Hidden Messages

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Many years ago I was asked to be the scorekeeper at an international synchronized skating competition. I dressed in official black, sat at the judges’ table with my pencil in hand, and proudly wrote down each team’s scores. When the day ended I asked a judge where I should take my clipboard to have my scores recorded. The judge laughed. “Just throw them away. We only record them manually in case there’s a power failure and we lose the official scores.” So. I had just been an insignificant backup scribe. Yet I had enjoyed my experience sitting at the judges’ table, and if the power had failed, my recordkeeping would have saved the day.

I thought about my backup role at that competition while watching Hidden Figures, a terrific film about the little-known women — most of them “colored” — who provided the backup computations in the early days of the space program. They didn’t design the rockets or map the trajectories, but they double-checked the math for the engineers — all of them men — who did those things. It was a respectable job that required respectable dress and respectable manners. They also needed respectable math skills. But they were the proofreaders, not the creators. Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

I know how that feels too. My first real job was proofreading for a university press. I had a natural ear for spelling and for grammar rules, and I was fast and accurate at my job. As an added benefit, I spent my days reading the galleys of fascinating books and articles. I felt a definite pride in my grammar skills, as I’m sure the NASA computers felt pride in their math skills. But what I really wanted was to become a writer, not a proofreader. I wanted to be on the other side of those galleys.

Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

Three of the computers at NASA also had higher aspirations than backup math. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer in the film) wanted to be a supervisor. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. And Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) wanted to be an astrophysicist. Hidden Figures tells the compelling story of how these three women influenced the space program in the early 1960s, while also influencing the civil rights movement regarding women and African-Americans.

You probably didn’t know that any women worked on the space program in the early days, let alone black women. Neither did I. They have been a well-kept secret, these “hidden figures” who did the figuring. The film has predictably outrageous moments as we watch Katherine running to use the “colored restroom” in the building half a mile from the one where she works, or Mary being told that she can’t attend extension classes at the all-white high school, or Dorothy being given the responsibilities of a supervisor without the title or the pay that would go with the official promotion. But what makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence. They are as delightful as they are strong, and they bring something new and fresh to the civil rights story that is usually dominated by the men who were marching, sitting-in, and orating for freedom.

Fans of Big Bang Theory will enjoy seeing Jim Parsons in “Sheldon’s” dream job as a NASA physicist. Kevin Costner is well cast as level-headed, open-minded Al Harrison, the director of the department where Katherine is sent to check the trajectory figures. It was also good to see a grown-up Kirsten Dunst on screen as the supervisor in charge of giving the women from the computing pool their daily assignments. She portrays the kind of woman who thinks she is modern, progressive, and active in advancing the colored women who work under her, until Dorothy responds with a scathing smile, “I’m sure you believe that’s true.”

What makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence.

Hollywood makes few films that a libertarian can cheer, but Hidden Figures is one of them. I suspect the makers of this film didn’t even realize the libertarian ideals hidden within their script about civil rights and racial prejudice. Here are a few gems to watch for:

Lead the Way. Often the argument against change is “This is the way we’ve always done it.” In a film whose backdrop is the race to be first in space, Mary Jackson’s eloquent argument for being allowed to attend the white high school is profound. “Someone has to be first,” she says to the judge who will either maintain the status quo or change the future. “Why not you?”

Recognize Individual Worth. As a child, young Katherine (Lidya Jewett) demonstrates math skills far beyond her years. Her teachers not only recommend a school for children who are gifted in science and mathematics, but they also take up a collection to help her get there. Compare that attitude to the one touted in the new movie Gifted, in which the grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) of a brilliant little girl (McKenna Grace) wants to send her to a special school for gifted children but her uncle and legal guardian (Chris Evans) wants to keep her in the neighborhood school where she will have a “normal” childhood. What kind of world do we live in when we champion mediocrity and vilify those who would nourish genius? Katherine Johnson was blessed to have had her genius recognized and nurtured.

Make Yourself Indispensable. Katherine is sent to Harrison’s department as a simple proofreader, checking the math. She patiently endures the segregationist policies and does her work well. But she goes beyond that, using her skills in analytical geometry to solve trajectory problems the professionals haven’t been able to solve. Eventually her reputation for accuracy becomes so strong that John Glenn (Glen Powell) refuses to launch until Katherine has confirmed the Go-No Go calculations (a story that appears to be founded in fact). Instead of focusing on changing unfair office conditions, she focuses on doing her job well and making herself indispensable.

The law seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion.

Adapt to Changing Technology. When an IBM machine threatens to make the human computers obsolete, Dorothy heads for the library to learn Fortran. She encourages the other women in the computer pool to do the same. She realizes that the one sure way to keep a job is to stay ahead of change so the organization can’t get along without you.

Work Until the Job Is Done. As the pressure to beat the Russians to the moon increases, everyone has to step up. “You’re going to have to work harder and longer than ever before, ” Harrison tells them, “and your paychecks won’t reflect it.” Then he adds, “It starts with me.” They all feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment that transcends the word “job”; they’re part of a mission that will change the world. Compare this to the law enacted on December 1 that mandates workers earning less than $47K be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. It seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion. Significantly, the boss doesn’t give orders and go home — he works long hours right alongside them.

Be Persistent and Patient. Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine never stop lobbying for the promotions and advancements they feel they deserve, but they continue to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do in the meantime. They don’t lead protests or threaten to strike. Instead, they increase their educations, adapt to changing technology, look for places where they can make a difference in the organization, and make themselves critical to the organization’s success. As a result, each of these brilliant women became, in real life, a quiet pioneer — Dorothy Vaughan became the first African-American woman supervisor at NASA, Mary Jackson became the first African-American woman aeronautical engineer, and Katherine G. Johnson was the first African-American woman to become a technical analyst for the space program. Their story is finally and finely told in a film that is entertaining, inspiring, outrage-inducing, and in the end, triumphant.

Often the argument against change is


Editor's Note: Review of " Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi. Fox 2000, 2016, 127 minutes.



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Marooned on Mars

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The final story in Ray Bradbury’s collection The Martian Chronicles is called “The Million Year Picnic.” In it, an American family escapes the nuclear destruction of the earth and lands on Mars, where the father tells his children, “Tomorrow you will see the Martians.” The next day he takes them on a picnic near an ancient canal, where they look into the water and see their own reflections. Simply by moving there and colonizing, they have become Martians. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes a similar point when he is stranded on Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.”

The Martian is a tense, intelligent, and engaging story about an astronaut who is left for dead when his fellow crew members are forced to make an emergency launch to escape a destructive sandstorm. Knocked out rather than killed, he regains consciousness and discovers that he is utterly alone on the planet. Solar panels can provide him with renewable energy, oxygen, heat, and air pressure. But the next mission to Mars isn’t due for another five years, and he has enough food to last just 400 days. What can he do?

As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome.

There is something fascinating about this storyline of being marooned or abandoned and left entirely to one’s own devices, whether the protagonist be Robinson Crusoe on his desert island; The 33 (2015) workers, trapped in a Chilean copper mine; Tom Hanks, Cast Away (2000) in the Pacific; the Apollo 13 (1995) crew, trapped in their capsule; Sandra Bullock, lost in space (Gravity, 2013);or even Macaulay Culkin, left Home Alone (1990), just to name a few. These films allow us to consider what we would do in such a situation. Could we survive?

I well remember the time I was left behind at a gas station at the age of ten on the way to a family camping trip. I had been riding in the camper of the pickup truck while my parents and sister rode in the cab. I had stepped out of the camper to tell my mother I was going to the bathroom, but before I could knock on her window, my father shoved the transmission into gear and started driving away. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or how I would contact my parents after they left without me. I was even more afraid of strangers than I was of being lost. It would be at least 300 miles before they stopped again for gas, and even then, they might not look into the camper until nighttime, and how would they find me after that? All of this went through my mind in a flash. Then I leapt onto the rear bumper of the truck as it eased past me and clung tightly to the handle of the camper.

I was hidden from sight by the trailer we were pulling behind us. No one would see me there, and if I jumped off or lost my balance, I would be crushed by the trailer. As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome. I managed to pry open the door of the camper, squeeze through the narrow opening, and collapse onto the floor, pulling the door shut behind me. Instead of being frightened by the experience, I was exhilarated by my successful maneuver and problem-solving skills. I could do anything! My only regret was that no one saw my amazing feat.

One of the reasons we enjoy movies like The Martian is that they allow us to participate with the protagonist in solving the problem of survival. Rather than curl up and wait to die, à la Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (honestly — five years on a tropical island and he’s still living in a cave, talking to a volleyball? He hasn’t even made a shelter or a hammock?), Watney assesses his supplies and figures out how to survive until the next mission arrives. A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does. He makes the difficult decision to cut up some of his precious potatoes for seed, knowing that his only chance for survival is to grow more food. He figures out how to make water, how to extend his battery life, how to deal with the brutally freezing temperatures.

He also keeps a witty video journal, through which he seems to speak directly to the audience. This allows us to remain intensely engaged in what he is doing and avoids the problem encountered in Robert Redford’s 2013 castaway film All is Lost, where perhaps three sentences are uttered in the entire dreary film. Welike Watney’s upbeat attitude, his irreverent sense of humor, his physical and mental prowess, and his relentless determination to survive. We try to anticipate his next move.

A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does.

The visual effects are stunning. Many of them would not have been possible even three years ago, before the innovations created for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). The techniques used to create weightlessness as the astronauts slither through the space station are especially impressive; we simply forget that they aren’t really weightless. The unfamiliar landscape — the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the outdoor scenes were filmed — is a bit reminiscent of a futuristic Monument Valley. It contributes to the western-hero sensibility while creating a feeling that we really are on Mars. I’m not sure the science works in the dramatic ending, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The Martian is smart, entertaining, and manages to work without a single antagonist — nary a nasty businessman or greedy bureaucrat can be found. If that’s what our future holds, I’m all for it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott. Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, 2015, 142 minutes.



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Okies in Outer Space

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After last year’s Gravity introduced technological advances that led to cinematic magic on the screen, I couldn’t wait to see Interstellar, this year’s much-heralded space flick. Helmed by master action director Christopher Nolan and with a cast led by last year’s Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, it had every reason to be, well, stellar. That it has taken me two weeks to write this review might give you a hint as to my reaction.

Interstellar is set in a not-so-dystopian future when the military industrial complex has been disbanded, machines and computers are no longer being manufactured, the space program has been closed for refusing to drop bombs, and textbooks proclaim that the lunar landing was a hoax. Anarchy has not led to chaos, however. No dictator enforces tyrannical rule, nor have marauding gangs taken over à la Mad Max. Neighbors play baseball, farmers plant corn, and life seems idyllic — except for the fact that corn is the only crop that will still grow, and gigantic clouds of dirt rivaling those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s regularly blow through town. Yet no one on earth seems remotely aware of the impending extinction or even has the gumption to move to another part of the country. At least the Okies packed the rocking chair on top of the truck and moved to California to find better fields and opportunities.

I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance. But that part of the film is short-lived.

A few souls do remember the old days. Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer who used to be a pilot, wistfully laments to his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), “There was a time when we were explorers and pioneers. Now we’re just caretakers.” When Murphy’s teacher calls Coop to task for telling Murphy that the moon landing really did happen, Coop rightly asserts his authority as a father to teach her what he knows to be true. Freedom of thought, if not intellectual honesty, seems reasonably alive and well in the future, according to this film. As I settled in to watch it unfold, I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance.

But that part of the film is short-lived. Through pseudo-supernatural means, Coop and Murph are led to an underground research lab where former NASA rocket scientists have been working on a project to discover a compatible planet in outer space. They hope to transport the remnant of humankind there. Within hours Cooper is pressed into service as the only pilot capable of flying the rocket, and a couple of days later he is blasting off. Tearfully he hugs his children goodbye, knowing that, because of the effects of traveling beyond the speed of light, he is likely to be much younger than they are when he returns. Murphy is understandably despondent and refuses to say goodbye even as Coop drives away.

Murphy’s refusal to talk to her father is the only dramatic conflict we encounter inthe first half of this nearly three-hour film. No one is hoarding or looting, and everyone seems calm. “The last to starve will be the first to suffocate,” someone shrugs about their future, but no one seems to be in a panic about it. They aren’t even motivated to move to a less dusty area where the climate might still be conducive to agriculture. Without dramatic conflict, the film has about as much tension as a science documentary.

That all changes in the second half of the film, when our space travelers encounter catastrophic forces of nature, mortal combat with crazed enemies, devastating rocket explosions, split-second rescues, and a time-travel sequence that, while implausible, is inventive, suspenseful, and exciting. For the last hour of the film I was right where I wanted to be, on the edge of my seat. But it took way too long to get there.

Ultimately Interstellar is more about an irrational father-daughter dynamic than it is about space travel or saving the world. It suffers from serious plot holes, unresolved character discrepancies, and weak dramatic conflict. The special effects are pretty special, and the second half makes the film worth seeing once. But I wouldn’t want to sit through the first half twice.


Editor's Note: Review of "Interstellar," directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 169 minutes at well below the speed of light.



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Protecting the Universe

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Do we really need another movie about superheroes protecting the universe from power-hungry villains? Probably not. And yet here we are with another space western, and this one is pretty good.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about as formulaic as they come. The comparison with the first Star Wars is inevitable: with an earnest young protagonist (Chris Pratt) who loses his family early in the film and a sexy female protagonist (Zoe Saldana) who can hold her own in a fight. It sports a giant, loveable Wookiee-like creature (a tall tree voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only be understood by his cynical, wisecracking Han Solo-like best friend (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). Guardians has also its share of eccentric intergalactic traders, thugs, and black marketeers as well as bad guys who blow up planets and want to control the galaxy.

The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well.

Nevertheless, there is something fun and endearing about Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise, but without being a parody or a carbon copy. It’s more like the Star Wars sequel we’ve been longing to see, and it’s backed by ’80s songs that will make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. (In fact, the soundtrack album, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1,” reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart.)

Peter Quill (Pratt) is a space-age scavenger-for-hire who was abducted by aliens on the night of his mother’s death. He works for low-level space criminals, drives a tricked-out muscle car of a spaceship, and still listens to the ’80s music mix his mother made for him just before she died. More Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, he faces danger with sassy aplomb and power-kicks aliens in time to the tunes blasting from his vintage Sony Walkman. His life is endangered when he takes possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by numerous sinister buyers, and he ends up joining forces with Groot (the tree character), Rocket (the raccoon), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands.

That’s about it. The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well, largely because of the chemistry of the characters Quill and Rocket and because of that perfect soundtrack. Director James Gunn explained the importance of the music to the film and the characters: "The music . . . is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me, except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

Yep — just like you and me. Guarding the galaxy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy," directed by James Gunn. Columbia Pictures/Walt Disney/ Marvel Studios, 2014, 121 minutes.



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The Big One

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Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



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Passing the Promethean Torch

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The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




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Deist Dystopia

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Yet another film about earth's dystopian future hit the theaters this week, with at least two slated for later this summer. We humans seem to need some scolding about our profligate ways, and Hollywood, that bastion of restraint, is just the town to let us have it.

In After Earth, humans have again evacuated from earth to a distant location in space after destroying the home planet by pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear war. It is now a thousand years later, and "everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans." (Although one has to wonder how this evolution occurred, considering that no humans remained behind to contribute to the natural selection process . . .)

On the new planet, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is a young cadet who wants to become a brave and respected ranger like his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith). But mostly Kitai just wants to be accepted by his father, who seems distant, cold, and demanding, more like a commander than a father.

When Cypher is called up for a mission, he decides to bring Kitai along. The ship is damaged in a magnetic storm and crash lands on — you guessed it — earth, where all those animal predators have evolved to kill humans. Strapped in during the crash, Kitai is unhurt, but Cypher's legs are both badly broken, and the other crew members are dead. The only hope of survival is to retrieve the emergency beacon from the wreckage of the tail, 100 kilometers away. Kitai must make the journey by himself, through unfamiliar land where predators have evolved . . . well, you get the picture.

For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving.

The predators are attracted to humans through the pheromones released by fear. No fear, no predators. Cypher encourages his son with the film's philosophical tag line: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." It's a powerful concept, and if there is only one takeaway from the film, it's a good one. "Fear is not real," Cypher explains. "Fear is a product of our thoughts of the future. We are all telling ourselves a story. Fear exists only in the imagination. Stay focused in the present, and there is nothing to fear." I kind of like this version that I found on Facebook today: "Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be."

Unfortunately, "fear is a choice" is about the only takeaway. For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy and an actor known for both his wisecracks and his ability to save planets, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving. Trapped by his broken legs, Cypher himself can't move. Instead of movement, we see his stoic reserve, his pain-induced wooziness, and his pensive flashbacks of family times at home.

Midway through, the film turns into a heavy-handed allegory. Before sending Kitai off into the lone and dreary wilderness, Cypher dresses him in a mechanized space suit equipped with a 360-degree camera and heat sensors. This gives Cypher a bird's eye view of Kitai's surroundings; Cypher can see everything in front of Kitai and behind him. Thus Cypher operates as an unseen, disembodied voice who guides Kitai from a position of omniscience. The boy must trust his father's voice and obey his commands in order to survive. At one point Kitai's receiver stops working. He can't hear his father's voice, but his father can still hear him. He thinks that his father is no longer watching him, but of course the father is there all along. The deist allegory is crystal clear, and rather satisfying if you like that sort of thing. I sort of do.

It makes even more sense when the credits roll and M. Night Shyamalan's name appears as director. Shyamalan is known for the spiritual themes that permeate his works, but also for the decline of his storytelling technique. He is best known for his stellar freshman work, The Sixth Sense, which is possibly the best ghost story ever made, and Bruce Willis' best and most serious acting job. Shyamalan was a shining star back then, but his star his dimmed to a nightlight now. In fact, the trailers for this film didn’t even include his name. Nor did it appear in the opening credits. The name that used to fill theaters is now considered box-office poison, I guess.

Allegory or not, the film remains heavily antihuman. Even after 1,000 years without people, the earth has not managed to stabilize. In fact, climate change has deepened. Temperatures drop well below freezing at night but soar into the tropical zone during the day. Oddly, broadleafed trees and warmblooded bison have no trouble thriving in these extreme temperatures.

The original screenplay for this film was not set in the future, or even in space. Father and son were driving a lonely road when their car crashed and the father's legs were broken. The young son had to hike through the forest on his own to find help and save his father's life. Will Smith decided that the film would be much more exciting if it were a sci-fi story set in space, with scary aliens and cool equipment. But I'm not so sure they made the right decision.

Father trapped in a car? Sending young son out into the woods alone? In this day and age? Now there's a scary story.

Danger is real. Fear is a choice. And even though movie danger isn't real at all, I think I would choose to be very fearful watching that scenario.


Editor's Note: "After Earth," directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Columbia Pictures, 2013, 89 minutes. (But it seems like two hours, at least.)



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