how much of these elements Gunn has crammed into every nook and cranny. If it’s not a joke, a plot point or a character moment, it doesn’t exist in “Guardians”—Gunn doesn’t waste a single second without adding something worth watching. How many films open on our intrepid globetroing hero, finally locating that sought-after idol in a desolated ruin? Now, how many feature our globetrotter dancing and lip-syncing to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” while snatching up space rats as impromptu karaoke microphones?

Of course, the film isn’t perfect. The villains are underdeveloped, on a scale of “mildly”—Ronan the Accuser—to “barely has two minutes of screen time”—Djimon Hounsou’s Korath the Pursuer, a character so inconsequential he could have been merged with another secondary villain (or left out entirely), and nothing of value would be lost. But “Guardians” will throw jokes and splashes of color at you so frequently that a negative thought can only survive in the mind for about five seconds.

Marvel has had some solid films in the past, but nothing like this; nothing that feels so self-assured (and practically guaranteed a rabid cult following). For lack of a better term, “Guardians of the Galaxy” really is our new “Star Wars.” Dial down the grandeur, double the whimsy and load it up on a sugar high—it’s just about right. It’s a film that delivers what it promises, and there’s no better example than the pulpy little ending tag: “The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return.” True to its word, one week before its release, Marvel announced a second “Guardians” for summer 2017. See this, then prepare for three years of bated breath. (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” directed by James Gunn, Marvel) 5stars—Adam Paul


Dieselpunk on Dragonfly Wings

IS THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE fiction dead? More likely, we’ve entered a new Golden Age. Charles A. Cornell delivers a classic example of where 21st century science fiction is heading with “DragonFly Part I: To Hell and Back,” the first novel in his “Missions of the DragonFly Squadron” series. Don’t let the name of this new genre scare you off: “Dieselpunk” may be the gold standard in a rubble of post-apocalypse, dystopian fiction.

While Dieselpunk is often set around the underpinnings of World War II and the rise of fascism, the genre includes retro-crime noir, influenced by pulp fiction detective stories of the era. The Roaring 20s/Jazz Age is also represented. “With Steampunk and Dieselpunk breaking new ground,” Cornell says, “the definitions and boundaries of science fiction have already been expanded.”

Steampunk has been around since 1987, when author K. W. Jeter coined the term to describe a genre of speculative fiction in which steam, not electricity, drives technological advancements in a Victorian-era setting. I hadn’t heard of Dieselpunk until last month. No, I don’t mind being “late to the party,” a phrase apparently coined by the earliest fans of Hugh Howey’s “Wool.”

Cornell has found references “that put the first possible Dieselpunk novel in the late ’60s/early ’70s. In fact, there was even a novel published in the former Soviet Union in 1969 which has a lot of the current Dieselpunk aesthetics (I think it may be more Atompunk though).” He’ll keep posting links at his blog and at Twitter.

His blog is a great starting place to learn more about Dieselpunk and novels that fit the genre. In “Ack-ack Macaque” by Gareth L Powell, for example, the setting is familiar—World War II German ninjas parachuting into Kent—but not so familiar when Britain’s last hope for victory is a monkey. The monkey is a cynical, cigar-chomping Spitfire pilot codenamed Ack-Ack Macaque. Powell creates a retro-future where France and Great Britain merge in the late 1950s, nuclear-powered Zeppelins circle the globe, and an ex-journalist hunts the man who “butchered her husband and stole her electronic soul.”

“Dragonfly” is set in an alternate World War II in which Britain single-handedly fights the Nazis. Real-life Nazis deployed revolutionary jet-powered fighters, the first to be seen in aerial combat ever; fortunately, the war was almost over before Hitler got his ME-262s off the ground. Unfortunately for the “DragonFly” crew, Cornell invents a new class of German fighters that enter service early enough in the war to make a deadly difference. It’s just the kind of “what-if” scenario Dieselpunk does so well.

Not to be confused with alternative history, Dieselpunk is based on Retrofuturism, Cornell says. “My main goal with DragonFly is not to simply rewrite history but to try to understand how someone from that era would react to changes in the science and technology, society and politics, from the history that we know. The DragonFly series is part of a bigger arc story of the world to come, a world that never was.”

Cornell’s grasp of the World War II era is so sure, readers will think he’s been there, done that. “I relived World War II through my parents’ eyes and through their stories,” he says. His father served in the Royal Air Force for twenty-one years. His mother joined the Women’s RAF at eighteen and became a grease monkey, servicing the engines of British Spitfires, Halifax bombers, and American Mustangs. When the war ended, his mother, like most of her generation, became a dutiful housewife and devoted parent. “It was an unusual event in sociological history: so many non-traditional skills learned by so many women in a time of urgent need, left abandoned with the declaration of a peace.” What if, he often wondered—what would his mother’s generation of women have achieved in the 1950s if they’d carried on those newly acquired skills?

The big what-if in “DragonFly” is the idea of women fighter pilots in World War II. Veronica “Ronnie” Somerset, a twenty-two-year-old RAF pilot, happens into the daunting role of test-flying the most revolutionary aircraft ever invented. The Royal Navy’s super-secret, high-tech experimental prototype, “Dragonfly,” performs as beautifully underwater as it does in air. What if the plane is made of titanium and fueled by ... water? Yes, water, which can be scooped from the ocean or extracted from clouds. The water is powered by paramagnum vitae, a crystal mined from only one place on Earth, off the coast of Cornwall, beneath an ancient castle called Enysfarne.

Cornell doesn’t just put his protagonist up a tree and shoot at her; he puts her in the midst of machine-gun fire, rockets’ red glare, and bombs bursting in air. Before Ronnie has time to locate all the dials and buttons on her first test flight, she’s in a dogfight with the Germans. And you won’t believe what they’re flying.

“In alternative history, authors try to be faithful to the real environment (political, social, technological) and twist events to create a different outcome,” Cornell blogs. “In Dieselpunk or Steampunk, the author uses elements of thdragonflye fantastic to blur the lines between what could have been historically and what could have been scientifically. These punk genres are closer to science fiction than they are to alternative history.”

The plot of “Dragonfly” is bizarre, with U.S. troops pulling out of World War II and leaving Great Britain to face a Nazi invasion alone. In a fit of Americanism, I almost stopped reading then and there. But the Nazis had really hammered America’s B-17s, there’s some kind of deal about Japan, and then ... one of the horrifying Nazi killing machines remembers his humanity and a truly epic and amazing thing happens. My lips are sealed, but I’ll say this: an author who knows German mysticism is rare enough, but it’s sheer genius to balance the German’s foul stream of hereditary evil (as novelist Frank Norris put it) with Eckhart’s legacy.

Another page-turning bribe to keep reading is Hans (ah, Hans!), the German. He awakens more than romantic longings in the heroine, but I’m not giving away any surprises about a woman combat pilot who has mystical gifts. One man understands them and believes in her.

“Dieselpunk, like steampunk before it, can be extraordinarily creative,” Cornell says. “I’ve baked all kinds of batshit crazy ideas into the pie ... like Joker in Batman: Wait ’til you get a load of this!”

Ronnie, with more than enough craziness on her plate, also needs to make an ally of a weird Druid albino, Lord Affodill, rightful heir to Enysfarne. The Royal Navy has been using his ancestral home as Dragonfly’s base. Ultimately, Cornell pits Affodill’s Celtic mysticism against fictional Nazi war machines—and why not? Our own CIA had Project Stargate, a team of psychic warriors (see Jon Ronson’s “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the last novel I’d ever suspect of historical facts).

Reichsfuhrer Morax’s tarot card reading to Hitler is fictional, but 20th century Germany has a history of fascination with the occult. Druids, traitors, spies, Britain’s royal family, fictional as well as real-life Nazis, and humans altered to become horrifying Blutskieger killing machines have a place in this story. Francois and Clement the Bull will return in “Escape From The Zauber Korps,” the story of the little boy’s escape from France to England after he gets separated from his parents and is hunted by a dreaded Nachtjäger. Did I fail to mention the Night Hunters? There’s a lot going on in this deceptively easy-to-read, fast paced novel.

“My novels are written in layers,” Cornell explains. “The outer layer is entertainment. If you write thrillers, you have to thrill. If you write science fiction, you have to create wonder. The next layer is information, placed to intrigue the reader to discover more on their own. A setting they may want to visit or, as you have just done, real events to explore. The third and final layer is meaning. What message can the reader take away? What lingers in the mind? Are there questions that have been answered or are there still mysteries to be thought through?”

Mysteries in this novel could keep book club members talking for weeks. Or years.

If you still haven’t decided to buy the book, visit Cornell’s website for images of the Keg, the Krokodil and the Vulture. But don’t even think about the Blutskrieger at bedtime. One trope that may never die is the mad German scientist’s unconscionable ability to create living nightmares.

“Dragonfly” is a fascinating mix of history and re-imagined history. Cornell establishes the alternate science of the crystals, the presence of a Druid culture steeped in magic, the horrors of a Nazi regime. “This is Veronica Somerset’s ordinary world,” Cornell says. “With the subsequent books, Ronnie will be forced to step beyond this, into a special world, a true Dieselpunk world.”

Book Two in the series, “Spies in Manhattan,” features a disaffected ex-Tuskegee airman. “I intend to explore the racial tensions of the time,” Cornell says. “The trick is not to place the mores of our time on characters in the past but to try to see the world as they would have seen it back then, warts and all.”

His companion piece of short fiction, “Die Fabrik (The Factory)” is firmly in the science fiction horror genre. It’s a story Cornell “was actually afraid to publish. Again, this was a time in history which taught us a lot of lessons that somehow we’ve been too dumb to learn.”

Until we do learn, there’s nothing like a good dose of Dieselpunk to keep existential angst at bay. Yes, humans are stupid and evil, but like Mensch Number Three, we also have a core of goodness. And now, I’m off to find out what that new genre Atompunk is all about. (“DragonFly Part I: To Hell and Back,” Charles A. Cornell, Charles Cornell Creative Partners) 5 stars —Carol Kean


Teenage Mediocre Ninja Turtles

“TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES” is best known as a cult 1980s cartoon; a hallmark of children’s programming that tinkered with ideas of weird science and mutation, yet kept things simple, witty, and kid-friendly.

Looking at Jonathan Liebesman’s “Ninja Turtles” of 2014, “simple,” “witty,” and “kid-friendly” are non-factors. Our four brothers/shelled reptiles/sewer mutants don’t have the iconic look of the cartoon Turtles (nor the original Mirage Studios comics of the early ’80s)—bright sashes and round bulbous noses, distinguishable mostly by their sash color and weapon. Today, the Ninja Turtles (Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek, Johnny Knoxville) are four green monstrosities plastered in a yard sales’ worth of accessories and junk—bamboo, shells, goggles, and occasionally, ninja gear. Their muscles have ballooned outwards, so that the Ninja Turtles now dwarf the largest bodybuilder. They have bulbous skulls and protruding noses, but the full lips of a male model—a baffling mix of design choices that almost recalls “Avatar” and its attempt to sexualize the cat-like Na’vi.

In short: the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” are ugly. Perilously ugly. So much so that they will distract and disturb every time they’re onscreen (a fair amount, given their position as the film’s protagonists).

But design flaws feel less flawed under a solid story—unfortunately, “Ninja Turtles” comes up short in this department as well. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has never been known for labyrinthine plot structures or a web of tangled motivations. Typically, there’s some kind of evil that our heroes in a half-shell must overcome, and after taking in pizza and doling out wisecracks, they overcome it. No great shakes. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” follows the same formula, as longtime adversary Shredder (Tohuro Masamune) and his Foot Clan army plan a grand takeover of New York City.

It’s commendable that Liebesman and his trio of writers have delved fully into the Ninja Turtles’ mutant origins. According to the film, the special gunk responsible for creating the Turtles is also a sort of cure-all, able to work as an antidote for poison and injury alongside its mutating properties. That special substance— turtlesreferred to as a “mutagen,” is the film’s great MacGuffin, as the motivation for our heroes (both turtle and human) and villains can all be traced back to a few long-ago vials of mutagen. There’s no effort made to explain just how the mutagen works, but this kind of children’s science fiction isn’t really made for in-depth analysis. The mutagen turns box turtle into wisecracking ninja master—that’s about all we need to know.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story isn’t up to snuff. We’re given large chunks of exposition through long, droning speeches, when we should be getting it through Foot Clan vs. Turtle action. It also doesn’t help that the Shredder’s grand evil plan is missing a few steps—from “terrorist attack,” to “mass profit,” to “god-king of all New York City.” That last step doesn’t quite compute.

The high points of the movie, by far, are the moments when the “Ninja Turtles” actually put their ninjutsu training to good use. The action scenes are surprisingly solid for a film where not much else is; the choreography simple and clean, and showcases a real weight behind the Turtles and their mechanized ninja nemesis. That’s the advantage to swelling our heroes up to Schwarzenegger size—when they hit, they hit like a truck.

The comedy, too (as “Ninja Turtles” is an action comedy), is a step above competent, but only when focused on the interplay between the four hero reptiles. Everything else (and the majority of the film’s humor) is happy to rest on the lowest common denominator—cheap sex and bodily functions. The turtles’ banter may still be juvenile, but the right kind of juvenile—spewing from the mouths of teenagers, not aimed solely at them.

It’s that kind of crudeness that’s the hallmark of Michael Bay, who might only be a producer on “Ninja Turtles,” but whose signature style—blaringly loud and cringingly childish—has clearly been influential. Within a Michael Bay-designed “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” there might not be much to hold dear. But there are a few glimmers of the Turtles’ original spark hidden in this unnecessary 2014 reboot. You’ll just have to dig through several feet of monstrous redesign to find them. (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” directed by Jonathan Liebesman, Paramount Pictures) 2 stars —Adam Paul


Zombies, Vampires, and Heaven?

POP CULTURE IS OVERRUN BY zombies, vampires, and religion as it is. While it was just a small fringe at one point, it is definitely mainstream now. When you look at hard science fiction, these elements are usually not taken up at all, or in an effort to disprove one aspect of it, or point out how silly the whole thing is. Peter Watts, one of the hardest of the hard science fiction writers, not only took these tropes and changed their meanings for “Echopraxia,” his latest novel, he reclaimed them for all of hard science fiction.

In the year 2082, first contact happened, but only for a moment. Thousands of tiny satellites appeared in Earth’s atmosphere before burning out. Just before the dawn of the 22nd century, humanity is still dealing with this impact of an intelligent life that showed up but left without a word. Daniel Brüks is a field biologist in a world where being in the field isn’t necessary anymore. He has a few augmentations but is still what is considered a baseline human. After accidentally causing the death of hundreds of people, Brüks takes a sabbatical to study life, or what’s left of it, in the Oregon desert. With his career ruined and his wife in heaven (a digital cold storage where the human consciousness is stored), Brüks doesn’t have much going for him. And then everything that is left goes horribly wrong.

One night, one of Brüks’ cameras catches something. He wakes to find combat-grade zombies are heading straight for him. But a different kind of zombie is presented in this book: they are products of a chemical agent that echopraxiareduces humans down to just brain stem activity. Brüks flees across the desert with only one place to go—the Bicameral monastery. The Bicameral Order is a religious sect that made tremendous advances in faith-based methods that defy explanation. The Order takes him in; he discovers that the zombies were actually attacking the monastery and that a vampire controls them! In Watts’ world, vampires are ancient humanoid cannibals with extreme intelligence. Vampires have been brought back and controlled with genetic modifications to be used to humanity’s advantage.

The Order and the vampires, initially foes, soon find that they have a common goal. They also have a common enemy: baseline humans. Before Brüks is sure what is happening to him, he tags along on a mission to Icarus, a giant solar array near the sun that powers one-fifth of Earth. Both the Order and the vampires think they have found the face of God, and they either want to communicate with it or harness it for their own needs.

Watts gives us a lot to take in and try to digest here. “Echopraxia” is a “sidequel” to his previous novel, “Blindsight,” which focused more on the ramifications of first contact. The writing style is intentionally vague and confusing. Most of the story follows Brüks, who is attempting to figure out what is happening and why he is being dragged along. Brüks is a baseline human, so he is more relatable to the reader. It is nice to have a mystery that we have to figure out on our own, but there are a few too many near misses at enlightenment.

Most of the explanations of zombies, vampires, heaven, and how the religious orders are taking over are vague or nonexistent. Watts’ previous novel already explained these and he didn’t spend any effort rehashing it here. It saves fans time but it throws first time readers for a loop. There are several other technological advancements that are just called by their name with no explanation; the reader has to infer the meaning through context (but in everyday life we do this often). The end of the book does contain about thirty pages of notes on the science Watts used.

Where the novel really shines, and where it will haunt the reader long after finishing it, is in the themes that are examined. Watts takes a long hard look at things such as faith, not just in the religious sense but in the sense of science’s predictive power, and how evidence is a given even in instances where two experiments yield different results. Free will and individuality is also under the microscope here: are we, as individuals, the result of our physical makeup? What if we augment ourselves through technology? Does that make us a different person or being? And what about thoughts we have that physically change our brain? Is the future set or can it be predicted to the point where we are helpless to change it regardless of what we do?

Watts has taken these various ideas and combined them in one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in quite some time. He gives the entire genre a kick in the butt that it needs and deserves. With “Echopraxia,” Watts establishes himself as a pioneer of 21st century hard science fiction. (“Echopraxia” Peter Watts, Tor Books) 5 stars —Adam Armstrong