Monthly Archives: April 2012

How I saved the Internet from Isaac Asimov’s ghost

As my fingers moved across the black keys of my text input board, which was tethered to my computational engine only through an invisible wireless signal, I reflected on the sequence of events that had brought me to this present junction.

It had started, of course, with the decision to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a book of the sci-fi genre held in very high esteem from what I had heard. I read it not on a printed paperback, which was a medium rapidly falling out of fashion, but a new digital eReader which used magnetic conduction to move tiny particles of metal into the shapes of letters. Although this book had been recommended to me as a classic of its genre it was now my unfortunate task to submit a negative review through wireless signal to my private digital journal. Even though I was writing it in my home country of Ireland, which is an island nation to the far west of Europe, people all over the world would be able to access it and I was most anxious that it should be well constructed and entertaining.

Suddenly, the ghost of Isaac Asimov appeared in the room!

“Great Scott!” I cried, leaping from my chair to face the intruder.

“I am the ghost of Isaac Asimov.” said Isaac Asimov’s ghost, who had the same thick spectacles as his photograph, which I had seen in a digital encyclopedia some time before.

“How are you here?!” I asked in alarm. “I thought you died in 1992!”

“Never mind that now.” said the apparition dismissively. “I understand you are preparing to render a verdict on my science fiction classic Foundation, which was published in 1951 as several separate short stories. Tell me, what do you think of it? I was born in Russia by the way.”

“I was born in New York.” I stroked my chin thoughtfully. “Well, it certainly is very wide in scope. Very wide indeed! And the political wrangling between the various parties can be quite absorbing.”

“Ah yes, I’m quite proud of that.” said Asimov, smiling proudly.

“However!” I exclaimed, thrusting a finger into the air for emphasis. “I am afraid that as to the proposition of extending to your book a positive endorsement….. I must emphatically decline!”

The look of shock that crossed Asimov’s face was comical in the highest. I felt the corner of my mouth tug upward into a sardonic smile.

“Why the devil not?” He asked in wonderment. “Are you not aware of the prestige my work has garnered? Why, it is considered one of the pre-eminent works of science fiction in the genre’s history!”

“Yes, quite impressive.” I said sarcastically. “But I’m afraid it doesn’t change the fact that the writing in your novel is beyond sub-par. If science fiction fans hold up this work among the canon of hallowed literature they must be a sorry lot indeed!”

At this Asimov folded his arms angrily and glared at me from behind his spectacles. “I demand an explanation!”

“Very well.” said I. “The first, and most grevious, of the charges to be laid against your book is the fact that characters more often than not speak in a robotic and wooden manner, often while employing dialogue of unnecessarily ponderous length, such as would be quite unthinkable coming from the mouth of a real person.”

“Secondly” I said before Asimov could interrupt me, for he appeared to have every intention of doing so, “for a book that spends so long on tedious world-building your world is very poorly sketched out! Why, I could barely tell where the characters were supposed to be half the time, and objects and characters frequently seem to appear from thin air whenever the narrative requires them.”

I leaned back against the stuffed polar bear in the corner and took my glass of brandy from Jeeves, my butler, who was holding it out for me. His duties fulfilled, he turned silently and left the room to attend to stoking the ship’s positron chutes.

Me: I almost get the feeling you don’t enjoy writing very much!

Asimov: Nonsense! I am a writer by trade, am I not?

Me: At one point you dispense of prose entirely and simply begin transcribing your character’s dialogue.

Asimov: It was a trial scene! No one wants to read that. The reader should thank me for getting through it so quickly.

“Many gripping stories have been constructed of nothing but trials.” I observed, switching writing styles again for no reason. “Dispensing with your prose, we come to the issue of the grievous flaws built into the very structure of the novel. The first section, for example, which does nothing but convey information that will be repeated later. The pages would be much better spent expanding character and engaging the reader.”

“Poppycock.” Declared Asimov. “That story was intended show the reader the wondrous technology and science of my fictional world.”

“By Jove, if I hear one more word about your wondrous science….” I said, rolling my eyes. “I nearly fell asleep standing up when Seldon and that other twit started rattling off mathematical phrases.”

“Harumph!” Said Asimov. “Very well, move on with your list of trifling nit-picks.”

“Next we come to the book’s inclusion of women.” I said, ignoring the slight. At this Asimov frowned deeply.

“I must admit I am quite baffled by that charge. Quite baffled! You see I do not remember putting any females into Foundation.”

“I wonder why that could be.” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm to indicate that I stated this in an ironic fashion. “74 pages, Mr. Asimov! 74 pages for a woman to appear as anything more a number in an unseen, faceless mass of wives and daughters. And then only a secretary with but one line of dialogue!”

“My dear boy,” said Asimov patronisingly. “It was the 50s and I was writing about scientists. You must be aware that attitudes were different back then.”

“So you admit you were a sexist when you wrote Foundation?” I said, jumping to grasp the verbal prize which had presented itself to me from out of the whiteness.  Asimov became quite flustered at this.

“Er. Well. That’s not quite what I….. What I mean to say is……” He composed himself. “Anyway, everyone else was doing it too! It was a different time, as I say.”

“Ah, but was it so different? Did you not have contemporary female sci-fi authors writing alongside you? Was not the modern feminist movement already well awakened at the time? Surely a prognosticator of the future such as yourself could have charted the curve of history to its obvious conclusion and written your novel accordingly?”

This seemed to be the final straw for Asimov. He swept the glass of Brandy from my hand and hurled it into the fireplace, where it exploded dramatically.

“I will not stand for this! You speak as though accusing me of being some kind of crude, chauvinistic hack!”

At this I folded my arms and smiled smugly, pleased to see my opponent render my own verdict in such a succinct fashion. Asimov’s face grew dark as he grasped my thesis.

“Well then, if that’s how you wish to play this…..” Grinning wickedly he pulled from his pocket a small antenna-like device with green and red lights blinking on its surface.

“An electro-magnet I presume?” I asked, unconcerned. “Such as would be capable of rendering the storage device of my computer quite useless, no doubt. A clever ploy, but it will be of no use. You see, my review has already been transferred by wireless signal to the digital communications network, or internet, that now covers our entire globe! Destroy however many computers you like. It will do you no good!”

Asimov smirked.

“You under-estimate me. This is no electro-magnet. It is a muon relay particle vacuum, capable of deleting the entire internet with a single button press!”

Zounds! The internet- deleted!

Ruminating gravely on the many dire consequences of allowing this to happen and examining each of the variables governing the present situation, it seemed clear to me that my window of action was severely restrained. There was but one course of action to take!

*********************************

I thrust my hand into the cerulean ocean and scooped up the dead fish. Dinner for the following night was secure.

Drifting in my row-boat in the middle of the Atlantic ocean I began for no particular reason to reminisce on the time, ten years in the past, when I had thwarted the ghost of Isaac Asimov from deleting the internet. What a thrilling conclusion the tale had! The reverse psychology I had employed to trick him into lowering his robot’s anti-matter shield, the way I had ingeniously used the stuffed polar bear, the emotional plea I had made to convince the mayor to allow for the detonation of the nuclear device- truly my finest moment!

But enough of that. While I was sufficiently bored to recollect arbitrary events from my past, I saw no reason to explain them in any great detail. The sharks were still circling my boat and I would need every ounce of cunning I had for when Emperor Galactus returned in his Reaper-Ship to finish me off.

Movie Review: Alien

One of my earliest memories is of watching parts of the first three Alien movies on TV (I had awesome parents). I can remember very clearly why the movies appealed to me- I thought the Xenomorph designs were incredibly cool, even at the age of five or six. Judging by the amount of toys and action figures the (very obviously made for adults) franchise has spawned I’m apparently not the only kid who thought so.

The iconic design of the Xenomorph has obviously reached pop-cultural saturation level by now, such that people who have never seen a singly frame of any of the movies will recognize it instantly. In preparation for watching this I wanted to try and put myself into the mind-set of the audience when the film first came out, when no one walking into the movie would have known what to expect, so I took a look at what other kinds of aliens movies featured around the same time.

To say that Alien was a complete and total departure from anything that had come before in terms of creature design would be inaccurate Star Wars had tons of weird-looking creatures running around in 1977, and of course those movies were inspired by older films and TV serials but the HR Giger’s Xenomorph definitely stands out. At the time alien designs in fiction seemed to trend toward either blonde-haired Aryan supermodels or people with green skin and a few bits of putty stuck to their faces.

I remember once reading that humans comfort level when it comes to aquatic life-forms tends to hinge on how similar to terrestrial animals they look- Dolphins and whales with what appear to be recognizable facial expressions will be much more relatable  than the dead eyes of some deep-sea abomination. To apply this line of thinking to extraterrestrials, if before 1979 most movie aliens were Seals and Whales, with a few cephalopods thrown in every now and then, the Xenomorph is a  Hatchet Fish. Where most sci-fi movies might dip a toe in the deeper parts of the ocean, Alien plunged straight down into the abyss.

I’m starting to creep myself out now so let’s stop talking about deep-sea fish for a while.

I’ve spent the last 370 words talking about the design of the titular alien for a good reason. Alien is a great movie, make no mistake, but HR Giger’s visual designs elevated what would have been a fairly rote (if very well executed) monster movie into a classic. The movie clearly knows it has something special on its hands as well, being very careful with how it shows off its best asset. The Alien’s screen time can’t be more than about five minutes out of the two-hour movie, and for most of that time it’s obscured by shadows. Jaws obviously did something similar two years earlier, but Alien also had the advantage of Giger’s bio-mechanical design, which enabled the film-makers to hide the creature in plain sight among the convoluted vents and metal framework of the Nostromo several times. By the end of the movie I found myself constantly scanning the background for any sign of the thing.

Before I stop talking about the alien design I feel compelled to point out that this franchise spawned a miniature galaxy of tie-in material- books, comics, video games, the baffling idea that it would be a good idea to put Predators and Xenomorphs in the same movie. Some of the people who worked on this stuff decided to try making their own aliens despite suffering the handicap of not being HR Giger. The results were….. not always stellar.

So apart from the awesome looking creatures what made this movie popular enough to warrant an expanded universe? Why did it catch on with so many people?

It’s always difficult to answer a question like that so long after the fact, but if I had to guess I’d say that Alien became movie canon for the same reason a lot of other great horror movies have in the past: it created a symbol. Horror movies have always been good at taking a latent fear that bubbles below the surface in most of their audience and giving it form. Once again the most obvious example of this is Jaws, which pretty much single-handedly immortalized the Great White Shark as the avatar of Thalassophobia (although I would argue that the day someone makes a movie about killer Vampire Squid will be the day Jaw‘s reign of terror comes to an end). Movies like Nosferatu and the 20 million adaptations of Dracula firmly established vampire as symbolic of fear of the night. Pick any number of slasher movies for the fear of the stranger crashing through your window with a steak knife.

So what does the Xenomorph symbolize? And no, it’s not sex, rape, child-birth or penises. That stuff is obviously in there, but I think a lot of people sell the movie short by holding up the sexual imagery as the end-all and be-all ultimate point of the story. I think what Alien really captures is fear of the unknown- the fear that beyond the circle of what’s comfortable and familiar lurks unfathomable horrors that you’re not prepared to deal with.  Obviously what qualifies as comfortable and familiar has varied throughout history, but in modern times when the entire world is familiar to us (or at least that’s what most people like to think) space is the obvious choice.

Space travel in sci-fi movies these days is usually held up as something adventurous and awe-inspiring, humanity taking to the stars and seizing our destiny and all that. By contrast, right from the opening title sequence of Alien space is portrayed as an eerie, desolate place. Even the initial shots of the empty corridors of the Nostromo drive home the point that the crew are alone and very far from home. By answering the distress signal and landing on the scary alien hell planet they cross the line into territory that humans were Not Meant To Visit and suffer the consequences. In this respect the movie feels very Lovecraftian in that the alien threat they encounter is a non-sentient being with no more concern or interest in humanity than a cat would feel toward a mouse. The Universe in Alien is a cold, hostile place where straying off the beaten path can get you horribly eviscerated by some faceless horror from beyond the stars.

So not exactly the cheeriest world-view, but it makes for great cinema. Obviously space travel isn’t something that most of us will experience in our lives, so in that respect Alien was probably jumping the gun a bit. But when human astronauts do eventually spend their first night on another planet I like to think HR Giger’s penis monster will haunt some corner of their minds.

Before I wrap this up I want to talk about the much hyped status of Ripley as a proto-feminist action star. This is something I was aware of going into the movie and having watched it I think a lot of people are confusing this movie with Aliens. Ripley doesn’t physically confront the alien in this movie- none of the characters do without getting immediately slaughtered- so I’m not sure where the idea that Alien turned Sigourney Weaver into an action star is coming from.

That said, the movie does do something positive in that it doesn’t treat Ripley like a woman. What I mean by that is that men trying to write “strong” women will usually feel the need to round them out by making them “vulnerable” or having them cry over a dead kitten half way through the movie, a requirement that never seems to be made of male characters. Alien doesn’t do this- Ripley is portrayed from the start as the most cool headed and sensible of the Nostromo crew, she stands up to Dallas over letting the facehugger on board and she immediately volunteers for the most-likely-suicidal mission of climbing into the air ducts to lure the alien into space.

On the other hand, the character was apparently written as a man initially so I have to wonder how much of this might have been different if that hadn’t been the case. The protagonist of the upcoming Prometheus (which I seriously cannot wait to see) seems to be taking on a similar role and was written as a woman from the start, so it will be interesting to compare the two.

In watching these movies I decided a good way to approach them would be to ask, “does this deserve the level of fame it’s received?” In the case of Alien I’m going to go with an answer of yes, it does. I don’t think the movie does anything that hadn’t been done before, it just does it very well. Sometimes that’s all you need to make a classic.

Doing in The Wizard…. IN SPACE

Assuming anyone is reading this and I’m not just blogging into a void (drop a comment if you exist, internet people!), may have noticed a pretty sharp drop off in the frequency of recent posts.

There are two reasons for this. The first and least embarrassing is that I’m now working 12 days out of every 14, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for doing anything else. The other reason is that I’m kind of sick of reading fantasy. After reading….. four books. You may recall that the original goal of this blog was an attempt to get into fantasy. This isn’t an encouraging development.

But! I have a solution to both of those problems.

It was always my intention that if this fantasy reading list malarkey went well I’d follow it up with a sci-fi version. Well, that’s going to happen a bit quicker than I originally planned. I’m not giving up on reading fantasy by any means, I’m just going to have some other stuff to dip into when my short attention span gets the better of me.

But there’s more! As I was planning this I realized my movie pile of shame consists largely of well-regarded sci-fi movies I’ve either never seen or haven’t watched since I was a kid. Since they take such little time to consume compared to a novel, why not take a look at them?

At the moment I’m doing a possible guest review for someone else’s blog that I’m taking way too long to get through, but once that’s done it’ll be time for SPACE. I can’t wait.

Winter is coming….. maybe (Game of Thrones Season 2)

I mentioned in my first post that I liked the Game of Thrones TV series (along with half the population of the world, apparently). You may have heard that the second season started recently.

Going back to the series after the season break was an interesting experience for me because I’m approaching the upcoming episodes with a fair amount of trepidation. Partly this is because I’ve read about  the later volume’s less than stellar reputation and partly it’s due to the nature of long running fantasy series. They always seem to start off strong, or at least readable, before the cracks start to show in the second volume. By volume four the plot grinds to a halt and the entire series nose-dives off a cliff, never to recover (see Wheel of Time, about which more at a later date). Then again I couldn’t get more than five pages into the Game of Thrones novel and I found the series gripping anyway. I’m not sure why that is. It’s certainly not because the writers are removing the more idiotic/ offensive content, a fact that became abundantly clear upon returning to the series.

Exhibit A:

Image

The Dothraki Sea, where men are men and women have bare midriffs.

I remember finding this sub-plot quite tense and fast paced upon first viewing, but now I’m just struck by how terrible the whole thing is. I won’t comment on the racism and sexism present, except to marvel at how blatent and lacking in self awareness it is, as other far more qualified people have already written at length about it. What I want to point out instead is that the sub-plot makes no sense and contributes nothing to the story.

When we’re first introduced to Daenerys she’s basically Conan the Barbarian* Khal Drogo’s sex slave. This continues on for awhile and then suddenly they’re supposed to be in love for real. When exactly did this happen? How did it happen? Did Drogo apologize off screen for buying Daenerys like a piece of property and repeatedly raping her in the middle of season 1? Isn’t this a pretty big piece of character development to gloss over? To be clear I’m not sure it would have even been possible to make the “relationship” seem in any way normal or sympathetic at this point, but they could at least have tried. As it is I keep assuming Daenerys is suffering from a massive bout of Stockholm syndrome. Maybe that’s what they were going for, but it sure as hell doesn’t seem like it.

Apart from being idiotic and disgusting, Daenerys’ sub-plot is also unnecessary. I get where it’s going- Daenerys gate-crashes the Westeros civil war and explosively trolls everyone with her dragons- but until that happens she only has the most tangential connection the main plot. A far better way to do this would be to not actually show her at all until its time for the two plot-lines to merge. Instead we’d only hear about her exploits through the vague snippets of news and rumours of dragons being born that reach Westeros. Then, during some climactic battle scene BOOM! An awesome warrior woman shows up out of nowhere. With dragons.

 *( It’s pretty telling that when I first wrote that joke I forgot that Jason Mamoa was also Conan)

Exhibit B:

So let’s talk about how the story is glorifying feudalism.

There’s a scene in the first episode of the second season where an old man- one of the regional lords serving under the Starks- goes to Bran, a ten year old boy who happens to be the only Stark left in Winterfell, to request masons to help repair his keep. When asked why his own men can’t do it he says all of the young men have been sent to fight in the Stark’s war against the Lanisters. Bran tells him off and reminds him of his sacred oaths or whatever to fight for his lord.

What got me about this scene is that we’re clearly supposed to side with Bran here even though the old man is making a good point. The war between the Starks and the Lanisters essentially boils down to a petty feud between two rich families, fueled mainly by the fact that both sides are pig-headed and stubborn. I get that in the story’s setting it makes sense that they would have no problem sending thousands of men to their deaths (and indirectly causing the deaths of many more men, women and children through the ravages of warfare), but I feel like the writers almost have an obligation to in some way acknowledge how fucked up the whole situation is. But no, they just let the moment sail on past.

In the first season the consequences of living under one of the ruling dynasties of Westeros seemed to largely involve making manly vows of loyalty and spouting a lot of guff about serving your Sworn Brothers from this day until your last day or arresting Peter Dinklage or whatever, and while that’s a bit too hyper masculine for my tastes it was relatively benign. But the second season is supposed to be dealing with horrific all-out war. Let’s see some exploration of what that actually means. Some characters who aren’t rich and powerful land-owners or associated with rich and powerful land owners would also be nice.

Exhibit C:

Stop it with the fucking brothel scenes.

Exhibit D:

This is more speculation than a problem I have with what’s going on now, but there’s a scene in this episode where one of the council dudes declares that summer has ended and winter is coming (autumn is missing, presumed KIA).

If Game of Thrones has an ace up its sleeve, it’s the central premise of a planet that cycles between long, languid summers and crushing, brutal winters. Setting a tale of political intrigue and warfare against the backdrop of an oncoming apocalyptic cold snap/ supernatural invasion is a neat idea. You build up the fighting and back-stabbing and tension to boiling point and then introduce a vastly greater threat that renders the character’s struggles almost moot. I’m on board with that idea.

This distinctly feels like the sort of plot thread that’s going to be dangled in front of viewer’s faces without ever being resolved because actually paying it off would at the very least involve a massive shake up of the status quo, and if there’s one thing long-running, popular media franchises love it’s status quo.

Odds and Ends

Well look at that, I haven’t written a blog post in a week! Blame college.

I’m reading something right now that’s shaping up to be the first completely positive review on this blog, but in the meantime here are two interesting things I found:

  • Apparently I’m not the only one who thought Mistborn was written like a video game: a prequel game is incoming. Note that the release date is listed as Fall 2013 which usually indicates that the game in question is never going to see the light of day (announcing it as part of a trilogy pushes the probability to 95%). Branderson is writing the story so presumably the developers are going to license the face capture technology from LA Noire to depict all the frowning and smiling and winking.

 

  • This is probably the best takedown of fanatical SF/F fanboys I’ve ever seen as well, as the funniest April Fools joke I’ve seen this year.