Influx by Daniel Suarez
We all know some of those conspiracy-minded folks who carry on about how the government or corporations are suppressing knowledge of cancer cures or free energy or what-have-you in order to protect profits on pharmaceuticals and petroleum or whatever. The hole in those arguments always has been that the U.S. and the West in general are not the world. All this marvelous tech should be in use wherever their dominance doesn’t extend.
In his science fiction novel Influx, Daniel Suarez asks, “What if they’re right anyway?” Might that explain why, nearly half a century after the Moon landings, instead of Martian colonies we just have better phones? The Bureau of Technology Control (BTC) in his novel is a secret government organization that identifies emerging disruptive technologies and prevents their general introduction, though the BTC members make full use of the tech themselves. The inventions include anti-aging drugs, cold fusion, cancer cures, genetic engineering, hypersonic transport, true artificial intelligence, and much more. Supposedly the tech is being held back while "assessing their social, political, environmental, and economic impacts with the goal of preserving social order," but, predictably, the social order the gatekeepers are most interested in preserving is their own primacy and power. What about the “U.S. and the West in general are not the world” thing? There are other BTCs.
Jon Grady is an eccentric researcher who invents a gravity-mirror with profound implications for industry, defense, and space travel. He is abducted by BTC agents who try to recruit him with specious arguments about the greater good. Authoritarians are always adept at justifying their authority. He doesn’t buy it and consequently finds himself in a prison with other scientists and inventors. With help from fellow prisoners and disaffected BTC members including the genetically enhanced Alexa, can he escape, help expose and bring down the BTC, and let the long-delayed future finally arrive?
In many ways this is an old-fashioned scifi novel with the protagonist battling the odds against an arch-nemesis. But that’s OK. This is recreational reading material and succeeds as being good… well… recreation.
Thumbs Up for what it is: Not high-lit – not even high-scifi-lit – but entertaining.
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell was an inventive instant-classic cyber-punk anime in 1995 that inspired numerous animated and live-action films to follow, notably The Matrix. Surprisingly, it took more than 20 years to be adapted directly to the live-action screen. This heavily Americanized (though still set in Japan) version, now out on DVD, starring Scarlett Johansson has suffered from the time lapse. What may have been innovative in 1995 looks derivative today even though ultimately it derives from the ’95 original.
Whether they saw the anime or not, viewers will see little new here. Cityscapes are swappable with those in Blade Runner 2049 right down to the giant hologram advertisements. That said, the movie still looks good. Director Rupert Sanders has handled the material well with the dialogue and action scenes covering all the ground they need to cover coherently and competently. The movie flows well and there are no glaring holes in the final product.
Premise: In the future, humans enhance themselves with cybernetic add-ons. This is taken to the extreme when a young woman’s disembodied brain is implanted in an otherwise fully robotic body. Except for flashes, her memories are missing of her time as a normal human but she is told she is a survivor of a cyberterrorist attack that killed her parents, and that, as a brain in a full cyber body, she is something new. She joins an antiterrorist organization called Section 9 and attains the rank of Major. However, events cause her to question her actual identity, her human status, her real history, and the motives and morals of the defense contractor responsible for her existence.
In 1999, the year that The Matrix was released, this movie would have made more of a splash. In 2017 it is an also-ran, and no amount of Scarlett in skintight attire can change that. If you have a couple free hours some evening, this is entertaining enough, but not much more. Thumbs ever so slightly Up.
Black Widow: Deadly Origin by writer Paul Cornell and artists Tom Raney and John Paul Leon
The Black Widow (Natalia Romanova) has been a part of the Marvel Comics universe since 1964, sometimes as villain and sometimes as hero. The appearance of the character played by Scarlett Johansson in recent Marvel movies along with plans for future movies prompted Marvel to reboot the character in its comic books. Black Widow: Deadly Origin successfully does this with a coherent updated origin story that doesn’t totally lose sight of her earlier Marvel history. The story is told in flashbacks grafted onto a contemporary tale.
Born in 1928, Natalia was subject to a Soviet super-soldier program similar (though not identical) to the one in the US that produced Captain America: hence her lack of physical aging. Her loyalties flipped a few times over the years, and still aren’t to be taken for granted as was shown in Captain America: Civil War when she opposed the Cap despite their personal relationship. The comic reveals that much of her evolution as a person has to do with the father figure Ivan who is not what he seems to be.
Marvel has produced many fine comics and graphic novels. This isn’t one of them. It doesn’t have an engrossing standalone story-arc and so it fails as a graphic novel. However, it succeeds at doing what it was intended to do, which is to flesh out the history and character profile of one of the more interesting Marvel universe characters. This is the publication for you if you watched the The Avengers movie and asked yourself, “Who is this woman anyway?” Black Widow: Deadly Origin tells you what you need to know and more. The comic is well-drawn and is aimed at an adult (or at least young adult) readership, not kids.
Dual Score: Thumbs Down as a standalone comic. Thumbs Up as a movie character bio.
Samantha Fish – Belle of the West (2017)
Regular readers (there are a few out there) may recall that Samantha Fish is one of the current crop of musicians whose gigs I try to catch when she is in the area. She is an exceptional blues guitarist with an appealing voice and a good stage presence. In March of this year she released Chills and Fever in which she enriched her earlier basic three-piece sound with horns, keyboard, and a wider range of song styles. This is still the album I’d recommend for anyone unfamiliar with her work.
Belle of the West, her second album of 2017, is a worthwhile addition for those who already are fans even though (or because) it is not more of the same. “You should always get outside of the box,” she said, and in this album she did. The tracks, including originals and covers, with a few exceptions are much more country than blues. That’s not normally my first (or second or third) choice of genres, but this album works, and it’s hard not to give credit for trying something different. Once again, if you’re new to Samantha, this atypical (and possibly one-off) album might not be the place to start; pick up Chills and Fever or, better yet, see her live (http://www.samanthafish.com/tour/). But if you already have other tunes of hers on your cd shelf or in whatever digital format you prefer, Belle of the West should join them.
A qualified Thumbs Up.
Samantha Fish – Blood in the Water