Overlooked gems: The Monolith Monsters (1957)

(IMDB link) (Wikipedia link – contains spoilers)

A meteorite delivers silicate crystals with a composition not found on Earth, that grow at alarming speed when exposed to water and then fall over and shatter, advancing them across the terrain. Essentially a simplified ice-9 problem.


I like this film for two reasons. For one, it’s a science fiction with an unusually credible alien threat.  The only presumption that falls outside known science is that such a substance could exist, and that’s enough to build a potentially world-threatening danger from. And given the amazing properties of some chemical reactions, it is easily believable.

Secondly, there are no stupid or venal characters. Everybody in the film behaves rationally and civilly and makes reasonable decisions based on the information they have. When someone needs convincing, it’s done easily by showing them the evidence. Nobody acts contrary to anyone’s best interests out of greed, vengeance or evil.

In short, deliberate stupidity and malevolence are contrivances not needed to artificially drive the plot. I am hard pressed to think of a movie made in the last three decades that didn’t rely on those things to create plot points. I am increasingly driven to review science fiction movies from the 50s and 60s because of this – it’s refreshing to see some actual competent writing that expresses confidence in humanity rather than the cynical mistrust so common today.

Oh, and for the era the special effects in this film are amazingly good. The sound design is excellent too.

What I’ve Been Watching

Europa Report – Above average science fiction, delivers what you want from this type of movie.  Decent effects.  Good acting and story.  Slight over-reliance on simulated video transmission glitches.

Contagion – Not knowing what actual contagious disease control protocols are, this seemed a pretty reasonable dramatization of a new plague to me.

Dark Space – You know all those movies where some teenagers go off to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of partying, and mostly get killed by something there?  This is that, in space.  The nature of the danger is different from what I expected, and that made it a little more interesting.   This is one of those “Nouveau B” movies that has decent CG effects that are undermined by bad compositing (typically the CG lighting doesn’t quite match the live footage) and what might be competent acting obscured in some scenes by bad foley (sound timbre or echoes that don’t match the setting).

 Last Days on Mars – Pretty much the same as all the other zombies-on-Mars stories I’ve seen.  Good production values.

 Cargo – You know when someone signs on for a long haul on a corporation-run space ship, that corporation will turn out to be up to no good and it will cost a lot of lives.  But this standard-trope tale was more well told than usual.  Good effects, good acting, and best of all no reliance on blood and gore or spring-loaded cats.

The Haunted Palace – Another entry in my project to hunt down HP Lovecraft stories. This one claims to be based on both a Lovecraft story and an Edgar Allen Poe poem, though which specific ones are unstated.  The main character’s name, Charles Dexter Ward, is taken from a Lovecraft story but there’s no strong correspondence with any of the Lovecraft stories I’ve read.  Generally this is a pretty good flick though, as are most featuring Vincent Price.  The only place it falls flat is in the creature effects department – using optical effects to try and suggest movement in what is clearly a statue.

Slime City Massacre – Pretty much what you’d expect.  It starts out like a modern B-movie with bad effects, then turns into typical stalking monster fare.

The Hybrid – Quite enjoyable.  The first half is decently suspenseful cloak & dagger stuff, and the rest is a science fiction splatterfest.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – Documentary about the CoS.  It’s well known that they’re dangerous crazies, but there is a lot of stuff covered in this film that I wasn’t aware of, that makes it even worse.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Reasonably entertaining, though I don’t like how divergent it is from the mainstream origin story for Ultron.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Oh hell yes! I was looking forward to this so much I went back and re-watched all the previous Mad Max movies.  I thought I might not like this one as much because it had a different lead actor, but he pulled it off satisfactorily. Though really it was Furiosa who was the star of the show.  Rollicking good post-apocalyptic road warrioring fun!

Ex Machina – Entertaining and has a nice happy ending, but I wish it were possible to write this sort of story in such a way that it was entertaining AND made sense. The problem with this one, as is too often the case, is that some of the main characters (the two human ones) are morons, and have to be stupid for the plot to work. We’re let to believe through exposition that they’re both super geniuses, but they both overlook some rather basic flaws in their planning, and are very careless.

The Machine – Similar theme to Ex Machina but in a different setting and with different motivations. Still some stunningly stupid blind spots, this time on the part of the organization running the show.

Age of Ice – In the budding “father tries to save family from natural disaster” genre, and as seems typical of the genre the uptight, domineering, stupid asshollishness of the father proves to be more of a menace than the disaster itself.  I tend to be pretty forgiving of bad movies but this is one of the rare ones that makes me resent the waste of time spent watching it. There is so much stupid and inexplicable dialog it feels like the script was written by a committee of infinite monkeys, and I wanted to strangle many of the characters much of the time. The CG effects are poor – no attention to detail (I spotted multiple copies of the same tree in some scenes, not even rotated relative to each other), and terrible compositing and lighting.  Oh, and predictably the little kid’s video game obsession turns out to be a survival skill. That always happens when there’s a game-obsessed little kid in an adventure movie.


What I’ve Been Reading

Incandescence by Greg Egan

Pretty decent hard-SF first-contact story. A lot of it details the reasoning process of figuring out the nature of movement under gravity using natural observations, and some of the experiments described I found a little difficult to visualize.

What I liked most about this story is how the two threads almost sailed right past each other. Often in first-contact stories there are two narrative threads, usually one from the “explorer” perspective and one from the “native” perspective, and at some point they meet and usually combine into one thread or two parallel threads after that.  This book follows that model, except for the meeting part – basically the two threads are only joined together by one sentence near the end; no characters from either thread ever meet any characters from the other thread, but one thread still depends heavily on the other.


Halting State by Charles Stross

A pretty fun spy vs. spy mystery-thriller with a strong nerdish bent and good plot twists near the end.  It had a lot of near-future Scottish slang that I couldn’t figure out, but that’s acceptable in stories where the author is making up a future regional slang.

I like how the three narrative lines were arranged in such a way that two of them almost merged to provide quick gratification of some of the end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

Stross was wrong about facial recognition software being a hard problem though.



Manta’s Gift by Timothy Zahn

Pretty much what it says on the cover: Political maneuvering between human with shadowy, presumed-evil overlords and aliens with unclear motivations in an exotic environment, with a little bit of adventure thrown in.  It was a pretty decent read and kept me going from chapter to chapter.


JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford

A friend recommended this when I expressed an interest in learning JS, and I’m glad she did. This book makes sense out of a potentially very powerful programming language that gets a few things wrong in very confusing ways.  Getting a tour of the language features from someone who can explain what’s good and what’s bad and why they’re good and bad is the perfect approach.  Highly recommended.



Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury

I’ve had this book on my inbound shelf for decades. I tend to have a habit of being slow to getting around to this sort of classical science fiction, but I tend to find it rewarding to read when I get around to it.

This book was definitely rewarding; seldom have I read such a well-written story. Kingsbury manages to weave an engrossing tale of a historical event in a slightly bizarre human society on a far-flung colony world, without any narratorial exposition until the very end. It gradually expands from the very small scope of one familly, to the machinations of a few small societies, and then at the end very satisfyingly zooms out to put it all in the context of a suddenly very fascinating galactic diaspora.

I now want to read more stories set in this universe.


Lethe by Tricia Sullivan

A reasonably interesting post-apocalyptic adventure with an unusual vision of the grim meathook future. Some interesting plot devices and characters, but although the minor plot points of the ending were not predictable, the big revelation was telegraphed far ahead of time.


507 Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown

Exactly what it says on the title – patent diagrams and descriptions of 507 mechanisms for performing different kinds of transformations on mechanical power.

I’m not disappointed, but I did find some of the diagrams and descriptions difficult to follow, partially because more views would have been useful and partially due to use of opaque and archaic language.

There was one mechanism that I had a hard time believing would work, but all attempts to search for it online lead back to this book.




Language Really Is a Virus

I’ve always bought into the idea that language shapes our thoughts and enables us to do more with our brains, but there is evidence that it is much more profoundly true than I ever suspected. Have a listen to this great Radiolab episode:


What we think of as humanity is language, not genes. Thanks to genes we have brains that can process complex languages and spread the language virus to other brains, but without the language we might not even be people at all – just clever animals. If you had never learned a language, not only would you not be the same person but you might not even be aware you exist.

Humanity is self-replicating, self-modifying software running on an independently self-replicating squishy hardware platform.

I think this explains why infants undergo a radical mental restructuring in their first couple of years, and tend to not remember anything before that.  They’re going from native, animal processing mode to being driven by an interpreted language.

This also contributes some explanation to why there can be such radical cultural differences and lack of understanding between peoples who speak different languages.

I hereby require everyone to learn a computer programming language. Then we can be the same species.

What I’ve Been Reading

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Another excellent romp in the Culture universe.  I’m really sad this one will be the last, because they’re all so good.  The Culture is one of the most sensible and realistic views of the distant future I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading SF.

In regards to this story, I’ll just say the ending was not predictable at all, and the Mountains of the Sound is a place I’d love to visit or perhaps even create.


The Black Wheel by A. Merritt and Hannes Bok

I’ve long had the idea of reading all of Merritt’s books, based on the strength of The Metal Monster.  This is the third of his books I’ve read, and I have to say it wasn’t terribly great.  I didn’t realize until after reading it that more than 2/3 of the chapters were written by Bok, based on a rough outline left by Merritt.  I didn’t notice the transition.

It’s a decent enough adventure story with lots of psychological drama, but I had trouble following some of that drama; there were a lot of intuitive leaps that I suspect made sense for the authors’ culture but not for mine.  It was good enough to keep me reading until the end, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.


The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

Fourth book in the highly entertaining Laundry series.  I was expecting a letdown from reading the back cover copy, as it described the plot as centering around a televangelist type, but this book was very much not a letdown – every bit as engrossing as the previous ones in the series.

I like that Stross is not afraid to involve large pieces of the stage dressing in the action.


Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Mixed feelings about this one.  It did provide stuff to think about and had an involving story, but it also felt like the story was made just to be a framework for a guided tour of current thinking in science and cosmology combined with too much conciliation of religious ideas.

Books that are set in places that I’ve lived give me an odd vibe too, but in this case it was better than most – largely because he describes the same trick I always used for getting a seat on the Northbound subway in Toronto.


The Relativistic Brain by Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis and Dr. Ronald M. Cicurel

This one came up in a Facebook thread and the Amazon cover blurb convinced me to read it – it’s good to study your enemies as well as your friends, and their position as represented by Amazon definitely sounds enemy.

Here’s the review I posted in the Facebook thread:


Just finished reading it – it’s short.

In the first two chapters they present a theory that neural firing generates small electromagnetic fields that influence other neurons at a distance, without a direct axon connection, and that in the aggregate these fields are what constitute the meaningful state information in the brain, and encode our mind state in a representation of a Riemann space in which experiences are formed by folding different conceptual and sensory regions together. All of this doesn’t really matter to the important bits though – basically what they’re saying is that brains contain multiple overlapping systems, only one of which (the actual electrical firing of neurons) can be considered digital – the rest are analog.

The rest of the book is a collection of distinct arguments that no digital computer can simulate a brain. For example:

1) Simulating analog phenomena on a digital computer is impossible to do perfectly. While strictly true, I disagree with their assumption that it needs to be done perfectly.

2) It’s impossible to keep all portions of a large-scale simulation synchronized. This is flat-out false; they seem ignorant of basic techniques for keeping simulations stable and synchronized.

3) Brains are special objects. Really, really special. Preciouuussss. Note this is me using a bit of a straw man of my own. They do mention ideas like quantum effects in the brain but don’t go so far as to outright state that brains violate the laws of physics or anything like that.

4) Computers explode in a shower of sparks when you feed them contradictions. No simulation will ever be able to handle contradictory data in a useful way. This is a ridiculous claim to me.

5) Computer simulations are usually created by finding a mathematical representation of a physical phenomenon, then writing an algorithm that solves the math. Even ignoring the analog precision problem from (1), the mathematical representation is often an imperfect representation of reality. This is true of complex systems, but down at the neural level of molecules and electromagnetic fields, I think we’ve got the math down well. Admittedly some of it is probabilistic (ie chance of two protiens bumping into each other) but I don’t see that as a problem.

6) No matter how accurate the computer simulation, it will diverge and fail to perfectly predict the behavior of the organism, because it cannot take into account all the stimuli the organism receives without simulating the entire universe. Well, duh. Also, that’s not a real problem because our senses are pretty limited anyway. And even a perfectly duplicated organism would immediately diverge from itself for the same reason – different sensory input from having a different physical location.

7) If we can’t perfectly predict the original organism, there’s no point in doing this. I completely disagree with this.

8) It is difficult to imagine a simulated brain running in real time, even with more Moore’s Law. If the simulation can’t interact with the world at normal human speed, there’s no point in doing it. Again, this makes absolutely no sense to me.

9) It is difficult to digitally model neuroplasticity – ie the hardware continuously changing while the software still runs. Yes, it is difficult, but not impossible.

Also, the authors seem to conflate simulation with emulation. They’re attacking something that might exist but to my point of view is a straw man: The idea that “digital mind” (my term) researchers are trying to develop algorithms that simulate human minds – that is, actually write code that behaves like a mind. They ignore the approach that seems more reasonable to me, which is that the code is just a dumb physics simulation and the mind exists in the data it manipulates – ie a true uploaded mind, no code involved.


Inferno and Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno, but I gather it was a poem rather than a story so I probably would have found it frustrating anyway.

These two stories I quite enjoyed, but I tend to enjoy everything involving Niven, and his collaborations with Pournelle are always good.

What I take to be the main theme here is that the common image of Hell as a place of internal punishment just doesn’t make sense when you approach it rationally, but if you make the assumption that it’s not supposed to be eternal punishment but only sufficient punishment, then it becomes possible to make some sense of it and of some other Catholic doctrines.


The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan

I picked up a signed copy of this from Zoltan himself when I went to hear him speak about his US Presidential platform a few months ago. Zoltan for President, by the way!

It’s a tour of transhumanist thought couched in an adventure story. It was a fun enough read, but there were some spots that could have used some editing and other forms of polish, and as stories go it was a bit lacking in suspense – the threats facing the protagonist just didn’t seem sufficiently credible to create drama.

I did like the philosophical stuff though – there are a few wonderful rants about what’s wrong with the world today. Basically the only part of the mindset presented by the book that I don’t agree with is the assertion that enemies of progress should be killed if they don’t get out of the way. I think people who don’t want to be a part of the future can be allowed to practice the old ways apart from mainstream society, like the Amish.


The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth

A delightful full-length story that I wasn’t aware of until I spotted it in a used book store recently. Thoroughly enjoyed this one – it fits nicely into the neighborhood formed by The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Whisperer in Darkness, while mostly avoiding those noxious fish-men and involving some of the more interesting horrors of Lovecraft’s mythos.


The Fox Woman & Other Stories by a. Merritt

Reading that last Lovecraft book left me with a desire for more old-style adventure writing, and lacking another HPL to read I turned to Merritt, who combines a slightly later style with imaginative semi-science-fiction.

The titular short story was good but had an unsatisfying ending – overall it read like the introduction to a novel-length tale and felt unfinished.

Several of the other shorts in this collection were quite good. I quite liked The People of the Pit as it evoked some of the same atmosphere as The Metal Monster but with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in, and I really wish Merritt had been able to finish The White Road as it was an intriguing concept.

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