Eye of Terror by Barrington J. Bayley

This is the oldest Warhammer 40K book I’ve thus far read and the tonal differences between the Black Library of the late 90s and the Black Library of today are palpable. This book was a thrift store find and honestly after reading it I’m not surprised it ended up there.

Eye of Terror includes (to its credit and detriment):

  • The old brand of Warhammer 40K that feels like original Warhammer (but in space!)
  • Visible, fully realized depictions of Chaos instead of subtlety and vague allusions
  • Characters that would easily feel at home in an actual tabletop RPG

If you like the above, you’re in for treat. This story is far less bogged-down in bureaucracy than a lot of the later 40K stuff.

The main plot follows a down-on-his luck rogue trader and a misfit psyker through some bad but ultimately fairly inconsequential misadventure. I mean inconsequential in the grander scope of the 40K universe, of course.  Pretty much everyone in the novel still ends up dead. Speaking of scope, though, it’s necessarily a lot smaller in Eye of Terror than in most of the Horus Heresy tomes and whatever Dan Abnett’s been up to for the last few years. 

And I think it works — in such a vast fictional universe, it feels refreshing to see something a little more focused on individual experience. And the aforementioned overtness of the supernatural aspects is pleasing, especially if you’re more interested in the mythology of 40K than the bureaucracy.

This book is also riddled with spelling errors, which I find speaks to an interesting era in the franchise, one of extremely bad sourcebook art and character classes that have long since died out for being too ridiculous to fit into the whole grimdark aesthetic. 

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Enemy Mine

What an odd movie. The concept of Enemy Mine doesn’t seem new, but maybe that’s because I’ve been watching so much Star Trek for the past two and a half years. If Enemy Mine came first, then it certainly inspired a number of Star Trek episodes (along with episodes of Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, and the like.)

Roger Ebert told the Chicago Sun Times in 1985 that Enemy Mine “made no compromises in its art direction, its special effects and its performances – and then compromised everything else in sight.” That holds up as an accurate description of the movie. Set design, acting, sound — all these are incredible. The Drac language sounds totally foreign, seems to take into account the physiology of its speakers, and is all-around believable as an alien language. The Drac themselves are still bipedal and humanoid but the asexual reproductive systems and lack of binary gender are brave in a time of green-skinned alien babes.

That said, the writing often feels very lazy. Zero — absolutely zero — thought is given to how human culture will have changed in this future. Look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That show is ridiculous (ridiculously awesome), but at least it recognized that baseball is probably going to be a relic of the past in a couple centuries. 

Enemy Mine, on the other hand, proudly and obliviously features a scene of Dennis Quaid (as Willis E. Davidge) teaching his alien child how to play touch football — it’s a part of human culture!

Enemy Mine baby
Sometimes a family is just a single unshaven man and his adopted alien baby.

I have to give Quaid credit for really selling the idea that he loved that slime baby like his own first born child. The costuming and makeup in this movie is amazing, and the baby is no exception, but it was also a bit difficult to not laugh derisively at this scene. (Sorry.)

My personal annoyance with this movie is that it really seems to wind up for a big strike at the political implications of a human and a Drac — two species at war with each other — being forced to survive together, and coming to understand their similarities. It’s peace on a microcosmic scale, but still — the fact that Davidge and Shigan become friends, I feel, should have had some impact on someone, somewhere. Maybe a group of humans would have heard about it and lost their taste for the war, or for Drac slavery. Maybe eventually enough people on both sides would have heard the story, forcing negotiations to take a more peaceful turn.

But instead, Enemy Mine keeps its scope exceedingly narrow — something I normally like in movies, but something that seems like a terrible waste here. After Davidge is rescued, the second half of the story revolves around his efforts to rescue his adopted son — and all the other characters seem to just completely ignore the implications of the fact that this guy is trying to rescue a Drac like the kid’s his very own.

In the end, I found Enemy Mine frustrating. It had a simple, but potentially powerful story concept, and a production team that was obviously dedicated to realizing the world in which that story takes place. I don’t know if I should blame the writers or the director for its fiery trainwreck of a denouement, but it really left me wishing I could blame someone.

 

Dark City

What we have here is an extremely flawed movie that in my humble opinion still manages to be somehow charming.

I have to point out right away that there are a lot of parallels between Dark City and the Sturgatsky brothers’ The Doomed Cityenough that I’d balk at chalking it up to mere coincidence. I would not be surprised to learn that someone on the writing team for this movie was a big fan of the book. 

Dark City follows protagonist John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) as he wakes up in a bathtub in the eponymous city with no recollection of who he is or where he’s been. In trying to figure out just what’s going on, John finds himself pitted against a city whose inhabitants who seem to change occupations and identities at intervals. No one can remember the last time they saw the sun, and no one can seem to remember a route out of the city.

The biggest issue with this movie is its complete and utter lack of subtlety. Where The Doomed City meanders for well over 400 pages without ever revealing the true nature of the city, Dark City opens with two minutes of expositional narration in which everything is handed to the viewer on a silver platter. The city is an experiment devised by a dying, but technologically far superior race of aliens dubbed “The Strangers” who have come to Earth in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the human soul, and somehow using this information to reinvigorate their society.

That could have been an interesting reveal if it were made at the film’s climax. Instead, we the viewers yawn along as Sewell’s character struggles to grasp the facts that we already know.

The design of the aliens, too, really drops the ball. Seriously, what do you picture when someone says “millenia-old race of technologically superior aliens”?

dark city 2
An aging gothic industrial band?

Did the production company have a bunch of outfits left over from Blade: Trinity?

Oh, it’s true that the “actual” aliens are more like parasitic energy-based worms that dwell in the brains of their human hosts. They’re just driving human meat suits in order to “blend in.” But… why exactly do they have to do this? Did they have other bodies they possessed before they discovered Earth? What happened to those?

Not once in the film, during a confrontation with a city inhabitant, do the Strangers even attempt subtlety. They’re a roving band of mobster Nosferatus, threatening their victims with knives. Luckily, they also have the power to erase the memories of all the humans they encounter, not to mention bending reality to their will… so the point seems moot.

The city itself exists in an indiscernible climate, and apparently simultaneously in several different time periods — the clothing, interiors, and building design range from Victorian to late eighties’ imaginings of a near-future. The aesthetic of the whole film feels dated, but at the same time very cool — not quite on par with the aesthetics of, say, 2001: a Space Odyssey, but perhaps a poor-man’s version of that.

The performances are overall decent, despite the over-the-top of the aliens, and the pacing of the movie would be excellent were it not for the fact that it spills all of its secrets right from the get-go.

If you read The Doomed City, though, I do recommend this one — if only to get a feel for what the American fan version is like.

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

I’m not finished this book yet but there are so many small details in it that I could write essays about so I wanted to start that I guess. Let me look at how this book deals with an alien invasion, a hypothetical invasion at that, and its effect on the entire society of Earth.

In The Three Body Problem, humanity is made aware of an extraterrestrial presence — and made aware that that presence is on its way to Earth. The Trisolarans need a new home, and it’s obvious enough that they are headed toward us with violent intentions – whether the violence is inherent (because their plan is to destroy us to make room for themselves) or happens as a result of our unwillingness to coexist.

The very idea of extraterrestrial war tears humanity apart. The characters in the novel have no idea what they’re up against. They can’t know, because they’ve never had to conceptualize, let alone fight such an enemy. What they have to work with is their military knowledge, a great deal of speculation, and a whole lot of fear.

In the first novel we were introduced to the Wallfacers. These individuals came about as a U.N. plan in reaction to some of the potentially dangerous traits of the Trisolarans – they have long-range communications and incredibly advanced observation technology. They have also only recently been introduced to the concept of subterfuge, so they are hyperaware of humanity’s capacity for it. These combined factors mean that any counterattack plan that is collectively decided on by humanity will be quickly discovered and neutralized.

Enter the Wallfacers. Four individuals chosen by committee, then provided with unlimited funds and access to every conceivable military, political, and scientific installation on Earth, in order to each formulate an offensive or defensive plan that only they know the details of.

It’s a terrifying concept – to give a single individual basically infinite power, and encourage them to be evasive and dishonest about their intentions in every aspect of their dealings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plan fails quite spectacularly, leading to a great deal of lost time, money and embarrassment on the part of the U.N.

But the failure of the Wallfacer Project is not necessarily the author’s point, here. It’s easy to read this as a warning, Liu’s assertion that absolute power corrupts absolutely – that efficiency and effectiveness at this scale, for an individual, requires a pureness of mind and intent that no human actually possesses. That humanity is doomed because we cannot trust ourselves.

Or perhaps Liu’s point here is that leaning into these traits that we’re all aware of is what truly dooms us. The Trisolaran threat in the novel causes a reaction from humans that is to rely more heavily on dishonesty, cover-ups, and misinformation. Maybe a different approach is in order.

In The Dark Forest, our main characters wake up in the 22nd century, after having been cryogenically frozen for several decades. While the current world seems like paradise of medical and technological advancements, we learn slowly and subtly that this world came at a heavy cost.

The Great Ravine is not seen directly, but recounted through background information, and memories of characters who were not frozen. There’s no direct exposition, we never see it firsthand. Yet somehow in this fashion it becomes more real to the current reader. Most of us never lived through the atrocities of the 20th century, let alone earlier. This is Liu’s way of telling us: this was worse than anything so far.

So that’s it, then. An alien invasion is the worst disaster humanity’s ever seen – political strife, violence, famine, an overuse of resources leading to a barren landscape and further starvation and death – and the aliens are still 200 years away.

This poses an interesting question for when the aliens finally do show up. Will it be worse? Can it get worse? Or has the worst already passed? In the face of great upheaval, are we our own worst enemies? Or is Liu, in his series, subtly hinting at the utopian ideals that are staring his humanity in the face, from between the lines?

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body-Problem by Cixin Liu

I bought this book and made it halfway through before I realized it was part of a trilogy. I rarely have the patience for trilogies anymore so I tend to avoid them, but now I’m locked in for another two books so this should be interesting! Hah! Hopefully this turns out better than the time I attempted to review more than one Horus Heresy novel in a row.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo-Award-winning book that was on the “staff picks” shelf in Powell’s when I was in Portland back in November. It’s an Obviously Good ™ book, so I’ll admit I went in prepared to sing its praises.

Not that I’m disappointed, it certainly is good. I found that for a number of reasons the pacing of the novel tended to ebb and flow for me. There were bits where I devoured entire chapters, unable to put it down, and bits where it took me several days to make it through 10 pages.

Liu plants an extraterrestrial first-contact tale deeply in the mire of contemporary Chinese history. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is vague at best, and the novel starts by presenting a not-entirely-objective interpretation of events so I still can’t call myself an expert. Liu’s focus lies with the impact of the revolution on academia and scientific research, particularly in the field of theoretical physics.

In Liu’s fiction, the events of the Cultural Revolution indirectly set in motion an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth by fostering a disdain and mistrust for humanity in the best and brightest of astronomers, physicists, and military personnel.

First contact reveals itself slowly as characters in two different timelines play their separate parts. Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who is sent to work at a military base using radio scanning equipment for tactical purposes during the revolution, discovers a novel method of amplifying radio waves, allowing a later transmission to be sent into another solar system.

Decades after this discovery, Wang Miao, a present-day nanomaterials researcher, stumbles upon a bizarre VR game in which players are unknowingly introduced to the aliens that Ye Wenjie opened communications with decades before, by attempting to solve a physics problem that plagues the in-game NPCs.

The aliens are called Trisolarans, as they inhabit a planet caught in the unpredictable orbit of three stars. These three stars (the three bodies identified in the book’s title) cause the planet to oscillate violently between periods of extreme cold, incinerating heat, and occasionally, an era of mild and predictable temperatures known by locals as a “stable era.”

The communication that Ye Wenjie opens causes a cascade of events leading to a sort of multi-tiered invasion, the first phase of which manifests in the individual minds of high-level physicists, and which is designed to culminate in a physical invasion some four centuries in Earth’s future. Humanity must coordinate and plan ahead on a scale never before imagined, or doom a distant future generation to certain death.

Phrased that way it seems like an apt metaphor for the climate change issues of today, but rest assured that I’m oversimplifying it.

Throughout the novel, Liu does an incredible job of evoking complex processes on magnitudes both extremely large and extremely small, using clever metaphor and visualization. The basic binary function of a computer, for example, is at one point depicted with thousands of pairs of soldiers raising and lowering alternating flags. In another scene, the unfolding of a photon into additional dimensions is described in beautiful visual detail, and reminded me of some of the more fascinating descriptions of life in six dimensional spaces, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

The aliens themselves are interestingly thought out – with characteristics that would be plausible for their extreme environment, as well as others that seem deliberately designed to reflect the worst aspects of human nature back at the reader. While the scope of the novel is massive – in some cases too massive to easily relate to – I appreciated that it did not extend all the way to preemptively describing the physical appearance of the Trisolarans. They remain enticingly alien through the very end of the book.

I’ve started reading The Dark Forest at this point already and it so far holds to the same level of scope, in which the story spans the entire globe, yet will occasionally stop to focus intently on the tiniest minutiae of Earth, or spend pages on the inner thoughts of a single character. It’s an interesting strategy, one that allows for a large number of threads to eventually come together, even if they take their sweet time getting there.

Pick up this book if you want to contemplate the destruction of the human race as a psychological, rather than a physical process. Read it if you want to feel small, or to lament the heartbreaking shortness of the human lifespan – and the daunting idea of continuing to operate as a unit despite the routine death and replacement of every aspect of a system.