Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Running Tangent
by Dale Ivan Smith
and K.C. Ball

Food, Glorious Food
by Joey To

by Dave Creek

by Siobhan Gallagher

An Island in Your Arms
by James Patrick Riser

Rim’s End
by John Walters

by Holly Schofield

Ooze Love
by Andrew James Woodyard

Shorter Stories

Deus Ex Machina
by Erin Lale

It’s, Like, So Boring at the End of the World
by Amy Sisson

by Robin Wyatt Dunn


Making Sense of it All
by Libby McGugan

Is There Life in Space?
by Peter Cawdron



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

Invariably About Humanity

THE FANTASTIC, FUTURISTIC technological graveyard in “Invariable Man: The Novel” by A.K. Meek is based on a real place in Arizona, and that breaks my heart. The Air Force after World War II created a Regeneration Center for old, outdated aircraft and military surplus. Some are repainted and sold to friendly foreign governments, some are recycled or rebuilt, others simply stored and preserved. The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) is the world’s largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world. Despite all the secret clearance and security patrols, the heartbreaking sight of this real-life “Boneyard” has become an iconic setting for movies such as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

The Boneyard in “Invariable Man” has expanded from a few hundred acres to miles and miles of desert, almost a city in its sheer size. Sadly, it contains more than scrapped F-16s. “Broken technology from times long past”—our world today—forms “a surreal landscape of valleys and mountains, all built from mankind’s metallic refuse.” Our techno-treasures are broken and buried deep, from cell phones to computers, TVs and DVDs, all because of one evil AI gone rogue: Nicolaevna.

The dreaded Nicolaevna has been defeated, but lonely old Micah Dresden’s life mission is to keep androids from conquering humanity again. He’s an old man now, probably sixty (his memory eludes him), “thin, calloused, and tanned with a deep brown from the brutal climate. The sun had turned him into one lanky piece of jerky.” He has an uncanny talent for repairing broken technology.

Dresden can’t stop thinking of Nicolaevna’s cooler-than-the-Batmobile aircraft, Machine X, temptingly stashed in a highly secured section of the Boneyard. Nor can he forget his wife Margaret, whose death is the only thing he can’t fix.

Without his sensible wife to stop him, a man who reads the same ancient paperback over and over again, Micah builds his two companions from salvaged parts. He gives them names, converses with them, learns how to handle their eccentricities, and makes sure they do not evolve into androids. For all things that slip his mind, though, he can’t forget that the last thing Margaret would ever say to him in this world had made him laugh. “He would never forget that name, or that he had laughed as his wife passed from the Earth.”

The name, Kitpie, is what he calls his first companion, a dusty three-foot-high service bot that rolls on treads over Skip’s clean linoleum. Micah finds Skip in a partially crushed military shipping container he’d picked up at an auction (“Under no circumstance could Micah have afforded a bot like him” otherwise.)

Kitpie and Skip are such vivid and quirky characters, it’s easy to forget they’re made of metal and salvaged parts. Until they malfunction, that is—quite regularly—but Michah can fix just about anything. He also manages to convince the officials who come knocking at his door that any suspicious frequencies in Micah’s vicinity are not coming from his treasured companions.

A sign of the dystopian times is the way an antiquated VCR becomes their most beloved possession. Micah’s “Mechanical Entropy Theory” holds that as technology progresses, it becomes more fragile. (I’m highlighting this passage, typing an impassioned “Yes!” on Kindle-share.) “Even though advancing technology could accomplish more and more, exponentially it had become more Invariable Mansusceptible to external influence,” and so Micah can resurrect a dirt-covered 20th century VCR and play VHS tapes, which Skip becomes obsessed with (“Downton Abbey” inspires Skip to play the part of a British butler). The witty dialogue and almost slapstick antics of the “not android” robots bring a lighthearted balance to Micah’s hot, dark world.

Tucson is a lot hotter in the aftermath of the Machine Wars, robots against humans. Few people can stay outside for long, but Micah and his metal companions scavenge daily. Thanks to Micah’s homemade photovoltaic system, refurbished battery banks and solar power, he keeps a bubble of air around his home at “a comfortable one hundred and twenty—fifteen degrees cooler than the blistering Arizona morning.”

Micah’s fix-it skills make him as sought after as Thomas Cole, The Variable Man. Micah has read the ancient pulp-science-fiction classic by Philip K. Dick at least thirty times. (No more e-readers in his world? Sobs of anguish from the book critic who reads and annotates only from her Kindle!) Like The Variable Man, Micah can discern in a moment, “in a flash of divine wisdom, what needed to be done, what needed fixing.” It helps that he has a hot pen, “a little thicker than a regular pen but with a blazing plasma tip.” When will Amazon start selling these amazing little fix-it pens with plasma tips? I want one.

Micah would risk prison just for a closer look at the downed battleship of the evil android who ruined the world for humans. “I can fix it,” he tells Skip. “We can use it against the androids, against Nikolaevna. I think Margaret would want that.” Then Micah catches himself: "He knew Margaret would’ve said exactly the opposite of what he’d just told Skip. Margaret’s desires had become a way for him to justify those things that he wanted, but knew weren’t the best for him."

The humanity in this story kept me riveted. Too often, I set aside a new science fiction novel because it’s more about cool futuristic military technology than the people. As a chronically right-brained reader, I love Micah all the more for the way his intuition grows and takes over his technical know-how. He’ll overcome big obstacles to get his hands on Machine X (come on, you knew he would). Swiftly, he gets to work: “If he thought about it too much, tried to understand what he was doing, he knew he’d mess it up and wouldn’t be able to fix it. He’d found that out the hard way. That was where he’d gone wrong with Skip. He had thought too hard. But now, he relaxed and let his hands take over. They flew over the box, feeling, with an intuition beyond his understanding.”

The story takes some surprising twists and turns from there. The ending is more of a downer than I care to endure (I read to escape, not to be reminded of human folly and tragedy), but there is room for a sequel—for things to be "fixed." Micah is, after all, the ultimate fixer of things, and I’m an optimist, and A.K. Meek has a built-in fan base waiting for more where this came from. (Are you listening, A.K.?) (“Invariable Man; The Novel,” A.K. Meek, Twin Leaf) 5stars —Carol Kean


Old School Game Meets New Tech

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I had a friend who had a gaming system that was entirely on eight-inch floppy disks. One simply put the disks in this huge keyboard and plugged the keyboard into a television and you could play video games. The games were what you would expect at the time: Joust, Pac-Man, Pong, Centipede, the usual. It was fun and I spent too many hours playing. But there was one game that really sticks in my memory. Maybe because it was something really different, or maybe just because we could never get very far into it. I don’t remember the name, but the game featured simply a black screen with white text. It would tell you something; you had to tell it how to react. The game scenario was all about espionage, while most other text-based games were fantasy. I still wonder about it and wish I could find something like it.

We have advanced, beautiful graphics and epic storytelling in today’s video games. Games are faster than ever. You can play with people all over the world in real time. You can even take some truly wonderful games with you in your pocket to play anywhere there is am Internet connection. But something is still missing.lifeline Being handed gorgeous graphics isn't quite the same as having to come up with environments in your head. Controlling a pre-made character isn’t the same as having to first imagine that character before engaging with it. 3 Minute Games took all of this into consideration when developing “Lifeline,” for the iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch, by acclaimed writer Dave Justus.

In “Lifeline,” a starship has crashed on an alien moon and the only survivor is Taylor, and Taylor can only communicate with you, the player, through text messaging. Taylor sends you a message and you are given a choice of how to respond. In some cases, it is nothing more than making conversation to prevent Taylor from going crazy, at other times Taylor is asking for your advice on what to do next. However you respond, Taylor will follow your recommendation. What’s more, the game takes place in real time. When Taylor is busy or sleeping, nothing happens in the game. When Taylor is awake, your mobile device (be it tablet, smartphone, or smartwatch) is sent a notification that Taylor is attempting to communicate.

The game starts out as a simple test of survival. Taylor needs to look for his or her crew, find shelter, and food. At times the player has to stop and look up various things before answering the questions. The wrong answer could spell Taylor’s demise. With the player’s encouragement, Taylor goes out to explore the moon, only to find something else is out there. Something that may not be human.

This game is a lot of fun. As the player, you are given bare bones information, allowing your imagination to fill in the rest. Taylor is provided with enough of a personality to make the character seem like a real person; after some time you begin to get concerned with what happens to Taylor as you play. There are enough science fiction, horror, and mystery elements in the game to keep the vast majority of players interested. And best of all, in this mobile age, there are absolutely no ads, nor is the app ever begging you to buy anything.

There are a few issues that modern gamers may not like. Because the game is in real time, there are extensive periods where you can’t play, like when Taylor is sleeping. Though this real time approach is a grand idea, it isn’t quite so grand if you only have a small window in which to play and the character is asleep. The choices can also be limited. They’re not limited to the point where either choice will result in a similar outcome, but sometimes you may want to say something other than the options that are offered. The jokes written into the dialog can be stretched a bit thin, as well. For example, Taylor does not know the metric system and frequently makes up silly measurements. This is funny the first time or two, and then it just gets old. One has to wonder why the player communicating with Taylor doesn’t attempt to get help.

Once you finish the game, you can jump back throughout and make different choices to see what could happen. This gives the game replayability and keeps you from having to leave this strange little world you are introduced to anytime soon. Knowing how it ends, you can take the longer way around to get there and see what else is there.

Overall. “Lifeline” is an intriguing game. It brought back fond memories of earlier text-based games, including that one I can’t remember the name of that no amount of Googling seems to help. “Lifeline” works on most mobile systems and you can obtain a copy fairly inexpensively. Despite the bad jokes, you may discover that you don’t want to leave Taylor to fend all alone in this strange, alien world where you are the only possible help. (“Lifeline,” 3 Minute Games, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch) 4 stars —Adam Armstrong


Looking for Life in the Galaxy

IF E.T. EVER PHONES EARTH, Peter Cawdron should answer the call. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence and first-contact tales are his specialty. With post-apocalypse, dystopian stories dominating the market, it’s a rare treat to find an author who dares to spike his science fiction with humor while saving the world from annihilation.

Unlike the fantastical, so-called science in too much of today’s science fiction, Cawdron’s imagination is grounded in real-world technology—the logical, not the impossible. In the grand tradition of science fiction’s Golden Age, Cawdron plays with psychology and sociology, daring us to hope one individual’s sense of responsibility can triumph over the folly and immaturity of the human race. His scene-setting evokes Escher’s convoluted worlds, his sense of atmosphere summons “The Twilight Zone,” his slapstick humor (why are Australians so good at humor?) frustrates, aggravates and amuses like the Keystone Cops or the even-more agonizingly incompetent Laurel and Hardy.

With so many great stories to pick from, my focus here will be on the one that is “PermaFree” via Kindle as a lead-in to his “Galactic Exploration” series. “Trixie and Me” is the second of four novellas centering on the Rare Earth Hypothesis (see Cawdron’s essay for more on that topic). Manned by clones, three star ships explore the Milky Way on a quest “to find life, any life, but hopefully intelligent life.” The “Serengeti” heads out above the plane of the Milky Way. The “Savannah” explores the outer reaches of the galaxy, and the “Rift Valley” investigates possible alien signals within the galactic core.

“Trixie and Me” starts with a bang, vivid and surreal. A man named Berry hangs in mid-air, suspended with no visible means of support. A woman, Trixie, has just awakened from a fetal position, her memory hazy, but she’s awtrixieare that this is Berry and he’s intriguingly naked. With cat-like curiosity she takes in her surroundings while he exhorts her to help him. Her command of English is limited, and her non-responses to his pleas are hilarious yet maddening. She’s easily distracted and eager to play with all the new things on this alien spaceship that has apparently captured them, until the aliens draw near, and finally she follows orders well enough to get her and Berry out of the snare.

Note: this is not erotic fiction. Berry finds his clothes and is quick to give Trixie his shirt. The couple then navigate the weird world of the spaceship with its millions of insectoid creatures and DNA-collecting aliens known as “thinkers.” The story is more military science fiction than romance. After so many crushed bodies, I began speed-reading through the battles, but fans of fight scenes will devour every word. My focus is on the philosophical and literary, not the blood and guts. E.g., “Do clones have souls? Does anyone?”

Anderson, commander of the “Rift Valley,” poses these questions. As a clone, he harbors memories of incidents he never witnessed, and over time it’s increasingly harder for him to distinguish his own recollections from his predecessor’s. Technical thoughts have more staying power than ordinary memories, but memories associated with strong emotions “tended to hang around, clouding his mind like ghosts.” He likes thinking of his predecessor as “it,” depersonalizing and distancing “it” from him. “And what was he? What was this personal detachment from the atoms and molecules that made up his arms, his legs, his torso? What was this intimate sense of presence and perspective that defined his life?”

Anderson’s soliloquies might seem like a lull in the furiously paced action, but for me, these are the best parts of any book. The night sky looks deceptively calm; stars glowed like beacons in the darkness; “The reality, though, was that stars were seething cauldrons of superheated plasma, violent and explosive, flaring up in hellish outbursts, raging with fiery storms. Their benign appearance was a lie perpetuated only by distance.”

Naturally, I gravitate to those passages rather than the ones where a body strikes the ground with a thud, where dark fluids spray out from dead “thinkers.” I winced past Berry and his welding torch, the screams of the myriad insectoids, “their bodies burning, their innards boiling.”

This is not a pleasant first contact scenario. The aliens are so alien in nature, they treat humans as poorly as we often treated our fellow humans whenever we conquered a new continent. Hence, the quote from Stephen Hawking at the outset of the novella: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet ... I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach ... If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Trixie, like Anderson, brings a lot of thought to her mission to stop aliens from ruthlessly collecting human DNA. It takes her a while to bring herself to kill. Before she does, she pauses over a wounded thinker, “running her soft fingertips over its hard exoskeleton. What had it seen in its life? What would be lost with its death? Did these alien creatures have any concept of individual consciousness? Did they realize the pathetic waste of death? ... Life should be lived above death, it should not perpetuate the misery that all creatures endure, given time. And yet, neither she nor Berry had brought this fight.”

The relationship between Trixie and Berry is tested, and like Anderson the clone, Trixie discovers she shares some of Berry’s memories—useful facts, figures, and educated guesses on how to navigate the baffling twists and turns of the alien ship. The plot itself takes some surprising twists, all neatly foreshadowed for the astute reader, but still a with pleasing surprise at the very end. There is much to uncover in this short tale. In all, it’s a gripping, sometimes gory, thriller with a gold mine of lofty ideas that remind me of why I’m a fan of speculative fiction.

The next generation of great science fiction authors may come from the “indie” school. If not for independent publishing I might never have read Peter Cawdron or dozens of other authors I’ve reviewed. E.E. Giorgi prefers it to traditional publishing: “I love being in control of the whole process, from cover to release date to promotions, so self-pubbing for me is now the first choice for all of my books,” she emailed me.

For the price of one traditionally published book, you can read half a dozen ebooks, and “you get what you pay for” need not apply. For the cost of one cup of coffee or often even less (99 cents won’t buy a cuppa coffee anywhere these days), you’d be surprised how much you may enjoy an independently published book.

And as @PeterCawdron tweeted, “Got to say, I'm loving new conversations, sharing quotes from books as you read.” When I read, a certain passage or quote often strikes me as something I must share, whether it’s only one specific person or all of Twitter’s book lovers. With one tap, others will see the quote you’ve shared and can instantly start reading a free sample of the book—no need to sign up, sign in, or install an app—via phone, tablet, Kindle, Nook or PC.

Sampling a free book of the high quality of “Trixie and Me” may well lead readers to want more where that came from. The hard part is knowing when to stop. Five thousand titles in my Kindle and still counting, so when a writer like Peter Cawdron rises to the top of the queue, you know that the stigma of self-publishing has gone the way of the dinosaurs. (“Trixie and Me,” Peter Cawdron, Smashwords) 5stars —Carol Kean


He’ll Be Back, Better We Hope

FOLKS ADORE “THE TERMINATOR” AND “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” Those same folks, it can be assumed, can barely muster a snort of derision for the films that followed, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “Terminator Salvation.” So “Terminator Genisys” (and yes, that’s the proper spelling), our fifth entry in the “Terminator” franchise, gives the people what they want: “The Terminator,” circa 1984.

After an intro in the laser-scorched future, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) travels back to 1984 to rescue Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from a hulking robot-in-disguise (Arnold Schwarzenegger) tasked with her destruction. All of this should sound very familiar.

For the first few minutes, it’s a remarkable shot-for-shot remake. The sets, the music, the crackling blue lightning—they’re all wonderfully exact. Even the de-aged Schwarzenegger looks solid, if a little wonky whenever he opens his mouth. We get as far as the T-800’s confrontation with three street punks (sadly, no de-aged Bill Paxton), and then the timeline shifts. Another Schwarzenegger T-800 (gray hair, wrinkles—definitely the 2015 model) appears behind Arnold #1. They square off. Then the ’84 model bull-rushes at a good twenty mph (in ugly plastic CGI), the Arnolds slam each other into various metal objects (more CGI) and the ’84 Arnold is brought down with a magic sniper rifle that can waste a Terminator in one shot.

And it’s there when my eyes glaze over with disappointment. Welcome to another crummy “Terminator” sequel! We’ve officially reached the point where they outnumber the good ones.

Really, that Arnold-on-Arnold scene is a neat summation of everything “Genisys” doesn’t understand about “The Terminator” and why it’s such an enduring piece of science fiction. In “The Terminator,” Schwarzenegger’s entirely inhuman. His Mr. Universe physique became a multi-ton mechanical mass, plodding forward with a strength no human being could possibly stop. Schwarzenegger also trained his eyes to move like a security camera—when looking to the left or right, he’d move his eyes as far as they’d go and then begin swiveling his head in the same direction. Try it. Feels robotic, doesn’t it?

In “Genisys,” Terminators are speedy, weightless CGI. And fairly easy to kill, strangely. Schwarzenegger himself has been reduced to a side-terminatorcharacter in his own movie; all that imposing cyborg prowess stripped away until he’s nothing but quips and CGI. He’s more the comic relief than the hero this time around.

And that’s problem #1, out of roughly 67,000. The script is an abomination, massively convoluted, inconsistent, and riddled with plot holes. Previous “Terminators” kept the time travel straight and simple (cyborg travels back in time. Cyborg wants to change future. Cyborg goes kablooey. Future comes out OK). The time travel of “Genisys” is a spiderwebbed mess of multiple timelines and impenetrable jargon (oh, and plot holes. So many, many plot holes). About halfway through the “Genisys” climactic battle, I realized I had no idea what our heroes’ ultimate goal was. Is it killing the bad guy that saves the future? Blowing up an all-important widget? Even after it was over, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure. In interviews, the screenwriters behind “Genisys” have attempted to explain the film’s time-travel inconsistencies by alluding to a hole-filling “multiverse” that’s never mentioned in the movie (but presumably would be in a potential sequel). If that’s not a screenwriting death knell, I don’t know what is.

I can’t say for certain, but having seen “Terminator Genisys,” it plays like a film crushed under the weight of endless production problems. The messy script. The numerous characters who seem important, but have no actual bearing on the story (as though large chunks of character work were left on the cutting room floor). Danny Dyson (Dayo Okeniyi), the son of “Judgment Day” tech genius Miles Dyson, whose only purpose seems to be “this character was in Terminator 2, remember?” Or Matt Smith’s “Alex,” a character who pops in for maybe twenty seconds of screen time, does something incredibly crucial (and franchise-breaking), and is never given an explanation as to who he is or how he can do that. It’s something to do with the multiverse, I’m guessing.

On a smoother path to production, maybe “Terminator Genisys” could have been a winner. And there are a few great ideas hidden under all the junk. J.K. Simmons plays a boozy conspiracy theorist convinced that killer robots are real (he may have caught a glimpse of the original ’84 events). He’s a total scatterbrain, in a wonderfully charming kind of way. Simmons gets one short scene with Schwarzenegger, but their chemistry’s undeniable and it sings in a way that nothing else in the film can match. Scrap the whole Sarah Connor retread (no one will ever top Linda Hamilton, and Emilia Clarke doesn’t come close) and make Simmons the lead. That could have been a “Terminator” to remember.

There’s also a twist at the end—an “upgrade” of sorts—that’s so genius I’m surprised it took so many decades for someone to think it up. It’s the obvious, natural progression that builds on “Judgment Day” the way “Judgment Day” built on the original “Terminator.” Although in “Genisys,” it’s used only as a sequel tease, which is disappointing.

Maybe an “upgraded” sequel could improve on the across-the-board failings of “Terminator Genisys.” It’s not like we have a choice—Paramount’s already inked in two more “Terminator” films, in 2017 and 2018. Although given the tepid reception to this one (critically and commercially), maybe the T-800’s old robo-bones can finally be laid to rest. Probably not, though. At the very least, they could pick a decent title for the next go-round. (“Terminator Genisys,” directed by Alan Taylor, Paramount Pictures) 1star—Adam Paul


Shortcomings Aside, It's Good

“ANT-MAN” IS NOT A COMPLICATED GUY. He’s a Marvel superhero (one of about a thousand, these days). He can shrink real small, and communicate with the little guys that bear his name. His movie’s a fairly standard action comedy. Funny thing, though—Ant-Man’s been fighting tooth and nail (and pincer) to get his own movie for a solid fifteen years. A decade in development hell here, a director quitting at the last minute there (“Shaun of the Dead” mastermind Edgar Wright, citing mysterious, movie-killing “creative differences”). It hasn’t been an easy road for Marvel’s shortest superhero.

The good news: Ant-Man’s finally found himself a movie. The better news: it’s not half bad. “Ant-Man’s” no barnburner and it’s not revolutionizing cinema anytime soon, but it’s charming and compact and will definitely give you a soft spot for armies of CGI ants.

“Ant-Man” actually refers to two people. One’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a master crook trying to ditch the crook life and focus on his daughter. The other’s Henry Pym (Michael Douglas), a reclusive inventor whose crowning achievement is the Ant-Man suit—strap it on, squeeze the big red buttons on the thumbs and voila! You’re ant-size. Pym recruits Lang for that fabled “one last job”: stealing a weaponized, next-gen version of the suit from Pym’s former protégée, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Naturally, Cross is all kinds of evil and the suit in his hands would be catastrophic.

It’s tough not to view “Ant-Man” through the lens of what could have been. Edgar Wright’s a director who oozes style; a guy whose genre spoofs are so rock-solid that they’ve become enduring parts of the genres they spoof (the last act of “Hot Fuzz” hits with more impact than most bona fide blockbusters). And if there’s one thing “Ant-Man” really lacks, it’s a sense of panache. Take the last Marvel movie before this one—“Avengers: Age of Ultron” opened with every Avenger blasting between tree trunks, “Return of the Jedi” speeder chase style, in one long, glorious tracking shot. Before that it was “Guardians of the Galaxy” and alien abductions set to the sounds of ’70s soft rock.

By comparison, “Ant-Man” opens on four people talking in a boardroom. After a brief prison fight, we’ve got characters sitting and talking. Standing and talking. More sitting. You get the idea. The dialogue’s crisp and very funny, but replacement director Peyton Reed does nothing to punch up “Ant-Man” on any visual level. Except when Scott shrinks—then the camera whirls and twirls (a combination of CGI and some very nifty macro photography) and is all kinds of cool. “Ant-Mant-manan’s” a much smaller (no way around that pun) film. A good ninety percent of the movie takes place within four buildings (three homes and a lab), and follows about that many characters, all closely woven together. It’s only got two genuine fight scenes, the first landing a little past the halfway point. Smaller is better—the more movies Marvel pumps out, the more variety we’ll need between them. But without that auteur sensibility, “Ant-Man” teeters somewhere between “homey and charming” small and “boilerplate TV movie” small.

So yes, the bones are a little rattly. But “Ant-Man” still coasts into being a functional, fun action flick. The cast is unbelievably impressive and the jokes land with consistency (more than most Marvel flicks, this one’s got equal parts comedy and action. Think “Guardians of the Galaxy” as far as gags-per-minute go). Shockingly, that sameness people are starting to bemoan from the Marvel canon (roguish hero, high joke count) is a lot of the glue holding “Ant-Man” in place. And Ant-Man’s powers are just so damn cool that they’ll prop up interest throughout. He sounds like an easy target for a joke, but don’t let that fool you—shrinking and insect-communication are a thousand times more interesting onscreen than super strength or anything laser-based.

Plus, what “Ant-Man” nails—really nails—is the science. DC Comics is the one doing all the secret identity stuff; with Marvel it’s all super-science gone horribly awry. Iron Man. Spider-Man. The Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Ant-Man. All scientists. And that’s a quality that’s been lacking in the recent Marvel crop (the original “Iron Man” had a heavy engineering bent. Since then? Smash, punch, crunch, explosion). With a scarcity of things to punch and crunch, “Ant-Man’s” set pieces are about cracking safes with liquid nitrogen (fill lock with water, spray with nitrogen—water expands, metal busts under pressure), diving into circuit boards or studying different breeds of ant (while ant-high, of course). The Marvel super-science spirit is very much alive in this one. Astoundingly, I actually left “Ant-Man” knowing a few things about ants I didn’t know before. Although I wasn’t exactly an ant genius walking in. And a lot of it is superhero movie gobbledygook (example: real ants communicate via pheromones, so a headset that transmits your brainwaves into ant-speak? Totally not a thing). But hey, it is a superhero movie.

We’ll be getting Marvel movies until the collapse of civilization (prepare yourself: right now the studio’s putting out two movies a year. In 2017, they’re upgrading to three). “Ant-Man” had every reason to be terrible, but eked out a surprisingly endearing, just-above-average flick on Marvel charm fumes alone. Pretty good sign, is it not?(“Ant-Man,” directed by Peyton Reed, Marvel Studios) 3star—Adam Paul