Review – The Ascent of Wonder: the Evolution of Hard SF – Pt I

The Ascent of Wonder: the Evolution of Hard SF is an anthology with a hard-SF theme compiled and edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. The copy I have is still stamped with COUNTY REGIONAL LIBRARY and we picked it up off the hardbacks-for-one-dollar table, quite a few moons ago. Not nearly so long ago as that, I found myself frantically trawling through online bibliographies in search of *cough* evocative titles that, more importantly, meant something to me. This was one of them, and I recently re-read (most of) the book to figure out why.

Why? It’s hard or hard-ish SF, but also: deeply psychological. There are a lot of steely-eyed missile man space heroes. Also, this book is very female-centric. There are a lot of cool dames–and a smattering of mad scientists–in this, and they come in more flavors than the space heroes do.

The book is broken down into Parts I, II, and III. I don’t know why because I never have bothered to read the editors’ notes or forwards and I refuse to do so now. It doesn’t seem to be a chronological order, because Part III contains stories by Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne as well as the likes of Vernor Vinge and Cordwainer Smith.

Not coincidentally, though, this review is also broken down into three parts: stories I’ve voluntarily read before, stories I made myself read this time through, and stories that I’m probably not going to read no matter what. Oddly enough, they kind of trace over the parts I, II, and III as well. Is that significant? I dunno.

So, Part I – stories I’ve read before and most of them I liked.

Nine Lives – Usula K. Leguin – kind of exemplifies the theme of this collection. Hard SF, with the grit of hard, dangerous labor in space and on alien worlds, with a deeply psychological thrust. Two miners on a far-off world have lived with each other long enough to develop a rapport, which is disrupted by the entrance of another personality….lots of another personality. Standard stuff. But then, for the gripping hand: how do you expect someone to react to losing themselves in a mining accident….nine times over? In other words, it’s long on the psychology and short on the blasting action, but it’s also written by a Grande Dame of SF and quite readable regardless.

The Star – Arthur C. Clarke – Heh.

Rappaccini’s Daughter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – How this is supposed to be Hard SF eludes me, but remember the 18th-century Gothic poetic flavor, it’ll be back later.

Mimsy were the Borogoves – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore – Parenthood also seems to be one of the themes of this anthology. Is this significant? I don’t know. I don’t really care, either. Perhaps reviewing SF shouldn’t be done while I have a fever. I should stick to chick-flicks.

Beep – James Blish – I only just realized on this read-through how female-centric this collection actually is, which is probably one of the reasons I tend to like it so much. The central (not POV) character in this story is a woman, and it turns out that (spoiler), she’s got all the answers. And will provide them to the very much not-hapless but in this situation basically helpless, heroes, for the appropriate price. Really, the only way this story shows its age is through the assumption that a professional journalist is going to have anything resembling ethics or patriotism. The actual S in the F here isn’t all that plausible, but said heroes are first-rate mid-century Honest and Competent Bureaucrats….so quaint. So cute.

Transit of Earth – Arthur C. Clarke – The actual reason I was never that impressed by The Martian.

To Bring in the Steel – Donald M. Kingsbury – My actual favorite. This entire 1000+ page book is worth hauling around for this one novella. What’s it about? Well, there’s this girl. And there’s this guy. And there’s an asteroid with ten billion tons of steel, being slowly guided on its way towards Earth. Guy (Kell) is an engineer on the asteroid colony. He’s an old-school space hero of the steely-eyed missile man with a heart of gold and an exterior of plastic and tungsten: AKA, a cynical, arrogant jerk that no one likes but everyone depends on because he really is that good. He wants custody of his seven year old daughter and, when it’s denied him by the other residents of the colony–who quite rightfully doubt that he’s fit to care for a child–comes up with an ironic revenge: hire Lisa Maria Sorenti, the most (in)famous, expensive, and sought-after courtesan in San Fransisco, as her nanny and thereby unleash hell in the erstwhile close-nit community of the mine colony. Kell is valuable enough to the company that the CEOs comply with his idea….except that Lisa Maria’s contract has an extra clause in it: she’s only allowed to focus on Kell.
So, yes, I know, so far it sounds like a maybe-above-average arranged marriage-type romance novel or a very, very sub-par setup for a scifi book, even when you factor in the portrayal of Kell an asocial, physically unattractive loner with a high IQ-, obsessive personality. (It’s really quite impressive writing, at least to my maladjusted nerd brain). It’s a portrait of The Ideal SF Hero…and what he’d really be like to be around–and what kind of woman it would take to put up with him. (In Lisa Maria’s case, seven million dollars.)
Where it comes into its own is turning Lisa Maria Sorenti from a helpless damsel incapable of functioning without her manager (aka: abusive pimp) into a heroine capable of saving the day with space suit, rocket ship, and laser gun….a heroine who is not only capable of handling the roughneck hero, but of learning how to match him jet for jet as well.

Waterclap – Isaac Asimov – This is a very feminist story. It says so. It’s character say so. And my oh my are the author’s unspoken assumptions adorably dated.

Gomez – C. M. Kornbluth – Eh. Too much math, too little blowing stuff up, and Gomez rejects his destiny as a science hero. Can’t really blame him much, though, given the circumstances…

The Cold Equations – Tom Godwin – Apparently, John Campbell rejected this story three times because Godwin kept coming up with ingenius ways to save the girl. Which, given that this story is good physics and bad engineering, including y’know, social engineering, would have been somewhat impressive in and of its own. Nevertheless, it’s a classic of the genre for a reason: she dies, and there is nothing that could be done about it.

The Hole Man – Larry Niven – This is an entry in the Astronauts Are Maladjusted Psychos genre much beloved by Hollywood scripts. However, it manages to stick to its literary roots by making them competent and intelligent maladjusted psychos who can do the math properly, rather than the total screwups that we usually see in space movies.

The Xi Effect – Earth goes poof and a snide professor told you so.

The Beautiful and the Sublime – Bruce Sterling – Remember what I said about the 18th-century Gothic lit? This is the counterpoint to it.

Heat of Fusion – John M. Ford – I keep forgetting what this story actually is about. I recognize the title. I remember I kind of liked it. I look up the first page in the book and go “oh yeah, that one.” And then by the time I get back to this part of the review I’ve forgotten again. So it’s pretty okay, I guess?

All the Hues of Hell – Gene Wolfe – So….what? This is my problem with Gene Wolfe’s stuff and other such deeply subtextual and meaningful and double-meaningful things written by geniuses for geniuses: it doesn’t actually offer anything to me, a non-genius reading at the surface level. So why should I bother with it? And so I don’t. That being said, I read this one again, hoping it was going to be clearer this time. Nope.
Well, actually, that being said, this one does have a pretty understandable surface-level storyline. It’s just densely buried under the in medias res style that doesn’t provide any context whatsoever, heaps of subtext and globs upon globs of narrative filligree. Oh well, whatever. The turtle moves and so does the fetus.

Occam’s Scalpel – Theodore Sturgeon – This one I also like, because it’s also a portrait of An Ideal SF Hero….and why he’s really, realllllly scary to people who are paying attention. (And it’s what I always flash back to whenever I hear news of Elon Musk getting up to new business.) But it transcends the Beware the Superman theme by allowing both the ubermensch and the regular-man POV character to have and showcase the very best intentions and motivations. The final twist, of course, was put there to punch up the end of an almost-pure character study with overtones of horror and turn it into a scifi thriller…but I would seriously be down for the sequel starring any combination of these characters or ideas.

Time Fuze – Randall Garrett – I regularly get into arguments with the Father of Skaith over whether or not characters should be killed off. He says no: they need to stick around, because when you sign on to a book or a series with a main character, that is who you want to read about. Your main characters should be awesome enough that people like them, and they should be smart enough to keep themselves alive and victorious (in-story). Hero fights, hero wins, hero lives happily ever after. I say that, awesome or not, sometimes you need to kill off characters if that’s the natural result of their course of action, or if the plot / character development of others (AKA: dead wife syndrome) requires it. As long as a hero gets to live happily ever after, that still counts.
Nevertheless, we are agreed on one thing: it’s Bad Form to blow up the Earth.

Desertion – Clifford Simak – I’m going to spoil it right here, because: “They would turn me back into a man.” “And me, into a dog.” –is awesome.

The Person from Porlock – Raymond F. Jones – Another story about a socially maladjusted engineer is ruined by having the (literal) people from Porlock be space lizards.
Space lizards–with exposition.

The Planners – Kate Wilhelm – I read this story before, and I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it this time. If you want to write dreamlike, hallucinogenic prose, kindly don’t. I was going to write an entire ‘nother clause to that sentence, but y’know…

Light of Other Days – Bob Shaw – It aight.

Chromatic Aberration – I liked it, possibly because it’s one of the few stories in Part III of this book to feature, even vaguely described, action.

In a Petri Dish Upstairs – George Turner – This one is kind of the antithesis to proper SF, and not because the theme is bleak and the characters are repulsive. It’s because (however realistic this may be), the authorities’ solution to a tribe of orbiting barbarians is to make it somebody else’s problem….in the future. We don’t get to the future by having this attitude, and I don’t like reading about it.

Johnny Mnemonic – Vernor Vinge – Eh, it’s OK.

Movie Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)

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poster-780TLDR: four chainsaws out of five…but I feel I’m being generous. Also, WORDPRESS DELENDA EST.

So this is a movie starring my childhood hero, Angelina Jolie (oddly enough, my mother likes Angelina, but only as Evelyn Salt and Maleficent), and made by Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan is the guy who wrote Sicario (which is supposedly the best movie about Mexican cartel violence and American intelligence agency incompetence, ever), wrote and directed Wind River (which was very good overall), and is involved with the modern-cowboy show Yellowstone (which a cowgirl of my acquaintance says is good but highly inaccurate despite the fact that it stars some very famous horses…yes, she does watch it for the horses), and apparently is a genuine, rodeo-participating, cowboy who owns some of said horses.

Also, I’ve always thought smokejumpers were really cool.

Review up front: So, overall….this is about three quarters of a perfect movie. The perfect movie would have had the fire as the primary plot and the kid plus the hitmen as the secondary plot. More information about how fires behave, and what the usual procedure is for fighting them, not to mention more information about the geography of the story, would have helped immensely in raising the stakes of the story. As it is, the primary threat of the movie is the relentless hitmen, and the fire is kind of an afterthought, when (IMHO) it should be something hanging over everybody’s heads the whole time and come roaring in at the end.

Also, and this is fairly important, there would need to be scenes of badass firefighters actually fighting fire. ’cause, and I’ll put this right up here in front, there aren’t any.

That being said, as it’s own movie, this one is almost pretty good. I liked all the characters–including the villains, as villains–and the dialogue was, overall, almost bearable and sometimes even pretty good, because it sounds like something people would say who are those kind of people in that kind of situation. (“Sheriff, your wife is on the phone. Do you want to talk to her?” “Absolutely not.”) Most of this is due to the actors being really good. Jon Bernthal is really charismatic and intense; Edward Norton is….oh, um. So, apparently the person I have in the rest of the review referred to as Edward Norton is in fact DISCOUNT Edward Norton, AKA Aiden Gillen. Whoops. He’s a really good villain: calm, intelligent, competent, motivated, and maintains his demeanor and yet is increasingly deranged (and increasingly injured to a level that could almost inspire sympathy.) There’s also the black actress who plays the badass pregnant wife (Medina Senghore,) and she looks like a normal, actual, genuine person in this movie–which, let me tell you, must have taken some doing. I mean, she’s the spitting image of my college roommate. I’m impressed that she managed to act like a normal person when she’s opposite Jon Bernthal doing his charismatic movie-star thing…and still holds her own. Kudos.

There are only a few things that chipped away at my suspension of disbelief–that a person alone in the middle of a forest wouldn’t have at least one gun…what, exactly, is your very sharp axe going to do if you run into a bear?–and the hitmens’ motivation for doing what they do is imperfectly justified to the point where I paused the movie to write about it (see below.)

Overall, yeah, I would have liked more of a smokejumper movie and less of a hitman movie. But it’s pretty good overall.

So our story opens with two storylines: a middle-aged father who gets extremely nervous when he sees that some District Attorney’s house has mysteriously blown up with the family inside, and Angelina (Hannah), a woodland firefighter/smokejumper suffering from PTSD of the gasp-and-ricochet-out-of-bed variation. Also, Jon Bernthal is hanging around. He’s with the local Sheriff’s office. (Heh, he says “Make good choices!” That’s a line I have previously only heard from an Agronomy major from Iowa.) Hannah, though….isn’t. She’s seeking thrills and taking risks and may or may not be actually suicidal. So, spending the fire season in a tower, alone, might or might not be the best thing for her, overall.

It turns out that Dad (a forensic accountant who works for the now-deceased DA) and Son were right to run, because a pair of hitmen is after them. Also, Jon Bernthal appears to be the Kid’s uncle, and his wife’s pregnant. Oh dear. Dad writes out his secrets and gives them to the Kid, with instructions to not read them and to give them to someone trustworthy.

(When given a free choice of vehicles, what do the very best assassins choose? A Ford F150! Woo! GO RHINO! What kind of cars do boring forensic accountants choose? Volkswagons. What kind of cups do firefighters drink out of? RED SOLO CUPS THAT IS RIGHT! I don’t even think Walmart sells them any more. I think you have to go to Target for those things.) Deputy Bernthal consults with his chief, who is interested but offers limited help. We also get a little more on Hannah, who is racked with guilt over being leaving civilians to burn to death. Frankly….not surprising.

Stuff starts to hit the fan, with our very efficient hitmen setting up an ambush on a deserted back road (well…I mean…it’s still a two-lane highway. But I guess that seems kind of deserted to city folk.) Dad stays in the car and orders Kid to head out and call the news. Somehow, I’m unconvinced that this is possible for either of them after the car has literally flown down a giant ravine and been riddled with bullets.

Meanwhile, however, the hitmen also have to kill another innocent bystander who rolls up before hightailing it out (I TOLD YOU GUYS IT WASN’T ACTUALLY DESERTED, DUMBASSES)….at about which point Deputy Bernthal rolls up. The Kid rolls up to the tower/river and bumps into Hannah. Also, the hitmens’ boss has rolled up to a truck stop, and this is pretty bad news.

OK, SO. Pause.

This is the scene that the movie uses to justify the “relentless hitmen who pursue the heroes through hell and high water AND ACTUAL FOREST FIRES)” trope. Which is smart. Because that’s a dumb as hell trope and needs to be justified if it’s going to be used in a serious movie. Problem is….it just tripped over its own feet. The scary black hitman-boss wants them to follow up with Kid because a) they promised, b) it’s possible that Dad had duplicates of everything they already retrieved from the DA’s office, and c) it’ll probably be with the Kid if so. Duplicates. Of case-critical information. That the DA’s office was already in possession of but which their team retrieved. Now, I know that it’s not really likely that everything included in a casefile is going to have backups and/or be on the cloud–but if it’s entered the public record, enough of it’s going to be in enough places, like warrants and affidavits, that breaking and entering isn’t going to solve your problem.

(Although, on further research, someone on reddit points out that the black hitman-boss’s car has government plates. Which…whatever. I stand by what I said.)

Not to mention something else already established by this movie that messes with this premise on a fundamental level: the “information” Dad gave Kid isn’t on a flash drive, or in a briefcase. It’s LITERALLY WRITTEN ON THE BACKS OF A COUPLE OF NAPKINS. Also, these guys have no way of knowing that said “information” is with the kid and not, say, in the car or on Dad’s body.

Now, change this to, “they want the kid alive as leverage,” or, “he saw our faces,” and it makes marginally more sense. But as is, this is stupid. Also, beause it’s SOP for hitmen to wear suits, they change into them at this point. However, they also have badges. However, because this movie INSISTS on adhering to stupid action movie tropes, (DISCOUNT) Edward Norton-hitman announces that they’re going to kill everyone who sees their faces henceforth. Also, he starts a forest fire and gazes at it for a while. (See, going with less movieness and more realism at this point would work better. Fire is cool, but fire is also scary. Just let the guys have a natural reaction to a fire [wow, cool, wish I could stay and watch. Hey, it’s…kind of spreading fast. Um. I’m, um, yeah…] and then show them skedaddling out of there.)

Hannah’s radio, it turns out, has been blown out by the lightning. They have a twelve-mile hike into town. A theoretically heartwarming moment is had when Kid explains what happened to Hannah and hands over the NAPKIN OF INFORMATION to her, which she looks at for about two seconds before deciding they are starting their hike right now.

Aaaaannnd uh oh, the hitmen duo have just arrived at Pregnant Wife. Heh, she immediately retreats through the door and reaches for the bear spray, not that it helps. Hitman #2 spots the nursery (but not her giant six-months-pregnant belly?) and they decide to torture her a bit just to make sure. Which is when she promptly starts lying to them to throw them off. And then there’s a pretty awesome little bit where she gives her husband the distress code (“FUCKING SURVIVALISTS!”) and then turns the bear spray into a flamethrower and sets  Edward Norton on fire then grabs a shotgun and escapes. WOO BABY.

So meanwhile, Hannah and Kid have to leapfrog a field in another lightning storm, and Hannah gets struck. This is kind of a pointless sequence, used as it is to lead into a bonding moment between them…if you want an action sequence, put one in and make it plot-relevant. If you want a bonding moment, put that in and make it worthwhile. He confesses that his father died right in front of him. This scene doesn’t work on EITHER level: it’s not plot-relevant and it’s not touching or meaningful.

Deputy Bernthal (plus the Sheriff) show up at his house immediately, but the Sheriff immediately gets shot and our very efficient hitmen take Bernthal prisoner to help them search. Which is smart on their side, because he actually does immediately find tracks.

So, it’s apparent that Hannah doesn’t know about the big fire (which is at zero percent containment), because she and Kid pause for a break and a campfire. Hannah gets her moment to confess what has been bothering her. She was in charge of a crew and screwed up: three boys died and she could only watch. But we do get this exchange:

Kid: “I watched my mother die of cancer.”
Hannah: “It is impossible to feel sorry for myself around you.”


Bernthal decides he’s had enough at this point, and flips out into taunting/attacking the hitmen, attempting to get them to kill him. It’s two to one, though, and Edward Norton decides to up the ante by telling him that he’s going to be the one who kills Kid….because that’s how badly he, Norton, does not want to shoot a pregnant woman. I’m pretty sure he’s lying. Hitman #2 thinks he’s just losing it, man.

At this point, Hannah and Kid spot the fire; this means they will have to turn around, get back to the tower, and hopefully hook up with a chopper that’s going to be coming out to check on her.

(Pregnant Wife, meanwhile, has saddled up and is heading out into the woods. Personally, I’d have gone with the ATV myself, as late-stage pregnancy + jolting movements apparently don’t tend to go very well together?)

…and Bernthal plus hitmen have arrived at the tower. They send him up….and….#2 Guy climbs a tree. That’s cheating. Edward Norton isn’t doing so well, which is not news to his partner….Hannah and Kid run for it, Bernthal is stuck in the tower, AND OH GLORY THE PREGNANT LADY ARRIVES TO PROVIDE SUPPORT BY FIRE. (oops)

AND BOOM SHE SHOT THE BAD GUY. SHOOT HIM AGAIN ALREADY. SEE THIS IS WHY WE NEED HIGH CAPACITY DEER RIFLES. COMMON SENSE GUN CONTROL. SHOOT HIM AGAIN LADY. Oh, she did. Nice. Now, that was satisfying. That is how you write a good villain and give him his good comeuppance.

(Meanwhile, did we mention it’s actually pretty unrealistic that Hannah doesn’t actually have a gun….in the middle of the forest, in Montana?)

Hannah and Kid are getting closer to the fire….she starts giving him instructions to going on alone.
Meanwhile, Pregnant Lady goes up the tower to check on her husband, who is hurt pretty badly (he’ll make it, right? Right?? It’s only that his wife is pregnant, not like he was going to retire in three days.) Also the fire is almost on them.

Hannah approaches the fire alone. Oh, wait, no. Hitman #2 is still running around like a dumbass. Hannah attacks him with her axe (did we mention she doesn’t have a gun?) but all this nets her is getting repeatedly punched in the face by a semi-insane hitman. The Kid comes back….and wow, Hitman #2 asks him “Could you turn around for me?” Ow.

But it’s ok, because Hannah beats him to mostly death with her pulaski and leaves him to burn to death. She and Kid take refuge in a creek and survive! Nice. The firetower has also survived, and so has Pregnant Lady, who signals to some hotshots in the plane that goes by. Oh, these are the guys who were Hannah’s friends and past crew from the beginning.

The crew calls in a medevac but…uh oh. No rush. Damn it. One of these days, Jon Bernthal will star in a good movie and survive until the end.

Kid is having some existential angst prior to his interview, but Hannah promises him that she’ll stay there and help him figure it out….

…the end.

Again, I give it 4/5. It has almost all the right ingredients. It just didn’t mix them very well together.

Poetry Corner – The Sisters

Actually, this is Lamia and it looks like it’s by John William Waterhouse.
We were two daughters of one race;
She was the fairest in the face.
    The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
They were together, and she fell;
Therefore revenge became me well.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

	She died; she went to burning flame;
She mix’d her ancient blood with shame.
    The wind is howling in turret and tree.
Whole weeks and months, and early and late,
To win his love I lay in wait.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

	I made a feast; I bade him come;
I won his love, I brought him home,
    The wind is roaring in turret and tree.
And after supper on a bed,
Upon my lap he laid his head.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

	I kiss’d his eyelids into rest,
His ruddy cheeks upon my breast.
    The wind is raging in turret and tree.
I hated him with the hate of hell,
But I loved his beauty passing well.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

	I rose up in the silent night;
I made my dagger sharp and bright.
    The wind is raving in turret and tree.
As half-asleep his breath he drew,
Three time I stabb’d him thro’ and thro’.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

	I curl’d and comb’d his comely head,
He looked so grand when he was dead.
    The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
I wrapt his body in the sheet,
And laid him at his mother’s feet.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Welcome to the Rebellion

The recently cancel-mobbed Gina Carano is down but not out. She’s going to be producing and acting in a film backed by The Daily Wire / Ben Shapiro and his crowd.

Carano will develop, produce, and star in the upcoming film, which The Daily Wire says it will release exclusively to its members as the company looks to bolster its entertainment division. Details are being kept under wraps but it will be produced as part of Daily Wire’s partnership with Bone Tomahawk producer Dallas Sonnier and his Bonfire Legend banner.