Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Decoration Day
by Edward J. McFadden III

A Mother’s Touch
by Beth Cato

Breathing Space
by J.J. Green

Consarn Christmas
by Eamonn Murphy

Having Robot Sex
by William R.A.D. Funk

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Morphological Understanding
by Jennifer Linnaea

Cloud Cover
by Eric Del Carlo

Abram’s Choice
by Jamie Lackey

by David Barber

Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow
by Clayton J. Callahan


Ho, Ho, Holiday Giving
by Eric M. Jones

On the Antiquity of Man
by A. de Quatrefages




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

It’s Strictly From Hunger

KATNISS EVERDEEN. HERO OF A dystopian future. Role model for a teenage generation. The fighting spirit that launched more than 36 million novels currently in print and more than two billion dollars at the global box office.

With all those laurels, shouldn’t she do something in her own film?

It’s a truly bizarre thing. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1” has all the trappings of terrific blockbuster science fiction. Solid source material, plenty of studio bucks to blow on nifty CGI effects and a cast bolstered by some extremely weighty names—Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland. But under all that glitz is an ugliness, a cold grey half-screenplay that locks its lead character in a dank basement for 95 percent of the film and hacks away the second, crucial half of any good story.

“Mockingjay—Part 1” is roughly the first half of the third and final novel in Suzanne Collins’ massively successful “Hunger Games” series (in line with the current upsetting trend, one book has been split into two films for double the profit). Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), having cut and killed her way through two “Battle Royale”-esque televised deathmatches, has found herself at the center of a revolution, set on taking down the all-powerful regime in this particular dystopia. Which in this case is the Capitol, run by the cold, grandfatherly sociopath President Snow (Sutherland). These revolutionaries, however, aren’t interested in taking to the streets with guns or compound bows. The weapon of choice on both sides is propaganda (referred to in future slang as “propos”), stirring videos meant to paint the rebels as defiant heroes—or bomb-happy extremists, depending on whose propos are on TV.

It’s an ingenious premise. How many dozens of films feature overly attractive, dirt-smudged teens bringing down a tyrannical regime? “Mockingjay—Part 1” is our third in 2014 alone, following “Divergent” in March and “The Maze Runner” in September (all, of course, based on teen-lit science fiction). At least the latest “Hunger Games” has the good graces to give us something we’ve never seen before—all-out future war via viral video.

Now, for the baffling bizarreness that neuters nearly every moment of “Mockingjay.” Katniss, our hero, does nothing. She sits and sulks and pines for a boy so very far away, seemingly forgetting that she’s the protagonist in a hundred-million dollar action film. Unlike previous films, where Katniss fought for the oppressed and was an inspiration to the huddled masses, the only thing on her mind is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her love interest and current hostage of the Capitol. People are starving and protestors are being publically executed, and Katniss only agrees to aid their cause if they’ll scratch her back first, with a rescue mission to save her boyfriend. Ugly, isn’t it?

But the rescue mission comes much later in the film. So for a great long while, Katniss sits in the drab, unfurnished basements of the rebellion, dragged out only to shoot a femockingjayw viral vids she’s not even that interested in making. There are four propos seen in “Mockingjay—Part 1;” Katniss slogs her way through the first, perks up for two and three, but by four she’s lost interest and runs off in search of Peeta. And that’s the bulk of the film, right there.

At times, “Mockingjay—Part 1” almost seems gleeful in the way it robs Katniss of anything to do. When President Snow orders a bombing run on the rebellion headquarters, Katniss leaves her bunker to find her sister Prim, lost in the chaos. Except, mere moments later, there’s secondary love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth)—he’s found Prim, safe and sound. Thus, our hero’s brief spurt of action is entirely meaningless. Likewise, there’s a knockout sequence towards the end where a crack team of rebel troops infiltrate the Capitol under cover of darkness. It’s extraordinarily thrilling; razor-wire tension and smoky cinematography, and it would have been so much more compelling if Katniss was actually there. But she’s not. The rebels ordered her to stay at home and watch the action on TV.

Naturally, this means Lawrence, an otherwise compelling performer, is little more than a bore. In moments where she’s given something to bounce off of—say, one of “Mockingjay—Part 1’s” endless supply of seasoned supporting players—she brightens up considerably. But those moments are rare, and she’ll spend her days shoved into a tiny corner of the emotional spectrum—sad and stifled (with a peculiar habit of repeating the same line in the exact same intonation, again and again—“President Snow, can you hear me?” ad nauseum, causing genuine concern for the audio track). At least the rest of the cast is there, to sparkle whenever they pop in for a moment.

Perhaps if Lionsgate had opted not to hack “Mockingjay” into two separate films we’d have a story of a hero shuttered in by overwhelming odds, only to break free and fight the good fight. But this is only half a book adapted to screen, and it seems so very likely that all the action and growth is to come in “Part 2.” What we have now is a brief bit of exposition contorted just so, a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, meant to be fully functional even though the Doc forgot its arms and legs. Unsurprisingly, it’s an utter disappointment. Although really, we should have seen this coming. A future rule of thumb—any film that requires both a colon and a dash to make room for its many subtitles is not a film that deserves to be seen. (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1,” directed by Francis Lawrence, Lionsgate) 1 stars —Adam Paul


Genetically Modified Thriller

E.E. GIORGI IS A FULL-TIME GENETICIST who also knows how to spin a good story. When “Gene Cards” earned an award in November, 2014, from Stargazer Literary Prizes for outstanding novels that may “change the world, one book at a time,” I knew what I had to do: stalk the author on Twitter before risking money on a book, even if Hugo voters were to endorse it. I read Giorgi’s blog, fell in love with her photos of the Milky Way, envied her growing up in Tuscany with a scientist father, and learned her secret to riveting fiction: “How do you deal with your fears? Use them as plot devices.”

Okay, she has other secrets to hooking a reader and keeping me enthralled, but that was the big one. There’s also futuristic genetics, a mysterious, fatal illness that’s more elusive and bloody-awful than Ebola, and a futuristic city that is a character in and of itself. Then there’s the heroine, a surly, irascible, scientifically gifted detective hot on the trail of the world’s most brilliant “bad girl.” Or is the world’s most-wanted bad girl the real heroine? Can two opposites share a reader’s heart?

You know the answer to that.

At first, I almost passed over this gem of a novel on seeing the tag “near-future dystopia.” Eh. Not another post-apocalypse Earth run by a corrupt, controlling government. Alien invasions may be overdone, but they offer more variety and freshness than climate change, technology that dehumanizes us, and the perils of genetically engineered food. I read for escapism, not reminders of how humans trash the world. However, being the fair and open-minded reviewer you’ve come to know and love, I gave “Gene Cards” the ol’ page one test.

It passed. With flying, bombs-bursting-in-air colors.

Yulia, the brilliant but wicked computer hacker, races the clock to download something while explosions rock the building and an electronic voice keeps reminding her how soon the system will shut down. Ninety seconds to go. Come on, computer. Yuliana’s brother is in prison, dying of a genetic disorder, and she needs this vital piece of information to save him. Of course she manages to get the download and get out before her home implodes, but that cloud of black butterflies with red-rimmed wings at the end of Chapter One will give you a new reason to turn the page.

So does that brother of hers. Chapter Two opens in Julian’s tortured, almost surreal point of view. Curled against the wall, “a lonely comma in the narrow space of his confinement,” he lives with rats gnawing in the darkness, screams haunting the hallways, and the pain of his illness, mounting “like a black ocean swelling before a storm.” Pain is his harshest prison. He embraces it “until lightning strikes and he’s alone in the big sea, fighting for every breath of air.” When the pain subsides, “the Beep” keeps him company. The Beep and the red LED indicator implanted in Julian’s wrists and neck keep track of every movement, every breath, every heartbeat. “So long as there’s the Beep and the Red Light, everything’s in check. Boxed, framed, categorized, caged, barred. Imprisoned.” The scene ends with an obsolete Canon camera, rolls of antiquated 35mm film, and Julian muttering something that is inexplicably sinister: “I am not a number. My name is Julian Thomas Szymanski and I take pictures. And I’ll get out of here. If it’s the last thing I do, I will get out of here.”

How did he end up in prison in the first place? What does 35mm film have to do with it?

More than one mystery compels the reader to delve further and deeper into this story. Chapter One ends with a burning question about Antisense Oligonucleotides that are not butterflies. Yes, I had to stop and web-surf to find out if these cell penetrable humanized single domain antibodies already exist in real life. (They do.) Trust me, the terminology blends seamlessly into the prose. For all the amazing hard-science fiction wedged into these pages, there’s never a dull moment for the reader to set the story aside and get back to dinner and dishes.

Chapter Three brings more reasons to keep me turning pages. Biothreat agent Skyler Donohue is on a mission to find and capture the most brilliant criminal hacker on Earth: Yulia—oh no! not Yulia!—Szymanski. What kind of heroine has us wanting the other heroine to go down?

In all her various guises, Yulia is consistently described as beautiful and charming. “And a criminal who should’ve been locked away,” Skyler argues, “not roaming freely like any ordinary person. Those Szymanskis, they’re a notorious breed of Unfits. They should’ve been banned from the city a long time ago.”

You should talk, Skyler, genetically “fit” enough to hold a job in the city, but a rebel at heart. Most agents in her line of work wear a microchip that sends a neural signal to the retina, but Skyler refuses it as “just another electronic leash, like we don’t have enough already.”

The city is something worth safeguarding, though. In a world devoured by raging fires, wiped out by rising sea levels and flattened by hurricanes, Liasis shelters the last of the world’s precious resources: clean water, food, filtered air, jobs, biofuels. Freeways allow a speed limit of 120 miles per hour, self-drgene cardsiving cars speak friendly assurances to the passengers, and life revolves around the QNet with its array of sensors, implants and cameras that connect everyone at the small price of destroying privacy. Outside the city, the rest of the planet is uninhabitable, but this is where the genetically Unfit must live, along with Russian hackers who keep trying to crack the QNet and take control of the city, and an endless list of enemies that include Korea, China and the Middle East. At the edge of town, supercomputing towers flicker and blink against the backdrop of a “red, angry sky.” Planet Earth is not a very welcoming place, and the human race is not very nice. Neither Skyler nor Yulia is an innocent heroine, but E.E. Giorgi is known for giving us real humans, warts and all, not two-dimensional characters.

Skyler is loyal to Liasis but she has an attitude. "You can’t be a badass in a military system,” Andy warns her. “You obey, in the military. Do as you’re told. That’s how the system works. Has worked, will work. Now, that is your problem. Quit playing hero and get into the team." She’s not a team player.

She also entertains snarky thoughts at meetings. “It had to come in acronyms, or they didn’t look smart enough. All she cared for was that a new ORBI—Outbreak Response and Bioterrorism Investigation—had been opened. It meant that the threat was serious enough to summon three different bureaus. The special network priorities—SPNs—went all the way to the Department of Defense and the White House.”

Skyler is strong, energetic, wild, quick, and fiery. Surely she should identify with a hardened criminal like Yulia. Then again, Yulia is more traditionally feminine, friendly, and seemingly gentle. She’s also calculating and elusive, deceptive, and cleverly hidden in plain sight. Come to think of it, we should want Skyler to bring this criminal to justice. Yulia did shoot her boyfriend in cold blood, after all, in Chapter One. Then again, his name was Duane. Fictional characters named Wayne, Duane, or Lee almost always deserve to die. More importantly, if Yulia goes down, there’s no hope for Julian. And I like Julian, poor, tortured, imprisoned, pain-wracked, clever, determined Julian, whose faith in his sister keeps him going.

Much as I hate Skyler’s attitude toward the Unfit and her determination to get Yulia arrested, I admire her toughness. During academy training in forensic panthology, while others squirmed or barfed, “Skyler held hearts and dissected brains, poked her fingers inside cavities” and calmly brushed scales of flaky skin from her gloves.

The latest autopsy turns into a bloody horror fest. One victim “popped like a water balloon.” The scene is darkly comic, thanks to the world’s greatest forensics specialist, who happens to be a snarky, witty dwarf. How did an “Unfit” like Dr. Erasmus Montoya, a “paranoid and unrepentantly outspoken” dwarf with more enemies than the Pope, get into Liasis? How does he get away with banning the intrusive QNet from his inner sanctum of an office, and what’s he planning to do with this gadget that “looks like it came straight out of a steampunk movie?”

Skyler’s job is made harder by the petty antics of her boss, who hates lesbians, and this book reviewer’s job is made harder by a clever author who layers so many social issues, scientific curiosities, and urgent missions into one novel. Giorgi seamlessly employs a deep point of view to portray a woman who likes other women. Instead of impressing us with “Look, here’s a lesbian protagonist!” she writes with matter-of-fact finesse and wisdom. I like the way Skyler views Andy: his eyes “had a shade of charming neediness that made a woman want to care for him even when she didn’t care much for men anyway.”

Andy takes Skyler to task for an attitude that a man wouldn’t have to defend. If she’d only “behave for once,” she’d get along with her boss and coworkers. Andy gets to her with his calm, cool words, “always in control, as a man should be.” Skyler is still a woman, gay or not, still struggling to conquer emotions: “A life pretending she’d be one of the boys and yet she couldn’t do the one thing boys are so great at: let the emotions wash past you.”

Andy also subjects her to the stupid, hated question that straight people ask. “Nobody asked her why she had black hair or hazel eyes or two legs instead of just one. They wanted to know why she was gay. As if it were a choice, a religion, a political stance. A profession of faith. Why.”

Peter is a much more likable coworker. He smiles at Skyler’s tirades and says, “Is there anything that doesn’t piss you off, Agent D?” Her answer, jazz and coffee, endears her to me. So does the way Skyler wears a Sig Sauer P626X like a glove, walks into the worst part of town to get help from a sordid computer hacker to locate Yulia, and drives her German-built car the way a good car should be driven: like a bat out of hell, pushing those pistons and wheels to their utmost limits.

Never mind that it’s stupid of Skyler to risk that car, and her own life, racing a wall of water across a dam. Nobody should drive through flash floods, even if they’re driving a tank. The scene is so spectacular, though, I forgive her. As a mother, I’m screaming “One star! Authors who’d let readers think this ever works in real life deserve only one out of five stars!” (As a woman whose first vehicle was a 1978 Scout II 4x4, I deny having sped up for puddles to see how big a splash I could make. I swear I didn’t see those construction workers.)

I did a double take on reading how the QNet depersonalized society: “Live conversations no longer took place, only recorded messages, emails, texts.” That’s not the future. That’s now. And those invasions of privacy? Hey. I’m not quitting Twitter no matter how many famously intelligent public figures like Andrew Coyne do. I got nothing to hide. (Heh heh. I sold that Scout before GPS, the Internet and cell phones took off.)

Having seen firsthand the catastrophic damage flash floods do to entire towns, I can’t help but feel a special awe for the storm system of Giorgi’s city of Liasis. Rushing water from flash floods is caught in a system of forty concrete silos, “each close to two million gallons in capacity, all buried deep under the city and connected through twenty miles of underground tunnels. A marvel of technology and architecture, the LSDS had kept Liasis safe from the whims of tornadoes and typhoons over the past two decades.”

There’s more down there in those silos than water, but you won’t hear about it from me.

If you think I’ve told you all about the novel and there’s no reason to read it now, trust me, I’ve said nothing about the main plot and people who want Skyler dead. Hint: it isn’t a Szymanski. I also haven’t mentioned Kim, or Yulia’s cat, or the seedlings. You’ll never guess Julian’s ulterior motive with 35mm film, but you might figure out the cause of the mystery illness.

The true villains of the novel (you know—the usual government or corporate entities) are not the fully realized, flawed humans I love in Giorgi’s other novels (namely, “Chimeras” and “Mosaics”). Fortunately, all the minor characters in “Gene Cards” are fully realized people. You’d swear they came straight from the author’s circle of family, friends and coworkers. Peter is one of my favorites, and I want his coffee mug (the one that reads “Intellectual Badass”). The little girl who bakes bread from scratch, her sister dying of the mystery illness, and others make the story ring true.

I really hope for a sequel, if for no other reason than to see Skyler take to the sky (hey, her name ought to be prophetic, right?). I love her reaction to a military jet overhead. “If 180 miles per hour on a racecourse gave her a hype, she couldn’t even begin to imagine what a Mach 1.5 felt like,” but “as long as her salary barely covered rent and other basic necessities, a pilot’s license remained a pipe dream.” The way she drives that German car, someone ought to get her off the road.

“Gene Cards” seems to arise from the nightmares of a geneticist who knows about more things that can go wrong than I could possibly imagine. (Pardon me while I go stick my head back in the sand once I set this story aside.) If you like contemplating “what if” scenarios, check out Giorgi’s blog, where she discusses science for the inquiring mind, especially the kind that sparks fantastic premises and engaging stories. “I love to discuss evolution and genetics,” she says.

I’ve said next to nothing about the GMOs that led to the global apocalypse in “Gene Cards.” I’ve also said nothing about the dwarf’s obsession with moths, or the chilling “artifacts” from life before GPS. I grew up thinking my parents were dinsosaurs because they only had black-and-white film, but we had color. My kids don’t even know what film looks like. Picture phones were a pipe dream back in my last-century childhood. Then again, my generation is the last one to grow up with the kind of privacy and freedom our children cannot even imagine.

In “Gene Cards,” Giorgi blogs, “I came up with a plausible scenario of what could go wrong with a genetically modified plant. Bacteria are already mutating fast thanks to antibiotic resistance. What if they could get even more genetic variation from those extra genes we’ve been introducing in plants? I don’t know that it could happen, but it’s something to think about. Though what really inspired me to write “Gene Cards” weren’t the GMOs per se. It was what I learned about the corporations producing the GMOs.”

Please don’t think the author promotes the view that GMOs are evil and should be banned from the food supply. She may argue that GMOs are good until they’re in the wrong hands, but read her blog for more facts and theories than even this brilliant scientist-author can pack into a thriller.

“In the end,” Giorgi says, “I think today’s world poses a lot of tough choices and you can’t win all the battles you could possibly fight. Read, stay informed and pick your battles: some are worth it, others aren’t. There’s good and evil in everything, especially in a fast changing world like ours.”

There you have it. Social media, partnering with science fiction, is a great thing! But no, thanks, I’ll pass on the implant, if authors ever start marketing those devices along with their science fiction. (“Gene Cards,” E.E. Giorgi, Quemazon Publishing) 5stars —Carol Kean


Ode to the Original

RIDLEY SCOTT MADE A WONDERFUL film thirty-five years ago. “Alien” has built a legacy and spawned several sequels, the first was great and the others grew increasingly terrible as they went on. The franchise also spawned many novels, comic books, and video games. The games almost always relied on James Cameron’s action/shoot ’em up take on the “Alien” franchise. None have ever attempted to bring in any of the elements of the original, until now, with “Alien: Isolation,” from Sega.

Fifteen years after the events of the first film, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda Ripley, is still dealing with the ghosts of her missing mother. Christopher Samuels, who works for Weyland-Yutani, offers her a chance to retrieve the flight recorder of the “Nostromo,” helping the company and giving her closure. Ripley agrees and heads out to the Sevastopol Space Station where they have the flight recorder.alien There’s not a lot to do at first except explore the environment. The whole ship has a very ’70s future feel: everything is analog-based, with glowing buttons on the wall, and large key cards for storage. It seems silly realizing where we are now with technology, but it is almost a perfect fit with the way the technology was presented in the original film.

When their ship gets close to Sevastopol Station, the crew finds the station severely damaged and communications are down. The crew attempts to space walk to the station but their cable is cut by debris leaving Ripley alone. The title of the game is a bit of a misnomer, as the station is full of humans that are violently attacking one another as they try to survive. The synthetics (androids), called Working Joes, are violently beating humans to death. A man named Axel agrees to help Ripley. He explains that a killer is loose and that is the reason behind the chaos on the ship. As he and Ripley make their way through the ship, an alien kills him. Now Ripley is stranded with violent humans, killer androids, and an invincible alien.

Though “Alien: Isolation” has the layout of a first-person shooter, there isn’t much running and gunning going on. At its heart, the game is a horror/stealth game that has some very heavy puzzle/strategy elements thrown in for fun. The game has a limited HUD, adding another layer of realism. If you want to use the motion detector, for example, you have to pull it out and look at it (which both slows you down and blurs your vision everywhere except in the direction of the motion detector). You can’t pick up health; you have to construct it and manually inject it. Same goes for ammo. Manual reloads add another level of realism and danger.

The game is beautifully done. It’s more than the awesome graphics and the tremendous attention to detail. The developers were able to capture the atmosphere and the pacing of the original movie. There are stretches of high tension when you are hiding and holding your breath. And there are other times when the danger is less imminent and you can explore the environment.

Despite all these wonderful elements, there are a few bumps and jerks in the game. An AI controls the alien; it has no set pattern of behavior. Again, another level of realism, but it can be annoying when the alien just waits in the way you have to travel. Or it switches from hiding in the ceiling to lurking in the next room you walk past. The Alien is indestructible. Only a few of your items can scare it away and they are hard to come by or make. Sometimes the AI causes the alien to attack you over and over again until you are out of weapons, and it kills you.

The save stations are unevenly placed, as well. At times there is one every few meters. At others it feels like there is only one or two per mission. It is during these times that you play for a long period just to have another human shoot at you, attracting the attention of the alien, and forcing you to start over again.

While I’m a fan of stealth games, I do like the option of standing up and fighting at times. “Metal Gear Solid” is a series of stealth games, offering strategies of being able to make noise and fight back without the outcome being inevitably hopeless. In “Alien: Isolation” the only bad guys you can easily dispatch are the humans, but doing so usually brings the alien, or the Working Joes that can be difficult to beat, as well. I’m all for getting rid of the hand-holding that the last generation of games had, but I don’t think games should be so difficult that they make you want to throw your remote through the TV and then throw the TV through the window. Then again, some gamers are looking for exactly that.

Overall, “Alien: Isolation” is a game that is masterfully done. It is beautiful, engaging, has a strong feeling of nostalgia, and keeps you playing for hours and hours. The Xenomorph is scary once again, although the “jump out and go boo” scares wear off pretty quickly. It is a wonderful homage to the original movie that may introduce a new generation to the science fiction classic ... if you don’t throw your remote through your screen first. (“Alien: Isolation,” Sega, Xbox, PlayStation, Windows) 4starsAdam Armstrong