Category Archives: SF

Setting vs Genre

At a fellow writer’s Facebook wall we’re discussion the elements required for a story to be noir. Because we are SF writers the conversation naturally revolves about the intersection of noir and science-fiction. This has gotten me thinking and those and a few other terms and I’ve come to the conclusion, probably not original, that there is a difference between Setting and Genre

In this concept Science-Fiction is a setting, it has particular rules that govern its use and violation of those rules can lead to some and even most people excluding a piece from the setting definition, but it seems to me that genre is more about what is the intended or likely emotion reaction of the reader and as such is independent of the setting.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was, according the author, written as an SF/Romance. The setting is science-fiction, the far future, humanity spread out among the stars broken into new nationalities. The genre is romance, the story of two people divided by their warring cultures and yet who fall in love.

Alien is Science-Fiction/Horror the setting is clearly sf, a spaceship deep into space. The genre is horror as the characters, trapped aboard their isolated spaceship, contend with a monstrous being.

Back to the Future is science-Fiction comedy the science-fiction elements, a lone scientist, time travel, are clear while the story is a farce about the clash of perception versus reality when it comes to one’s own parents.

All three of these works are Science-Fiction but looking at them simply through the lens of their setting tells us very little and nothing at all about if these are stories we want to experience. It is only when we examine to the mood intent of the piece, romantic, horrific, or hilarious that we can gather these disparate works into recognizable useful categories.

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And a New Novel is Started

Today I begin writing my next novel. Not outlining, not world-building, no engaging in character creation and study, words in a row, prose production, actually writing the book.

This may effect my productivity here on the blog but I am going to struggle to keep that interference to a minimum.

My production goal is 1500 words per day minimum with a stretch goal of 2000 words. I am shooting at a 90,000 to 100,000 word size for the book so it should not take too long.

For those in the know this is another Seth Jackson novel, about an American serving in the European Union’s Starforces. Set in a future where America took a wrong turn early in the 21st century and ended up a third rate power and humanity has expanded into the local stellar area still shackled by their bickering nationalities.

The first book in the series landed me an offer of representation and I look forward to spending time again with these characters.

 

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Middle films are difficult beasts. When you are part of a larger franchise, particularly with the experiment in printing money called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pulling off a satisfying film that takes place during an unresolved arc can be challenging. It is a challenge that many fell George Lucas failed at with The Empire Strikes Back but that Peter Jackson succeeded with in making The Two Towers. James Gunn has succeeded with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Since the Guardians are going to be playing a major role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars the sequel to their own hit movie was sort of trapped running in place, unable to invest in major changes of the sort Marvel’s did with Captain America: Civil War. Gunn’s solution to this problem is a terrific one; Focus On Character.

The heart and theme to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is family; the family that we can’t choose and the family that chooses us. Major unresolved threads from the first film, principally the identity and nature of Peter Quill’s father sort as the engine moving the narrative along, but every character is explored through the lens of family. It is a testament to the writing that when reveals are exposed we can see that Nebula’s hatred for her sister Gamora is not entirely unfounded.

Another aspect of the scrip that displays true craftsmanship is the proper implementation of Chekov’s Gun. This is not a reference to the Enterprise’s humorous nationalistic navigator but the esteemed Russian playwright who famously advised that of there is a gun on the mantle in the first act it must be fired by the last. There are plenty of writers who competently place those guns on the mantel, fired them diligently, and then drop them to the side, forgotten. The best writers not only put the gun there, but use it again and again through the story, drawing a tight weave of elements making it so that the gun is not there simply for that one shot, but is a legitimate part of the world’s texture. Elements in Guardians are established, play their part, and then return to play further parts, driving the narrative forward with a relentless sense of inevitability that heightens the resolutions.

This film would be fun to watch on its own, but as a further exploration of these quirky characters and their tangled relationships, it’s a sheer joy. I fully endorse anyone going out and seeing it.

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Movie Review: Colossal

This morning I finally found the time to drive into Hillcrest to one of our local Landmark theaters and catch the Anne Hathaway Kaiju flick Colossal. Now those are words you really should not have expected to go together. In addition to being a giant monster movie, Colossal is also a comedy and a dramatic take on addiction and poisonous relationships.

Very fitting for this film the word Kaiju is actually Japanese for ‘strange beast’ and the story is a wonderfully weird and strange beast.

Ann Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman whose life due to alcoholism is spinning out of control. She loses her home, her relationship, and has lost job. Without resources or money she returns to her childhood home where she reconnects with a childhood friend Oscar played by Jason Sudeikis and continues her self-destructive drinking and behavior.. Things take a strange turn when an enormous monster appears in Soul South Korea. Gloria possesses an unexplained connection to the monster, one that in the end brings to a head all her unresolved issues.

Written and Directed by Nacho Vigalondo Colossal is an example of something I mentioned in an earlier essay, a movie with a message that is not a message movie. Vigalondo, like Joss Whedon, understand that comedy is best frontloaded, but one serious stakes are raised, the light-hearted approach gives way to drama, character, and real consequences.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film, it has very nicely written characters that are well realized by the cast. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are terrific, particularly Sudeikis who manages a twist that feel organic without creating a sense of falsehood. The story moves along at a good pace but without sacrificing the essential moments that develop and reveal character. The resolution is organic and emotionally satisfying. Colossal has gotten a limited ‘art house’ release so it may not be showing in your area but if you can see it do so.

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Stealth Science-Fiction Films

It’s pretty easy to know an SF movie when you see one. Most are pretty upfront about the genre that they are intending to occupy, but a few films are secretly living a science-fiction life.

Most often you’ll find these movies an stories sold as some sort of action genre. Spy movies, and not just James Bonds films, are particularly ripe with this. The classic cold war movie Ice Station Zebra turns entirely on the technological triumph is a new lens and a new film that makes the picture in the wayward spy satellite so valuable to both the USSR and the USA. Another example, one that spawned a whole sub-genre was The Hunt for Red October. The ‘caterpillar’ drive was a product of imagination, pure science-fiction, yet that film is rarely cataloged with the rest of the genre but rather gets called a ‘techno-thriller.’

My personal favorite of the stealth SF movies is . (I am of course speaking of the original and not the mindless idiotic remake.) Spoilers follow for the film but considering it is more than 50 years old if you really wanted to see it unspoiled you have had your chance.

In the movie Raymond Shaw, a rather brisk and unlikeable character, wins a Medal of Honor for his actions under fire during the Korean War. His mother, a strident anti-communist married to a rising star of a senator, tries to use Raymond’s service to help her husband climb to the vice-presidency as this is an election year. However it turns out that Raymond has been brain washed by the communists and is in fact a perfect assassin who operates without any recollection of his actions. This is all part of a larger plot that threatens the very foundations of our republic. I have left out a few of the really big twists and reveals because this is a hell of a movie and if you have not seen it, you should.

That bit of brainwashing is pure fiction, that level of conditioning is beyond any actual psychological theory or practice, thus this story is clearly SF. The advance in science/technology s critical to the plot and if removed the story cannot stand.

If you poke around in the corners of film you can find all sorts of stealth SF hiding for you like treasures.

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Harlan Was Wrong

Harlan Ellison is a powerful voice in speculative fiction, a celebrity within the genre subject to countless second-hand stories, and the credited writer in what is arguably the best episode of Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever.

It is a well know within the industry that Harlan was -displeased- with the final version of City and that identity of the person who re-wrote his screenplay into the final version was a secret for decades. (Eventually it was reveal to be the show’s story editor D.C.Fontana, a fantastic writer herself.) I have read both the final version and Harlan’s original script, published as part of his book about the experience.

There is no doubt a number of major changes were made to the script, some of them lost touching moments of history, some of the added wonderful moments of comedy, (Stones knives and bearskins) but the greatest change and the one that appeared to upset Harlan the most involves the story’s resolution.

Quick recap of the story: Kirk and Spock have followed McCoy through a time portal to the great depression where McCoy, under the influence of an accidental drug overdose, somehow alters history and prevents the formation of the Federation. They discover it is because he saved a woman, Edith Keeler, from a traffic accident and she prevents the US’s entry into WWII, leading to a Nazi victory and a new dark age.

In Harlan’s original vision, at the moment that the truck is barreling down on Edith, both McCoy and Kirk, Kirk because he has fallen in love with the idealistic pacifist, rush to save her, but cold, emotionless Spock holds them back, dooming Edit and saving the future.

For the Broadcast Version when the truck speeds towards Edith, it is Kirk, though in love with her, that restrains McCoy, killing Edith and saving the Future.

Harlan has said that in his opinion it makes sense for Spock to be the one to hold the emotional men back, that he is the only character capable of taking the required action and there is a powerful logic to that argument.

However logical, I think it is weaker storytelling to have Spock force the issue. To me the most important and powerful stories are about characters, their choices, and the consequences of those choices. Spock saving the future is a foregone choice, hardly one at all. The consequence to Spock is that he may damage his relationship with these two humans, but given his unemotional nature that is hardly a consequence of importance compared to the entirety of history.

Kirk making that choice is much more powerful. He is a man of passion and emotions, the abstract future weighed against the very real woman he loves is an agonizing choice. The consequences are personally devastating and irrevocable. It ranks right up there with Sam Spade sending Bridget over for killing Miles Archer, but has even more of a gut punch because Edith was pure and Bridget was evil.

No, the better storytelling device is Kirk torn and making the decision that will haunt him to the end of his days.

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Why So Good?

On Facebook I saw a user post the question; What Made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so good? Rather than answer in the comments I decided to take that up as an essay.

There are many reasons why The Wrath of Khan is such a good film, and most of them can be found in the script.

The characters acted as they should have from the series. It’s known that the dry, colorless script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture flattened the life out of their characters, shattering their relationships, and setting them in pursuit of opposing goals. Spock using Kirk and emergency to seek his own enlightenment? That’s hardly the Spock we knew. While lots of good drama can be crafted from close characters in opposition, breaking the fundamental friendship of these characters does little to endear fans. Khan returned us to the characters and relationships we knew and missed.

The story flowed logically from the actions of the characters. Once Reliant stumbled across the survivors of the Botany Bay the rest of the events flowed naturally from those characters and their viewpoints. Pull out a character and the story falls apart. What I am saying is that there was indeed a real story and not simply a plot.

The limited budget meant that the filmmakers were forced to think about story over spectacle. It can be a curse to have unlimited or nearly unlimited special effects budgets. Instead of thinking about character beats and moments, it is easy to get seduced into bigger and more elaborate stunts and special effects.

The film never lost the people in the plot. A few years ago at a Science-Fiction convention I had the chance to confirm with the director Nicholas Meyer, what I think is one of Khan’s most brilliant bits of editing. Watch that film closely, every single time a weapon, phaser or photon torpedo, strikes a vessel the very next shot is people getting hurt and killed. Every single time. This pummels you with the inescapable knowledge that this grand battle between starships is always about the people aboard and the costs that they pay.

This film has no bloat. It hits the ground running and does not let up. And yet in that fast action/adventure pace it always finds time to breathe and reveal character.

Truly this is a masterwork of filmmaking.

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Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

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Of Girls, Bulls, and Artistic Intent

March of last year the sculpture “Fearless Girl” was installed on the streets of New York City standing defiantly before the now famous sculpture ‘Charging Bull.’ Greg Fallis at his blog has done a pretty goof job going over the histories of the two statues and how those histories interplay with the meaning intended for the pieces so that’s not going to be focus of my post.

Though when you get to the slipper subject of ‘meaning’ it is important to remember that the artist may intend one thing but the people who experience the art take away something utterly different or even diametrically opposed to the original intent. A case in point on that is the singer/songwriter Sting, his piece ‘Every Breath You Take’ and the scores upon scores of couple who have used it as their wedding songs.

Charging Bull‘s creator Arturo Di Modica has recently complained about the installation of Fearless Girl and expressed his desire that the statue be removed from it place before his own. Many of the fans of ‘Fearless Girl‘ have rejected his position and a common defense I have heard is that Art is often in conversation with previous pieces. This is true and since my background, and I suspect yours, is Science-Fiction let me use a well know example from that field as an example.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote the novel ‘Starship Troopers‘ and with that works explored the relationship between the common solider and his society. The book provoked a fiery conversation that continues to rage until this day. Sometime later author Joe Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War,‘ a novel also exploring the relationship between the common solider and his society. ‘The Forever War‘ makes radically different arguments and comes of very different conclusions. Both books are considered classics and both are terribly good reads. It is considered an accepted fact that Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War‘ in direct response to ‘Starship Troopers‘ a perfect example of art in communication with art. I would strongly urge people to read both books.

But you do not need to read both to see the value in either novel. Either can be read alone without the other and the experience is full and complete. This is not true of ‘Fearless Girl.’

Fearless Girl”s artistic expression is reliant on ‘Charging Bull‘, without the Bull she is not fearless for there is nothing to inspire fear. Further more The two are seen together changing the impression once is likely to form upon seeing ‘Charging Bull.‘ Returning to the example of ‘Starship Troopers‘ and ‘The Forever War,‘ it is as if instead of writing a new novel that could be read alone Haldeman has written six new end chapters to Heinlein’s novel and sent them out attached to the previous book. There’s nothing wrong and in fact much to respect in Haldeman’s response to Heinlein’s book but meaning is not the point. The point is there is a difference between answering an artwork with your own and changing another artist’s work. Placing Fearless Girl directly before the Charging Bull sculpture, and being utterly dependent on that earlier sculpture for context also changes the context of Charging Bull.

Di Modica has called for the removal of ‘Fearless Girl‘ feeling that in damages the artistic intent of his ‘Charging Bull.’ He is not without a point. In my opinion it is not relevant that ‘Fearless Girl‘ started life as advertising for a corporate product, intent and interpretation are different things and the powerful interpretation many hold for ‘Fearless Girl‘ is one that strikes many people to their very identity.

This is a problem with no easy solution. Leaving ‘Fearless Girl‘ clearly changes in common interpretation of ‘Charging Bull,’ but removing it creates its own host of negative impressions.

Personally I am torn without resolution, as an artist I am sympathetic to Di Modica’s point of view but the two statues together have an emotional punch that neither could achieve on their own.

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Critique: Passengers (2016)

This is not a movie review but a critique where I give you my opinion on specific elements of the film and story. In this case I will be discussing what did not work for me and why. Unlike a review spoilers will abound and if you want to remain unspoiled stop reading now.

Synopsis:

Passengers is an SF movie about an extravagantly luxurious colony ship en route from Earth to the colony of Homeworld II. The ship travels at about half the speed of light and the journey is expected to take over a hundred years. because of this the crew and passengers are in cold sleep, the lives suspended between life and death for all but the final four months of the trip. The ship encounters that tired trope of SF movies, a meteor storm and in damaged. Cascading failures results in a passenger, Jim Preston, being awakened from cold sleep. He discovers there are more than 90 years until they reach Homeworld II and there is no way for him to return to hibernation. Jim will spend his life alone on the ship, never reaching the new world. After little more than a year, his will breaks and he awakens another passenger, Aurora Lane, a beautiful writer and lies to her telling her that her cold sleep pod malfunctioned as his did. They get to know each other, they fall into a romantic/sexual relationship, and then of course the lie is exposed. Of course she reacts angrily and they live separate lives, time-sharing the android bartender for company. A third person awakens, a ship’s crew member. He discovers some of the information about the nature of the ships damage and malfunctions, passes to them the access to the secured areas and then dies from his faulty awakening. Together Jim and Aurora discover the precise damage and what is required to fix the ship. Jim is nearly killed but Aurora saves him. Jim discovers that with the Crew Chief’s access he can put Aurora back into hibernation using the ship’s ONLY autodoc. She refuses and stays with him. Ninety years later he crew awakens to discover the ship changed and the record Aurora left behind as both have died of old age.

 

This film has a number of glaring problems and failures in execution. Unlike the movie I watched the night before, Get Out, Passengers becomes worse the more I consider it. Of course let’s get the monstrous sin out of the way first; Jim waking Aurora is an evil act. Perhaps you can understand his motivations, driven to near madness by isolation is a powerful thing, but understanding and excusing are two radically different things. Jim kidnapped Aurora from her life and forced her to live his. He did this to satisfy his needs and his desires. Some have called her eventual reaction to him ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and I can’t argue with that. I am sure the writers think of it as love, but it’s hard to buy that when she has no choice and no options.

Next up on the great fail parade is the nature of the two characters. Jim is going to Homeworld II because he is a mechanic and no one Earth fixes anything anymore. He is going to fulfill his professional need to build things, and there he will help build a new world, a new society. Aurora is also going to fulfill a professional need. She is searching for the story that will allow her to outshine her father a great and award winning writer as well. He plans were to go, spend a year there and return, half slept through more than two hundred years for the chance at this great tale.

On the surface these characters seem to be treated very much alike, but they are not. With Aurora we get little video messages from her friends she has kept spelling out that what she really needs is not a great jump professionally, but someone to fill the hole in her heart. To be a complete person she must find love, but Jim has no such lacking or hole in his heart. Going there to build is enough. This is a classic bit of bad writing when approaching female characters. Their needs are too often about finding emotional completeness, and they find that in a man.

Another failure in executing her character is that Aurora has no agency in her storyline. I don’t mean that Jim forces her into the situation, but after she is awake and supposedly a full character she has no decision points, no action of hers material advances her story or her plot line. Her only meaningful decisions are about Jim and accepting him back or not. Everything about who she is gets reduced to her call on him. It’s crap writing for any character and especially for female characters.

The crew Chief is nothing more that Chief Exposition. he is awakened to grant access to Jim and Aurora, explain the situation, and then die getting his ‘mentor’ archetype out of the way for the third act. It’s lazy, blatant, and boring.

There are also the plot holes in the story.

There are no faculties for putting someone into hibernation/cold sleep aboard the ship, but there is a crew to run her at the destination. Did they not need a crew to launcher her? They only need it to bring her into orbit? Also there are no provisions for the crew to awaken during malfunctions? No regular awakenings to inspect the ship for function and damage? This is a terribly designed mission and I would not step aboard for that flight.

Passengers is a failed film that looks good and competently acted, but at its heart it is stupid and immoral.

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