Tag: science fiction

PITB Reviews: ‘The Peripheral’ Is A Refreshingly Original Science Fiction Thriller

Amazon’s newest big-budget prestige drama, The Peripheral, imagines a near future when technology has become even more deeply embedded in every day life.

Flynne Fisher (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a young woman who lives in North Carolina’s rural Blue Ridge Mountains, works in a 3D print shop by day and plays virtual reality games by night.

The story is set a decade from now in 2032, and while Flynne’s brother, Burton (Jack Reynor), plays startlingly realistic VR games for fun, Flynne plays them for money. Although Burton is a former United States Marine Corps infantryman and war veteran, his sister is the superior player when it comes to video games, and she’s so good that well-heeled players across the world pay her to carry them through high-difficulty levels.

If that seems fanciful, consider that it already happens in real life: some people fork over big bucks to highly skilled players who can help them win in multiplayer video games like Fortnite, or run them through the most challenging missions in online role playing games to get coveted in-game gear.

Flynne’s side hustle allows her to afford expensive medication for her sickly mother. Apparently in 2032, Democrats and Republicans are still squabbling over how to pass meaningful prescription drug reforms while remaining in the good graces of the corporate behemoths who finance their campaigns. Some things never change.

When a Colombian company called Milagros Coldiron offers Flynne a hefty chunk of change to beta test their newest game — and the incredibly immersive new headset it comes with — Flynne thinks she’s just taking a lucrative but routine job, one that will help pay for her mom’s meds for at least a few weeks.

What she doesn’t know is that her life is going to change drastically the moment she steps into the newest form of virtual reality, revealing things about her world and herself that she never imagined.

The Peripheral
Jack Reynor as Burton Fisher and Charlotte Riley as Aelita West in The Peripheral.

There’s so much more to the story, and in fact we’ve barely scratched the surface, but The Peripheral is the kind of show best appreciated by knowing as little as possible going in.

The ambitious new series is based on a 2014 novel by technoprophet William Gibson of Neuromancer fame. Gibson envisioned the concept of cyberspace in 1981, more than a decade before the first mass market commercial dial-up services were available.

At the time, the idea of exploring almost photorealistic worlds in virtual reality was a radical new idea, and it took more than 35 years for technology to catch up by making it feasible. (We’re still not quite there yet. VR tech has improved by leaps and bounds, and we’re beginning to see the first deeply immersive VR games, but Mark Zuckerberg’s much-hyped version of the metaverse, for example, has fallen flat and been pilloried by press and players alike.)

By choosing to adapt Gibson’s work, Amazon has dipped into the largely untouched world of literary science fiction.

While the science fiction of movies and TV has been treading the same worn ground and returning to the same tired concepts for decades, SF novels are a rich source of astonishingly inventive big ideas, from the existential stories of Liu Cixin (The Three Body Problem) to the galaxy-spanning space opera of the late, great Iain M. Banks, to the gothic horror-tinged, wildly imaginative universe of Revelation Space by Welsh astrophysicist Alastair Reynolds.

Indeed, Netflix is developing a series based on The Three Body Problem, with Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss taking the helm. Amazon has acquired the rights to Banks’ first Culture novel, and Netflix’s highly-praised anthology series Love, Death + Robots adapted two of Reynolds’ short stories as episodes.

Finally we’ve moved beyond the Alien clones, Star Wars sequels, prequels, spinoffs and crossovers, as well as the unfulfilling JJ Abrams mystery box offerings that have made up the bulk of live action science fiction on the big and small screens.

There are no candy-colored light swords in The Peripheral, nor are there spandex-clad superheroes or franchise installments designed with merchandise sales in mind. Instead, we get a story for adults, one that gives the audience a lot to think about while also holding a mirror up to our own world, as the best science fiction always does.

After all, technology changes but people don’t. Human nature is a constant. What we do with our shiny new toys says a lot about us as a species and civilization.

Although The Peripheral begins with the comparatively low-stakes world of virtual reality, its scope rapidly expands until, by the end of the first episode, it becomes clear the show is asking its audience to grapple with existential questions about humanity and our future.

The Peripheral demands its audience’s full attention as it introduces concepts like the parallel universes of M-theory, nanotechnology and the idea that even if matter can’t be shifted between time and space, information in the form of photons can.

Gibson uses these heady concepts in his narrative sandbox, forcing his characters to consider wild concepts like the possibility that there may be infinite versions of themselves existing in infinite branching realities.

How would you react knowing there’s a version of yourself who chose to study classical literature and move to Athens, or a version who became a software programmer, authored a lucrative app and lives in a Manhattan penthouse? Can you imagine having a different wife or husband, or a different child? (Are there realities in which I am not the loyal and loving servant of Buddy? In that case, who is feeding him snacks, and are they doing it promptly?)

Cherise Nuland
T’Nia Miller radiates malice as Cherise Nuland.

Of course, none of this stuff would matter without interesting characters and a compelling narrative. Moretz and Reynor have the chemistry of a real brother and sister in the way they regularly bicker but ultimately love each other. Eli Goree’s Connor is a man of wonderful paradoxes, and T’Nia Miller steals every scene she’s in as the delightfully malicious Cherise Nuland, an antagonist who loves making her enemies squirm while dispensing witticisms in cut glass RP.

For longtime SF fans, there’s another compelling reason to give the series a shot: Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali, best known for his mind-bending 1997 indie film Cube, is an executive producer and directs four of the season’s episodes. Natali is a pro at incorporating heady ideas in ways that enhance his narratives instead of weighing them down.

The first season just concluded, and you can stream all eight episodes on Amazon Prime. Bud and I are already looking forward to The Peripheral’s return.

cube-pic-6
Cube writer-director Vincenzo Natali is behind the lens for half of The Peripheral’s episodes.

Catstronauts Vol. III: Star Commander Bud Leads His Fleet To Victory & Catnip

In Catstronauts Vol. III, we meet Lieutenant Luna, a hotshot young pilot, Star Commander Leonidas, a stalwart explorer, the brothers Star Commander Zeus and Star Commander Taro, massive and fearless tiger warriors, Star Commander Hera, the most feared tigress in the galaxy, Lance Cpl. Oliver, a rising star in intelligence, Star Commander Alexandros, a decorated veteran of many galactic campaigns, Star Commander Xysto, the Felid Fleet’s most respected and capable captain, and Star Commander Buddy, whose bravery and prolific napping are the stuff of legend. (Click to view larger versions of each portrait.)

The Battle of Dog 359, Stardate 2662

Star Commander Xysto and the fleet’s flagship, the USS Sparta, led a task force to the Wolf 359 system that included Zeus and Taro on their redoubtable USS Voidclaw, and Buddy with his dependable USS Fowl Play.

After the early evening Fleetwide Nap Time (FNT), the task force engaged the Gorn approximately 6.4 AU out from the system’s binary helix and earned a resounding victory. Cats occupying the bridges, engineering decks and gunneries of all three ships broke out catnip — the good stuff laced with silvervine, not that weak ‘nip made by domestic companies — and were toasting each other when their consoles meowed warning of approaching ships.

The celebration was short-lived as the flotilla was ambushed by a larger Gorn force that emerged from the shadow of an icy moon orbiting the system’s most impressive gas giant. The Felid Fleet was victorious once more in the ensuing combat, but at a cost: both the USS Sparta and the USS Voidclaw sustained heavy damage, while Star Commander Buddy was able to avoid enemy fire by hiding behind the other ships conducting a tactical retreat. Crew members from the other ships reported hearing Star Commander Buddy crying over the fleet-wide comms channel during the battle.

“I believe the commander was saying he was too young and handsome to die,” said Lt. Silverpaw, a science officer serving on USS Sparta. “We heard the commander’s own officers trying to calm him down, but the rumor — and again, I’m not saying this is definitely true — is that he soiled the captain’s chair before his XO was able to get him off the bridge and into his cabin.”

Star Commander Buddy, however, recounted the events differently.

“On Stardate 2262.45, the fleet under the command of Star Commander Xysto engaged with a Gorn expeditionary force that had been raiding colonies in the Outer Realm. While our forces engaged the first Gorn detachment, those sneaky lizards had a second group of ships flank us in an ambush pincer movement. Both the USS Sparta and USS Voidclaw were heavily damaged in the ambush, but my own USS Fowl Play evaded enemy fire due to my deft maneuvering and brilliant tactical handling. Taking command of the fleet, I was able to save the day. In fact, my leadership was so effective that before the battle was done, I declared I was going to have a nap and left the mop-up duties to my executive officer as I retired to my quarters.

“I recommend the admiralty give me medals and commendations and stuff, and ignore the obviously false and defamatory reports of my jealous rivals, who have concocted an absurd story about me ordering my ship to hide behind the others. I haven’t done that since I was a kitten!”

After action reports indicate Star Commander Buddy’s USS Fowl Play resumed its course in time for the regularly scheduled Fleetwide Nap Time (FNT) and returned to Starbase 12, home of the Feline Federation’s most widely celebrated restaurants, including Cluckin’ Clancy’s Turkey Extravaganza.

Catstronauts Vol. III

Catstronauts!

Why do cats explore space? Will they still need humans in the future? How do they squeeze litter boxes into those space suits? What about litter boxes in zero G on their starships? Is it the USS Enterprise, or the USS Enterpurrize? If aliens are observing Earth from afar, will they correctly identify felines as the superior species on this planet?

These are all pressing questions. Little Buddy and Big Buddy invite you to ponder them as we reveal Catstronauts, a project we’ve been working on. Watch out for new series of Catstronauts in the future as kitties boldly go where no feline has gone before. Click images for full-size versions.

Meow!

If My Cat Had His Own Comic Book Empire, This Is What It’d Look Like

Budster Comics™

TMT: Too Much Turkey chronicles Chubby Buddy as he eats his way out of Turkopolis, the City of Delicious Turkey.

Buddy the Tiger: Meowscular Hunter follows a fully grown Buddy as he takes his rightful place as king of the jungle and doesn’t have to wait for stupid humans to feed him.

Meowstar 2177 centers on the exploits of Space Admiral Pâtéstalker and the fabled starship UCN Nap Enforcer.

Join Bud on his very first dangerous mission in Turkopolis, back when he was just a tiny kitten.

I created all the artwork in this post using a natural language processing AI and pixlr. 

PITB Reviews: Lost In Space (Netflix)

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Netflix’s reboot of Lost In Space.

Would it hew closely to the brightly-colored 1960s original in all its cheesy glory? Would it aim for a darker tone, as so many television series do these days? Would it be a low-effort nostalgia cash-in like so many ill-advised reboots of the past decade? And would the series, which was slated to keep things PG, have enough going on to appeal to adults as well as kids?

With Netflix delivering the third and final season last month, my verdict is in: Lost In Space is the rare worthy reboot, a visually spectacular retelling of the original that tweaks and modernizes the details in all the right places. There’s a generous amount of adventure, quiet character moments, and an overarching theme about the importance of family. Over the course of the story, the latter group that widens to include not only the Robinsons but also their closest friends who brave the cosmic dangers alongside them.

Speaking of danger, the original show’s most-used catchphrase — the robot’s “Danger, Will Robinson!” — will be familiar to almost anyone, even those of us who were born in the decades after the show went off the air. It’s become part of the pop cultural fabric.

In the original Lost In Space the Robot is a human-engineered tin can, a 1960s retrofuturistic vision of what sentient machines might look like that was dreamed up at a time when servers occupied entire rooms and a computer’s output came in the form of punch cards.

Lost In Space: Original and reboot Robot

In the reboot, the Robot is an alien intelligence: a towering, six-limbed, digitigrade machine with an inscrutable face and serrated claws. Where the 1960s Robot was risible, the reboot Robot is terrifying in its default form — until a brave Will Robinson, who encounters it after crash landing on an unnamed planet, helps the dying machine repair itself.

He does so as a raging fire engulfs the forest around them, reasoning that he can’t escape, but perhaps the robot can.

The curious Robot, awash with gratitude, immediately rescues Will and, on safe ground, studies the boy for a moment before rearranging itself into an androform shape to mirror Will. From that point on, boy and Robot become inseparable.

Lost In Space: Will Robinson and the Robot
The Robot and Will Robinson form a mysterious bond, with the machine becoming fiercely protective of the boy.

It’s Robot who gets the Robinson family out of trouble in the first episode and many times over subsequent installments, earning the trust and eventually the love of the Robinson family, their friend, mechanic Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), and the mercurial Dr. Smith (Parker Posey).

It’s a credit to the writers and visual effects team that the series appeals to kids as well as adults. I watched the first episode with my eight-year-old niece, who’s younger than the target audience. She was absorbed in the story, her attention beginning to wane only during moments of expository dialogue.

The series is probably better suited for kids at 11 or 12 years old, as there are some relatively heady science fiction concepts and subsequent episodes range from PG to PG-13ish.

There’s no sex, the relatively little violence happens off camera, and the narrative regularly stresses the importance of family. Will, his sisters Penny and Judy, and the Robinson parents all rely on each other to meet challenges. There are, however, adult themes like divorce and near-death experiences, and occasional bad language which never gets more profane than Dr. Smith derisively calling Don West out on his “bullshit” in one episode.

penny
Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) play important parts in the narrative and bring different skills to the table.

The show takes off right away and delivers excitement and mystery, but it takes a little while to find its rhythm, with early episodes following a “crisis of the hour” format more suited to episodic television. The writers were clearly trying to convey the power of the united Robinson family, and how each member brings different skills and ways of thinking to the table, but the show is at its best when storylines work in service to the overarching narrative.

Mom Maureen is a brilliant engineer who designed the colony starship Resolute and its Jupiter landers. Dad John Robinson is a former Navy SEAL, a man of action who encourages his children to make bold choices. Eldest daughter Judy Robinson is a young medical doctor who, despite her obvious talent, often feels she has something to prove. Her younger sister, Penny, is the least scientifically-minded member of the family. Penny’s better with people, serving as a peacemaker and scribe who documents the Robinson family’s adventures.

Last but not least, young Will Robinson is a dreamer who marvels at alien worlds and distant stars, and takes after his mom in scientific aptitude. He becomes something of a legend among the colonists for his inexplicable bond with Robot, who is extremely protective of the boy.

Lost In Space: The Resolute
The Resolute is attacked en route to Alpha Centauri, forcing its passengers to flee to their Jupiter “lifeboats” and make emergency landings on a nearby planet.

Of course there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell if the Robinsons and the other colonists simply made it to the idyllic colony at Alpha Centauri without incident. It turns out the colonists fled the Resolute — and crash landed on an inhospitable planet — because Robot’s brethren attacked the ship.

Although the viewers are shown the act of kindness that sparks the bond between Will and Robot, the other colonists aren’t as trusting once they realize Will’s seven-foot-tall protector came from the same place as the murderous machines that attacked the Resolute. Dr. Smith also has her own designs on the mysterious Robot, and the Resolute’s crew has been hiding a secret from its passengers that will come back to haunt them.

Can the colonists survive on a dangerous world without the resources they need? Will they ever reach Alpha Centauri?

Why did the robots attack the colony ship? What do they want from humans? And who made them?

Those are the questions at the heart of the mystery, but the characters can’t hope to answer them if they’re stranded on a hostile alien world.

Netflix spared no expense with Lost In Space and the writers clearly had a complete vision for the story, wrapping it up in just three seasons over the course of 28 roughly hour-long episodes. (The first two seasons had 10 episodes each, while the final season had only eight.)

In a sea of Netflix content, Lost In Space stands out as one of the streaming giant’s best original shows, especially for fans of science fiction and parents looking for a show they can watch with their kids.

Buddy’s Verdict: Four Paws out of Five paws45

Big Buddy’s Verdict: Recommended

Lost In Space: The Robinsons
Will Robinson, front, with Dr. Smith, Judy, Robot, Penny and Maureen Robinson.