Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


 

Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Perihelion Reviews

Bringing Back Baby

EVEN IF I DIDN’T LOVE NEANDERTHALS, genetics, anthropology and mad scientists, I’d love “The Neanderthal’s Aunt,” by Gina DeMarco. The novel may or may not fall short of strict definitions of “hard” science fiction, but the author delivers enough science-gone-wrong to justify her place in the annals of witty, well-written, character-driven science fiction with a lesson in hubris.

Gina DeMarco is only a pen name. The author has a doctorate degree in biology, works in the field of DNA sequencing, and keeps her real identity a secret. In this age of social media and self-aggrandizing, I find that so refreshing, admirable and bold, I just had to stalk her via Twitter. Well, I stalked her alias. Without resorting to a scary German accent and threats that we have ways to make her tweet, I got her to talk. First, I praised her novel, quite sincerely. Then I called her attention to a tweet I’d posted from the 12-Mar-2014 update of “Perihelion:” an explanation of “hard” science fiction as “honking good stories served up with a strong dose of real science. The story must be compelling and the science must be integral to the story.”

“It would be hard to make up something more compelling than a lot of what is real now, especially in synthetic biology,” DeMarco tweeted back. Indeed, The Neanderthal’s Aunt is proof of that.

First, let’s get the synopsis out of the way. Sara, a level-headed biologist, is about to become the aunt of a Neanderthal baby. Or so her sister Liz says. Scientists have found a way to recreate the long-extinct species from its DNA sequence and Liz, a recently widowed, yoga-loving socialite, has volunteered to adopt and raise the first experimental Neanderthal baby. Sara fears it’s a scam and Liz will be hurt. The project jeopardizes Sara’s reputation as a serious researcher, destroys her privacy and takes over her life. But worse things than that happen.

Funny things, too. The story is so engaging because Sara is as comically inept at dating as she is competent as a scientist. None of the ridiculous scenes come across as contrived. The best humor is funny precisely because we know real people think, say, and do stupid things even when they’re as brilliant as Sara. Or is it especially the smart people who blunder along like Sara does?

Let me just say I never knew hot peppers could have me laughing out loud, trying not to awaken my sleeping husband even as I secretly hoped to rouse him. If you guessed I was reading late into the night because I couldn’t put the book down, you guessed right.

The novel also had me near tears (other reviewers confess they did weep), but you’ll have to read the book yourself to see why. Part of this story’s appeal for me is that an ancient race, a great people, have gone extinct, and in spite of modern scientists studying fossil remains and archeological sites, we still don’t know what happened or how human the Neanderthals may have been. Jurassic Park has become a buzzword for our inner mad scientist wanting to clone old DNA and bring back extinct creatures, and this novel tackles the scary-sad possibilities, along with a good dose of humor.

Liz tries to defend the idea of being a mother to a Neanderthal. “This,” Sara narrates, “was an idea she kept bringing up in the beginning, the idea that modern humans caused the Neanderthal’s extinction, and we owed it to them to bring them back to undo our actions.”

Liz: “The whole race is extinct because we drove them to extinction. We owe it to them. To undo what we did in the past.”

Sara: “We don’t know that humans made the Neanderthals extinct.”

Liz: “Well of course we did.”

Theo, the mad scientist, has a perfectly reasonable explanation for cloning a race that went extinct. “We have chosen to resurrect the Neanderthal person ... simply because we can,” he explains.

Sara wryly thinks, “Hanlon’s razor tells us to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Along with a lot of unwanted media attention surrounding the clone, Sara faces pressure to track the source of a mysterious wave of bird deaths. This, I’m happy to say, is fiction, though it reads all too plausibly. “ ... hundreds of dead birds were found on the ground in separate incidents in Kentucky and Arkansas. However, the cause of these deaths is, to my knowledge, unknown and has not been traced to any specific cause: viral, environmental, or otherwise.” Somehow, DeMarco manages to inject humor even in a scene that ranks with Hitchcock for scary + birds + psycho guy on the loose.

Sara’s observations ring all too true for business as well as science and humanity. “The world I lived in was so full of anxiety, being afraid someone would publish your findings before you or that someone would point out a mistake in your calculations. Theo wasn’lt afraid of anything. I didn’lt know if that was good, but it sure was something.”

Theo is only one of many complex, vivid, memorable, and authentic characters in this story. Angus, another scientist vying for Sara’s attentions (and working with her on sequencing the DNA of all those dead birds), is painfully real and believable.

Sara’s pragmatic point of view shines at the baby shower, attended by an anti-vaccination crowd of quasi-science-minded mothers. Pampered and well off, they embrace conspiracy theories about the monopoly of big pharma, toxins poisoning their allergy-afflicted children, the medical community’s denial of holistic treatments, the government’s ... well, you know the crowd. Their scientific concerns codemarcome with a lot of New Age, trendy nonsense, which Sara endures without sneering aloud. “Designer clothes, designer pets. Why not genetically modified designer babies?” she wonders.

The rich, idealistic women speak of a new trend (this one, I’m sorry to say, is not a fiction) of human mothers eating the placenta of their newborns. “The mothers of all non-human mammals eat their placentas because they’re hungry and they do not want the smell of afterbirth to attract a predator to eat their babies,” Sara narrates. “So, if you happen to give birth while you are out alone on safari, you are in the proximity of a pride of lions, and your broken-down Range Rover has neither a loaded gun nor a cooler full of food, nor doors, then I would say that eating your placenta is certainly a good idea.” Amen.

Page after page, DeMarco never fails to infuse humor into her scientific observations. I laughed out loud at this one, though it’s possible men won’t see why: “Millions of years of evolutionary selection are supposed to have left women wanting to be protected and cared for, to be built a home, and presented with a freshly killed beast, and then cuddled in the dark.”

Plot spoilers keep me from excerpting some of DeMarco’s memorable lines about the Neanderthal baby whose imminent arrival drives the narrative. I’ll include a few from the opening chapters:

“Evolution is not an invisible rope pulling us forward. A giraffe does not have a long neck so that he can reach the leaves on the trees. He reaches the leaves on the tree because he has a long neck ... The present exists because of the past. And that is where the beauty of Darwin’s theory lies, in its randomness, in its luck.”

She quotes Saint Augustine, who “warned against preaching idiocy to Pagans in 415 AD ... if you tell people that they have to believe in things that they know are not true and that do not matter then they will never believe you when you tell them things that are true and that do matter.”

Sara and Liz have a brother who’s a priest, which serves to add more tension to the ethical dilemma of using clones and surrogates to revive an extinct race. His views are more traditional than Sara’s. “The Vatican even stated in 1950 that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Catholicism are compatible,” she argues. “Then, in 1996, Pope John Paul said that evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis. Evolution is, of course, taught in biology classes at Catholic schools.” That, sadly, is more than can be said of too many public schools.

Along with science and the ethical dilemmas that come with it, DeMarco delivers a romance angle, which comes as a nice surprise, considering how many mishaps this socially challenged woman scientist has suffered (oh, so comically!) until now. Naturally, even Sara’s most romantic moments are filled with the majesty of science. “I found Vega, the brightest of the three stars that formed the summer triangle. How many people, I wondered, had sat wrapped in someone else’s arms looking up at Vega? All of them, I hoped. It seemed like such a basic human activity, so deeply pleasant.”

In all, The Neaderthal’s Aunt is more than a lab experiment driven by good intentions, plagued with unexpected consequences, proof of the astonishing power of microorganisms. It’s surprisingly good fiction that fills a growing demand for #women in science, as the #hashtags at Twitter would have us know. It also satisfies my own demand for riveting, thoughtful, relevant science issues packaged in a story that keeps me reading to the very end. I look forward to more from this author, who is as funny and smart as A.R. Taylor (see “Sex, Rain and Cold Fusion,” review, 12-Jan-2014). Whether DeMarco and Taylor write fictionalized science, or science fiction with humor and poignant insights, I don’t care. I just want more where this came from. I’d like to see more from the cover artist, too, whoever ZMC may be. (“The Neanderthal’s Aunt,” Gina DeMarco, Amazon Digital) 5 stars —Carol Kean

 

Clash of the Titans

THE EIGHTH GENERATION CONSOLES are here and they’ve been met with an overwhelming “meh.” They’re expensive, they have lots of problems, and they are filled with games that don’t feel right. The games on the new consoles feel like they were made for the previous batch of consoles and then they got a facelift making them prettier with faster load times. None of the games are really defining for the new generation of gaming. That was true until March 11, 2014.

“Titanfall,” from Electronic Arts, takes place on a war-torn planet where you can play as either the Militia or Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC). You are a pilot who is a highly skilled foot soldier who can also pilot a large Mech-type suit called a Titan. Every three minutes or so your Titan is ready and you can make it fall out of the sky and then use it to do some real damage. The matches are six on six human players in various types of multiplayer scenarios.

The “campaign” is anything but. It consists only of multiplayer maps where two teams compete with some story playing in voiceover and some videos thrown in at the top of your screen. You can complete the entire campaign in less than two hours and it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the matches; the story comes out the same titanfall either way. It seemed an odd choice not to have a traditional campaign. While it is true that gamers don’t play games for the stories alone (especially shooter games where the action is the most important part) it is a part of the experience and it felt ... wrong not having a story in place. Not only can campaigns be as enjoyable as movies (COD: Black Ops, the BioShock series, the original Halo trilogy), it is a good place to learn techniques to use in multiplayer and there can be some real challenges to make you work your noodle in a new way.

The gameplay itself is truly amazing. The game does feel like something completely new and different in the world of gaming. Everything in the game is geared toward speed and direct engagement, though that will get you killed pretty quick as a pilot (and will get your Titan destroyed fast). You can double jump, run on walls, hack turrets and enemy drones, cloak yourself, ride good Titans and enemy Titans, and engage in hand to hand combat. You’ll find yourself dying a lot when you first go into battle, but after a few respawns you’ll get the hang of it, and it will become more enjoyable. The overall feel of playing as the pilots is closer to “Call Of Duty” play.

Playing as the Titan is something else entirely. It feels like you’re playing “Halo” as far as the amount of direct damage you can take. The Titans are very agile, like the pilots, but they don’t have quite the same speed and are unable to jump or run on walls. You can get out of your Titan and put it on autopilot for following you or guarding an area. This is a neat feature and works well if there is some Titan on Titan violence, or if you are trying to guard something like your flag in “capture the flag” mode. But an autopilot Titan falls victim to a pilot jumping on it pretty quickly.

There are quite a few weapons to choose from and more come along as you level up. There is a self-aiming pistol that can make a kill once it locks on, but the rest of the weapons seem like pretty standard stuff for a FPS. You can unlock better weapons as you go along but, again like “Call Of Duty,” the weapons you begin with are more than sufficient for killing.

There are only a handful of different types of matches to choose from, and only a few maps. With the attrition (deathmatch) the most popular, there is also capture the flag, hardpoint (king of the hill), last Titan standing (where the Titans don’t respawn and the last team to have one wins), and pilot hunter (like attrition but only pilot deaths are counted toward the final score). This is where a more in-depth campaign could have added in more options. If there was more of a story to begin with, those elements could have been used to add in different types of matches.

“Titanfall” has a high replayability; you’ll blink and find hours have passed by. If you’re a big fan of shooters (and online/multiplayer in general) this game is the next step in FPS. But if you are looking for a great story or something that makes you use your brain a little more, you should pass on this one. Originally released for the Xbox One (though it should be out on the 360 by time this article is in print), “Titanfall” doesn’t take advantage of the amazing new Kinect or Smart Glass technology. Sure those can be annoying from time to time but they add another layer of immersion that previous consoles just touched on. Also there is no splitscreen, so if you want to play with a friend they have to be on their own console and their own TV.

The potential is here but the content is lacking. Respawn/EA can keep trickling in downloadable content to keep the game fresh and new for some time to come. But if they don’t keep their DLC priced cheap or free I can’t see them attracting a larger gaming crowd. I just hope they decide to add a more traditional campaign along the way. (“Titanfall,” Electronic Arts, Online Multiplayer, PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360) 4 star—Adam Armstrong

 

There’s Gold in That There Schlock

MOST FILMS ARE BEST VIEWED in a quiet theater. In an atmosphere of hushed reverence; no talking, no texting, no interrupting the experience for any reason.

Those films probably don’t come standard with their own drinking game. “Science Team,” from writer/director Drew Bolduc, does. Devised by the film’s special effects crew, the game is as follows:

• When nameless minions in pink jumpsuits are onscreen, take a drink.
• When the film’s protagonist, Chip, fights off the pink suits, take a drink.
• If Chip smashes something, drink continuously through the entire smashing.
• If the word “science” is uttered, yell “science” back, then drink.
• If any character suffers a psychedelic freak out, take a drink.

That such a game exists says a lot about “Science Team.” It also says a lot about the story—those disposable pink-shirts are employed by the eponymous Science Team, a shadowy government op cleaning up extraterrestrial messes on terrestrial soil. When Chip’s (Vito Trigo) mother is killed and his home invaded by a menacing blob of alien origin, he must overcome both the creature and the ensuing Science Team cover-up.

What follows is a mess of fun-goofy, then explosively violent in equal doses. Given the filmmakers behind “Science Team,” that’s not at all surprising. Bolduc was responsible for 2010’s cult horror hit “The Taint,” in which a contaminated water supply transformed men into ravenous, women-hating killers. And the team of Bolduc, Trigo and producer/production designer Michelle Lombardi (plus the special effects team) were all a part of Troma’s splatterfest, “Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1.” To view “Science Team” is to expect more of the same.

Initially, that’s what it delivers—early scenes glimpse a spurting alien dissection and one particularly oozy face-melting. Its titular organization is a lowbrow Men in Black, staffed by women in short pants and headed up by a sputtering, wheelchair-bound lunatic in need of “good, hot killers to fight these future alienscience team threats.” But probing further into “Science Team” reveals far more than meets the eye, and a surprising depth nestled beneath so many gross-out gags. The higher-ups at Science Team are pillars of masculine rage. Chip, our wayward hero, is prone to shrieking fits, bulging forehead veins and the obliteration of anyone and anything close by (in speaking to Bolduc, he reveals that much of Trigo’s outbursts were improvised—“If anybody else would have done what Vito did, they would have been in the hospital”).

Before long, it’s apparent that “Science Team” is a send up of that inherent masculinity found in Area 51, men-in-suits-style science fiction. Its heroes put up a tough front (and an incredibly loud one), but they’re all pathetically incompetent. According to Bolduc, the film is “three men fighting over who knows what ... And they're all kind of stupid and they're all kind of angry.” Chip, for all his histrionics and his brutal dispatching of so many nameless pink extras, is essentially powerless. Meanwhile, the men heading up Science Team are all talk, wielding instruments like the “Tele-trans Communication Machine” or the “Mind Protectors.” The former is a translator that must be stabbed into the body of any alien it translates for, and the latter are flimsy helmets that protect against psychic energy (but are basically hard hats with a dab of paint). Is it any wonder these high-tech items barely function at all?

Shot in Richmond, VA, it’s a film made by community (as per Lombardi, “in Richmond, [there are] so many artists and just people who want to contribute”) and a film best seen by community. Even without audience members shouting “Science” and attacking their drinks, the film is a riot. Those screaming monologues of masculine fury (much of them improvised) can spring up from anywhere, at any time. Be prepared—frequently, they’ll hit a vein of outrageously offensive material, and drill into it until the audience is a heap of laugh-bruised sides and lungs.

Every once in a while, there’s even something of genuine visual merit. Keep an eye out for one Science Team member armed with a flamethrower—his debut is certainly the visual peak of the film.

Coming from low-brow, high-splatter roots, Bolduc has a distinct fear of being typecast. “People think of [Trigo and I] as only one thing. Like me, I get kinda put into the it's so bad it's good ... I might be just a shit filmmaker thing, so I gotta prove I can do a little bit more.” “Science Team” may err on the schlocky side, but that same schlock hides something of real meaning. Proof that Bolduc—and “Science Team—are more than just a never-ending supply of blood, body parts and non-descript alien goo. (“Science Team,” directed by Drew Bolduc, Buncom Media International) 4 stars —Adam Paul

 

It’s a Parody, Charlie Brown

WAY BACK IN THE WINTER OF 2013, we reviewed a popular webcomic by one of “Perihelion's” own staff artists, Jason Yungbluth. The groundbreaking comic, “Weapon Brown,” was a parody of nearly every comic strip character that is currently or ever was in the funny papers. The star protagonist of this mammoth achievement is one grown-up, part cyborg, rough and tumble Charlie Brown from the “Peanuts” comic, revisioned as Chuck “Weapon” Brown ... and his mean and lean sidekick Snoop.

At that time, we wrote:

Weapon Brown was first introduced in Yungbluth’s “Deep Fried” comic book. The original arc, “A Peanut Scorned,” tracked Weapon Brown and his dog Snoop as they crossed the ravaged landscape of post-World War IV Earth looking for Chuck’s kidnapped girlfriend. Along the way they encounter gritty adult versions of the entire “Peanuts” cast. At story’s end, Weapon Brown and Snoop are on the road again, heading for parts unknown.

Explains Yungbluth: “Weapon Brown has returned to bounty hunting and scrapes out a living earning the only things of value his world has to offer: electricity and weapon brownfamine rations. When his latest quarry turns out to be carrying something valuable, something that could save what’s left of humanity from extinction, Chuck ultimately finds himself throwing in his lot with a tribe of refugees that guard a secret coveted by his creators, the evil Syndicate.”

Nearly every comic strip icon is revisioned, adapted, and cast in an all-new, often surprising, role—from Beetle Bailey, to Popeye, to Little Orphan Annie, to The Pointy Haired Boss from “Dilbert.” Probably the only thing keeping Yungbluth out of the courts for massive copyright infringement is that the work is clearly, and hilariously, a parody of the first order. It is also some of the best science fiction adventure we have read in a very long time.

The artwork, in gorgeous black-and-white, is amazingly detailed. The characters are all immediately recognizable despite the fact that they have been seriously upgraded to a level of realism on a par with the best work from any DC or Marvel comic. For example, Snoop now looks like a real dog but he still does the famous “Snoopy dance” after vanquishing one of his arch enemies. Clever touches like these from the mind of Yungbluth have the reader savoring every page. The artist’s sense of composition is almost cinematic. Many installments of the series are one very large page with a single scene that soars with depth and detail.

Several months ago, Yungbluth engaged a KickStarter campaign for $12,500 to collect and print the entire comic as a graphic novel. The campaign was one of the most successful in history, raising more than $45,000, enabling Yungbluth to not only produce the graphic novel, but add lots of new material. The book is over 415 pages of comic art, and deserves a place in any collection. (“Weapon Brown,” Jason Yungbluth, Death Ray Graphics) 5stars —Sam Bellotto Jr.

 

Barely Skin Deep

WE SEE SO MUCH IN “UNDER THE SKIN.” We see Scarlett Johansson, a nameless alien in human form, rolling down lonely streets in Scotland and coaxing countless wandering males into her Venus Flytrap of a van. We see Johansson and her male victims strip bare in a black void and engage in a simple lure of a mating dance, always with the same result: a sex-blinded man swallowed up in black sludge. At one point, we even dip below the surface and see just what happens to these male victims (a grotesquerie that’s hard to fathom and not easy to forget).

But the one thing “Under the Skin” never offers is a “why.” Director Jonathan Glazer erects a wall between the viewer and anything resembling an inner monologue; all observations of the ethereal Johansson and her endless prey are made from a safe distance. The end result is a film that’s visually superb, thematically and intellectually engaging, and rather sparse on story.

Glazer’s source material was a little more direct. Michel Faber’s novel (also titled “Under the Skin”) gave its alien a name (Isserly) and a motive (human meat is a delicacy on her homeworld). There’s none of that here. What Glazer’s done is hollowed out the innards of “Under the Skin,” and replaced it with something of his own design.

The new meat within is a mix of genres. Johansson’s repeated seduction of male prey is something like an interplanetary nature doc, shot guerilla-style and calling on improvised material between Johansson and civilians on the street (nothing can match the discomforting sexual tension of chatting up real strangers from the comfort of your unmarked van). And when Johansson’s alone (alone with a victim, perhaps), Glazer wreaks havoc with his wildest arthouse fantasies—long, still takes and splotches of abstract color against stark blacks and whites.

Eventually he injects “Under the Skin” with a little narrative pep—after seducing a lonely disfigured man, some tiny spark of humanity appears in our cold steel femme fatale, causing her to go AWOL and attempt some strange approximation of a human lifestyle. She meets a guy. She tries a slice of chocolate cake. And all this while being pursued by her male alien counterpart, a stiffly robotic man clad at all times in racing gear. Is it a tad cliché to see our alien try to learn something about us humans? Sure, but so much of “Under the Skin” is utterly unique that one overused science fiction trope can be forgiven without a secounder the skinnd thought.

It’s all anchored by Johansson, in a performance punctuated with astounding physicality. In one moment she’s the Terminator; back straight, neck stiff, eyes scanning with the steady arc of a security camera. Later, after the black goo has had its fill of Scotsman, Johansson is lulled into some digestive coma. Reflected through a rearview mirror, she barely registers onscreen. One scene might find her bare body (prepare to see most of the cast nude at one point or another) dangled like an anglerfish’s lure, just out of arm’s reach until that arm is past the point of no return. Another might find her examining her own form with a childlike sense of curiousness.

Because sex is key in “Under the Skin.” Sex is an alien weapon. A human weapon. Men are animals, men are prey, men are predators. Really, the only one who doesn’t care for it is Johansson herself, making her as coolly detached a protagonist as there’s ever been.

And that makes deducing the true meaning of “Under the Skin” a rather difficult task. You may be better off just enjoying the ride, piecing together the little mysteries that can be solved (like, “what’s going on underneath that black stuff?”) and enjoying the film’s lush technical nature. That, “Under the Skin” has an endless supply of, even if the story runs dry a few minutes in. (“Under the Skin,” directed by Jonathan Glazer, Film4) 4 stars —Adam Paul

 

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