Star Wars Laser Sword – projected on Star Wars laser sword projected on chimney in Sihlcity, Zürich

The force awakens

Star Wars Laser Sword – projected on Star Wars laser sword projected on chimney in Sihlcity, Zürich

One of the perks of working for Google is that I regularly get geeky team activities – for instance a private showing of the new Star Wars movie. So this week, I was in Sihlcity, ushered into the cinema by people dressed as various Star Wars characters. In general the cinema did a big deal of the new movies, with animated laser saber projections on the chimney stack of the mall (it used to be a factory).

I never watched any of the three prequels, but I saw enough bits and pieces, left and right, not to mention parodies and critiques, which gave me real incentive to do so. This post talks about the The Force Awakens and its plot, so if you want to go see it without any spoilers you should probably stop reading now.

Plot Spoilers!

Star Wars – The Force Awakens – Poster

The movie was directed by J.J. Abrams, and it shows, from the start you get the sense of vastness which was present in the Star Trek prequel. The spaceships of the original trilogy are ruins in the desert.

The movie starts with a set of new characters, Kylo Ren, a rebellion pilot, Rey, a scavenger and Finn a clone trooper who deserts the evil army for moral reasons. The antagonist is a Darth Vader wannabe within some post-empire military organisation. There is also a new droid which is pretty cute.

As the story unfolds with a lot of running around and explosions, I slowly reached the conclusion that I knew the story. The young orphan on a sand planet which has the power of the Force, the unwilling helper, the quest for some data thing inside a robot, the evil forces building a planet sized death ray. Does this sound familiar?

As such this would not have been a problem, the new Luke is a girl (Daisy Ridley) and kicks ass, she is basically both Luke and Han Solo, and whines way less than the original. Finn, the clone trooper is an interesting character, which would open up some interesting questions and narrative opportunities. Basically, the plot could have gone Battlestar Galactica, why not.

Instead the heroes stumble on the millennium Falcon, steal it, get boarded by Han Solo and Chewbacca who indirectly bring them to Leia. To the credit of the actors, I actually cared about that old couple’s relationship, which was splintered by their son, which turned to the dark side and became Darth Wannabe. So Han Solo has to go into the death ray thing to save his son from the dark side. Does that sound familiar?

The force awakens is not a bad movie, and I’m sure that compared to the three Lucas made prequels, it is nearly a masterpiece. On its own it is a very flawed movie, that tries to jam into one movie the plot of A new hope and The empire strikes back (inverted), with both a reboot of the original characters and the characters themselves played by the original actors, and most of the iconic props (spaceships, robots). This makes a lot of sense for merchandising and fan service reasons, but these are not the ingredients for a good movie.

Another thing that struck me with this movie is the non humans, which are still limited to their minority roles: shady characters and brave soldiers which will die anonymously for the rebellion. Where the original trilogy introduced many interesting aliens characters, the new movie only has one, the owner of the shady bar. Chewbacca is at the side of Han Solo of course, and Admiral Ackbar makes a token appearance, but that’s it. So we get a strong female protagonist, a black person as secondary character, but the universe did not become richer.

So all in all, a good action movie, certainly better than the prequels, but nothing ground-breaking either.

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Various Characters, one of them playing the piano

Cloud Atlas

Various Characters, one of them playing the piano

One of the few things you can do in a long-haul flight is to watch movies, among them, Cloud Atlas by the Wachowski siblings. I had only seen a trailer sometime last year and was generally to busy to hear about the various critiques of the movie, the explanation in the in-flight entertainment system was more confusing that anything else, so I was just curious.

Cloud Atlas is a set of stories in different times and place: a lawyer sailing back home in the 19th century, a young gay composer trying to make his way in the early 20th in England, century, a journalist in the US 60’s, a retired editor’s misadventures in the present day, a clone’s interrogation in some science fiction Korea and an epic quest in some post-apocalyptic earth. The various stories are connected first because of some birthmark that is common among all characters and some references from one story to the other.

A colleague found the story confusing, but I suppose that having read way to much cyberpunk novels, multi-threaded narration is not really a problem for me. I really like the idea of the movie, movies which are too new-agy tend to irritate, but here this was kept at a reasonable level, I also like the fact that the tone was not to moralising. I found the visuals gorgeous, and liked the acting, which also meant that the fact the same actors were present in the various story-strands was not too obvious.

My main problem with the movie is that it is slow, way to slow. Watching a movie that is nearly three hours long is OK when you are in a long flight, but still, there were a lot of places that could have been cut in a tighter fashion, in particular in the post-apocalyptic and the science-fiction story. I don’t think that those days, people really need twice as much exposition just because the setting is science-fiction. This slow pace also undermined the connection between the stories, I feel that shorter chunks, a better multiplexing, would have helped glue the various pieces together better.

In conclusion a good film that could have been much better had it been cut tighter. A must see for fantasy-lovers, but probably not a recommendation for people who don’t have the patience of looking at a three hour long movie.

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Screen Capture of the Game Master of Orion II showing an Elerian spy returning a stolen technology: Neutronium Armor

Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares

Screen Capture of the Game Master of Orion II showing an Elerian spy returning a stolen technology: Neutronium Armor

A mentioned a few weeks back that had released a Mac OS X port of Dungeon Keeper, they have now released , a game from , which was one my favourite games of the time. I already mentioned an iOS clone: Starbase Orion, but this is the original game in its VGA colour glory. The big irony is that there was a Mac OS port, but what is running on my current Mac is not based on that codebase, instead it runs the DOS version within an emulator (DOS-Box), as with Dungeon Keeper the game is neatly packaged as a single, 352.4 MB Mac OS X bundle, with everything included. I bought the bundle that also includes Master of Orion 1 and the soundtrack for $5.99, but it seems it is now sold for $2.99.

In Master of Orion II, you control one species that races to take control of the galaxy. While the species are pretty cliché, the game is interesting because there are multiple modes of interactions with the other species, warfare, spying, cooperation. You can also win the game in multiple ways: total domination, get yourself elected in the galaxy council, or defeat the mysterious people from antares – the annoying guys that randomly pillage your systems and destroy your planets. One interesting aspect of the game is the technology tree, where you can only research one branch, so you typically have to somehow get the other branches, either by trade, spying, or conquest.

Another rich aspect of the game is ship design: different technologies give you different options, which let you design different ships, which in turn let you use different tactics in spatial combat. Sometimes your goal is just to destroy the enemy ships, but sometimes capture is more important, either to get ships for free, or to scrap them and recover the technology they contain.

I mostly playing in windowed mode, and did not try out the network mode. The game is fluid and game play was without issues, I found the music playback choppy at times, but I typically turn it off anyway, so this was not a real issue, in-game sounds work fine. Generally speaking the game feels much faster than on a 486 machine, in particular turn computation. Animations are also much faster, although this means they sometimes look a bit jerky.

All in all, this is a really good port of an excellent game, and I really recommend it to anybody who likes turn-based strategy games.

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New-York City Overcast by the Moon and Zeppelins, with an explosion in the centre and the cast of Iron Sky in front

Iron Sky

New-York City Overcast by the Moon and Zeppelins, with an explosion in the centre and the cast of Iron Sky in front

Finish humor is one of those things you are hard to describe or even understand, yet if somebody could make a funny movie about Nazis from the Dark Side of the Moon, it was some finns. I had heard a pretty good review of this movie by Mark Kermode, the movie made quite some buzz on the internet, and had part of its financing done by crowd-funding, so I was quite curious to see what the result was like.

Iron Sky is a Science-Fiction comedy produced by Timo Vuorensola based on a story written by . The movie is set in 2018: unbeknownst to the rest of humanity, the nazi that fled in 1945 have been hiding on the dark side of the moon, where they plot their return.

While this movie is clearly a comedy, it features the two necessary elements for a good science-fiction movie: a plot centered around characters you can care about, and an interesting background. Iron skies pits on one hand a version of the United States where somebody like Sarah Palin became president, and whose PR team staged the landing of black model on the moon to get her re-elected, on the other hand a nazi colony hidden on the dark side of the moon, completely cut of from what happened on earth, which hopes to re-conquer the earth with World War 2 technology.

The plot centers on two characters, Renate Richter, played by Julia Dietze, a pretty nazi earhtologist that is supposed to marry the next Moon-Führer (Klaus Adler, played by Götz Otto) and James Washington, a model turned astronaut for a PR stunt, he is played by Christopher Kirby.

While Iron Sky is certainly not a masterpiece, it is a fun movie that works. Some of the special effects are cheap and most of the science in the movie does not make sense, but I believed and cared about the characters and chuckled at the jokes. I liked the steampunk look of the of moon-nazi base and engine, the fact that for the most, their technology, their mode of though and their fashion had stayed in the 40’s.

One of the key characters of the story is Vivian Wagner, the PR agent of the US president, played by Peta Sergeant, without giving to much of the plot away, she is the bridge between the two worlds, and I think, says a lot about the relationship between modern PR and propagada of yore, and I think her performance is one of the reasons the movie works. While the movie is quite short (93 minutes), it still manages to cram quite a few references and jokes, including of course Charlie Chaplin‘s The Great Dictator and a very good re-acting of the “Hitler reacts to…” sequence of the movie Der Untergang which saw so many spoofs and adaptations on the internet.

In summary, a fun movie with some good cynical undertones, a must see if you like Pulp or Steampunk style movies.

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Of Prometeus, science and women

I have not seen the movie Prometheus, nor do I intend to, but I am grateful to Ridley Scott for creating it, as some of the critiques that it has spawned are very entertaining to read. What is clear is that plot consistency and logic were not deemed important to tell this story with mythological aspirations. In the end this looks like yet another old guy trying to reframe the nice artwork he did in his youth, trying to make a good story in some larger thing, and mostly managing to make a fool of himself.

What struck me with all the critical reviews is how absurd the behaviour of the “scientists” in the movie is. It seems that for hollywood, scientists are not really people, but more plot-devices, a bit like terrorists, I suppose. This is annoying me on a personal level, as I have a scientific background, but in my opinion this is also hurting society, as such stereotypes are not helping attract people into the field

The scientific world is lacking people, in particular women. There are many reasons for this, but having negative stereotypes certainly does not help. Recently the EU tried to address the problem: fixing the underlying problem is way to complicated and probably fraught with political dangers, so they created a movie called “Science: It’s a Girl Thing !”. Maybe they should have written a song, with the movie they basically shot themselves in the foot: it is both sexist and silly, and will certainly not have the expected effect.

Instead of having the EU try to write propaganda films, which they suck at, they should do like the US army: sponsorise movies that go in the direction they would like. The US army gracefully lends its toys to movie makers whose stories align its the propaganda goals. Instead of trying to do painfully pink ads, they should just sponsor movies where the scientists are not complete idiots. But clearly this would be science-fiction.

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Cover of an original Captain Future, showing Joan chained to a rocket.

Captain Future

Cover of an original Captain Future, showing Joan chained to a rocket.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV-shows was the japanese animation of Captain Future (キャプテン (Kyaputen)フューチャー (Fyūchā)), it was dubbed in French, and named . Little did I know that the character was way older, having been created in 1939 by Edmond Hamilton. Clearly I am not the only one remembering, as someone went to great lengths to create a quite good looking trailer for a fake movie.

Still with the emergence of the Steampunk genre, it would make much more sense to do a Steampunk themed movie of Captain Future: if you look at the years, those stories are closer to the victorian period than to today. The character was created 39 years after queen Victoria’s death, 73 years ago. The stories and the technology would, in my opinion, make way more sense in a victorian uchronia.

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There are things that only happen in a lifetime. This was my main motivation for buying the DVD of , the only swiss science-fiction movie ever, and maybe the only one. The best way to describe Cargo is to say that it is classical science fiction: 2001, Alien, Matrix are all clear inspirations. The realisation is meticulous, the special are fine (given the budget of the movie), and I really liked the mise en scène which heavily borrows from the science fiction imagery: the spaceship would fit in perfectly in Blade Runner or Firefly, but at the same time gives a good sense of the emptiness and coldness of space. The use of coulours and themes is also very classical, but efficient nonetheless.

The plot is also quite classical: a spaceship in a dark future and something weird in the holt. The movie is basically a mix of science-fiction themes and ideas and, while the general ideas can be guessed from the synopsis, I still was curious to see where the plot would go. I suppose I’m biased, but I really like the rythm of the movie, and the fact that most of the tension was psychological, the characters are normal people, and the action scenes feel very real because of this.

The result is somehow like a swiss watch of science fiction. Nothing ground breaking, but all the elements have been meticoulously built and fit neatly in place, with all the attention concentrated on the important bits: characters, plot, ambiance, and a refreshing lack of ridiculous action scenes. While the movie is in German, there are English (and French) subtitle available.

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Poster for the Movie Source Code

Source Code

Poster for the Movie Source Code

I was curious about the movie since I saw the posters for it on the side of busses in London, when I was there in March. Listening to the ever enlightening review by I learnt the following things:

  • No source code whatsoever is actually involved in the movie (not really a surprise).
  • The movie is directed by , who also directed .
  • According to the good doctor, the movie is quite good.

The movie could be described as the version of : a solider is living the same eight minutes again and again, trying to find who planted a bomb in a train. Besides trying various approaches to find the bomber, the hero, also tries to figure out what he is doing in that operation. While there are many explosions in the movie (technically always the same though), characters are the core of the movie: the hero, the girl sitting with him on the train, his commanding officer and the scientist supervising the programme.

The movie felt quick, efficient, interesting and packed a lot of things into 90 minutes. In the 100 minutes of Groundhog Day, the protagonist only has to seduce a girl. The last few minutes felt a bit like they were designed to start a conversation at the café afterwards, with hints on parallel universes and branching, but I certainly prefer movies that try to start conversations instead of placing products. In my opinion Source Code is a very good movie that I would recommend to anybody wanting to see an interesting thriller with some science-fiction elements.

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Cover of Cyberpunk 2013 ⓒ Talsorian Games Inc.

Cyberpunk days

Cover of Cyberpunk 2013 ⓒ Talsorian Games Inc.

Today the weather is beautiful: sunny and warm, there is green and flowers everywhere. While the ambiance does not really fit, I realised that I now live in a cyberpunk world. As regular reader of this blog might have guessed, I read quite a lot of science-fiction, and cyberpunk literature has a special part in my heart. Mostly this has to do with the fact that it was new when I was a teenager, and therefore way better than anything ever done before.

Despite what some deluded physicist believe, science-fiction is not so much about science than about ideas – if you want science, read hard-science. Whereas classical science fiction was usually set far in the future to concentrate on one idea, alien life forms, robots, exotic conflicts, or strange societies, cyberpunk stories were usually set in the near future, and concentrated on themes closer to reality: globalisation, advanced computer science, powerful corporations.

In the eighties, the near future was basically now – the setting for the first Cyberpunk RPG was 2013. During the last twenty years, something really strange happened: a lot of the stuff predicted in those books happened. This is strange, because not many of the ideas underlying the classical science-fiction literature have ever become reality. We have the communication satellite envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke, but not much more. No spaceship: the last space shuttles went out of active service this year. I have two robots, but while they are quite good at sweeping the floor, they really have no clue about the laws of robotics. While there have been tremendous improvements in genetical science, the most interesting mutation around is the ability to digest milk, and it has been around for some time. While obesity is one the rise, nobody is about to morph into a sand worm…

Considering this, many cyberpunk predictions were pretty accurate:

  • Overreaching corporations that influence nations: ✔
  • Arab countries getting on the net in their own way: ✔
  • Europe a single economical entity: ✔
  • Economical collapse of countries, including the USA: ✔
  • Huge asian influence: ✔
  • End of fossil fuel: ✔
  • Everything is connected to a computer and can be hacked remotely: ✔
  • Widespread body modifications: ✔
  • Fetishist fashion: ✔

I can’t say I’m overjoyed by the way things turned out, and some things ended up differently than expected. Japan was then the super-power to become, this role will probably played by China.
We have not run out of fossil fuel but that’s on track, the US economy has not yet collapsed, but we still have two years until 2013. While cyberspace is an accepted idea, we can’t visualise this thing properly and Keanu Reeves seems to have colonised the place. The sad thing is that while piercings and tattoo are too common to even mention, the only body modification I really wanted, a direct connection from my brain to the computer, is nowhere to be found.

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How to live safely in a science fictional universe
Charles Yu

How to live safely in a science fictional universe

How to live safely in a science fictional universe
Charles Yu

Just looking at the cover of How to live safely in a science fictional universe with its pattern of retro-futuristic guns (I nearly missed the dog), and reading the back-cover of the book, I knew that this gift would be a great read. The story revolves around a time-machine repairman, called Charles, who tries to find his father who is lost in time…

This book is quite complex, with the convoluted structure one can expect from an author that quotes Gödel, Escher, Bach as his favourite book. The chronogrammatical vehicle that Charles rides is not so much a time machine than a literary device that lets him explore his past, his regrets, and the various boxes that enclose up our lives. The writing is an interesting mix of geeky science fiction and deep melancholy with echoes of asian culture.

How to live safely in a science fictional universe
Charles Yu
Corvus Books
ISBN : 978-1-84887-781-1

While it was long thought that reality was a special case of SF (i.e. QoE factor = 1, i.e. the strangeness of experience is no greater or less than intuitive notions of how things should be), it is now believed that, in some geological sense, the SF layer is structurally supported by the non-SF core of «reality,»…

Reading this text might be a bit daunting for the non scientifically inclined, but I think the book is certainly worth the effort, as this is certainly one of the most original books I have read in ages, while at the same it was very touching. So if you like strange, auto-refenrential books, that don’t actually talk about science even if they look like it, I really recommend this one.

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