Unexpected Response

Chuck’s challenge this week: a horror story in three sentences. And since I’m still on a sci-fi bent, why not sci-fi horror?

Three sentences almost doesn’t merit a post here, but it’s a thing I wrote, so here it is. In fact, I might do a few more. These are fun.

Unexpected Response

When we first aimed our dishes at the sky, we feared we might not find anybody. Then we found somebody, and we feared they might not understand us.

Now they’re here, and there is not enough firepower in the world to save us.

Terrible Reviews: The Martian

I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly, I was so excited to see this movie. I’m not a particularly big Matt Damon fan, though I like him well enough. I tend not to love “realistic” Sci-Fi — that is, science fiction stories that burden themselves overmuch with being “scientifically accurate”. (Give me The Matrix, give me Star Wars.) I was also a little dubious about the prospect of a film which was essentially Cast Away in space.

Still, I was pumped to see it. I heard good things, and there’s just SOMETHING ABOUT MARS this year; between the recent discovery of water (or water-like substances), the discussion of Mars One, and the recent announcements of NASA actually going for a Mars mission, I bought into the hype like your jerk of a brother buying up all the red spaces on Monopoly.

And man, oh man, does it deliver. The film is funny, intense, heartbreaking, funny, clever, sad, funny, and also, believe it or not in a science fiction movie, funny. The main character is an astronaut/botanist with a sardonic streak as wide and deep as the Marianas trench, and Matt Damon plays that up in hilarious deadpan to keep what could be a tedious or ultimately depressing movie … not exactly light and fluffy, but … let’s put it this way. The tension in this film is sharp enough to slice through steel. Yet, throughout much of the movie, I found myself smiling thanks to the levity provided by the main character.

Okay, let’s get into it…

The Good.

Pretty much everything.

No, seriously. The set design is brilliant: the surface of the alien planet is every bit as stark and hopeless as you could imagine; the living quarters on said planet as utilitarian and cramped as they would almost certainly have to be. The acting is superb: Matt Damon’s performance is of course top-notch, and I found myself swinging wildly between elation and despair right with him. There’s a particularly powerful moment when (no spoilers) he experiences a brutal setback, calmly approaches the terminal to log what has happened, utters a single syllable, and then the entire facade cracks and he flies into a paroxysm of rage and panic. An instant later, he recovers himself and gets back to work. It’s all believable and utterly sympathetic. Even the token unlikable bossman pulling the strings of the operation (Jeff Daniels, and what a turn he’s made from his Dumb and Dumber days, by the way) becomes sympathetic along the way, despite being at odds with most of his team for most of the film.

Also, for a sci-fi movie, the film does a remarkably good job of steering away from the science. You know, obviously, that a tremendous amount of science is happening offscreen, but you never feel inundated with it or hamstrung by your inability to comprehend it (I’m looking at you, Apollo 13, with your 02 stirrers and your gimbals and your other such witch science). It’s almost as if the science is a pleasant rose garden in front of a mansion — you can stop and appreciate it if you like, but the real action is the house itself.

And finally, the moment (SERIOUS spoilers here, jump ahead if you’re in doubt) when Watney blasts off from the alien surface to rendezvous with the passing rescue ship… I’ve been invested in stories and characters before, but it has been a long time since my heart has pounded like that during the climax of a film. There are too many things to count which could go wrong, and each try-fail cycle dovetails with the next like the tightening of the screws on a torture victim. There’s a perilous launch, which Watney might not survive. He does, but he blacks out. He escapes the planet’s gravity, but is nowhere near high enough for the rescue ship to catch him. They manage to lower their altitude, but only at the expense of blowing up part of their ship. And on and on and on. Masterful.

The Bad.

Um… maybe… science?

Okay, so there are some scientific faux pas present in the film. Making it not 100% scientifically accurate. The (SPOILERS OMG LOOK AWAY) dust storm on the planet’s surface, for example, wouldn’t happen, at least not with the effects that it has in the film. There’s the problem of cosmic radiation frying anybody who’s exposed for any significant period of time. There’s the frankly laughable (SPOILER HELP) plastic tarp covering the hole in the side of the habitation unit on Mars after the explosion.

But these are, with the exception of the tarp, easy to overlook. Without the dust storm, and without a magical nonexistent solution for the radiation, you don’t have a movie. The tarp … well. I guess every good film gets a pass on one or two ridiculous contrivances. The truth is, I’m having a hard time finding anything bad to say about this movie.

The Head-Scratch Worthy.

Maybe this is just me, but from the halfway point of the film onward, there’s a real head-scratcher. A previously unknown character basically comes up with the day-saving maneuver that sends the Martian astronauts back out to collect Watney, and this he concocts in a half-asleep daze while receiving a brief from one of his superiors. He goes in, pitches it to the head of NASA, and suddenly he’s like the lead mathematician on the project.

It’s not a bad device, but it feels like a stretch. We’re supposed to believe that despite the (presumably) well-staffed teams of experts at NASA working overtime trying to find ways to bring Watney home, none of them had this kid’s idea first? And, given the crew’s decision to basically mutiny toward the end of the film, why not let one of them come up with the idea? Again, maybe it’s me overthinking the elements of story, but it felt like a somewhat hollow method to drum up another character.

That said, at least they didn’t get another white guy to play this part. Yay for diversity!

The Verdict.

The truth is, I only wrote a couple of paragraphs for the other two categories because I could have gone on and on and on about what was good in this movie, and I wanted to give the illusion of parity. The fact is, this movie was fantastic. Think Apollo 13 meets Cast Away but without all the technical jargon of the former and without the knocking-your-own-rotted-tooth-out-with-an-ice-skate squickiness of the latter, not that either of those two things kept either of those two films from being excellent movies. This movie is awesome if you’re a science aficionado like myself, and it was good enough for my wife, who hates sci-fi, to enjoy as well.

The only thing that remains to be seen is how prophetic it is, which might — might! — happen in my lifetime.

If you haven’t seen it, go see it.

You will never look at poop or potatoes the same way again.

All images are obviously not my property. To the best of my knowledge, they are owned by 20th Century Fox.

All that Glitters

It’s modern-day alchemy. Maybe you’ve heard this.

It turns out that everybody’s intrinsic value has increased by about $13 a year, thanks to the trace amounts of precious metals in their poop. That’s right, there are studies (imagine doing those studies) that show that over a 1-year period, the “waste” collected from 1 million Americans is worth $13 million. Which is great, if you happen to be the owner of a waste processing plant when they figure out how to harvest this “gold”. For the average person, it’s just more money going down the toilet, pun absolutely intended.

And while this is fascinating, if perhaps not in the “dinner conversation” kind of fascinating, the bigger (and more troubling) issue that it raises is: where is this stuff coming from? Is big agro putting vanadium in our corn? Are the pasteurizing plants doping milk with platinum? Did everybody in the country suddenly succumb to somnambulant pica? Now we’re all chowing down on nuts and bolts in our sleep?

No, I’m not here to toss out conspiracy theories. The fact is, everything is a part of everything. The crude matter that composes our bodies is, at the fundamental level, the same matter that spawned in the maw of the Big Bang. We are made of the ashes of stars, so it’s no great shock that we’ve got little bits and pieces of decomposed universes sloshing around in our systems. And to be honest, it’s no great shock that scientists are studying poop. Given overpopulation and the sustainability issues plaguing us, we have to find as many ways as possible to stretch out resources and cut down on waste. Refining poop is a win-win, if you can pinch it off. Plus, make no mistake, they’ll find a way to make money off of it. Process enough poop, and you can turn your refining plant into a literal goldmine. Actually, this reminds me of this little treat from a few months back, in which Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates drink water created from a processing plant that is self-sustaining and actually creates electricity … FROM POOP.

Fact is, this makes for a great story. And who knows, in ten years, you might just work at a processing plant, refining feces for precious metals.

There are jokes to be made here, but I’m a little myopic today. Look, diapers are a big part of my life right now, and when the only tool at your disposal is a diaper and a bag of wipes, everything looks like a pile of poop, right? All I can think about upon hearing this story are the untold riches slipping through my fingers every day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call my accountant to move all my money into poop futures.

No Time Like the Present

We live in the past.


Not just in the retrospective, nostalgic, times-were-better-when sense of the past. Literally, we can’t escape the past. Because information can only travel as fast as the speed of light, less the resistance of our crude organic matter, what we perceive as the present is a moment that is already a dim memory of the cosmos.

Of course, we’re not that far in the past. Only milliseconds, really. But the phenomenon stretches out into infinity the farther away the observed thing is from the observer. In fact, astronomers have recently concluded that their telescopes are looking at some objects so distant that the light from those objects was literally born in the same instant that our universe was. Which baffles the mind, really. Because here we are, the result of billions of years of senseless collisions of quarks and particles hurtling through the void, and we can simultaneously perceive the (almost) present and the beginning of knowable time.

Knowable for now, anyway.

The cool thing about science (and, incidentally, why I long ago decided that I much prefer science to religion) is that science can change its mind about things. Can, and does, actually. The scientific community is willing to reverse any number of preconceived notions the moment they learn a thing that disagrees with those notions. Which is just one reason among many that nerds around the world were (and still are) so excited about the work going on with the Large Hadron Collider. Every day, scientists are pushing the boundaries of the things we know. Sometimes, they learn what they expect to learn. Sometimes, their discoveries force them to virtually rewrite history. But what science doesn’t do is disagree with what’s staring it in the face. Science doesn’t sit there–as humans are wont to do–and say, “no, we don’t like what we’ve discovered here, that doesn’t jive with what we believe… let’s ignore it until it goes away.”

But I got off topic. Most animals are creatures that live in the present. They act on instinct. A wolf in the wild doesn’t ponder what its dad was thinking when it chomped him in the neck that one time as a child. The wolf goes for the kill because the kill is there, NOW. Humans, on the other hand, reach ceaselessly for the past. We romanticize. Reminisce. But the fact is, we don’t know what now looks like.

Not only can we not process information that fast–literally barring us from ever existing in the real, crackling cutting edge of the now–but everything we see and learn and experience gets filtered through the lens of the past, because we can’t help remembering it.

I feel like I’m drifting again. I’ve got a wicked cold setting in and it’s clouding what’s already a pretty murky train of thought. I think my point is this:

What would our world be like if we could experience the present? The wicked, razor-sharp edge of perception, the collisions of all the being and nothingness that drives everything in the universe? All thought takes time. Reacting takes time. Speaking to a friend takes time. If we could make perception and communication truly instantaneous, where would that put us?

I was going to try to answer my own question, but I don’t know if my disease-addled brain can manage it, so I’m going to leave it there. Maybe I’ll read this in the morning and realize that this entire ramble was just a tailspin down a condemned rabbit hole.

Or maybe it’s one I’ve fallen down before.

oooOOOOOOooo no, probably not.

See, this is what happens when pressure on my brain from an accumulation of mucus mixes with a cocktail of pseudoephedrine and wine. The safeguards shut down and the Id-Writer breaks loose and trashes the place.

Sigh. The prompt was “present.” Christmas is coming. Presents are awesome. The end.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

Occam’s Toddler

Occam’s Razor is a simple scientific precept that I probably misunderstand, but I’m going to hijack it anyway.  It states that for any number of given solutions to a problem or any series of explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is probably the best one.  Did I screw that up?  I probably screwed that up.  Anyway, toddlers make this almost impossible to do, and with that in mind, I posit a corollary to the Razor: Occam’s Toddler.  Occam’s Toddler states that for any number of given solutions to a problem or any series of explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is probably the best one; however, if there is a toddler in your charge, it’s dangerous to use razors around toddlers, so put that thing away, and now the toddler is spilling cotton balls and lotion all over the bathroom floor and JESUS GET AWAY FROM THE CURLING IRON —

Ahem.  In short, it’s impossible to wield the Razor if you have a toddler.  So if you have a toddler, I have a smidge of advice for you:

Throw away that piece of crap you’re holding on to.  You know the one.  It’s the appliance or tool or bit of furniture that you know is a little bit wobbly, a little bit crappy, a little bit worthless that you’re hanging onto because you can “get by” with it.Read More »