Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Second Variety by Philip K. Dick

Vintage Science Fiction Blog Challenge badge. It shows a rocket ship against a red background. There is a bubble city in the background. Vintage Science Fiction month takes place every January, and has a few guidelines:

 – read, watch, listen to, or experience something science fiction / fantasy that was created in 1979 or earlier

 – talk about it online sometime in January

 – have fun

If any of my readers are also interested in participating this month, let Little Red Reviewer know about your posts if you’d like them to be included in her official roundups. 

Today I’m going to be blogging about “Second Variety,” a science fiction novelette by Philip K. Dick about what happened to the Earth and the few remaining humans on it after a nuclear war erupted between the Soviet Union and the United Nations.  This tale was originally published in 1953, but many of the themes in it still feel fresh nearly 70 years later.

Click here to read “Second Variety” for free. Everything after this sentence and in the tags of this post contains spoilers for this story, so reader beware! 

Second Variety by Philip K. Dick book cover. Image on cover is of a stylized, human-shaped flame holding the Earth. The first thing that grabbed my imagination when I was reading this tale had to do with the destruction of the natural environment. There was so much devastation everywhere the characters looked.

It briefly reminded me of the massive forest fires currently burning in Australia. Just like in our world, the lion’s share of the suffering was shouldered by innocent living beings – human and otherwise – that were never given a choice in the matter. It was utterly unfair.

While this is a story about war, it’s not a war story. The biggest battles have long-since happened by the time we meet the main characters, and the addition of a new enemy has already thrown both sides off-kilter. The exhaustion of fighting an enemy that never needs to sleep or fulfill other human needs also added a new twist to this post-apocalyptic world.

There were actually times when I felt a little sorry for the robots. Yes, they were attacking humans…but they weren’t the ones responsible for causing such severe environmental damage that Europe and vast swaths of North America were no longer able to grow any food at all. They were just following the orders they’d been given by their creators.

With that being said, I still loved the plot twists involving the robots and what they were capable of doing. They technically weren’t alive, but they sure acted like it. Not only did they repair themselves when broken, they paid close attention to what was left of human culture and looked for any weaknesses they could find and take advantage of. That’s not something I’d normally expect from a robot!

As someone who has read a ton of post-apocalyptic and robotic science fiction, I figured out where this story would probably end up pretty early on. That isn’t a criticism of the piece, though. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of other authors were influenced by Mr. Dick’s writing style kind of like modern authors have written things that echo the Harry Potter series or various Margaret Atwood novels.

This repetition and evolution of ideas is common in all genres. It will be interesting to see if any of my fellow scifi fans had the same reaction to this story, especially where the ending is concerned.

Dangerous Voyage: A Review of Europa Report

Film poster for Europa Report. Image on poster shows an astronaut standing on an icy plain in Europa while Jupiter looms overhead.Content warning: Found footage and mental illness. I will be discussing these things later on in this post.

Europa Report is a 2013 science fiction film about an international group of astronauts who are sent on an expedition to Jupiter’s fourth largest moon, Europa, to see if they can find any evidence of life there.

This story expects its audience to already know the basics of how space exploration works and what astronauts would realistically hope to accomplish on a mission like this one.

While the plot definitely does meander into places that are beyond the scope of our current understanding of other parts of our solar system, I classified it as hard science fiction and would suggest spending some time reading about real-life spaceflights and NASA’s tentative plans to explore Europa before watching this film to anyone who doesn’t already have a basic understanding of these things already for reasons I’ll explain in my review below. (Both of those links are nonfiction and 100% spoiler-free).

I should note that this was shot as found footage, so there is shaky camera work in a few places. This is a technique that has made me a little nauseated when it happened in other films. While it didn’t bother me in this one, I still thought it would be best to make note of it for anyone who has a more sensitive stomach.

Characters

Daniel Wu (left) as William Xu
Captain Daniel Wu (left) as William Xu. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

Captain Wu was the level-headed leader of this crew who was excited to see Europa regardless of what they discovered there.

 

Anamaria Marinca as Rosa Dasque
Anamaria Marinca as Rosa Dasque

 

Rosa was the pilot and archivist. A risk taker at times, she signed up for this mission because she wanted to go “faster and farther than anyone else before.”

 

Michael Nyqvist as Andrei Blok
Michael Nyqvist as Andrei Blok

 

Andrei was the chief engineer. He was highly skilled at his job but found the living accommodations on the Europa One to be less than ideal, especially once he began to deal with his emotional reaction to something difficult that happened earlier on in the mission. My fan theory was that he was a deeply introverted man who struggled to find enough peace and quiet in such tight living quarters even before that experience occurred.

 

Karolina Wydra as Katya Petrovna
Karolina Wydra as Katya Petrovna

 

Katya was the science officer. Her background was in marine biology and oceanography, but she was ironically scared of flying when she signed up for this mission. She was adventurous and yearned to fulfill the crew’s mission and discover life on Europa.

 

Sharlto Copley as James Corrigan
Sharlto Copley as James Corrigan

 

James was the engineer. He’d left behind a wife and young son to go on this mission and often spoke of how much he missed them.

Christian Camargo as Daniel Luxembourg
Christian Camargo as Daniel Luxembourg. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

Daniel was the chief science officer. His friendship with James provided a few lighthearted moments in an otherwise serious tale.

My Review

Don’t let the introduction to this post deter you from giving this film a try if you’re unfamiliar with the topics it covers. While it does expect the audience to come with some prior knowledge of spacecrafts and space travel, the storyline was well written and fascinating.

“The Europa One Mission was the first attempt to send men and women into deep space. For over six months the world watched every moment.”

All of the characters had spent years gaining the education and experience necessary to be eligible for this sort of history-making mission. Since this was a plot-driven story, there wasn’t a great deal of time spent exploring their backstories. I did learn enough about them to become emotionally attached, though.

As mentioned in the content warning and character description, there is a subplot about Andrei’s struggles with his mental health. All of the astronauts had been taught about the dangers that this mission could pose to their mental health, from the effects of Zero G to the natural consequences of living in relative isolation for so long. I appreciated the way the filmmakers handled this topic.

While I can’t discuss the incident that contributed to this character developing a mental illness without giving away spoilers, it was handled sensitively. There was nothing salacious about it, and it fit into the storyline perfectly. Honestly, I could very well have had the same response if I’d been in his shoes. This is something I’d be happy to discuss in more detail privately with anyone  who asks for it.

The camaraderie between the six astronauts was well documented and provided a nice contrast to all of the scenes that went into detail about the various scientific studies they were conducting and the many things they needed to do to keep their ship in good shape.

Katya exploring Europa
Katya exploring Europa. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Some of the most exciting scenes were obviously the ones that showed what happened after the astronauts arrived on Europa.

They had a long list of samples they wanted to take from the ice and sea beneath the ice.

What would they find there? How would the readings of this moon taken from Earth compare to what it was actually like?

I had so many questions about this part of their journey, so I was thrilled to see what happened after they arrived and began analyzing everything. Yes, there were certain acronyms and references mentioned during this portion that weren’t explained to the audience. Some of them could be figured out from context clues. Others might require searching online for viewers who aren’t already familiar with this stuff.

Honestly, I think doing a little of research is well worth figuring out exactly what characters are talking about when they’re testing a sample of water or discussing how to fix a damaged portion of their vessel. While that may make this film a little less accessible to the average viewer than it would otherwise be, I thought writing it that way was the right choice. Actual astronauts wouldn’t pause to explain every technical term they used, after all!

To share one final note, the plot was shared out of chronological order in certain scenes. Everything you need to know is included if you pay attention, and the reasons for filming it this way will become clear if you stick with it.

This was something I had a wonderful time watching. I highly recommend it to anyone who is willing to put a little effort into piecing everything together.

Europa Report is available on Apple TV.

Haunting Secrets: A Review of The Lost Ones

Book Cover for The Lost Ones by Anita Frank. Cover shows white outline of woman at top of staircase. There is a large picture window behind her and stylized leaves decorating the rest of the cover.

Title: The Lost Ones

Author: Anita Frank

Publisher: HQ (Harper Collins)

Publication Date: 2019

Genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Gothic, Horror, Paranormal, Historical

Length: 400 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Blurb:

Some houses are never at peace.

England, 1917
 
Reeling from the death of her fiancé, Stella Marcham welcomes the opportunity to stay with her pregnant sister, Madeleine, at her imposing country mansion, Greyswick – but she arrives to discover a house of unease and her sister gripped by fear and suspicion.

Before long, strange incidents begin to trouble Stella – sobbing in the night, little footsteps on the stairs – and as events escalate, she finds herself drawn to the tragic history of the house.

Aided by a wounded war veteran, Stella sets about uncovering Greyswick’s dark and terrible secrets – secrets the dead whisper from the other side…

In the classic tradition of The Woman in Black, Anita Frank weaves a spell-binding debut of family tragedy, loss and redemption.

 

Review:

Content warning: Death of a child. 

Some secrets refuse to stay hidden.

As the blurb and the content warning mentioned, one of the subplots of this tale involved what happened to a house in the years following the sudden death of a child there. That child’s identity and reason for death were things that were revealed much later on in the plot, so I won’t go into any detail about them here. What I will say is that this tale spent a great deal of time exploring how grief not only changes over time but can stick with someone long after their loss. The family who experienced this loss weren’t the only ones who were grieving. I loved seeing how the other subplots involving grief were interwoven with this one. Not all of them were quite as dramatic, but they worked together beautifully.

What made me give this book a 3.5 star rating was the behaviour of the characters, especially Stella. She’d been intelligent enough to qualify as a nurse in World War I, and yet she continually made choices that I struggled to understand even while knowing that she’d suffered a terribly tragedy while abroad. Her lack of common sense astounded me at times, especially when it came to how she responded to phenomena that had no rational explanation. The occasional lapse of judgement is totally understandable, but there were times when I found it hard to take the plot seriously because of how often she rushed into dangerous situations without thinking things through first. This was a flaw that was repeated with some of the other characters as well, including ones that had lived at Greyswick long enough to that there was something dangerous lurking there.

The treatment of the female characters was handled nicely. We’re still a long ways off from ending sexism, but it was much more insidious in 1917. Women from every social class dealt with it, and there were very few laws to protect them from harmful stereotypes about what they were capable of and how they should be treated if they stepped outside of a narrow range of acceptable behaviours. This isn’t something that a lot of gothic novels address, so I was pleased to see it get so much attention here even though I also cringed at the way women’s hormonal states or “feeble” minds were used as an excuse to avoid getting to the bottom of what was causing so much havoc at Greyswick. It was historically accurate, though!

Despite these issues, The Lost Ones was a deliciously chilling read that I’d recommend to anyone who loves Gothic literature or haunted houses and doesn’t mind suspending their disbelief for a while.

Creepy Christmas: A Review of Krampus

Content Warning: Blood and a dysfunctional family. I will be briefly mentioning these things in my review.

Krampus film poster. It shows the demon standing on the roof of the home the main characters live in. Krampus is a 2015 dark fantasy horror comedy film about a young boy named Max who has a disappointing Christmas with his argumentative, dysfunctional relatives and accidentally summons a festive demon to his home as a result of it.

In Central Europe, Krampus has been known historically as a  “half-goat, half-demon” creature who punishes naughty children at Christmas time. Some folklorists think he might have been invented long before Christianity existed!

He is generally described as a creature with cloven hooves, horns, fangs, and a thick pelt of black or brown hair covering his body. Think of him as a contrasting figure to Santa who rewards good children with presents, but stories about him probably existed in Central Europe long before Santa did.

I was vaguely aware of the legends surrounding this mythical figure before watching this film. It was fascinating to learn more about him both by watching it and doing some research about where this legend came from and how it has evolved over the years.

As always, my descriptions of the characters are written in the past tense to avoid giving away spoilers.

Characters

Emjay Anthony as Max Engel. He is licking an envelope in this scene.
Emjay Anthony as Max Engel

 

Max was the main character. He still believed in Santa when this film began, and he accidentally summoned the Krampus after having a fight with his cousins about the existence of Santa among other sensitive topics in this family.

 

Adam Scott as Tom Engel.
Adam Scott as Tom Engel

 

Tom was Max’s loving and devoted father.

Toni Collette as Sarah Engel
Toni Collette (left) as Sarah Engel

 

Sarah was Max’s perfectionistic mom. She wanted all of her relatives to have a nice time over the holidays and spent weeks preparing for Christmas to help this come true.

 

Stefania LaVie Owen as Beth Engel
Stefania LaVie Owen as Beth Engel

 

Beth was Max’s exasperated older sister who was dreading spending the holidays with her rowdy and uncouth relatives.

 

Krista Stadler as Omi Engel
Krista Stadler as Omi Engel

 

Omi Engel was Tom’s mother and Max’s grandmother. She only spoke German, but she did understand English. Several of her relatives were fluent in German and could translate for her. Much of her time was spent baking sweet treats and brewing hot chocolate for her family.

 

Conchata Ferrell as Aunt Dorothy
Conchata Ferrell as Aunt Dorothy

 

Aunt Dorothy was Beth and Linda’s passive aggressive, prejudiced, and mean-spirited aunt. No one wanted to invite her to Christmas festivities, but no one could bear to turn her away either.

 

Allison Tolman as Linda
Allison Tolman as Linda

 

Linda was Sarah’s sister. She and her husband were overwhelmed by their four unruly children.

 

David Koechner as Howard
David Koechner as Howard

 

Howard was Linda’s husband and Max’s uncle. He loved hunting and making off-colour jokes.

 

Thor as Rosie the Dog
Thor as Rosie the Dog

 

Rosie was the Engel family’s dog. She was a friendly pooch who was always in the market for a nibble of human food.

 

Luke Hawker as Krampus
Luke Hawker as Krampus

 

Krampus was the demon Max accidentally summoned.

My Review

Yes, this film is part of the horror genre, but with the exception of one brief scene it was not gory. There’s a lot a storyteller can do to freak out an audience without showing anything graphic. The people who worked on this project did a great job of finding the horror in anticipation instead of bloodshed.

The buildup to Krampus’ arrival was well done. I felt like I had plenty of time to get to know the characters before their lives were turned upside down. It was also nice to see the juxtaposition between the sentimental approach to the holiday season at the beginning of this film and the darker turn it took later on.

Krampus was a wonderfully scary villain. It was rare for the audience to see his face during the course of this story. Somehow, that made him even more frightening than he would have otherwise been. Hearing heavy boots clomping on the roof or seeing the quickest glimpse of his long, sharp fingernails put my imagination into overdrive. Picturing what he might look like was far  scarier than actually seeing him, and I’m saying that as someone who thought that the film makers did a great job of bringing this creepy legend to life.

I liked the way the character development was handled. The younger Engels had good reasons for dreading another visit with their relatives. While the extended family wasn’t abusive or anything like that, they did have some pretty unhealthy communication and behavioural issues. Spending time with Aunt Dorothy or the young cousins looked exhausting. Nothing satisfied them, and they seemed to change their minds about what they wanted from one moment to the next. It was pretty interesting to see how the Engels dealt with this and what happened when Max in particular reached his breaking point with them.

As mentioned in the content warning, there was one scene involving blood in the storyline. It happened quickly and was important to the plot development. The rest of the film relied on jump scares, psychological horror, and other non-gory means of frightening the audience.

There was a plot hole that was never resolved. It involved what one of the characters knew about the legend of this demon creature and what they did with that information. This was something so surprising that I was pretty surprised to see the plot brush over it so quickly. It sure would have been nice to explore this more in depth.

With that being said, I still had a good time watching Krampus. It was the first Christmas horror film I’ve ever seen, and I thought it did a nice job of combining imagery from both types of storytelling to come up with something unique.

If you’d like to try a Christmas movie that doesn’t have the slightest whiff of sentimentality to it, I’d recommend starting here.

Krampus is available on Apple TV.

Sleeping Beauty Retold: A Review of The Spellbound Spindle

Book cover for Joy V. Spicer's The Spell Bound Spindle. The imagery on the cover is of a rose bush growing around the title and author name. Title: The Spellbound Spindle

Author: Joy V. Spicer

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: 2018

Genres: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Retelling, Historical

Length: 345 pages

Source: I received a free copy from the author.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Blurb:

A misguided elf curses a baby to die on her sixteenth birthday.
Gem elves alter the curse to one of sleep.

But, to break the curse, the elf must die.

Princess Lilyrose seems to have it all, a family who loves her and a betrothed who is also her trusted friend. As the passing years bring the fated birthday closer, as she secretly struggles not to give in to her fear of the curse, she’s determined to live a full life.

She learns to fight. She dares to love. She discovers her true heritage. But when she learns her betrothed’s life is also in danger, she knows she must face the elf and her dark magic to break the curse.

Review:

Some legends deserve to be revisited over and over again. This is one of them.

Sleeping Beauty was one of my all-time favourite fairy tales when I was a child, so I was excited to see how Ms. Spicer reinterpreted it. She found so many interesting takes on these familiar plot twists, from why anyone would want to harm Sleeping Beauty to what happened when a spell didn’t exactly turn out the way the magical being who cast it was expecting it to.

There were a few parts of the world building that I did wish had been explored in more detail. For example, the beginning showed how and why a few young characters were welcomed into families who knew nothing about their true origins. This included a child who was adopted by a royal family and chosen as their heir! I can think of so few examples of this happening in the fantasy genre that I did find myself wishing the narrator had spent more time explaining why this rule was changed. Was there something special about that society that made them unconcerned with where heirs came from? Were most people simply unaware that this child was adopted? Since this sort of thing was a pattern, I thought I should mention it in my review. While I loved the plot in general, a few small tweaks to the world building to explain stuff like this would have catapulted it into a five-star review in my opinion.

One of my favourite parts of the storyline had to do with how well-developed the antagonists were. Yes, they did awful things, but the reasons for those decisions were explained so clearly that I understood them even as I wished they would have made better choices. I’m not generally the sort of reader who sympathizes with villains, so it was a delightful surprise to realize just how much I liked them despite the terrible things they were responsible for. There are many tales out there about protagonists who feel real. While this book had plenty of examples of that as well, it was its treatment of the characters we’re not supposed to root for that was one of my biggest reasons for giving it such a high rating.

Be sure to pay close attention to the characters as they’re introduced. There were a lot of them in this book, and many of them popped up one after another in the first few scenes. Everything you need to know about them and how they’re connected to the other characters is explained if you read thoughtfully. I actually ended up jotting down notes about who everyone was and, in certain cases, what other names they went by. That list was amazingly helpful later on, and I’d recommend doing it for anyone else who wants to stay organized while they read.

Anyone who loves fairy tales or retellings of fairy tales should checkThe Spellbound Spindle out.

A  True Selfless Act Always Sparks Another: A Review of Klaus

Last year I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction films. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, Winchester, The Little Stranger, Astraea, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, A Dog’s Purpose, and Jurassic… Read More

A Review of Delightfully Twisted Tales: Close Encounters of the Worst Kind (Volume One)

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Good Things Come in Small Packages: A Review of Downsizing

Last year I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction films. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, Winchester, The Little Stranger, Astraea, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, A Dog’s Purpose, and Jurassic… Read More

Scifi Science That Became Real

This month I’m participating in the Scifi Month challenge that was created by the bloggers at One More.  “Science the shit out of this” is today’s theme for Scifi Month. Old reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation were my first introduction to technologies and scientific advancements that weren’t yet possible in our world. There… Read More