Tag Archives: Mars

Extraterrestrial Discovery: A Review of Life

Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, and Jake Gyllenhaal in film poster for Life. All three actors are dressed in space suits. Content warning: blood and death of an animal. I will make one brief reference to the former and will not discuss the latter at all in this post.

Life is a 2017 American science fiction horror film about a six-member crew of the International Space Station that discovers the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars.

Unlike Europa Report, this film makes very few assumptions about what its audience already knows about NASA, space flight, or what life might be like on other planets. This isn’t a criticism, but I’d classify it as something closer to the horror or thriller genres than hard science fiction.

Characters

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan

 

Dr. David Jordan was from the USA and was the ISS medical officer.

He was so focused on his job that it sometimes negatively affected his physical and mental health. While his bedside manner was impeccable, I think I’d want him to have a nap and a hot meal before he treated me for anything more serious than a sprained ankle.

 

Rebecca Ferguson as Dr. Miranda North
Rebecca Ferguson as Dr. Miranda North

 

Dr. Miranda North was from the UK and was the CDC quarantine officer.

She was the sort of person who would double-check even the most mundane of tasks after completing them. This was sometimes a source of mild annoyance to her coworkers, but it’s exactly the sort of behaviour I’d want to see if I were working with an alien life form!

Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams
Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams

Rory Adams was from the USA and was the ISS engineer.

He was the jokester of this mission. His teasing was good-natured but could sometimes push the envelope a little bit too far because of how impulsive he could be.

Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami
Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami

 

Sho Murakami was from Japan and was the ISS systems engineer.

He was a warm, kind man who truly cared about his fellow crew members. Out of everyone on the space station, he seemed to be the person who was most strongly connected to his loved ones back on Earth.

 

Ariyon Bakare as Dr. Hugh Derry
Ariyon Bakare as Dr. Hugh Derry

 

Dr. Hugh Derry was from the UK and was the ISS exobiologist.

He was a trusting man who assumed the best in himself and everyone around him. One of my favourite moments in this tale happened when he shared a story from his childhood that I can’t repeat here without giving away spoilers. It was fascinating.

Olga Dihovichnaya as Ekaterina Golovkina
Olga Dihovichnaya as Ekaterina Golovkina

 

Ekaterina was from Russia and was the ISS Mission Commander.

She was professional and shared almost nothing about her personal life or backstory during the course of this film. One notable thing I can say about her is that she took her crew’s safety quite seriously.

My Review

Raise your hand if you love imagining what life on other planets might be like!

I don’t know about all of you, but I never grow tired of picturing what we’ll see on our screens if NASA ever calls a press conference to announce that they’ve found life on Mars, Europa, or some other place in the galaxy.

So of course I had to watch and review Life when I found out about it. While the discovery in this story isn’t of a little green man, it’s still something pretty spectacular. The trailer at the bottom of this post will give you a glimpse of it. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into much more detail about it other than to say that just because a creature is small doesn’t mean it’s harmless.

Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal in Life (2017)One of the things that I would have liked to seen done differently with this film had to do with how physically dark it was. While the plot was thematically dark, too, that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I would have loved to see more lighting in the scenes, especially in the beginning. I ended up needing to turn off the lights in my house in order to properly see what was happening in the opening scenes as the characters introduced us to their work environment and gave us the first glimpse of the little alien.

Speaking of the plot, the horror themes were strong in it even though the main storyline was definitely science fiction. The scenes involving blood were brief and only happened occasionally, but this is still something I’d only recommend to people who like horror in general because of how much it affected the way the plot unfolded.

I was pleased with how much thought the screenwriters put into how the International Space Station would realistically react to the discovery of life that isn’t from Earth. While this would obviously be an incredibly exciting discovery, it could also be possibly dangerous. We have no way of knowing ahead of time how such creatures would react to us, if they pose a threat to our health, or if we might pose a threat to their health as well.

So it was nice to see the astronauts take this discovery seriously. They talked extensively about the precautions they took to avoid unnecessary exposure to this alien until they knew more about what it was and how its body worked.

As someone who has seen countless horror and science fiction films, I was able to figure out the twists in it pretty early on. It would have been nice to have more surprises thrown in along the way, especially when it came to how the astronauts reacted once things began to go horribly wrong for them. Their reactions were pretty predictable once the pacing sped up.

With that being said, this was still something worth watching. I liked all of the characters and thought their camaraderie was written into the script nicely. They obviously didn’t have much time to do non-work activities, especially once they made their big discovery, but I did come away from this story with a sense of satisfaction. I got to know them just well enough to genuinely care about what happened to them, and that’s always important in this sort of tale.

If you love horror, outer space, or thrillers, this film might be right up your alley!

Life is available on Netflix.

Why Writers Should Pay Close Attention to the Insight’s Exploration of Mars

For anyone who hasn’t heard this news yet, NASA’s Insight spacecraft is scheduled to land on Mars today. If all goes well, it will dig sixteen feet down and soon begin transmitting data about this planet that no telescope can possible tell. Scientists hope to learn three things from this exploration:

  1. What material the core of Mars is composed of,
  2. What, if any, seismic activity might be happening on this planet and therefore whether the core is solid or liquid,
  3. The temperature of the core.

(Thank you to The Oatmeal for explaining these points in such humorous and vivid detail!)

Once we have the answers to these questions, scientists should able to figure out if Mars is still warm enough to have pockets of liquid water anywhere on it.

Here on Earth, liquid water is one of those things that is necessary in order for life as we know it to exist. If there are martian lakes, ponds, or rivers there that haven’t frozen over or evaporated yet, it’s possible that we could find organisms of some sort in those places.

I can’t tell you how many sci-fi books I’ve read about life being discovered on other planets, mostly on Mars. It’s a trope that the science fiction community has circled back around to over and over again for as long as this genre has existed.

Writing a post about why this mission is important for the sci-fi community would honestly be redundant. We know why we’re excited to see what this mission uncovers about what Mars was like in the past and how habitable it might still be in the present.

Obviously, this would be something that would quickly make it into the history books if or when it ever happens, but today I wanted to talk about why this possibility matters for all writers.

No matter what genre you’re writing in, I think you should pay close attention to how this story develops today and in the future for the following reasons:

  1. We need more books about characters who try over and over again. Not every Mars mission has been successful in the past. In fact, about half of them have failed. I can’t help but to imagine how all of the people who worked on those missions felt when they realized that a faulty piece of equipment, math error, or a technical glitch had prevented their machines from doing the job it was designed to do. To tie this back to writing in general, imagine how a small misstep that your character took or in the opening scene could have equally serious consequences for him or her down the road!
  2. Doing everything right is no guarantee you’ll win. I keep running into stories lately about characters who are triumphant in the end because they followed the rules. While I understand why this sort of plot is popular, I’d sure like to read more examples of characters who face hardships without the plot intending their setbacks to be a lesson for the audience. Sometimes bad things happen to good people -and characters – for reasons that have nothing to do with what they may or may not deserve.
  3. There is such a thing as multiple heroes. If, and hopefully when, we received word today that the Insight has safely landed on Mars and begun performing the tasks it was trained to do, there won’t be one specific person who can take credit for this success. There are dozens of people who worked on designing, building, and programming this machine. This doesn’t even take into account all of the other folks working behind the scenes to support this team as they made all of the necessary preparations to give the Insight the highest probability of success currently possible. The same can be said for many of the imaginary worlds that writers dream up. Very few parts of The Lord of the Rings would have turned out the same way if the only folks trying to bring the One Ring back to Mordor were a few small hobbits!
  4. History can change in an instant. Yes, sometimes things evolve so slowly that it takes years, or even multiple generations, for people to realize that what they were taught growing up is no longer correct. This isn’t always the case, though, and I think that this unfolding news story is an excellent example of how our understanding of science, biology, and cosmology might change in an instant.

I know I’ll be paying close attention to what sort of landing the Insight makes as well as the discoveries it will hopefully be sharing with NASA in the near future. Will you be keeping an eye on this story, too? I hope you will.

 

 

10 Things I Love to Read About

On Monday I blogged about the 10 Things I Won’t Read About. It was surprising to see how many of the people who read my posts have similar aversions to those topics.

Today I’m talking about 10 things that would make me keen to pick up and read a book. I tried to make this list as detailed as possible, so you won’t be seeing vague entries like “science fiction” here.

Instead, I’ll be drilling down to specific topics that I’d be excited to read about with little regard given to which genre they might pop up in.

1.  LGBT+ Historical Novels, Especially Mysteries.

I’m fascinated by how people in the LGBT+ community lived during eras when they had to keep such important parts of themselves hidden away. This is still something that happens with LGBT+ people in many countries and cultures today, of course. Seeing how this has changed or is changing in some parts of the world gives me hope that someday it will improve everywhere.

Watching LGBT+ characters attempt to solve a mystery while also holding tightly onto their own secrets also makes this sort of storyline even more nerve-wracking than it might otherwise be. I want some parts of the plot to be revealed while hoping that other portions are only shared with people who will treat the main character kindly.

Example: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. (I’m currently read this book, so please don’t share spoilers for it!)

2. Colonizing Mars (and Other Planets).

To put it mildly, humans made a lot of terrible mistakes when they invaded other countries and continents. While there isn’t any life on Mars* that could be destroyed if or when humans begin living there, there are still plenty of ways for that social experiment to have devastating consequences for everyone who participates in it.

Just think of how many people died due to accidents, violence, disease, and malnutrition when Europeans first began living in Australia, the Americas, and other parts of the world. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I expect the death rate for the first few waves of people who move to Mars to be quite high as our species figures out how to survive on a planet that doesn’t even have a breathable atmosphere for us.

*to the best of our current scientific knowledge.

Example: The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

3. Diverse or Unlikely Heroes. 

I love it when writers create protagonists who don’t fit the audience’s expectations of what a hero should look like. There have been so many examples of young, straight, white men saving the world in various fictional universes that I’m always happy to see people from other demographic groups get an equal chance to fight bad guys, too.

Example: Buffy Summers from the 90’s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

4. How Medical and Scientific Advancements Happened

This is by far the broadest category on this list, but I’m intrigued by how scientists and doctors solved any number of problems in the past that are either unknown in westernized cultures today or no longer exist anywhere in the world. The nice thing about reading about medical and scientific advancements is that the author generally spends most of their time talking about how that invention, cure, or breakthrough happened and how it changed society as a whole.

It’s been my experience that these sorts of books don’t spend much time at all discussing the graphic details of, say, a specific disease or injury. A portion of the first chapter might talk about the typical results for people before the invention of a certain drug or treatment, but generally everything else will be about how the researchers figured out a solution to the problem. I’ll endure a  brief discussion of surgery or gore early on if I’m otherwise interested in the topic and the author soon moves on to how that issue affected society as a whole and how the treatment or solution was eventually found.

Example: Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg.

5. How Social Justice Movements Actually Change the World.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. was widely hated by the mainstream culture before his assassination. He was seen by many white Americans as someone who was pushing for too much change too soon. This wasn’t something that was covered in any of my lessons about him in school, although after reading his wife’s memoir about their life together I wish it had been.

Sometimes the people who originally fought for a more just world aren’t around to see how all of those long years of hard work will begin to pay off.

Changing laws and public opinion on an issue takes time. It’s not generally something that will happen overnight, but it can happen. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past year or so, and it’s making me want to read more about what previous generations did to fix the things they saw that were wrong with their societies.

Example: My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King.

6. Foster Care and Foster-Adoption.

For the past three generations, various relatives of mine have fostered and adopted children. Honestly, this would be my #1 choice for becoming a parent if I had the desire to raise children. There is an urgent need for foster parents here in North America, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same could be said of many other parts of the world as well.

Having so many extended family members who were foster children makes my ears perk up every time a fiction or non-fiction book is written about this topic.

Example: Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter.

7. Rabbits Enjoying Adventures. 

Anyone who has known me longer than ten minutes will have some inkling of how much I love rabbits.

Anytime they show up as a main or secondary character in a story, I’m immediately interested in finding out what will happen to them.

There aren’t a lot of authors out there who write about rabbits going on quests, so I jump into every example of this niche I can find.

Example: Watership Down by Richard Adams.

8. Hopeful Visions of the Future.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m thirsty for stories that have a hopeful outlook on what is in store for humanity a few decades or centuries from now. The news is so full of fear and apprehension these days that I look for happier perspectives on what life will be like for future generations wherever I can find them.

Example: All of the Star Trek series.

9. Vengeful Ghosts Who Had a Point.

Many different types of ghost stories appeal to me, but the ones I enjoy the most are about folks who had excellent reasons for being so angry and restless in the afterlife.

There’s something emotionally satisfying about figuring out their backstories and seeing if the protagonists will finally be able to help them find the peace they were denied when they were still alive.

I’m also fascinated by how the actions of a small group of people can continue to negatively affect their descendants and/or community for generations to come. This regularly happens in non-paranormal ways in real life, and there often aren’t any easy answers for how to end those cycles once they begin.

Exploring this topic in a ghost story is a wonderful way to neutrally ask questions about justice, reconciliation, and what the current generation should be morally obligated to do to fix the mistakes of people who lived and died long ago.

Example: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.

10. The Daily Lives of Prehistoric People.

I sure wouldn’t want to be part of a hunter-gatherer tribe in real life, but I love reading about characters who lived in that kind of society.

There is something fascinating to me about all of the different skills one would need to survive when you need to make, hunt, or gather everything you and your family need to survive.  I’m also drawn to the idea of living in such a tight-knit culture. It’s not something I’d want to do all day every day, but I do see the benefits of forging such strong bonds with others. Having so many adults working together must have made everything from raising children to looking after a sick or injured relative easier than it is in more individualistic cultures.

If there are Neanderthals or other now-extinct human (or human-like) species in the storyline, I’ll be even more interested since there are so many things that a skeleton, stone tool, or cave painting can’t tell you about what a group was actually like.

Example: The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron.

What topics are you always eager to read about?

My 4 Favourite Science Fiction Books About Life on Mars

Today’s post was inspired by yesterday’s breaking news about a lake of salty, liquid water being found on Mars. This is exciting news for the scientific community and humanity in general. We may now be a little closer to discovering life on another planet.

As a sci-fi writer, I can only hope this leads to that outcome and paves the way for humans to live there someday. Maybe we’ll even be lucky enough to both find life on another planet and figure out how humans could live there longterm, too.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

The first time I read the premise of this book, I wondered how the main character, Valentine Michael Smith, managed to survive on Mars for his entire childhood when there weren’t any adult humans around to take care of him. Where did he find air? What did he eat and drink? Where did he get his clothing? Who looked after him when he was sick or too little to take care of himself? How did he know how to speak English?

Without giving away spoilers for these questions, I loved slowly figuring out what Valentine’s childhood had been like and why he was bewildered and even horrified by a long list of what I would think of as quite ordinary Earth customs.

While there are topics that Heinlein and I strongly disagree on,* I will always appreciate the way this book explored what it meant to be human and how life on Mars could be radically different from anything people have experienced on Earth.

*See also: the ways he treats and describes many of his female characters.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

This is a little embarrassing to admit, but the concept of The War of the Worlds scared me the first time I heard of it. The thought of aliens coming to Earth in order to harm people was something I’d never considered before. Before that point, I’d always assumed that any alien species that found Earth would be friendly with us. (Yes, I was pretty young and naive when I first stumbled across this book!)

I’ve since come to interpret The War of the Worlds as a reflection of humanity’s fears more than anything else. Just because we have a long history of harming those we can’t or won’t understand in no way means that sentient aliens would have the same reaction to us.

Or at least I hope they wouldn’t…..

 

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Let’s assume that there are no forms of life blissfully swimming their microscopic lives away in a salty Martian sea. A “dead” world might be the perfect setting for terraforming a planet to better suite the needs of humanity.

One of the things I loved about this trilogy was how long it followed the same storyline. Generations passed as Mars was slowly transformed into an Earth-like planet. Nobody who was alive in the first scene knew how everything ended by the final scene of Blue Mars. Writing it this way gave the author many opportunities to explore what happens when the original intentions of a scientist or explorer are reinterpreted by new generations as fashions change and people’s ideas of    how best to manage a resource as large as a planet shifted.

I’ve often wished humans could live long enough to see how their ideas still influenced people several generations later. The world might be a better place if everyone took such a longterm approach to the things they advocated for (or against).

The Martian by Andy Weir

Yes, I know I’ve blogged about this tale before. As much as I try to avoid talking about the same science fiction and fantasy books over and over again here, there are times when simply have to circle back and repeat myself.

One of the things I loved the most about The Martian was how hard the author worked to make the events of the plot scientifically plausible. While there were a few discrepancies between it and how such a mission would really play out in real life, much of it was pretty close to what any astronaut would go through if he or she really were to be accidentally abandoned on Mars.

I could see something close to these events happening if humans decided to try to live on Mars only to suffer massive setbacks early on. Hopefully, any future residents of the Red Planet would be just as resourceful as Mark was in this adventure.

What are your favourite sci-fi stories about what it would be like to either live on Mars or discover that another species already lives there?