Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Trusting What I Smell
by Kenneth Schneyer

Taking Flight
by Peter Wood

Dumpster Dive
by Clint Spivey

To Die a Great Death
by Stephen L. Antczak

A Taste of Oranges
by Jacey Bedford

Athena’s Children
by Travis Heermann

Sinking Holes
by D. Thomas Minton

Free Range
by Kathleen Molyneaux

Shorter Stories

by Douglas J. Ogurek

Out of Her Head
by Amy Power Jansen

Icarus and Daedalus
by Sean Mulroy


Hearts on Demand
by Anthony J. Melchiorri

Internet Undercover
by John McCormick



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

Nobody Dies, Nobody Retires

BIOMEDICAL SCIENCE THRILLS US and chills us in Anthony J. Melchiorri’s “The God Organ.” I hope no Luddites read this novel. Michael Solana sounded the alarm on dystopian fiction making science-challenged masses fear futuristic technology: “While innovation has improved our lives in almost every way imaginable, people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been,” he asserts (“WIRED,” August 14, 2014). So “Stop writing dystopian fiction; it’s making us fear technology,” the headline reads.

Don’t stop, Anthony! Fear is good. Fear is what triggers the impulse to run from danger. Because so few of us today face the dangers we are uniquely evolved to handle, we need storytellers to fill the gap. Books and movies may be the only way our physical bodies will experience the hair-raising, heart-pounding thrills that are so absent from our daily lives.

“The God Organ” opens in a Chicago of the near future, 2063. A biotechnological revolution has gifted humanity with an implantable artificial organ that repairs congenital defects, kills cancer, fixes boo-boos (even bullet wounds), erases wrinkles and gray hair, and extends life spans to annoying lengths.

Yes, annoying. Thanks to the “Sustain,” produced by medical giant LyfeGen, rich people are living so long, they don’t retire from their jobs. This leaves bright young people unemployed or wasting their skills as janitors, baristas and store clerks. The poor and middle class who cannot afford the Sustain get sick and die as usual, but not fast enough to help the job market. The longer the rich keep living and working, the harder it is for the young to climb the ladder or even get a foot on the rungs. The divide between social classes widens to the point that those less fortunate face gradual extinction.

The novel is multi-layered with several point-of-view characters. Biomedical scientist Preston Carter developed the Sustain to improve and save lives. Matthew, Jacqueline, and Whitney work with him at LyfeGen as researchers. Hannah, the jilted plain Jane, turns to the church to fill the empty spaces in her life, and she’s ripe for the picking when religious zealots groom followers to help god organthem oppose the evils of the “god organ,” as they’ve dubbed the Sustain. Journalist Audrey Cook is always looking for dirt to publish, and she’ll violate her husband’s privacy to get it. She digs through his files while he’s in the shower (if Matthew had a password, she cracked it.) The dirtiest dirt isn’t who sleeps with whom, though Preston, who has a husband, gets his share of homophobic speculation about his personal life. The big scoop is that rich, important people with Sustains are suddenly dying of strokes, and Audrey doesn’t care if it’s a failure of modern medicine or a super-secret act of homicide, so long as she’s first to report it.

The plot is so intricate, I can’t summarize it without spoilers. Prepare to be fooled, even if you’re slick at whodunits. Fans of hard science fiction won’t be disappointed, either. Melchiorri is a biomedical engineer who develops cardiovascular devices for tissue engineering to treat children with congenital heart defects [see this month's article, “Hearts on Demand“]. Complex terminology is part of his daily conversations, and this comes across with characters who speak naturally and convincingly.

I’m not one of those book critics who complain if the science is untenable. I just ask Elena Giorgi, who’s published articles in “The Scientist,” has a Ph.D., writes novels, and reads the same authors I do. (How would I know? Stalk authors via Goodreads as well as Twitter.) If Elena says the science holds up, I believe her. “The God Organ” passes, with plenty of medical terminology Giorgi can fathom while I squeak by with a vague awareness of terms like “vascularized tissues” and genetic factor PDE4D. All right, I lied. Offhand, I couldn’t name a gene with numbers in it if the fate of the world depended on it. In any case, Anthony Melchiorri knows his science.

He also knows the fun part of science. I was hooked from page one when Joel, the doomed LyfeGen CEO in the prologue, attends a charity fundraiser at a museum where the art exhibits are interactive in a startling way. Holograms rightly have a place in futuristic fiction with a sensawunda. For that matter, so does wine.

Let me tell you about the “rainbow wine,” made from jellyfish-gene infused grapes, and the way it shifts colors—never mind, this awesome wine is also notorious for its awful hangovers. Darn. We’ve cured cancer, as Joe says, but not hangovers, so he settles for the safer choice: whiskey. (I’m still smiling at that.) At this futurist party, hologram projectors somehow alter every person’s appearance with masks that resemble animals, from lions and badgers and raccoons, to birds of prey, and nobody knows what his or her own mask is. Sounds like a great party game for a science fiction convention. Come on, Melchiorri, tell us you know who can pull this off! If you dream it, someone will build it, right? Never mind that 3D printers can’t spit out functional hearts yet. They will. My faith is in scientists for future fun along with life-saving medical advances.

One thing that may never change is man’s weakness for woman. Joel is about to obey an instinct to go home until Amy looks at him: “Her thin red lips curved into a seductive smile and her hair drifted over her shoulders.” Well, hell. Go for it, Joel. What else could a smile signify but an invitation to do things that could conceivably lead to a contribution to the gene pool?

Joel (like so many CEOs) seems oblivious to the social undercurrent in the novel, in particular, the plight of the economically disadvantaged. Journalists like Amy (she of the red lips and swinging hair) incite discontent with headlines like “The Aging Aristocracy and Their Persisting Economic Reigns” and “Biotech Industry Wealth Clubs Prevent Economic Development in the Middle East.”

Matthew, on the other hand, is not oblivious. His wife Audrey is on a mission to expose alleged villains such as LyfeGen, even if it jeopardizes Matthew’s job. Then again, if the privileged were to lose their longevity, the job market might not be so stagnant, right? Matthew doesn’t see it that way. His wife is exploiting him, and that justifies him in betraying her if a woman should smile seductively at him.

Resentment of the haves versus the have-nots is much deeper when it isn’t just material possessions but better health care, youthful good looks and longevity that are accessible only to the wealthy. Hannah is not alone in thinking “these god organs are slowly poisoning people and their families.” Most of the attractive people in Hannah’s world “are just those unnatural types who go around getting laser treatments and god organs.”

The most likable character of the lot, Cody, is a janitor who wastes his Ph.D. in science because the job market is saturated with Sustainers who won’t retire. Hard to imagine liking the drunk in the bar ranting about politics, corporate greed and social injustice, but something about Cody appeals to me. When he overhears college boys talk about getting Sustained, Cody delivers a tirade about the pitfalls of capitalism (spoiler alert: he will ultimately figure out how to make individual initiative and free enterprise work in his favor, and I love him to bits for that).

“All those gray-hairs who should be retiring are practically growing younger with their damned god organs, keeping the rest of us down,” Cody thunders. But even a guy with a god organ may be hard pressed to keep paying for its maintenance. “He joins the immortal club and keeps working, slaving away just to stay alive ... The guy who works for him never gets promoted because the guy who works for you doesn’t get promoted ... At the bottom, those jobs start getting sucked up by computers who don’t need a salary. Bottom is full of bots and the top is filled with god organs, squeezing out the rest of us.”

The final chapter allows for an unexpected triumph that secures the novel at five stars versus the four it would have gotten if not for my favorite theme, the rise of the underdog.

Fifty years into the future, anti-aging technology may be as close to “The God Organ” as 21st century communications technology has brought us to Big Brother of “1984.” George Orwell may have been half a century early with his predictions, but he illustrates my point: authors are uniquely qualified to put a finger on the pulse of collective consciousness and all its unconscious fears. Storytellers pick up on the mood of a people, a whole planet, even, spinning fantastical tales to chill and thrill, and, all too often, to come true. An obscure novelist described with uncanny precision a fictional sinking of the Titanic some ten years before it ever came to pass.

Science versus Nature, Ethics versus Religion, Rich versus Poor. Melchiorri brings to this science fiction thriller all the timeless themes of the natural life cycle, the Faustian desire to cheat death, and the downside of any victory over it. Melchiorri also envisions what society might become if granted a shot at immortality. Human greed will ever reign supreme over compassion and empathy. But there are always exceptions, and they sustain our faith in humanity. (“The God Organ,” Anthony J. Melchiorri, Thunderbird Media) 4 stars —Carol Kean


Packed With Popcorn Fun

JUST BY EXISTING, “AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” walks into the nastiest minefield of expectations a film could ever face. Everyone with a pulse saw “The Avengers” in 2012; somehow, every single one of those pulse-havers managed to love it dearly. A billion and a half at the box office. Near-perfect critical acclaim. A movie so successful that not only has it bankrolled a decade of post-“Avengers” Marvel movies (sixteen films in total), but spurned every studio in Hollywood into jumping into the “expanded universe” game. When you grimace your way through the Robin Hood multi-film cinematic universe (a very real project in development), be sure to sarcastically thank “The Avengers” afterward.

So let’s get the obvious out of the way. That sparkling wow factor from seeing four-plus film franchises converge into one summer blockbuster? “The Avengers” had it. “Age of Ultron” does not. It was never possible, with “Age of Ultron” being a sequel and all. Now, the good news: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is so enormous and so comic-book-and-bubble-gum fun you probably won’t even notice.

“The Avengers” opened with a car chase—S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) vs. brainwashed agent/future Avenger Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Two run of the mill human beings, driving Jeeps. “Age of Ultron” has its own car chase opener, where carfuls of Avengers (those who can fly keep pace above) zig-zag through a forest, battling an army of Hydra (read: super-Nazi) soldiers equipped with power armor and jet boots. Skulking deep within a mountain castle is Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a comic book Himmler complete with high-tech monocle, laboring over a new breed of superweapon. Director Joss Whedon’s coup de grace in the first film—an extended tracking shot that leaps from Avenger to Avenger as they show off their coolest moves—is deployed less than a minute in. We’re given “Age of Ultron’s” game plan already: it’s not reinventing the wheel, but building a bigger, sleeker one that’s loaded with nifty new features.

Those super-Nazis are just place setting for the real conflict. The Avengers win their castle siege and come away with the grand prize—Loki’s mind-control scepter from tultronhe first “Avengers” film. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) squirrels the staff away and uses its power as fuel for his masterpiece: Ultron (James Spader), a robotic peacekeeping force that’ll safeguard the entire globe. Or it would, but for one slight problem. The Ultron A.I. goes rogue (as movie A.I. so often does) and decides that true peacekeeping involves wiping out the biggest cause of war and destruction: humankind. And the fight is on. One team of Avengers vs. one Ultron, one constantly-refilling army of robot drones and two superpowered Hydra ringers, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen).

Besides the burden of great expectations, “Age of Ultron” has another internal struggle: this is supposed to be a darker, grittier “Avengers.” Thanks to Scarlet Witch’s mind-bending powers (which look wonderful onscreen, imbued with a sped-up slow-mo, unnerving Cirque du Soleil quality), our heroes spend a good portion of the film reliving their worst fears and past traumas. Ultron has a tendency to monologue on the squishy weakness of humanity and its need to evolve in a baptism by fire. Whedon at one point likened the film a Marvel “Empire Strikes Back;” painful, personal, drenched in superhero anguish.

Not so much. “Age of Ultron” tries to go grimmer, but it’s still colored-in like an old “Avengers” comic, and loaded with the same perpetually witty banter that’s required in everything Joss Whedon will ever write. As banter goes, the interplay between the Avengers is as sharp as you’ll see in an action movie. But any movie where the remorseless killer robot makes this many sarcastic zingers can hardly call itself “dark.”

Although I hesitate to call that a net negative. If “Age of Ultron” was the “Dark Knight” of “Avengers” films, it might be unbearable after nearly two-and-a-half hours. “Age of Ultron” is not. It’s wonderful, never unexciting, never without purpose, and surprisingly adept in keeping tabs on an ensemble cast that’s ballooned up to eleven total Avengers (plus a small army of ancillary roles). We’ve reached the point where movie posters cannot hold all these characters without becoming a messy Photoshop scrapbook (take a glance at the artwork currently hanging in just about every movie theater), but Whedon does what poster artists could not. Despite the surplus Avengers and the larger scale, it’s still balanced.

At least, as balanced as the last “Avengers” was. Like last time, some team members get story arcs and some just punch stuff; but the juiciest material is saved for the characters who were sidelined last time. Meaning, lots of Hawkeye and just as much Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who might be the film’s best performer. Spader’s robot voice drips with malice, but Ruffalo delivers something leagues above what’s expected from superhero movie acting. When he isn’t going green, Bruce Banner’s a ruined shell of a human being, yet still hang-dog lovable. You want to give him a hug. And see more of him, considering even the juiciest character arcs here are subplot-sized at best. At what point does Marvel finally give in and make the Ruffalo-led Hulk movie he so clearly deserves?

It really can’t be overstated how many facets of “The Avengers” Whedon bumped up for “Age of Ultron.” It’s not gorgeous, but it’s got visual flair and more than a few nifty camera tricks. It plays like a movie (a relevant point if you remember the first film—dazzling as it was, was lit and shot like an ABC-TV show). The kind of water cooler moments that peppered the first film—“puny god,” “there’s only one God, ma’am,” Hulk punching Thor—are here in such a number that the Hulk could bite a robot in half (he does) and it won’t register as ridiculously cool because four equally high-fiveable moments happened right afterward, and it’ll take a few minutes for your brain to sort through them.

So yes, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” might be “The Avengers” remade with a different bad guy and a significant layer of polish. There are reasons to complain (here’s one: the introduction of a new Avenger late in the game requires several minutes of densely packed exposition). But when a movie just wants to be popcorn fun, and is popcorn fun, and is crafted with as much popcorn fun virtuosity as this? Just buy a ticket already. (“The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” directed by Joss Whedon, Marvel Studios) 4 stars —Adam Paul


To Boldly Go Where We’ve Been

SID MEIER HAS BEEN MAKING VIDEO games long before many gamers were born. Meier is most famous for his Civilization Series that has been around for almost twenty-five years. Though each game isn’t terribly different from the previous, there is something captivating for those of us who like playing these turn-based, strategy games. Meier shook things up a year ago when he took things into space with “Beyond Earth.” Now he’s taking us even farther away from the things we are familiar with.

In “Sid Meier’s Starships,” developed by Firaxis Games and published by 2K Games, the player isn’t out to conquer new ground, because the galaxy is already full. Players are out to build federations. The most successful federation wins.

There is still conflict that needs resolving, however. Players have a choice among three different alliances and eight different leaders. These choices can reward you with bonuses along the way, be it an extra ship or a technological advantage. Once you have selected your leader and affiliation, you can move a fleet of ships from your home planet to the nearby planets that need your help. Successfully help a planet and it'll join your federation.

The planet may be under attack by space pirates. Or a space station has gone off its orbit. A planet needs you to escort a ship to safety. All of this is resolved through combat. The combat in Starships is turn-based: move your starshipsfleet into position, use an action (such as attack, cloak, scan, etc.), and then end your turn and wait for the enemy to act. There is actually quite a variety to the actions. Players can fire torpedoes for lots of damage, though they are easy to see coming. Fighters can be launched that have much more freedom of movement but little hit points. Fighters can be used as a distraction, as well.

Unlike Meier’s Civilization games, in “Starships” you only have one military unit to maneuver. This greatly simplifies the game, cutting out the micromanaging of previous games. But there is something lost along the way. Players can build up cities, or advance planets to help them produce resources and credits. But everything is very slight; it feels like so many more layers were meant to be there and just aren’t.

If the player is able to help a planet they will win an influence point. If you can gain two, you will receive half of the planets resources through trade. If you gain enough influence points, the planet will join your federation. This gives you access to the world’s technological wonders (which in this game aids in combat), but you will also have to use your military to defend the planet.

Here is where the conflict comes in. At the beginning of the game, when you are selecting difficulty and map size, you are given the option of how many other players you can compete against. These other players, controlled by an AI, also want to help planets in order to gain the resources. As you encounter other players you can broker peace through diplomacy or you can engage in combat. While combat seems like the most fun, players must keep in mind that the others could have been building up their military units a long time.

Once you have run into a few other players it becomes a race to see who will win. Players can win through total domination of the board, finding a set number of technological wonders first, or by having the largest population. And like other Sid Meier games, the ending always feels abrupt, even though you can generally see it coming.

Overall the game is a lot of fun. I played the game on an iPad Air 2, and the portability of it made it nice; although, with most modern laptops, gamers can still take it with them easily enough. The large number of ship customization options (the game starts with two, but each player can have up to eight), and variety of combat missions is enjoyable for a while. Affter a few hours of play you are doing the same thing, over and over.

The simplified feel of the game left the whole scenario lacking a bit. This is a good foundation but it definitely needs to be built on. The diplomacy was weak-to-almost-absent and everything you do with the planets doesn’t seem to make a difference. Beating your enemies in combat isn’t all that difficult, either. Because you get a rundown of what to expect and are even given strategies on how to proceed, most battles come out in your favor. It is still easy to lose the game, however. There are players doing things that you can’t always see.

If you are a fan of strategy games or of Sid Meier’s previous games, give “Starships” a shot. It will keep you busy for a few hours. Then you can replay it multiple times trying different leaders and victory paths. It has almost a “Star Trek” feel to it, with a little extra shooting. If you are looking for something more involved or action-packed, then I would pass on this. With a $15 cost, the game seems overpriced for what you get. Hopefully, the studio will release some free content to those who have purchased the game, adding more layers and increasing the game replayability. (“Sid Meier’s Starships,” Firaxis Games, Microsoft Windows) 3stars —Adam Armstrong


Dancing With Turing

THINK OF “EX MACHINA” AS ONE long Turing Test. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a low-level employee at Bluebook (think Google and Apple all rolled into one), wins a company-wide competition and a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Bluebook’s founder, CEO and Steve Jobs analog, at his private mansion/research lab. But the real prize is what Caleb will be doing: assisting Nathan in a top-secret trial for his latest technological wonder, a fully-formed, fully-functioning robot AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Here’s where the Turing Test part comes in. Once a day, every day while Caleb’s there, he will sit in a small examination room and have a conversation with Ava (from behind bulletproof glass, a nifty piece of foreshadowing). At the end of the week, he’ll give his final evaluation to Nathan: is Ava truly conscious?

If that’s all “Ex Machina” was, it would make for a supremely dull movie (or at the very least, an overly clinical one). That’s not the case. A few sessions into the Turing Test and the framework starts to unravel. Nathan begins dropping hints—is Ava trying to manipulate Caleb? Ava starts doing the same, hinting that Nathan might be lying to Caleb about the real reason he’s here. This is “Ex Machina’s” most wonderful conceit—as the stakes rise, the Turing Test takes on a very real life-or-death component. We’re no longer watching a movie where a programmer beta tests version 5.0 of a piece of hardware. We’re watching a kind of science fiction whodunit, frantically trying to evaluate clues and motives along with the protagonist because people’s lives are on the line.

The further along we get, the more “Ex Machina” blooms outward, into bold, weird, unexpected emotional territory you wouldn’t think possible of a movie that initially pitches itself as “three characters sitting down and talking tech.” We’ve got sex: pressing uncomfortably forward into the realm of human-robot sexual relations. We’ve got violence, including one very nauseating sequence of razor blade self-mutilation. We’ve got an extended dance-off, for some reason, when everyone stops what they’re doing to groove along to Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night.” Out of context in a movie review, that sounds bizarre and a little stupid. In the context of “Ex Machina,” it’s just as baffling—but also really, hysterically funny.

Writer/director Alex Garland (a first-time director, albeit with plenty of science fiction street cred, having written “Dredd” and “Sunshine”) approaches his debut feature very much from a writer’s perspective. The story is perfectly taut, crafted and filmed with a supreme attention to the three leads. Isaac, as Nathan, gives the kind of performance you want to keep watching even after he’s left a scene, blurring two very distinct personalities into one cohesive, believable person. Nathan is paranoid, isolated and thinks at a level far beyond most minds; any and machinaall dialogue delivered with something unseen swirling just below the surface. But Nathan’s also packing a pair of bulging biceps, a love of the words “dude,” “bro,” “man,” and a few post-breakthrough brewskis. He’s frat-guy affable at the same time.

Vikander’s just as exemplary as Ava, crafting equal amounts of below-the-surface-simmer through a very complicated being. She’s at once coolly mechanical, vastly intelligent, childishly naïve, sultry, and just a little bit of a hipster. All performed through God-only-knows how much makeup and CGI (Ava resembles a metal, mesh, and plastic crash test dummy with a perfectly human rubber face). Gleeson’s a little left out in this category. As Caleb, he’s a solid, slightly geekish everyman. But that’s really all the script asks of him (he is a stand-in for us in the audience, after all), so he doesn’t quite rise to the level of his co-stars.

But in Garland’s feverish attention to script and performance, the visuals have slipped by him. Not the CGI (which is wonderfully realized) but the cinematography. Maybe once every forty-five minutes, a visual will really shine—Nathan’s favorite Jackson Pollock painting, or the first time the mansion glows alarm-red during a power outage. And that’s it. The rest of the time the camera’s on autopilot, giving us sequence after sequence of “yep, we’re in a reclusive billionaire’s private mansion” cold sterility.

Please don’t let that scare you away from “Ex Machina” (nor should that sequence of razor blade cuts—if, like me, you’re hopelessly squeamish, just wait until the soundtrack frenzy cuts off before you look again). This is science fiction at its best. A film that asks a compelling question and then makes us care by weaving it into two hours of suspenseful robot madness. And besides, if 2014—“Guardians of the Galaxy,” especially—taught us anything, it’s that science fiction films that know how to dance are the best kind. See “Ex Machina” for that reason alone. (“Ex Machina,” directed by Alex Garland, DNA Films) 5starsAdam Paul