Alien: Covenant (2017)

The Covenant: a colony ship, heading to a remote planet to allow its cargo of 2000 sleeping colonists to start a new life. When it hits a damaging neutron field, synthetic life form, Walter (Michael Fassbender, once again the only interesting character in the whole piece), wakes the crew to help deal with the disaster. Shaken by tragedy, a mysterious signal leading them towards an even more inhabitable planet than the one they were aiming for seems like a dream come true. But given this is a sequel to Prometheus (2012) and a prequel to Alien (1979), the audience is more than aware that the dream is far more likely to be a nightmare…

I had low expectations and yet somewhat high hopes for this movie. I thought Prometheus was a horrible mess, confusing in its attempt to come up with some (un)godly backstory to the classic franchise, and executed sloppily from start to finish. Covenant surely couldn’t be any worse, right?!

Well…!! It seems like a lot of attention has been paid to the complaints from last time, so sure, this story is a bit less mystical and vague, and ‘woo’ – we have the classic xenomorphs back (I wasn’t *that* fussed, tbh!). Alas, every single other problem seems to have been ported across wholesale: crew I don’t care about in the slightest, thus making the peril they face less than gripping? Check. Clunky plot holes and/or events that fit the joining up of narratives more than logic? Check. Drippy Ripley-wannabe utterly failing to impress as Sigourney Weaver’s successor? Oh, triple check. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

Set 10 years after the Prometheus went missing – although while the crew all seem aware of this fact in retrospect, they still all do the “It’s impossible that there’s human life out here!” without a single ‘what if…’ crossing their tiny brains – there is still a bit of a gap to explain what happened between the two. A few flashbacks attempt to bridge this, but I was still left with a sense of “Hmm, is that really likely?!” – even in fiction as wild as this, you still expect people to act like people, unlikely random coincidences to not happen every time, and a whole extra stage in a creature’s lifecycle not just to crop up because the first prequel skipped it but it needs to come back!

But, the bulk of the ‘now’ of the movie should make up for this, and while it’s not dreadful for a slasher-horror gore fest, I loathed the lazy ‘crew bonding’ device of making them all married to someone who gets picked off – so, oooh, we’re going to feel for them! Urm, no. Someone is killed off at the very start, but as we hadn’t even met the character at that point it’s really hard to care, and the hysterical spouse reaction is jarring until we get the explanation. Would the story have been any different if that character had survived? Not much. Yes, it changes the actions of another two characters but it just struck me as the laziest possible way to stimulate those motivations and ‘feels’. I don’t care for the obvious manipulation.

I will allow that this film looks gorgeous – the design has always been a very strong element with even the prequels. And, I will also allow that my own disappointment that this wasn’t better is leading me to be very harsh. But… meh. Something about this whole movie just struck me as reactive and a bit lazy, and overall desperately unsatisfying.

And yes, I will still go see the third planned prequel: I might be being harsh, but Covenant is better than Prometheus, so hope springs eternal! o_O

Released: 12th May 2017
Viewed: 12th May 2017
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10 – disappointing

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitlín R Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, following a recommendation based on the terrific House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking. Agents of Dreamland has quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little – so you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here – revealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story. It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

Life (2017)

Ultra-short view: Gravity meets Alien.

When a Martian soil sample is sent back from Mars for study aboard the International Space Station, excitement is global as the first signs of extraterrestrial life are discovered. Unlike anything on Earth, the collection of cells grows at a phenomenal rate. Just what you want to be stuck in a tiny confined space with, right?! o_O

It’s a little hard for me to be objective about Life, as I’m really not a huge fan of horror or monster movies, and this is firmly in that genre. That said, it would also include Alien and Sunshine, and while I’m not entirely sure where I’d rank this out of those three, it’s also not a total also-ran.

There’s not a great deal can be said without spoilers. Let’s see: the cast – including Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson – is reasonable, with some nice human asides before everything kicks off. Having watched a lot of the Tim Peake footage from the real ISS, this is making a reasonable attempt at verisimilitude, which I appreciated – things like the effect on the human body of being in space for over a year, or just the confined living spaces.

Possibly the reason this didn’t – hah! – really grab me is that it’s a pretty predictable, single-strand story, with plenty of added gore. If you like this kind of movie it’s reasonably slickly done, but I wouldn’t be rushing to recommend it to everyone.

Released: 24th March 2017
Viewed: 24th March 2017
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

All Our Wrong Todays – Elan Mastai

“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

Tom Barren lives in a 2016 that looks a lot like 1950s sci-fi predicted it would. Following the invention of unlimited free energy in the 1960s, his timeline is full of everyday wonders – and yet Tom is miserable, useless and out of place. When a series of mistakes end up with him travelling back in time, Tom proves his worth yet again by fouling up the world’s biggest invention – and boomerangs back to 2016, but not the one he knows.

Can Tom fix the timeline and get back home? Can he survive in our version of 2016, with pollution and wars and all the bad stuff? But, what about the good stuff he finds – like, a sister never born in his timeline, or a love of his life?

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I do like time travel and alternate reality stories, and this one has quite the intriguing premise for those. On the other, it takes almost half the book to really get going on those things, and prior to that we get a lot of whining from the narrator about how useless he is, etc etc. Which is why I put the book down and went and read something else.

However, I am glad I came back to it, as the good bit of the story is very definitely the second half. Suddenly, we have proper action and ‘oh no!’ moments and the need to find out what will happen next – and, of course, time travel conundrums a-plenty.

It’s tough to suggest slogging through the first half, but there are plenty of reviewers who didn’t seem to mind so much. It is, I’ll confess, quite a relief to have a flawed, very human lead character. For the ideas, the imagination, and the wanting to know what happens – yeah, glad I stuck with it!

NetGalley eARC: 393 pages / 137 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 3rd February – 24th March 2017

My rating: 7/10

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

“The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.”

Okay, first question: WHY HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING BY JOHN SCALZI BEFORE?!

By which I mean, oh boy did I enjoy this book! It’s not perfect, but it was a LOT of fun!

In the far-flung future, mankind has expanded far beyond the Earth – and subsequently lost touch with its home planet. This happens after the ‘Flow’ to Earth – the path that allows for travel between vastly remote locations within a sensible time span – collapses. Without that pathway, the journey could take millenia.

So, civilisation now consists of what is called the Interdependency: a highly structured, convoluted system of guild-owning families, each with a set of monopolies on certain trade items. The theory being, if everyone absolutely needs to rely on everyone else, peace and prosperity will reign. Well, it’s a nice theory…!

The Collapsing Empire is a fast-paced story following several characters, including the woman who has just discovered she’s unexpectedly about to become the new Emperox, or supreme ruler. The action takes place between her home, Hub, and the most remote planet in the Interdependency, End. With trouble in the Flow, and scheming nobles on both worlds, the new Emperoxy is certainly going to be an interesting time.

What I loved about this book was the cast of characters, particularly the thoroughly amoral, self-serving, foul-mouthed Lady Kiva. She seems incapable of not using the f-word in every sentence, so do be warned – about that, and also her obsession with having sex with anyone who wanders into view! This might not be to everyone’s taste, but the absolute hedonism (or, actually, sybaritism– hedonism is a little bit less self-centred ;)) with which she lives her life is kind of refreshing.

Tales of the future are so often dark and miserable these days. In fairness, we’re only seeing the higher echelons of society here, but while lives are not perfect at least it feels like society has made some improvements. Like, the utter irrelevance of gender, it would appear – loved that! Although it might be said that the author possibly drove these views just a little, whereas just having that the reality would have been enough and more subtle.

Talking of, there is a very obvious correlation between the events unfolded in the story, and a real-world analogy. It’s not rammed down anyone’s throat, but some people do find that sort of thing annoying. And no, as the author’s note at the end is at pains to point out, it isn’t the title linking to any political landscape of the past 12 months!

Back to the story, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the romp of a read, I did find it a little, hmm – shall I say, unsurprising? I’m not sure if there was meant to be a twist, or revelation, but it felt just a teenie bit flat for lacking that, which felt odd given the story coming from several different aspects. I’d also suggest the opening is a bit off, starting with characters who subsequently aren’t that important, although the snippet of their story is sort of background to events much further along.

I was wondering as I approached the end if there was actually a good case for a sequel, let alone a series, but the last few lines do add an intriguing hook – and I can’t wait for volume 2! I just have to hope that the author’s back catalogue – shamefully overlooked in my reading to date – is half as much fun as this 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 24th March 2017
Series: The Collapsing Empire book 1
Read from 17th-21st March 2017

My rating: 8/10

BladeRunner 3: Replicant Night – KW Jeter

“Wake up…”

I think the best thing I can say about this book is that it’s very worthwhile to read something a bit rubbish once in a while to make the good stuff look good! o_O

Not having been too impressed with the previous volume, Edge of Human, I had hoped that a second sequel (to the movie, Blade Runner, rather than the source book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) would move further away from the film and have a more interesting plot. Which it almost does, but not before we land slap bang in the middle of the movie – literally, as Deckard advises on a dramatisation of his hunt for the missing (5? 6? ;)) replicants. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but there are a lot of references to visuals in the movie that seem like trying-too-hard in-‘jokes’ for a book. Yes, Mr Writer, we’ve seen it too, thank you very much.

There is quite a lot of repetition here. I suppose some of the ‘real life’ turned to fiction is merited, but then it just keeps happening, constant little dropped references to “oh that bit that only real fans like me would remember”, and it gets really grating, really fast.

Which is a shame, as by the halfway point, there is a really quite fascinating new story line introduced, which had me glued to a large chunk of the book wanting to know what was going on. Alas, I’d have to suggest that the whole thing is handled less than well, and what could have been vastly interesting is turned into another superficial layer on the same-old that we’ve had more than enough of already.

The last book in the series has, like this one, been on my shelf for over a decade, so morbid curiosity will get me to the end, I’m sure. I’m not offering any recommendation, however.

Paperback: 309 pages / 19 chapters
First published: 1996
Series: BladeRunner book 3 (of 4)
Read from 3rd-10th January 2017

My rating: 4/10

Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

“My mother had a fondness for poetry.”

During the closing stages of a great war, Scur is captured by a sadistic enemy and left for dead. As she’s the narrator of this short sci-fi tale, obviously that doesn’t go exactly to plan, but when she wakes up it’s not exactly where she might have expected…

This is a relatively short piece, really an extended short story. As such, there’s a limited amount of background or layers to the plot, and rather it’s a simple story told with plenty of room for the reader to fill in some mental gaps.

As a whole, this works well – Reynolds is a great writer, after all. It really only slips for me at the end, which is a rather too-sweeping set of generalisations, which could really spawn a half-dozen further books!

Overall, though, it’s a well-written, rather intriguing slice of sci-fi, if a little heavy on the moralising about war and religion, and how and what we remember – plenty to get your brain going, given the slightness of the volume!

There’s no tie-in to any of the Revelation Space or other work, as far as I’m aware. Short and very readable, if you’ve not tried any of the previous work this isn’t a dreadful place to start, but it really won’t give you the full picture of how good the author can be.

NetGalley eARC: 192 pages
First published: February 2017 (in the UK; 2015 elsewhere)
Series: none
Read from 1st-5th February 2017

My rating: 7/10