Observations and Reviews of things Sci Fi.
I watched this episode twice or three times and I'm still not sure what I want to say.
Early on, I said the premise of this series bore a strong resemblance to my own stories, and although this is true in more than one detail, it is really hard to see that anymore. In some ways I wanted this to follow more closely to Stormhaven Rising, if for no other reason than to point at it and say, see I told you there was a good story there.
But three episodes in it feels like someone took the original idea, and packed it into a clown-car and ran it down with a circus train.
There is a lot my novel has in common with where the story started (too much in fact to be a coincidence), but after shellacking it with layers of Hollywood-style "everyone has to be young, sexy, and full of emotional angst" varnish, the core elements that would make this a good story have been buried.
There was big potential in this episode but they totally whiffed it. Here's why:
In any story the strength of the plot is based directly on the strength of the antagonist. Who is the bad guy and how bad is he/she? In Stormhaven Rising I made the bad guy not a person, but an object. An Asteroid. A huge relentless and unstoppable adversary that can't be reasoned with and will not grant mercy. This is the huge elephant that my entire story hurls itself against. Scientific reality is the weapon that my antagonist wields, and it gives it every advantage. It also makes the story compelling.
But in Salvation the enemy is the relationship dynamics that plague every moment with petty personal intrigue and deception. The asteroid is there, but they've turned it into the circus train that's coming to run down their clown-car full of very pretty, and dreadfully shallow, people. As the story goes on it feels more like a pillow-fight than a crisis. Sure there are several instances in the dialog where you can feel the emotions the characters feel, but the power in these moments is not fear of everyone dying, but of someone missing a moment with a lover.
The real failing in this particular episode is that they set up a wonderful emotional crisis with the idea that they have an option to save the world, but that using it comes with a huge price. They think they can divert the asteroid and fragment it with that small space probe they have out near Jupiter. Unfortunately the impact won't stop it. It will however slow it down so instead of hitting off the east coast of the US, it will hit in pieces over China, Russia, and Mongolia.
Yay! America is saved, but 1.1 BILLION people on the other side of the world get to pay the ultimate price for us dodging the bullet.
There's great moral meat to be chewed on here ... and they do deliver a couple profound lines to support both sides of the argument, but the people that ultimately will be the ones to choose, aren't even part of the story. Instead we're treated to extended scenes of parenting problems.
Why don't we get to see what the president is thinking about? What advice is she getting, and how is she tormented by the choice to kill entire nations to save the eastern US?
Why? Because the writers think it is more important to show us that the Undersecretary of Defense has a problem with his son, and ex wife, and now with a former home-wrecking ex girlfriend who shows up and practically throws herself over his desk and begs for sex (she also happens to be the biggest bitch in the pool so far, and carries the title of Advisor to the President). Oh and rather than saying NO to her advances because she's the woman that cost him his marriage, he turned her down because he's more worried about his current lover walking in and being jealous.
WTF are they doing?
All we get, after slogging through the nearly thirty minutes of pretty people dancing around each other, is a call from the President that is taken by the new queen bitch, who simply says, "do it."
Then on top of feeling like I was robbed of a good story, I get to my next frustration ... the magical science I mentioned earlier.
After a setback in the development of the EM Drive about midway through this episode, the government decides to go ahead and go with Ugly Plan B (For those of you who haven't been keeping up, that's the plan to clobber the flying mountain with the gnat sized Io Probe). The scientist in charge of planning this mission announces that they believe doing it will shatter the asteroid into several chunks, and slow it down by 0.002% (I am rolling my eyes so hard by this point that I am watching the show out of my left ear). This declaration though is what set up the moral problem.
Anyway, after the president casually gives the order that will obliterate over a billion people, they send the signal to the probe and it instantly warps out of Jupiter's orbit (complete with real time images from the probe's onboard cameras). That isn't what they call it of course, but anyone looking at the pretty pictures can tell that the probe is moving bat-shit fast as it changes heading and zooms away from a rapidly shrinking Jupiter.
Oh and in case you missed it, it responded INSTANTLY. Really. They sent the command and it just took off. The writers apparently have never realized that there is a limit for radio signals in the universe ... it's called the speed of light.
Depending on where the planets in the solar system are, it takes thirty-five to fifty-two minutes for a radio signal to travel to Jupiter. EACH WAY. So we wouldn't have a signal back to say that the probe was moving for at least one hour and ten minutes (of course this mistake might have been a blessing because they probably would have filled the extra time for propagation delay with more insufferable parenting angst).
The science was so bad in this installment that I literally got up and walked out. I know I'm more than a little picky about accuracy, but come on please... if you don't know science well enough to at least keep the basic rules of reality in place, hire someone to give you advice before you spend the money producing a show that you intend to call science fiction.
So now lets look at where the score stands: After three episodes, the acting is still ok (though the dialog is starting to flounder a bit). I'd give it about a 3.5 star rating. The story writing has slipped a lot in my mind, mostly because they wrote it completely from the wrong perspective, and lost a chance to tell a much better story. But the science tanked out in this episode and so I am being generous to give it 1 star.
Hope dies hard, but if they keep stomping on it I'll be forced to give up (and the ratings this week show I am not the only one feeling hopeless).
- Episode Four/Five: “The Human Strain/Keeping the Faith (air date: 8/2/2017)
Well, here we go again.
There was very little recognizable science, some political intrigue (almost unrecognizable too), and a crap-ton of relationship building (and well, this would only be recognizable if I was still in my twenties).
Let's start with the goofy science and get it out-of-the-way: This was early in the show so unfortunately set the tone for my opinion of the rest of the episode.
Introducing Ugly Plan B: A fallback plan after the failure of the government's "Goliath-II" rocket booster.
The government/military proposes taking the "Io Probe" and ramming it into the asteroid to deflect it. (Uhm, yeah, sure).
An interplanetary probe that could have gotten out to Jupiter, would be fairly small. There is one steadfast truth in spacecraft design: the farther you're going to send it from home, the smaller it has to be. Heavy lift rockets can send a small probe fast enough to get there, or they can get heavy satellites or ISS components into a MUCH lower place in the solar system. That's all there is to it (loosely speaking).
Given that limiting principle, the Io Probe would be no more than ten-thousand pounds, and that would be generously huge for a probe that far out.
Now let's look at the size of the asteroid. Based on the calculations for a 560 meter asteroid known as 1999 RQ36, (which isn't really a planet killer, more of a continent mangler), scientists estimate its weight at 66 million tons. So it's VERY safe to assume that any chunk of space rock big enough to be a planet killer (whatever we imagine that to be) would be in the range of several hundred million tons (probably more...lots more).
Just imagine hurling this Io Probe against the side of the asteroid ... even if we skip the math, this is like a piss ant crawling up an elephant's leg with lascivious intent.
Then to make it worse they start discussing whether this minuscule fleck of space hardware hitting the side of a flying mountain, is going to SHATTER IT?
Their own dialog on this goes like this:
Darius Tanz: "Throwing rocks at an oncoming train, a bold strategy. I'll stand right behind you ..." (wonderful sarcasm, but he is right, that idea is farking hopeless)
Then in the very next sentence Tanz goes on with: "... a high velocity kinetic impact could just as easily smash our asteroid friend into several pieces ..."
Is it a train or an egg? Make up your mind people!
(My brain started melting at that point.)
After that moment of complete absurdity, they go back to the gravity tractor (remember that from the previous post?). But this time it will be so much better because they plan to get it out there with (wait for the handwavium) ... the EM Drive. The Em Drive is the miraculous not-yet-invented technology that someday may revolutionize space travel by putting "the moon within hours and Mars within days."
Of course there is no EM Drive in their world (or ours). It hasn't REALLY been invented yet. (Yes, at one G continuous acceleration the moon is only three hours or so from Earth, but with the current state of the art for the EM Drive development, we'd need an improvement of MANY orders of magnitude to get that to happen.)
Though if you just give Mr. Tanz two-billion dollars and 100 kilograms of weapons grade uranium, he will invent it by next Tuesday.
I literally fell out of my chair.
Grace: Are you crazy?
Darius: Why does everyone keep asking that?
Liam: Because you kinda are...
Yeah, that's what I said!
But here's the kicker: Even assuming this story is set in the future and so maybe there's been some progress made, to get the gravity tractor out there sooner is still not going to help, when it's already YEARS too late for that approach to do any good.
Give it up PEOPLE, a gravity tractor would have been off the table even before they started.
As to Plot:
Beyond this one HUGELY horrific scientific blunder, the rest of episode leaned heavily on the conspiracy angle. Rather than turning the story all dark and sinister with the pursuit of whatever secret "ATLAS" is, I think they'd be better served focusing on the challenge of trying to defeat the real antagonist at hand. The Asteroid. Obviously they've decided to make this whole series more about shady characters double-crossing each other.
The moral problems that come from clashing viewpoints on how to handle a global crisis are far more believable than this very cliche and phony feeling conspiracy.
There were also some heavy-handed tropes in other areas (LOTS of them in fact)
One of the biggest of these was when Darius Tanz sleeps with a female investor to close a deal and get this woman's money into his company (so he can develop that EM Drive by Tuesday).
Over my many years running a private lab, I've worked with investor types in the real world (real venture capitalists). There is this thing they ALL do called "Due Diligence." It doesn't matter if they plan to invest $10,000 or $10,000,000, they're going to check out the facts and figures before they climb into bed (in a business sense).
It doesn't work the other way around, no matter how hot and sexy Darius is, he's not going to seduce a female billionaire into schlepping him a gigabuck investment for a good ... uhm ... proposition. Rich people DON'T make billion dollar deals based on pillow talk.
Remember that weapons grade uranium Tanz needed? Well, he got Grace to steal it for him (without unveiling his apparent billion dollar penis to do it). She lifted the access codes needed to get the uranium from her lover's biometrically locked briefcase by using a very cool laser scanner to get his fingerprint off a wineglass, and then beam it back onto the lock. I'd forgive her for this betrayal of Harris, because he's the lying dickhead from the first episode. He deserves to get screwed, even if she doesn't realize it yet.
Ok, so stealing the codes that easily might be a bit far-fetched, but then when she goes to use them, she bluffs her way past a gate guard at the facility, and with a Humvee (and a driver and a couple of guys to load the barrels of uranium) she gets the goods and gets out (barely ... courtesy of more way cool, but improbable, tech). What this does leave unanswered to me though, is how she explains to these soldiers she has with her, that they're delivering this uranium to a TANZ INDUSTRIES loading dock. What the hell did she have to do to get these grunts to NOT tell anyone. I mean she isn't cutthroat enough to have killed them and hidden the bodies, so that leaves me wondering ... (can you say PLOT HOLE???)
Even more troubling to me here is that we're talking nuclear ordinance. The best protected possession of the entire United States.
Seriously??? If our country's nuclear stockpile is that easily hacked, I think I'm moving to Mars.
So after Episode Two is all said and done, that 4/5 star rating is slipping. The cast is holding its own and delivering fairly believable performances, but the story is rapidly dissolving into a level of implausibility that's destined to doom them all. The science is still hanging at a 3/5 star but that's entirely because in that Ugly Plan B scene, they manage to mention some things in a briefly tossed-off bit of technobabble that do sorta relate to the science behind the EM Drive (Pilot Wave Theory and Quantum Vacuum Fluctuation for those that want to go deeper).
Of course, tying either of these concepts to the EM Drive is not really accurate, but hell, I didn't expect them to get that shit right anyway.
Still hoping, and still an optimist for future episodes, but starting to waver.
Let me jump right in here before I get to my review of the first episode, and say that before this series started I had read a lot about it. Everything I could in fact. Someone had called to my attention a few days prior to its premier that there were a LOT of similarities between this story and my own works, so I was doing my homework to see if there was any truth to that idea. Along the way I noticed that the producers called Salvation "real science fiction," so I've decided to will use that as the first yardstick to see how close they come. (I've included some links as references below. Check them out to learn a bit more on asteroid science.)
And so it begins: "Pilot"
In the opening prologue scene we find Neil Degrasse Tyson delivering the line that foreshadows the reality of our earthly situation with regards to asteroids and meteors. It carries a gut level punch of truth when played against scenes that show real footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor that blew up over Russia on February 15, 2013.
"We just don't even know they're out there until it's too late."
He's right, we don't, and maybe we won't, until it IS too late.
From there we cut to our main characters who are immediately put on a collision course. Darius Tanz, a wealthy entrepreneur/engineer who is clearly styled after Elon Musk (except obviously much prettier ... Sorry Elon) and Liam Cole, a brilliant young astrophysicist who can't set an alarm early enough to get out of bed on time to attend a TED type of talk that is being hosted at MIT, for brilliant scientist types.
At this talk, Tanz delivers the next most important line of the story:
"All our eggs are in one cosmic basket. If the Universe decides to plant it's big old ass in that basket ... we're toast."
Sounds a little like a slightly more crude version of something Musk said in an article I read a couple weeks ago, but hey that's probably why it rings true isn't it?
At this point the story picks up from what could be a pretty good Hard SF set up, and shoots into the miasma of interpersonal parenting angst that belongs in a YA drama on the CW network. (What?!? Well, ok maybe.) The mom in these scenes is apparently some high-power press type for somebody in Washington. It takes about thirty seconds to catch the whole family thing - the ex husband - the ex husband's girlfriend - the fact that mom is having an affair with her boss. Oh and the daughter is also flexing her independence muscles.
After a detour through a bog of thickly applied human drama, we find ourselves faced with a whack-ton of geek flirting, interspersed with scientific sounding handwavium, as Liam meets a cute girl in a bar. She turns out to be a science fiction writer and is obviously turned on by technobabble since they fall passionately through the door of her apartment in the next scene. (Who knew that science was such a turn on???)
Later in the night, Liam (who can't be awakened by his regular alarm) jumps out of bed when his computer texts his phone to tell him ... you guessed it ... there is a killer asteroid coming at the earth.
He immediately runs to his advisor/professor and dumps the news on him. And from here the story gets interesting....
The following morning we end up with a missing professor, and a big Black SUV full of bad guys who chase Liam across the MIT campus on his bicycle (well actually they chase him a half block before he skids off on a sidewalk and they give up). Needless to say he's freaked out. So, rather than go to the police, he somehow manages to get himself into an elevator with Darius Tanz where he blurts out, "The world is going to end in 186 days." Or something to that effect.
So other than finding out that the government already knows about this asteroid, that's the set up for the series.
One of the things that annoyed me most about this episode is the idea that the dialog, although quick and witty (when not sappy and angsty), is shot through with attempts to speak science. "There is a 97.2% probability that this is a planet killer." WHAT!?!
97.2% sounds very precise, and obviously represents a LOT of meaningful information that comes from tons of complex calculations ... but then it is followed by a fuzzy-fluffy-bullshit term like "planet killer." How can you give me a calculation that's accurate to one part in a thousand, and then try to make me swallow a "planet killer." Can you even tell me what a planet killer is? Exactly? Is it a one cubic mile asteroid? Is it a ten cubic mile asteroid? Is it one that hits on land, or in the ocean, or near a super-volcano? WTF is it?
"I don't know, but somehow I can precisely tell you this asteroid has a very accurately determined probability of doing SOMETHING to earth that is kinda, sorta bad."
My brain shut off at that point. The mental circuit breakers kicked into protection setting and I went into disbelief mode.
By disconnecting from the idea that this might be a science fiction story, I realized it was still potentially a cool science fantasy. Ok. I can live with that. I can even ride that a long way (after all I enjoyed Star Wars).
I stare mindlessly at the far too frequently hot bodied cast, until I get to the point that they're planning to use a gravity tractor to deflect the asteroid. Here again that's a real idea proposed to deflect asteroids. The hint of science baited me out of my protective mode and my brain began to slip back into functioning. They even got the idea that you can't blow up an asteroid to save the world correct ... thus the need for a gravity tractor.
But it was a trap.
About three whole seconds later I remembered that a gravity tractor takes a lot longer than six months to deflect an asteroid that is big enough to be a planet killer (whatever we decided that was). And then I realize that they hadn't launched it yet. There was no way they'd get the necessary hardware out to near Jupiter (which is where the asteroid is) without taking more than the 189 days they've got left. And then it'd need to work for YEARS to get enough deflection ... so the brain went back into hiding again.
God, would somebody give these guys a book on orbital mechanics? Please?
Now with my brain safely protected UNDER the cushion on my recliner, I sat and watched the last half of the pilot episode with little reaction (other than an occasional moment of pure open mouth confusion). In the last half hour they spent most of their time deepening the characters and making you really NOT like the guy in charge of the Government's mitigation plan. Bad stuff happens and more bad stuff happens, and all he does is lie to the people on his team, especially the woman he's having his affair with.
Come on do I have to hate him? Apparently the answer is, yes.
I think there is so much potential in Salvation even though the first episode spent way too much time diving in and out of the muck of emotional angst. Sure, the idea that in 186 days there might not be a world left is enough to ruin anyone's day, but it doesn't mean we have to spend the time we have left slogging through the emotional goo of a Gilmore Girls episode (nothing against the Gilmore Girls ... it just wasn't meant to be science fiction).
This was the first episode of the series, so I understand the producers want to get the audience on board with the characters as quickly as possible, but in my opinion they tangled things so badly with interpersonal drama that the real story got lost in the fog. There were some really good scenes where you can profoundly feel the characters coming to grips with their changing reality, and the acting in those moments was strong enough to show some serious depth. But if they're hanging this story together with snapshot images and not paying attention to the bigger picture, they're going to be creating a pixelated version of the concept at best.
For all that it sounds like I am panning the show, I'd give it 4/5 stars on the story and acting, and 3/5 on the science because I KNOW what might be ahead, at least in theory. I'm an optimist so I'll be back to keep watching in the hopes that it grows into something good.
First off let me jump right in here and say that CBS's new sci fi series Salvation feels MORE than a little familiar to me. (Here is the official CBS website)
Considering that I wrote the original version of a very similar story, Atlas and the Winds, starting in 2005 and then published that epic tome (325K words) in April of 2012, I have to say that the similarities between this series and my original novel, are rather profound.
To give an idea of how close the stories are, I've actually been contacted (unsolicited) by people who have read Stormhaven Rising and Prometheus and the Dragon, asking why I didn't announce that I had sold the rights to CBS. (Unfortunately, I didn't.) In the case of one of these people, she was able to describe coming events in the story to other people who were watching it with her, well before they'd played out on the screen.
In its original incarnation, Atlas predates the development of Salvation by more than a year. I left that book up on Amazon while I re-edited the story and split it into the two novels that are now Book One and Two of the four-novel series I am still working to complete. I did not remove Atlas from publication until I re-released Stormhaven Rising in its current form. (You can get the current version of the story by following the links to the right >>>)
Interesting how that works isn't it? Anyway, before I go too far down the merry path of potential litigation, let me give a bit of background ...
Salvation is a story about a massive coverup of an asteroid coming to wipe out mankind. The American government is afraid of panic if word gets out, so the whole idea of a coverup makes some sense. This is based on a fairly common trope with just a bit of the paranoid conspiracy mentality thrown in to give it spice.
Where this story gets its legs, is when one of the asteroid's discoverers gets word to a rich and eccentric entrepreneur who then starts playing out his own plans to save humanity (against the government's wishes). There's a lot of political machination behind the scenes, and even the threat of war between the world's superpowers.
After the first US mitigation effort tanks out in a violent explosion, the best hope to save the world is the wealthy entrepreneur and his miraculous improvement on the EM drive (if you don't know what the EM Drive is, here's a link).
So there you have the basic premise of Salvation in a nutshell (and the basic premise of Stormhaven Rising and Prometheus and the Dragon in a slightly less well-known nutshell). For those who've read my books, feel free to scream, rant, and jump up and down to your heart's content!
To write my books I did years of research on asteroid impact, orbital mechanics, political dynamics, and then I had the advantage of coming from a background of science and engineering where I actually built prototypes of a technology very similar to the EM drive.
I think it's fair to say that I might have a bit more insight into the story, and the science behind Salvation, than your average critic. So I've decided to spend some time going over the good, the bad, and the flat-out ugly things that they're calling "Hard Sci Fi" as Salvation plays out in its first 13 episodes (I'll post a couple reviews a week until I catch up with the current episode).
- Sadly, I don't think Salvation stands much of a chance to get picked up for another season, because it has done so many things wrong with what was a great concept. So far its ratings have slipped steadily (from 4.9 Million viewers down to 3.1 million last week), so even with a lot of sexy bodies to help sell it, you can't make up for not understanding the core principles of the story. There is so much potential there if they can just figure out what to do with it.
Give it a watch, and then let me know what YOU think.
- Episode One: "Pilot" (air date: 7/12/2017)
- Episode Two: "Another Trip Around the Sun" (air date: 7/19/2017)
- Episode Three: "Truth or Darius" (air date: 7/26/2017)
- Episode Four/Five: "The Human Strain/Keeping the Faith (air date: 8/2/2017)
- Episode Six: "Chip Off the Old Block" (air date: 8/9/2017)