Tag Archives: science fiction

Humanity of ‘Humans’ is what makes series work

Anita is a Synth fresh out of the box ... or is she?

Anita is a Synth fresh out of the box … or is she?

I wanted to like Humans more.

At the family level, it works so well. When we’re with the Hawkins clan and their human-like robotic caretaker, Anita, Humans is in top form. The five Hawkins work well together and form a believable, likable and flawed family. Anita’s insertion into the tense marital relationship of Joe and Laura, new “mom” for little Sophie, ideal female form for horny teen Toby and constant reminder that humans are becoming obsolete to the oldest Hawkins kid, Mattie, all make for incredibly well-acted and crafted scenes and explore what the introduction of synthetic humans would mean at the personal level for real humans. You get more touches of that with William Hurt’s Dr. George Millican, a once leading scientist in the Synth field now losing his memories, relying on his Synth and de facto son Odi to remind him of events from his and his wife’s life together. Another ripple is added when we meet Pete Drummond, a detective whose ailing wife is cared for by a Synth that makes him feel worthless as he simultaneously draws the loving attention of his partner, Karen. These three storylines nail the impact of human simulations being released in the real world. It’s a unique mix of awkward, horrifying and touching drama.

Had the first season mostly focused on that, it might have become my favorite show on television. The problem is the dramatic sci-fi storyline, that a handful of synths were created to have consciousness. Humans who already fear the impact of synths on unemployment and the world in general would now have to be concerned that they could be replaced entirely. This part of the story doesn’t flow as well and feels uncomfortable next to the more personal side of the tale. The ending of the first season was clearly also planned to be the ending of the series, just in case. Things get wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly.

Following in the wake of Ex Machina probably doesn’t help me appreciate Humans as much, either. Ex Machina was a taut, quickly paced and intense drama that delved into the impact of AI on our world. Humans is broader, sometimes for the better, other times not so much. Its pace is slower and occasionally uneven, with tension lacking when the danger should be felt most. Where Ex Machina was lean and furious, Humans is too often top heavy and overly earnest.

Will I return for a second season of Humans? Humans hasn’t blown me away like the AMC dramas Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels did. I may do something I don’t usually do and read advance reviews of season two to get a sense of where Humans is going and then decide. Until then, I’m firmly in the maybe column.

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‘Ant-Man’ feels like missed opportunity

One thumbs up for

One thumbs up for “Ant-Man,” maybe. Two thumbs up? Not quite.

If Marvel was going to try something outside-the-box with one of its properties, Ant-Man was the perfect opportunity.

Ant-Man is a weird premise, a cat-burglar-turned-Robin-Hood in a suit that shrinks and expands him at will and allows him to communicate with and control his fellow ants from the natural world. Marvel hired Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), a guy who knows a little something about making ensemble films with weird characters, to write and direct. Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) called Wright’s Ant-Man story “the best script Marvel ever had.” Star Paul Rudd knows comedy and is just as comfortable going broad as he is trying something a bit more out there. Plus, there was no pressure for Ant-Man to be a huge hit. It didn’t have the budget or the starpower of The Avengers and its related solo films, and the Ant-Man character wasn’t nearly as high profile when compared to Marvel players such as Captain America or the Hulk, meaning not only less pressure regarding box office, but also reduced concerns about viewers’ expectations for both the character and the film.

But given the opportunity to change it up a little bit, Marvel stuck to its well-worn script. Wright was fired/left/whatever, and the powers that be brought in Adam McKay, the man behind the camera for films such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights. And that’s kind of what you get with his Ant-Man. Rudd’s criminal sidekicks – played hilariously by Michael Pena, David Dasmalchian and, of all people, rapper T.I. – are the equivalent the of Ron Burgundy’s Channel 4 crew. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is a reeled in Veronica Corningstone, Michael Douglas suffices in the role of the Channel 4 news producer played by Frank Willard and Corey Stole’s Yellowjacket baddie is significantly less scary than Vince Vaughn’s Wes Mantooth.

OK, I’m pushing it with those last few comparisons. You get my point. Ant-Man isn’t bad, and in some ways – a Marvel film where no big city was destroyed! – it can stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the Avengers’ universe. I just get the feeling it could have been much, much better.

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‘Wayward Pines’ aces the Season 1 test

Kate (Carla Gugino) gets more than she bargains for in her attempt to escape Wayward Pines.

Kate (Carla Gugino) gets more than she bargains for in her attempt to escape Wayward Pines.

I was wary of Wayward Pines.

It came down to two things. The first was the name “M. Night Shyamalan” propped up prominently in the advertising. Most of his work since The Village has been the film equivalent of a raging tire fire, and after what he did to Avatar: The Last Airbender, I wasn’t sure I’d ever watch anything he was involved in again. However, Shyamalan deserves some credit here for making Wayward Pines work. His tendencies to lean on moody atmosphere and a deliberative pace in the pilot set the tone for the rest of the first season. I wonder if working off another’s material – the series is based on the books by Blake Crouch – as well as working on a television series, which is more collaborative than the auteur role Shyamalan is used to as a film director, is part of what is responsible. If so, that mix has proven potent, and Wayward Pines can head in some interesting directions from what’s been established already.

The second thing that concerned me were the comparisons to Twin Peaks that were popping up in early reviews. I view Twin Peaks as one of the most uniquely twisted shows in the history of television, almost sacred because of the swirl of odd humor, kinky otherworldliness and dark underpinnings that are unmatched. Well, it turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about, because those reviews were dead wrong. Wayward Pines is distinctly lacking in sense of humor, which isn’t a put down. That’s just not what the show is, and it’s the easiest thing to point to as a difference when comparing it to Twin Peaks. Also, in Twin Peaks, the secrecy that drives the show is the hidden lies of the townspeople who are living the small-town, American dream. Wayward Pines‘ secrecy is more about the workings of the town itself, how it came to be, why it is so isolated, the planned machinations happening behind the scenes and what those machinations result in. Really, Wayward Pines feels much more like Lost than Twin Peaks.

FBI agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) won't follow the party line in Wayward Pines: Don't talk about the past, don't go past the wall.

FBI agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) won’t follow the party line in Wayward Pines: Don’t talk about the past, don’t go past the wall.

Hopefully, the Lost comparison won’t extend past the first season. The ending of season one changes the focus of Wayward Pines, spinning the plot in a different direction. The cast could potentially be radically different as well, even after the culling of familiar faces throughout the first season. The potential is there for long-term success, if the show and the folks running it can maintain the balance of plausibility of the action with the more far-out, fantastic elements that are part of this cloistered world.

If not, it could get … well, lost, for lack of a better way to put it. The ending of season one leaves the show dangling on a precipice, a radical change of course charted for the upcoming season. Abandoning the situation as it was, moving ahead a few years, could test the patience of fans if it is not handled delicately, possibly even alienate fans who would like more of what they saw and aren’t ready to push on.

I, for one, have hope. We’ll see if that hope is rewarded.

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Revisting ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

I like reading books. I love re-reading books.

The first time through a book, I’m just getting into the story. I’m not looking for clues or symbols, not trying to think ahead. I try hard to be in the moment and let the author guide me through. It’s just me enjoying the journey.

The second time through, that’s when I found out just how legit the story is. I start paying more attention in sections that I think probably dropped clues or at least tipped the hand of the author, where he or she was going with the story. That’s when the details really shine through, or should, and I get a better grasp of the set-up.

After that second reading, any further readings are because I love the tale and I want to revisit it. As years pass, as I change and the world changes, I start to find different things to appreciate. As my collective knowledge base grows, I find connections in stories that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out before. Those further readings are just as much about learning something about myself as it is the text.

I just recently completed my third time through The Handmaid’s Tale. The set-up is this: A terror attack and subsequent war have cause an entire overhaul of the United States’ – now Gilead – political, economic and social structure. Martial law is declared. Those who do not adhere to the new Christian theocracy’s religious strictures – such as Catholics, Quakers, doctors, feminists, etc. – are publicly executed or used as slave labor. Women no longer have the right to read, possess money. work, get an education and more. Because of severe nationwide fertility issues, those woman who can reproduce are forced to become Handmaids, women who attempt to breed with the male heads of powerful households in an attempt to extend the family line. The story is told from the perspective of one of the Handmaids, Offred (or Of Fred, as Handmaids take the names of their new masters) a woman who had been a mother, wife and worker whose life and family are stripped from her as she is shoved into sexual subservience.

This time through, two things really struck me about the story. First is Offred’s hope. She understands what she has lost, the man she loved, the daughter who is now growing up in another master’s home. She has no freedom, not even to kill herself, as great pains have been taken to make sure that can’t happen. And Offred knows that life is bound to get even worse if she can’t produce offspring. She could end up in the dead, polluted lands as a slave laborer or as a whore in one of the few secret brothels that survived the purge. Yet she still finds reasons to continue. Sometimes its simple things, like her walks to and from the market with the Handmaid Offglen, the smells from the garden kept by her master’s wife. Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like when she starts to fall for Nick, the master’s driver. Their secret lovemaking sessions provide her a chance to feel like the woman she was, or as close as she’ll ever get. Even when reality encroaches, when Offred can’t hide from the world she is part of and the situation she’s in, when she admits how awful everything is, she still is able to push that aside and hope for more. It’s both delusional and inspiring, and it makes the story that much more soul crushing.

The second thing that struck me was the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s vision from her 1985 novel. Sexual control is taken completely from women. Abortion is a capital crime. Women are forced to dressed modestly. They are always under the strict supervision of men, be they their masters or the soldiers/cops who roam the streets. All of this reeks of the Christian, conservative agenda. The Duggars and the Quiverfull movement are the template here, and a lot of what’s being shown in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that much different from what’s advocated by political leaders such as Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and others from the right with regards to women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The slow erosion of abortion rights, particularly in states run by Republican governors and lawmakers, is another example. I also thought the idea of enacting martial law in the wake of a supposed terror attack just stunk of the George W. Bush administration. Every time an election approached, the terror alerts rose. Every time the Bush administration start to face lower approval ratings, the threat of an “imminent terror attack” was raised in the media. Fear is used frequently and with enthusiasm, because when there is no hope to offer, fear of sexuality, foreigners, some nasty other is the only way to cling to power.

My third reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was just as rewarding as the first two. I now get to look forward to my fourth reading, and what new insights it will bring me about the world. And myself.

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Bad trailers=bad movies: 5 summer flicks I have no interest in seeing

5. Teminator: Genisys. I can see why the minds behind this thought it was a good idea, seeing the talent involved. But other than the John Connor twist – which is a pretty huge giveaway for a trailer – most of this looks like it could have been pulled straight out of the first few movies. Yes, you have a rich history to work with, but the last part of the Terminator franchise to escape from that shadow and be something fresh and interesting was the TV series, The Sarah Conner Chronicles. Add to that the problem of the last two Terminator movies having dulled my taste for the franchise, and not even Daenarys Targaryan as Sarah Connor is enough to make me reconsider this one.

4. Vacation. If I was a huge fan of the Vacation franchise, I probably would have ranked this higher, but I always preferred Chevy Chase in films such as Fletch, Foul Play and Caddyshack over his Clark Griswold performances. This film it looks like it could be worse than The Hangover II and The Zookeeper, combined.

3. Ant-Man. This is the lone time I have had zero interest in seeing flick that’s part of the Avengers’ Marvel universe. I thought Ant-Man was a bad idea when they announced it. Then Marvel kicked director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) off the project, and I really thought it was a bad idea. This trailer does nothing to change my mind. I’ve often thought that there are some things that just won’t translate well from comics, and I think this looks like example No. 1 of that theory. The truly unfortunate thing about all of this is I probably can’t avoid this film because of my daughter’s love of Paul Rudd, aka Bobby Newport from Parks & Recreation.

2. Poltergeist. How bad is this trailer? My 10-year-old, who occasionally will terrify himself so much that he’ll run the 7 feet from his bedroom to our living room at night just to not be in the dark, “scary” hallway, mocks this trailer every time we see it. Poltergeist just looks like another Insidious knock-off, now. An unimaginative, blatant, studio cash grab, nothing more.

1. Jurassic World. OK, so it isn’t just the trailer that makes this flick a no-go. Loved the first one, like a lotta folks, but the second one was awful. In the second Jurassic Park book, Michael Crichton envisions a chameleon-like dinosaur that is able to camouflage itself. When the movie hit theaters, I was excited to see what Steven Spielberg – the king of the big, fx-heavy summer blockbusters – would do with that. The answer: Nothing. And Stevie made up a new, significantly shittier ending. So I’m not getting burned again. This trailer, other than some new dinos, looks to be for a film that has nothing new to offer. Plus, if that one sex joke is the best they’ve given Chris Pratt to work with, the Jurassic minds are even more bereft of imagination than I ever would have expected.

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Wrapping my head around ‘Ex Machina’

Ahead be spoilers. You were warned.

I’m not going to go in-depth into Ex Machina. I enjoyed the movie, and I was pleased both by the fact that it wasn’t predictable and that I was able to see some things coming. But a couple of things happened that threw me off, and those I’d like to share.

What are the AI plotting?

What are the AI plotting?

I THOUGHT THE ROBOTS WERE RUNNING THE SHOW. The premise of the film is that a programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is selected to spend a week with the brilliant tech billionaire, Nathan, who owns the company he works for. When they meet, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) explains this will be more than just a week hanging out. Nathan wants Caleb to interact with his new AI, to perform the Turing Test, which is an attempt to determine whether artificial intelligence can fool a human into believing that the AI is also human. Early on, it becomes apparent that Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is an AI herself. Kyoko never speaks and allegedly doesn’t understand English, but slowly it becomes apparent that she does have a certain level of awareness about what’s going on around her and her own creation. At one point while watching Kyoko, a light clicked on in my head: Nathan isn’t running the experiment. The AI are. And, for a while, it looked like the might be the case. It wasn’t, but it’s just one example of how Ex Machina mind fucks you to the point where you’re no longer entirely sure what is reality.

THE FINAL CUT. The audience isn’t the only one being screwed with. As days pass, Caleb starts getting sucked further and further in to Nathan’s ego trip and his interactions with the AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander). His head gets so twisted that he’s not sure who or what to believe, to the point where he takes a razor and cuts open his own arm, to make sure he is human. It was an eye-opening moment to me, as I hadn’t considered the idea that maybe Caleb was the AI being tested. Caleb bleeds red, but it was another moment that created doubt for viewers about the path Ex Machina was blazing.

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What to make of Godard’s New Wave sci-fi classic ‘Alphaville’

Journalist Ivan Johnson aka secret agent Lemmy Caution "hides" and watches a fellow agent make love to a seductress third class.

Journalist Ivan Johnson – aka secret agent Lemmy Caution – “hides” and watches a fellow agent make love to a seductress third class.

Alphaville is a strange flick. On the one hand, writer/director Jean-Luc Godard plumbs the depths of questions about individuality, spirituality, love and the struggle between humanity and technology in a rapidly evolving world. On the other hand, there are times the film is so awkward that it’s almost difficult to watch (although, to be fair, Godard made three movies that year and four the previous year, so time and budget were likely the culprits behind troublesome moments, rather than his ability as a visual storyteller).

That said, the end product is undeniably alluring. Godard’s Alphaville is a place without laughter or love, virtually no music, no passion beyond base sexual needs, a world where constantly redacted dictionaries are bibles and E-mc² is liturgy. In one scene, those who violate the tight, emotional bonds – by laughing, crying, even just caring – are forced to “walk the plank,” up to the edge of diving board, and then shot as they scream their last words in defense of their acts of humanity. As the lifeless bodies hit the water, beautiful young women in matching swimming attire dive in and perform synchronized swimming moves as they retrieve the dead bodies. Crowds watch and cheer as the swimmers perform. It is simultaneously absurd and prescient, a mocking of those who cry out for death and cheer as the blood begins to flow. Humanity is constantly denigrated and tamped down, all for the betterment of the logical society of Alphaville.

What I found most interesting was just how much the science fiction that followed Alphaville mimicked so much of its dystopian future. For example:

* The Matrix – In Alphaville, the supercomputer Alpha 60 controls all. It monitors all communications, calls forth its own “agents” to suppress any who would break out of the rigid system it provides. The world we see is the mask; the real action happens behind the scenes with Alpha 60 and its programmers.

* Blade Runner – Rick Dekard and secret agent Lemmy Caution are cut from the same film noir cloth. Neither understands what they’ve stepped into; both are determined to finish the job.

* Brave New World – Alphaville is a land of sex without love, pills that keep you content. Both Aldous Huxely’s and Godard’s worlds deny any true love or passion, making sex as rote and necessary as having lunch or dropping a deuce.

* 2001: A Space Odyssey – Alpha 60 is HAL. Both understand that the body counts don’t matter, it is the end result, the desired goal, that is most important.

* Divergent – You don’t fit into the pre-determined roles set up by society? In the Divergent series, you are cast out. In Alphaville, you’re lured to a theater and gassed as you enjoy the show.

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Language leads to war in ‘Embassytown’

I finished Embassytown a few weeks ago. It’s rare for me to wait this long to comment on something I’ve read or watched, but I really don’t know where to begin.

I keep thinking of the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men come across an elephant and start to feel it. One feels the tusks, another a leg, another the tail, and so on. The blind men start to argue about what it is they might be feeling, but they lack the ability to see the complete picture, only able to quibble over what seem like unmatched parts.

With Embassytown, the complete picture is so incredibly large. It doesn’t feel like that from the start, as our first-person narrator, Avice Benner Cho, gives us the lay of the land. Embassytown is a small, human village amid the Ariekei on a distant planet at the edge of the known universe. The Ariekei have two mouths, speaking two words at the same time. This can be mimicked by machine, but a third element comes into play: the soul. The sounds emitting from the machine mean nothing without living, breathing beings speaking the words. Since humans can’t really say two words at the same time, special twins, Ambassadors, are bred and raised to function as one to be able to communicate with the Ariekei. It’s a little like trying to lift a warehouse with a simple lever, but it enables some communication between the two races. Cho is uniquely positioned in this little world. She is an Immer, someone who can help guide ships through vast regions of space due to special abilities most don’t have. She is also a living, breathing metaphor, “the girl who sat in the dark and ate what was given to her,” for the Ariekei. The Ariekei are incapable of lying; therefore, they construct metaphors from actual humans. Cho is in with the humans because she is both an Immer and one of the rare humans to ever leave the planet and come back, and she’s damn near a rock star with the Ariekei, who actually develop favorite metaphors much like humans pick a baseball team to root for.

Quite a bit of weirdness, eh? And that’s just the damn tusk of Embassytown. I haven’t mentioned the first Ambassadors who aren’t twins, how their language becomes aural crack for the Ariekei, how all of this leads to assassinations, massacres, war and global upheaval.

I was blown away by Mieville’s The City & The City, which, oddly enough, I found while looking for a copy of Embassytown. As rich as The City & The City is, Embassytown is just that much more vast and intricate, a science fiction tale that is unique in its vision. I haven’t done it justice here. But as the guy who only feels like he got a good luck at the tusk, this is the best description as I can give you of this particular elephant.

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Peeling back the ‘Skin’

Creepy ScarJo? Welcome to "Under the Skin."

Creepy ScarJo? Welcome to “Under the Skin.”

In the late 1990s, when The Thin Red Line hit theaters, I happened to catch a viewing that was also attended by a number of WWII vets, some of whom had fought in the Far East. I followed them out of the theater, listening to their furious tones, red in the face at what they’d just seen. What was that? That wasn’t what the war was like! I was there, and that didn’t happen. And so on.

It’s a classic case of people getting into a movie they really know nothing about. The reviews at the time were very clear about how director Terrence Malick operated and continues to operate. He’s prone to voiceovers, eschewing dialogue if possible, more interested in the internal struggle than external relationships. He often focuses on the natural phenomenon amid the turmoil as well as the turmoil itself, lingering on vegetation and animals, slowly drifting from scene to scene. Malick’s films aren’t what I’d generally consider character or plot driven. More often, they are a meditation on a subject. The Thin Red Line isn’t Saving Private Ryan, and it was never meant to be. Malick just doesn’t operate like the majority of his fellow filmmakers. Which is fine, if you as a viewer know that’s the case heading in.

Know what this is? Let's just say you really, really don't want it happening to you.

Know what this is? Let’s just say you really, really don’t want it happening to you.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead.

I look back at this experience because I wonder how many male viewers picked up Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with solely the thoughts “naked Scarlett Johansson alien” in their head. And while Under the Skin does deliver on that, it’s not an exploitative, Hollywood sci-fi film by any means. No mad scientist bent on destroying the world, no invasion of mean and angry insectoids from another universe, no monstrous sea creatures rising from the depths of the ocean to battle giant robots. I kind of wonder how many approached it as such, abandoned it in frustration and never made it to the end.

To me, the open-ended nature of the entire film, that space for interpretation, is what makes Under the Skin interesting. Like The Thin Red Line, there’s not much dialogue here. It’s a mix of a few very abstract scenes and a quiet Johansson on a journey of self discovery. At first she prowls city streets of Scotland in her white van (the irony that it is the classic “rape van” should not be lost here), people watching, searching for men, alone. There is constant motion, a rhythm to ScarJo’s movements, the actions of a shark seeking prey. But at one point, she starts to realize there is little difference between her and her prey, which changes everything. She goes from the beast on the prowl to the animal in hiding, a shift in attitude that ends up costing her.

Or maybe not. I mean, that’s what I walked away from it with, but I’m pretty sure you could ask five other people who watched Under the Skin and get five different answers. That’s what Glazer has constructed here, what he wants, a unique experience driven by the viewer’s own thoughts and prejudices. It’s not dissimilar to what directors like Malick, Stanley Kubrick, etc., have achieved before him.

Under the Skin isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t designed to be. But for those willing to buy the ticket and take the ride, it’s worth it.

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Robinson-Heinlein mix natural in ‘Variable Star’

The idea of one writer picking up the pre-planned novel of an author who has passed doesn’t sit easy with me, and, I would imagine, with most readers. It’s just not going to be the same as it would have been had the original writer run with the concept, and sometimes those gaps or failings are going to be glaring. Plus, it feels disrespectful to the work of the dead artist.

Unless, apparently, you are Spider Robinson taking over a Robert Heinlein project. In which case everything comes up roses.

Heinlein wrote the notes and outline for the book Variable Star in 1955, got distracted by other work and never came back to it. After the death of Heinlein’s wife, the notes were found by Heinlein’s children, Robinson was offered the chance to complete the project, and Variable Star hit bookshelves in 2006.

It’s really a terrific mix of the two authors. Orphaned teen Joel is ready to set out and become a musician, gets his world rocked by his love interest that jump starts a massive identity crisis, and instead jumps on the first spaceship he can find to travel light years away to be a colonist on a previously unsettled planet. If you’ve ever read any Heinlein, you know it isn’t that straightforward. The requisite Heinlein oddities and twists are all there. There were even moments where Robinson truly captured Heinlein’s voice, and those times usually left me laughing.

What’s great about it is that Robinson, while staying very much true to Heinlein’s story and style, is also able to add his own touches that really round out the work. One example that strikes me is when Joel starts to have a mental breakdown and is forced to seek counseling. Heinlein had a more brusque style, I think in part generational and in part the natural outcome of a writer who was trying to crank out product to feed his family. Plus, I think Heinlein tended to get excited about the concept and was less into creating nuanced characters of great depth, because that wasn’t what he was about. Robinson adds a sensitivity that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have, creating sympathy for Joel as he tries to find his way after having his world rocked. In other chapters, where there is less action and more of Joel figuring out who he is and what he is or should be doing, Robinson’s hand is felt similarly, keeping the story interesting as well as letting it move at the leisurely pace someone on a long spacecraft voyage would be operating at.

If you’re a Heinlein fan and you have any doubts, don’t. Yes, it’s not a Heinlein novel in the purest sense. It’s a collaboration, and because of that, it’s a beast all its own. But what a beautiful beast it is.

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