Thursday, September 7, 2017
Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Sunday, August 13, 2017
Valerian as Espionage
It is not by accident that we chose this poster as an illustration. Unlike much of the publicity for the Besson film, it conveys a richness of character and diversity that better corresponds to the story than the images that focus only on the characters of Valerian and Laureline in an uncharacteristically threatening pose.
Like Besson's earlier sci fi classic, The Fifth Element, this movie has generated heated controversy between its proponents and a large body of detractors who have, we feel, misunderstood and hence misjudged the film as an art work. The primary reason for this split is probably because Valerian demands the viewer's attention to a degree that is uncommon today. With most action films, a spectator can run for a pee-pee break or stand in the popcorn line for a few minutes without missing too much, since a few explosions more or less will not vary the plot line, nor will omitting several iterations of "Go! Go! Now!" change the impressions of a character. Not so for Valerian. The action is non-stop, but the events are also tightly interwoven. This is because it is more than a science fiction action film. It is also, fundamentally, a spy film.
We are probably more sensitive to this spy designation because our own second novel in the Forlani Sage, Spy Station, is also centered on espionage. Espionage always demands mystery more than direct confrontation. Another word for spy is secret agent, so espionage presumes secrecy. Valerian and Laureline are not truly military personnel, but intelligence operatives. Their primary mission is to retrieve a stolen generator organism. To perform it, they must employ disguise, deception, and cunning, rather than just blasting their way into an enemy base and destroying it. Of course, as with any espionage, there is always collateral damage. But the point is to minimize direct confrontation so as to complete the mission: slip in undetected, snatch the object, escape as intact as possible.
Of course, there are lots of fancy accessories. Just as James Bond has his specially equipped spy cars and his Walther PPK, Valerian and Laureline have morphing body armor and impressive sidearms. Like those subject to JamesBondage, sci fi fans sometimes put undue emphasis on these technical gadgets to the detriment of story line and character (a classic example that pokes fun at fan obsessions is the wonderful parody Galaxy Quest). However, the discerning spectator needs to avoid excessive concentration on details in order to keep the overall operation in focus -- one needs to see the forest as well as the trees. It is essential to "follow the money," or in this case, the predicament of the Pearls and their last surviving pet generator beast. This is what all the critics and viewers who complain that Valerian is "hard to follow" have failed to do.
Another complication in this confusion is that this film departs from the usual trends of military sci fi, since it is the military that has caused the problem and that ultimately poses the greatest threat to the survival of The City of a Thousand Planets, Space Station Alpha. It is important to remember that the Pearls' home world is ravaged as collateral damage in a military engagement that they have no part in. It is the human space rangers who are responsible for the very radiation that threatens Alpha, since they turned the Pearls into galactic refugees. For their part, the Pearls do not envision any threat to the other species on the station and take great pains to "slime" their opponents rather than killing them when they have the chance. The danger lies in the military chain of command (the backbone of much military sci fi), while salvation eventually requires the space rangers to essentially mutiny in support of "humanitarian" ends (how strange that phrase sounds in the face of an interplanetary, interspecies reality that we all may have to face sooner than we imagine). The Space Cadets in the audience will always have trouble accepting a conflict where the military is at fault, just as war buffs cannot help finding issues with Platoon. All the more so when the smarter of the spy pair is -- unforgivably for some -- a woman.
For anyone who has made their way through one of John le Carre's contorted spy tales, Valerian is not truly that hard to follow. In many ways, it can be compared to one of the cinematic adaptations of Fleming's Bond stories, though in this case the spies have to navigate the interdimensional Big Market instead of the canals of Venice, deal with slinky females who can shape shift, and avoid an enforcer who looks like Ghostbusters' Zool and tears apart space ships instead of just throwing an iron hat. It is a travelogue where the viewer is zipped through space and time as well as mere geography. In fact, this is cleverly underlined by Besson in the Big Market sequence when a couple of kitsch-collecting American tourists provide a humorous homage to Sheriff J. W. Pepper on vacation in The Man With the Golden Gun. It can be said that Valerian is, in typically French fashion, very intertextual as well as interdimensional. Very nouveau roman!
In some ways, Valerian and Laureline are unlike Bond in that they are super-conscious of their role as secret agents and the human price they pay to do their jobs. They are closer to the realm of George Smiley. Their courageous friend Bubbles, done to surprising perfection by Rihanna, belongs more with the endearing figures in Smiley's People than the tinsel superficiality of the Bond Girls. Laureline, who is, we must remember, an "old-fashioned girl" from the Middle Ages in her comic strip genesis, forces Valerian to renounce his philandering ways as a tombeur de filles to an extent that Bond, even in On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Casino Royale (sic), never has to endure. How appropriate, since Laureline is never a fille but a fully conscious and unrepentant woman.
The espionage plot in Valerian unfolds in stages, as most spy intrigues must. On the surface, things begin with what appears to be a simple caper, recovering an object of dubious legitimacy. Casino Royale begins as an attempt to recover money embezzled by a labor official, Dr. No with the disappearance of a bird watcher, Goldfinger with a vacationer cheating at gin rummy. There is always more going on than is apparent, a seemingly sinister organization at work, many levels of things being covered up. There are obligatory escape sequences that have to introduce surprise after surprise, preferably contrasting extremely bizarre elements with others that are mundane and ironically comical. There is spycraft and the inevitable awkwardness of dealing with superiors who always demand more than is reasonable and reveal less than is necessary. In Valerian there is even the arch-enemy, the mole in the system who has a personal agenda that is counter to the general welfare.
We will return to Valerian in a future post to deal with some further issues of characterization. We hope that this discussion of the "spy side" of the movie will cause people to return and review it with a fresh perspective. Clearly, it is a film that, like The Fifth Element is destined not just for cult popularity, but ultimately for a classic status.
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Countdown Sale on Amazon UK!
Can a renegade political prisoner and an alien pleasure worker find happiness and meaning while threatened by sinister human corporations, giant parasitic locusts, and rampaging viking octopi? Klein, who reads Faulkner and makes love to music by Schumann, is not your average rocket jock. Entara, who can have up to six babies at a time and becomes the most famous singer on her home world, is not your average call girl. Add in a pacifist organic farmer who buries bodies under his cucumbers, an Iranian nuclear tech who cuts hair for a living, a chatty raccoon-like doctor who can put Humpty-Dumpty together again and creatures that can transmit racial memory through touch telepathy and you have just a sample of the wild characters in Life Sentence.
We will be having a Kindle Countdown Sale on Amazon UK that runs from August 8-15. On the first three days, you can order our exciting science fiction adventure for the lowest possible price, but hurry, because after three days, it rises by one pound, but is still a great bargain for the rest of the sale. Just go to : https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MCUIHXY
Saturday, July 1, 2017
Another Close Call for our World
We're just back from a wonderful cruise along the the Norwegian coast on the Hurtigruten Line's MS Nordnorge. As we docked briefly at Risoyhavn on the Vesteralen island of Andoya, we learned about a scary and unlikely incident back in 1995.
Andoya is home to Norway's modest space program, which is located on the seaward side of the island. Therefore, sailing up the coastal channel, we did not see it, but only the mountains between it and us.
Launches at Andoya are strictly scientific and employ Black Brant missile systems. Most of the research focuses on Arctic phenomena, such as the aurora borealis and its relationship to the magnetosphere.
Such was the 1995 mission that almost led to a global nuclear conflict. A missile aimed at the Norwegian far-north archipelago of Svalbard unfortunately assumed a course and a radar profile similar to that which would be produced by a US Trident nuclear-tipped missile launched from one of the numerous submarines we maintain in Arctic waters close to Russia.
The incident only lasted ten minutes until the Russian military was able to determine that this was not a first strike against their country. Nevertheless, their version of the Nuclear Briefcase was brought to President Boris Yeltsin and a retaliatory strike was being organized when the stand-down was given. You see, there is not much time to think, since it would take an American sub-launched missile only ten minutes to reach Moscow. This was at least the second time that cool-headedness on the Russian side saved the planet from an apocalyptic war, the previous time being a 1983 incident that is still not completely explained in a convincing manner.
When the several thousand natives of Andoya learned of this after the fact, they were astonished their little municipality could have such far-reaching influence. They celebrated the big misunderstanding with a droll Norsk sense of humor by printing up a batch of t-shirts inscribed with the message "We Started World War III!"
Thursday, June 8, 2017
Cephalopods and the Forlani Universe
One of our new UK friends, S. e. Murphy, recently asked on Facebook why we have cephalopods playing an important part in our Forlani novels. First of all, the word cephalopod may seem strange, but they are creatures almost everyone is familiar with: octopi, cuttlefish, squids, and nautili. As mollusks, they are a very ancient life form, having emerged and dominated the Earth's seas long before most life was crawling up on land. Like the nautilus, ancient cephalopods had an external shell, which modern octopi and other members of the family have lost, although they still have a small internal remnant of the old shells. Unlike the modern nautilus, ancient cephalopods, such as the ammonites in the picture, could be huge. They were a dominant, alpha species in their watery environment and ruled the planetary seas. Perhaps, if extinction events on Earth had happened differently, they might still be here today.
Modern cephalopods often show extreme intelligence for such a "primitive" animal. Octopi and others have well-developed senses and surprising problem-solving ability. They can squeeze themselves through tiny holes to get to new places. Moreover, they are skillful stalkers and hunters, able to outwit their prey. Their color-changing powers, linked to a complex range of emotions, can be used to express messages to others of their kind or to camouflage themselves almost instantly against enemies. Who knows whether, if environments on Earth had allowed them to continue developing over hundreds of millions of years after the great ammonites became extinct, octopus intelligence might not have developed far beyond our current human limits?
In some ways, it might seem that cephalopods might be evolutionarily blocked by living in the sea, but there is absolutely no necessity for this. Several years ago, we viewed a television program where scientists and artists proposed various types of amazing alien life that might exist in the cosmos, and one of them was a huge, intelligent, land-roving octopus. Wait a minute, you might object, how could they come up on land? It's true existing cephalopods don't have lungs, but consider whether they might be able to develop bladder-like organs that could store enough oxygenated water to allow them to start exploring the land. After all, the opposite has happened in the case of our oceans' present intelligence champions, the marine mammals. The ancestors of whales, dolphins, walruses, and other marine mammals were once four-footed, fur-bearing coastal mammals that ventured into the tides to search for their food, slowly and gradually developing the ability to live in the sea for long periods of time. Need more proof? Darwin discovered it in the Galopagos, where in relatively recent geological time, land-dwelling iguanas evolved to become comfortable in the sea and dependent on it for survival. On another world, given time and luck, cephalopods could adapt to land, at least on a part-time basis.
That is how we arrive at the Song Pai, the space-worthy cephalopods of the Forlani universe. we postulate a world where cephalopods develop in size, intelligence, and power to an advanced point. Their planet, Song Pa, had an older, land-based dominant life form which unfortunately destroyed itself through reckless genetic engineering. This left the stage open for the emergence of the cephalopods and their inheritance of the vacant lands that were still loaded with the technological lore of the Ancient Ones. Earthly octopi are notoriously opportunistic, and the Song Pai are likewise. They master the engineering of their hapless forerunners and, like them, move on into space.
Our Song Pai share many characteristics of existing terran octopi. Above all, they are aggressive and competitive. Think of them as viking squids. Yet they are fiercely protective of the newly hatched. The Song Pai life cycle has several stages, from cherished hatchling to dog-eat-dog adolescence through adult adaptation to a strict hierarchical order. We also postulate that the Song Pai would face a problem common to all alpha species -- overpopulation. Their solution is to restrict breeding so that only the bravest are allowed to reproduce, albeit posthumously! By proving its valor in kamakazi-like space battles, a Song Pai warrior, its eggs and sperm cryogenically preserved on the home world, is given the honor of having them released in the hatcheries and passing on its genes. Life and death exist together in a unique set of priorities that make Song Pai a fascinating type of creature, capable of many, many types of actions and reactions
The Song Pai are introduced in Life Sentence as allies and protectors of the female-dominated, quasi-marsupial Forlani. The "squids" honor the Forlani because of their common devotion to generation and the ongoing life force. Notably, they protect the Forlani from humans, who long to exploit them and their planet. The human convict Klein, protagonist of the first volume, develops an irresistible urge for revenge against the haughty cephalopods because of a personal matter, and it is exacerbated by a period of slave-like labor in their service. In the second novel, Spy Station, due out later this year, Song Pai reappear at a peace conference on Space Station Varess, where an assembly of aliens has been convened to prevent a war between Song Pai and a mysterious and powerful race called the Blynthians. The Song Pai's aggressiveness threatens to make Entara's peace initiative fail. Even worse, a number of secret agents employed by potential war profiteers stretches the alliance with the Forlani to the breaking point, but also leads to the discovery of new and unexpected qualities in the cephalopods. Introduce yourself to them by getting Life Sentence on Amazon and stay tuned for the upcoming release of Spy Station. Follow this blog to stay in the know.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Star Wars and the Election of 2016
People of many persuasions are scratching their heads to explain what happened last fall in the presidential popularity contest, but they are overlooking many factors, perhaps because they are too rooted in the past to see into the future. They say soldiers are always trying to fight the LAST war instead of the one they are in, so why not consider a different type of war to explain what happened? A Star War!
Let's take as a starting point that by the time Hillary Clinton faced up against Donald Trump in November, she had already lost. She lost a long time before she started running against the Donald. In fact, it was obvious that she had lost at her party's nominating convention, and actually some time before that. Oh, she could in fact have beaten Trump, but she had already made decisions that rendered that impossible when she and her staff and her DNC friends so badly underestimated what was happening to the only other campaign in town, that of Bernie Sanders.
Hillary's brand of candidacy was set in stone before the primaries began (and in fact remains in force among the DNC establishment): she was going to sweep the female vote and the minority vote even more effectively than Obama had done, and she was going to raise humongous sums of money to blow away any Republican opposition. She took the second half of this strategy to such a point that she not only raised more than she needed for 2016, but was already piling up cash and promises for 2020. It was a done deal -- how could she lose?
Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, another candidate believed in something other than electoral technology. Remember, Hillary was essentially running from Coruscant. New Yorkers seemed not to care that she did little for them in the Senate but run for higher office. Eh! That had happened before. Wall Street didn't give a rat's derriere what had happened in Benghazi or Kiev, or anywhere else as long as it didn't disturb their balance sheets. In fact, there was always somebody poised to make money over another little war. And as for the Times, they loved her cuddly relationship with Netanyahu and were prepared to blame any misfortunes on the Putins and Xis of the world.
On the other hand, here was this character running from Tatooine. Vermont, the pits of the United States in political terms: small, remote, sparsely populated, and poor. And their champion a geezer who looked even older than Clinton and whose only power seemed to be "an elegant weapon from a more civilized age," rewarmed Cold War non-communist socialism. For heaven's sake, nobody even remembered that old saw -- those old crackpots had been subverted and replaced by the Blairs and Hollandes and Merkels. Or had they? Among the youth of the USA, Sanders' sensible socialism slashed like a light sabre. They were a generation whose future had been sold out, forsaken, beguiled by the promises of a "sharing economy" that they were quick to realize was no more than a new kind of wage slavery without rights, unions, or pensions. They had grown up with fifteen-year wars that were going nowhere, crusades against all sorts of invisible enemies and evaporated paradises. They were willing to believe in a Force and still are.
Hillary was confident she could prevail. She and her husband had run Democratic Conventions before, and thanks to that heritage, she possessed the Death Star of party politics -- the superdelegates who could un-vote any challenge. Trump even made things so much easier, because how could Sanders refuse to submit with such an awful alternative confronting the nation? But she just didn't get it. Sanders knew deep down that he was probably going to lose, but he knew what he had to do to at least offer some future to the kids who were willing to try something new. What was it Obi-wan said to Darth at the end of their duel? "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." Hillary never realized that she could not win because she had always already discounted Sanders and his rebels. She refused to admit her weak points, and there was not just one exhaust port that was not adequately shielded against ALL attacks.
Of course, the struggle is far from over. In this galaxy, the Death Star of the two-party monopoly was never destroyed; in fact, it was barely damaged. The Sanderistas will have to count on some rough moments ahead. There will be more than one rout at Hoth to deal with. Yet this rebellion seems to have a lot of room to grow, as fewer and fewer of the youth accept the barrage of propaganda that is served up about the economy, foreign affairs, acceptable morality, or other chapters of the Prosperity Gospel that is forced on them. Science fiction is speculation par excellence, but then again, so is politics, as anyone who ever doubted that we would be ruled by an orange-haired clown other than Bozo or Ronald McDonald can attest. Reality may turn out to be stranger than science fiction.
Monday, May 15, 2017
Greenhouses on Mars? --Some Things We Still Need to Know
Donald Trump recently ordered NASA to send men to Mars by 2020, at at most 2024 and they wisely replied that it wasn't going to happen. In this post, we want to examine a few biological reasons why we need a lot more experimentation before we talk about colonization. In science fiction the viability of agriculture on alien worlds or even in deep space has often been taken for granted. Consider the greenhouse that Sean Connery's character destroys in Outland, the ridiculously undersized plantations in generation ships like the one in Space Mutiny, or the floating remnants of national parks defended by Bruce Dern and his bots in Silent Running. But the truth is that we have precious little information on how plants would exist (or not) far from the vicinity of Earth.
So far, our expeditions to Mars have focused only on machines. Can we assume that photosynthesis, the key to any kind of agriculture, would function the same, or function at all, on the surface of Mars? Is the light on Mars sufficient to allow plants familiar and useful to humans to grow in any sufficient quantity to provide food, oxygen, and waste recycling? Optimists will immediately reply that all will be well once a bit of terraforming is done. However, we should probably make sure that is true, or at least likely, before we begin the immensely expensive process of modifying the atmosphere of the Red Planet. Even if we are able to construct a magnetosphere to reduce the atmospheric erosion of solar bombardment, would it be enough to enable a viable agricultural infrastructure? It would seem necessary to observe some kind of plant growth experiments in the vicinity of Mars in order to determine if it works. And we cannot begin this possibly "polluting" activity until we know a lot more about whether there is already any kind of microbial life on that world. We cannot afford to take it for granted that great forests would simply spring up as they do in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.
Even if terrestrial plants could be coaxed into growing in an existing or easily altered Martian atmosphere and soil, that does not in itself solve all the problems. One great menace to Earth's plants today is the massive decrease in pollinator populations. After all, it is not enough just to plant seeds, for the plants must be able to reproduce themselves in the new environment. Some plants can be pollinated without zoological help, but would they be able to prosper not just for a single season, but in such a way as to re-enrich the soil to a point where continual production is guaranteed? One element in soil quality is the lowly earthworm, but now we need to know also if that whole collection of creatures could also function sufficiently well beyond the Earth's orbital neighborhood. Even the experiments performed with biologicals on the ISS are not enough yet to answer these questions.
It is worthwhile to ponder also who would be the farmers of a colonized Mars. On Earth, the people who own and manage farms are not necessarily the people who do the work. The majority of human farmers could never afford the price of transportation to another planet. Would governments or corporations be able to persuade them to make the leap? In our novel Life Sentence, we examine the vicissitudes of agriculture on the colonial world of Domremy. Most of the manual labor can only be procured by transporting prisoners, as happened in colonial Australia. But on Domremy, the majority of the convicts are inept at agriculture and the only success is among a refugee religious sect, The Circle, which has learned subsistence farming the hard way on Earth. Can you picture NASA's astronomical engineers spending a back-breaking day hoeing rows of vegetables? John Deere will not be right down the road to provide specialized machinery to replace manual work, either. It is hard to imagine Earth-based governments or corporations paying the transport bill for farm workers without any established proof of profitability.
There may even be difficulties in constituting a panel of experts to mull over these problems. The scientists of Cargill and Monsanto are used to dealing with inalterable terrestrial conditions that they can easily master and mold to their demands, even if it means using economic arm-twisting to force distant farm populations to grow commercial crops, engineering new genetic creations to fit the market, or displacing whole communities thousands of miles to accommodate Big Ag. The rules will be changed on a new planet. Even the questions to be asked may be radical departures. They will have to be asked and solved by people on the ground, not in the board rooms. The issues of agricultural subsistence are being constantly avoided on this planet, lest they disrupt the large-scale economies of multinationals. Can NASA, ESA, the Russians, or maybe even the Indians or the Chinese reach down to consult practical farming communities to help in the propective greening of Mars? If so, it might be better to start sooner than later. In dealing with Mars, mankind will not have the luxury of the many "throw-away" colonies that failed during our own colonial period. Without careful preparation, our settlements on Mars might become Lost Colonies that would make Cuttihunk, Roanoke Island, L'Anse aux Meadows, or Parris Island look like sedate tea parties.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Why Attend Science Fiction Conventions?
In the three years since we have become active in the science fiction community, we have come to discover the many advantages of science fiction conventions, known among the crowd simply as cons. We have attended several in the immediate area of our home in Virginia, and there are at least two more in this state alone that we look forward to visiting. Within driving range in North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, there are several more, and Jim will be present out of state for the first time later this year at the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity meeting in Columbia, Maryland. This does not even begin to mention some of the even larger cons, such as San Diego's famous Comicon or the many overseas cons that have proliferated over the years. Participating in any con involves some time and expense, which often runs to three days and several hundred dollars unless the venue is within commuting distance. However, we have found that the experience is invaluable in a variety of ways and no aspiring author or fan should miss the opportunity. Here are a few of the specific reasons to attend a con.
First of all is education in the sci fi profession, particularly for indie authors like ourselves, who do not have large publishing houses to coordinate the plethora of activities involved in bringing out a book. While there are resources, in print and otherwise, that offer guidance not only in writing a text, but in the subsequent stages of editing, formatting, publishing, marketing, and publicizing, there is no substitute for plunging yourself into an environment where hundreds of authors and fans are brimming with first-hand information that is more up-to-date than almost anything in print. Furthermore, at con panels, one can ask questions and get an immediate and frank response, along with personal reactions to all sorts of situations that can bewilder any neophyte. We gathered precious tips on how to negotiate the myriad complexities of self-publishing, after having spent a couple of years delving into the maze of agents and large or small publishers with only modest results. The publishing industry is in such a state of flux that timely information is absolutely necessary in order to avoid missteps. Once one can follow trails laid out by more experienced hands, the self-publishing road is not at all as difficult as it may seem at first glance. From working with Kindle Direct and CreateSpace, to finding a good cover artist and copyrighting, cons can provide links to virtually any question one may run into.
In addition, cons give very palpable examples in marketing and publicity. At most cons, there are authors who are engaged in readings or signings – these are perfect examples to follow in the distribution of one's own books. You can develop strategies that will work for getting your own books to the public. In fact, there are so many different types of examples, that you can pick strategies that seem appropriate for the particular type of book that interests you. You can compare, mix and match dozens of approaches to find one that best suits your own goals and capabilities as a writer. We have always been amazed at the openness and generosity of accomplished sci fi authors who are willing to welcome new voices into the fold and to share their pitfalls and triumphs with newcomers. This is priceless for us, because like most authors, our first love is writing itself, and the skills and methods involved in sharing a book with the public demand a completely new orientation that can be daunting to the normally introspective bookworm. Just grasping the fact that presenting anything from a stand-alone novel to a whole sci fi series requires a long-term investment of thinking and effort, rather than an overnight business success, is a crucial step in reaping the rewards of interaction at a con.
At a convention, a writer soon realizes the wide scope of the sci fi community, since the span of
subgenres, as well as associated genres like urban fantasy, steampunk, comic horror, etc., is present everywhere. Ideas abound in often overwhelming profusion. One soon sees that the novel aspects that originally seemed so isolated and incomparable are part of a universe of speculation reaching out in every direction through time and space. Needless to say, you walk away from a con with a million new notions about character, plot, timing, dialogue, research, and every other facet of the construction of a story. One the one hand, it's humbling to take into account how much everyone else is already doing or has done, but on the other, the perspectives for new creation open up so much new territory that you are dying to get back and start putting new things on the page. Space is mighty big, but there you are in the middle of it, zooming along with the other pilots. You perceive just how good writing can be and you yearn to make yours better and better. This educational process is probably just as important for other types of fiction, from romance to detective, yet it's all the more vital in sci fi, where the liberation of the imagination is sine qua non. Finally the time comes when you step from the status of privileged spectator and learner to that of panel participant, for there is always a passing of the baton and one needs to be ready when the time comes to assume a role of peer among peers.
Of course, cons also offer pure pleasure. Though we are not adept at the complex art of cosplaying, we have come to appreciate and enjoy the elaborate masquerades and costume contests that are part of just about every con. To see the rooms and halls filled with elves, gremlins, aliens, heroes, robots, and monsters is every bit as exciting as carnival. It creates a visual medium where the concrete normality of banal life can be turned upside-down, privileging the new and unexpected. There are also frequently screenings of experimental films, show-casings of cutting-edge music and dance, and exhibitions of art closely related to sci fi and fantasy. Each con has, as a natural economic feature, vendors of every imaginable type of object, clothing, book or cd, jewelry, or geegaw. Other cons will have booths to attract people to their upcoming events in own locations, often with their own particular topic or featured star. Finally, there is the gaming. Whether it be board games, arcades, RPGs, or any other ludic form, it is bound to be available in some form at a con. Where else can you gather at the drop of a hat a half-dozen friends fascinated with the same game experience and willing to pass several hours in delightful concentration as they work out the mysteries of an old favorite or a new game that has not even been released yet to the general public?
As you can understand, cons offer a total experience. For those of us who have grown tired of waiting in lines for the standard kinds of programmed amusements or bored with poring over the details of a publishing plan, the con provides a breath of fresh air and a tonic to restore our creative juices, free of the pre-packaged brands that litter our daily lives. Try it, join in, become part of the celebration, lift yourself in spirit and skill. Come to the con.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
A planet where the dominant life form is very large telepathic insects? That is Domremy. One of the key elements of our novel, Life Sentence, is the idea that there is no single evolutionary thread for the development of life in the universe. Considering that Earth's evolution has depended on several catastrophic cosmic collisions, as well as perhaps geological shifts in the Earth itself, it is reasonable to speculate that, absent those extinction events, or possibly in cases of even more such disasters, life on other planets might evolve in quite different ways. After all, humans have been around for only a tiny fraction of our world's history. What if the Permian, Cretaceous, or other extinctions had never happened and earlier life forms had been allowed to continue to adapt? There is nothing per se that would prevent reptiles, amphibians, other mammals, or even insects from developing intelligence and other characteristics that would allow them to develop an advanced culture or technology.
In the planets of Life Sentence, there are several different scenarios of evolution. The Locals (as humans call them) of Domremy have managed to develop a sophisticated culture without material technology. Communicating through touch telepathy, they are able to share vast amounts of common memory and species lore. Since humans have no such capacities themselves, they are unaware of the Locals' gifts until Willie Klein and the Religious Dissenters unravel the mystery of the original inhabitants of their corporate-run colony. Once they realize the terrible consequences of Hyperion Corp's semi-terraforming of Domremy, Willie, Peebo, Dr. Patak and others vow to try to restore as much as possible of the precolonial ecology.
The Locals shared their environment with mammalian and quasi-mammalian creatures that had evolved alongside them, as well as smaller life forms. Since many of these had been wiped out by the terraforming (as indeed the Locals themselves almost were), it is necessary for the Dissenters to use genetic engineering to restore missing species. One of these is the "pippo," so dubbed by Willie because they look like a cross between a pig and a hippo. He learned about their existence on the Locals' savannas through a telepathic session, but was astounded that Dr. Patak, who had perfected regeneration of mammoths and other extinct Earth beasts, had already been able to produce fertile clones from hides, bones, and other archaeological material uncovered on Domremy. This gives the Dissenters, more interested in venerating life than exploiting it in the manner of the corporations, the rare chance to make amends for some of mankind's earlier crimes.
Domremy is just one of the worlds of Life Sentence, and in a later post we will examine the very different conditions that led to divergent types of life on Song Pa and Forlan, where particular conditions produced dominant species of cephalopod (octopus-like) and marsupial natures. These topics are especially pertinent as NASA prepares to land on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which seem more and more likely to harbor some form of life. NASA has already indicated it plans to observe nothing like Star Trek's prime directive, preventing the interference with existing life forms. Remember that Mars itself may still display some type of life that is so far undetected, since we are looking for something fairly close to ourselves or familiar contemporary Earth creatures. It is looking increasingly the First Contact may not be just a one-way experience, but rather a give and take that may be either positive or negative. Reason to consider the possibilities of what might be out there and how we should approach it.
If these questions fascinate you, go to : https://www.amazon.com/Life-Sentence-Forlani-Saga-Book-ebook/dp/B01MCUIHXY and order your print or digital copy of Life Sentence. We would love to hear your reactions.
If these questions fascinate you, go to : https://www.amazon.com/Life-Sentence-Forlani-Saga-Book-ebook/dp/B01MCUIHXY and order your print or digital copy of Life Sentence. We would love to hear your reactions.
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
Attempting to write about nonhuman species brings with it many challenges, among them the difficulty of trying to represent nonhuman species accurately, and to what extent a human writer can actually do so. For much of the twentieth century dinosaurs functioned as a sort of “throwaway monster” in the public conscience, something that would show up, randomly attack jungle explorers or historically inaccurate cavemen, and then get killed. Tyrannosaurus often had a penguin-like waddle, when he wasn’t unfortunate enough to be played by an iguana with a fin glued on his back. Sauropods and stegosaurs would randomly eat meat, dinosaurs from distant time periods would encounter each other, non-dinosaurs such as Dimetrodon would explicitly be called “dinosaurs”, and nobody cared as long as Doug McClure would show up and save the day in the end. During the 1970s, the “Dinosaur Renaissance” took place in paleontology, and new discoveries were made about dinosaur behavior and biology that contradicted earlier stereotypes. Only once Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park was published in 1990 would these discoveries influence the broader public perception of dinosaurs.
And yet, in creating the Garanians, a “dinosauroid” race for Spy Station, our second Forlani Saga novel, I found that many of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” era assumptions had themselves become dated. Dale A. Russel’s original Troodon-derived dinosauroid concept did not have any feathers; since 1982, multiple fossils of Coelurosaurian dinosaurs have been found with fossilized feathers, therefore I decided to give the Garanians a vestigial neck crest of feathers that would stand erect when they were agitated. I was also fascinated with trying to research dinosaur intelligence and brain size. The pre-Dino Renaissance belief that dinosaurs were all dimwitted clods was clearly wrong, but beyond a very generalized “birdlike dinosaurs were probably the most intelligent” consensus, I had trouble finding a set of theories that were broadly agreed upon. This was made even more difficult by the lack of research into the brains of still living archosaurs; there are far fewer studies of avians and crocodiles than there are of mammals. With newer studies indicating surprising signs of intelligence in crocodiles, could there be potential aspects of dinosaur behavior that our current level of scientific understanding doesn’t understand yet?
Even the basic dinosauroid body plan is now considered contentious in some circles. Some researchers believe that a dinosauroid of sapient intelligence would have to use its head and feet to manipulate objects, as the forelimbs become less used in existent ground-dwelling birds and dinosaur groups such as the abelisaurs and tyrannosaurs. I decided on a body plan resembling Russel’s original dinosauroid more than these; not only did numerous coelurosaur groups such as the “raptor” dromaeosaurs and therozinosaurs retain their large forelimbs, but I aesthetically thought that having Tashto operate a gun with his feet would have made him more of a warrior parrot than a warrior dinosaur. Of course, this could be my own bias in simply wanting something that resembled my own pre-2010s notion of what a dinosaur could be.
Part of the nature of speculative fiction is that it is as much bound by what an author enjoys as it is about scientific reality. As a writer, I tried to bridge the notion of the popular Jurassic Park “raptor”, my own personal favorite depiction of a dinosaur, with the newer insights into how dinosaurs would have looked. This was perhaps slightly easier with a “raptor” since this type of dinosaur was newer in the popular imagination, and therefore more malleable, than creatures like Tyrannosaurus. Ultimately, we only know a tiny fraction of knowledge about most given dinosaur species, and much of our expectations about their behavior lies rooted in imagination, conjecture and (sometimes erroneous) tradition. Regardless of whatever is discovered about dromeosaurids in the time after Spy Station is published, I can at least take pleasure in the fact that, unlike Jurassic World, I bothered to put feathers on my “raptors”.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
1947 and the Cosmic Quarantine
The year that the term “flying saucer” was invented (perhaps due to a journalist's mistake) may not actually mark a First Contact situation for humans and aliens. The USA tends to use that as a benchmark for strictly americacentric reasons, since the UFO sightings in Washington state and New Mexico generated wide media attention here. It also coincides neatly with the development of the Nuclear Age, since the heat and radiation intensity of the atom bomb explosions two years earlier would plausibly have created unique features that may have drawn the attention of alien observers. From a worldwide point of view, UFO observations had been going on more or less regularly for some time in various parts of the Earth, all the way back to ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, 1947 does merit a place in history as the birthpoint of ufology and the beginning of a period of intense UFO reports that stretched into the 1960's. The tailing off of this phenomenon also coincides well with the dawn of the Space Age, as from the Sputnik launch onwards, humans became greatly enabled in their observations of our own upper atmosphere and the space immediately near it. One might surmise that, if anything, this heightened ability would have led exponentially to more UFO reports, but that does not seem to have been the case.
With this in view, I would like to examine the speculative question of whether our planet may currently be subject to a cosmic quarantine that has resulted in a decrease of “flying saucer” type reports. This is a difficult area for many reasons. First of all, a great deal of information has been hushed up by military and intelligence sources. This is particularly true of World War II era incidents, when the development of secret weapons made this sort of obfuscation a matter of daily fact. The Cape Girardeau case and the various “foo fighter” claims during the war fall into this category, as does – after the fact – the Roswell incident which was tardily varnished with a story of high altitude observation balloons that was close enough to reality to fall into the parameters of deniability. As regards the stories of alien landings on the planet, especially two incidents in Sweden and Brazil, there are also serious scientific impediments to accepting them at face value. For alien creatures to willingly expose themselves to the Earth's atmosphere and the soup of potentially harmful organisms and substances contained therein would seem to be a contradiction to common sense, even if an alien civilization had done a fairly thorough biological scan of our planet. After all, new species are still being discovered in parts of the Earth and new microbes are evolving rapidly right now. The Earth is literally bursting with life, so that any survey would become obsolete in a short time. Thus, even within the bounds of speculation, it is most reasonable to assume that alien observation would most likely take the form of robotic devices rather than appearances in the flesh.
One possible exception to this caveat about physical encounters is the famous Hill Incident in New Hampshire, in which the aliens are reported to have established a type of telepathic communication and perhaps control over the human subjects and are not described as exiting from their vessel. There are too few descriptions to hypothesize about whether humans might have been able to be examined in sterile conditions by alien visitors, yet the details of the Hills' experiences do not preclude such a scenario. The vast mass of alien abduction stories that have proliferated since the Hill Incident tend to swamp the original case in a mass of essentially unrelated material. Examined on its own rights as a single chain of described evens, though, the Hills' encounter will probably continue to stand as a keystone reference for speculative thought until further information is available. I would propose that one regard it as a climax event, rather than a springboard, for speculative ufology.
Supposing that if there is any truth value at all to UFO reports from 1947 on, and that it may indeed have been nuclear fission that attracted observation of Earth from outside near space, there are several possible explanations for why conditions of observation may have changed since the early 60's, leading to the existence of a cosmic quarantine on the planet, and perhaps much of the solar system. The primary one has to do with what in the StarTrek lore is referred to as the Prime Directive. What Roddenberry's Star Fleet imputes to moral imperatives could even more convincingly be associated with sheer scientific procedure. As our own species delves deeper and deeper into the study of animal behavior, we find it more and more necessary to establish some separation from the species we are observing. Thanks to remote devices that do not attract the attention or fear of study subjects, we can peer into the nests of tree ducks, the burrows of meerkats, or the habits of deep-sea fish without causing that behavior to be altered or to disappear because of our immediate physical presence. Assuming humans are a species that requires observation – admittedly something we ourselves have been too reluctant to accept, it logically follows that separation is a highly desirable protocol of understanding.
Of course, a behavioral Heisenberg principle also applies. Given our natural curiosity as an organism, if we were to detect the presence of another intelligence, we would very likely change our actions so much that it would destroy the reliability of previous data. In other words, now that we are able to observe not only near space with far greater accuracy, but even deep space through orbiting telescopes, we become increasingly likely to discover something that would profoundly alter the very notion of ourselves, so that we might not only change our value as subjects for observation, but even dangerously affect our ability to go on surviving. And there may not be a benevolent group of aliens willing and able, as in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, to coddle us and usher us into a new cosmic age. So without an immediate need to exploit Earth or humans for some reason, an external intelligence might well want to limit intrusion into what is going on inside our atmospheric blanket right now. Added to the inducements for distance is the possibility that we might be more unique than we give ourselves credit for. An intelligence capable of traveling in interplanetary space would – it seems more and more likely, as we discover a plethora of exoplanets – presumably discover many inhabited worlds, but others may not offer the richness of species diversification or the isolation of this little rock. Our “primitiveness” related to a space-faring intelligence may actually bode us well.
A few final speculations as to how a cosmic quarantine may work. First of all there would have to be some kind of a space-based “Do Not Feed the Bears” sign. This could easily be achieved by a couple of stable units, probably placed at a good distance and perpendicular to the ecliptic of the solar system and protected from our view by stealth technologies, that would detect approaching craft and warn them off. The same units could contain sensors to observe Earth, as well as remote drones that could operate in closer proximity to the subjects. They might also be able to shield Earth from interstellar communication by generating an interference field that would cover the band of whatever it is an interstellar intelligence would use to communicate with. We already do this with our own military aircraft to jam certain bands used to target missiles, for instance. This is a sensitive area, since our technology is rapidly developing and we become more susceptible to “tripping over” a communications form currently unknown or undetectable to us. Of course, provided we don't destroy ourselves in the near future, we are likely to become too smart eventually for any quarantine to work. How an alien intelligence might deal with that puzzler extends beyond the scope of this essay. More speculation will be needed.
Thursday, March 2, 2017
Meerkats: A Forlani Model
In developing the Forlani, we wanted to portray a species with a strongly matriarchal structure and borrowed many traits from the lovable meerkat. These African creatures are highly social and have strong altruistic instincts that allow them to make great sacrifices of individual interests in favor of the group. They are led by a strong mother figure, who is normally the only female in the group that mates and produces children. This was important to us because we wanted to have a society that was female-dominated numerically as well as in terms of power. As you've seen if you've read Life Sentence, Forlani females outnumber males by factors as high as 100 to 1 in some cases. In such a society, widespread female mating would rapidly produce a population explosion that would lead to extinction. So, as in meerkats, the Forlani practice highly selective mating and reproduction. In meerkats, this selection happens through a more or less instinctive process and is enforced by the dominant mother, but among the Forlani, it is decided by the deliberations of the matrilines, the female clans that have a more or less representative structure and use powerful ethical notions of logic and propriety, rather than outright force, to maintain the selective process. (However, we'll give you a tiny spoiler and say that this will come under strain in Book Four: Rage on Forlan, but that's all for now!)
So with Forlani able to produce multiple offspring at birth -- up to six, but in Entara's case, usually more like three -- families can be quite large, as in meerkat colonies. This creates the need for communal childcare, which among meerkats includes male members of the group assuming various child-rearing functions. The Forlani are similar in most aspects, with the institution of the mahame, or matrilineal headquarters, acting as a formal organization that provides educational, medical, and everyday support for female offspring beyond the immediate parental sphere. Note, we say female, because Forlani males have an entirely separate structure that we will explain further in another post. Suffice it to say that female Forlani identify strongly with the mahame and its values, just as meerkats do with their colony group.
There are, of course, some differences between meerkats and Forlani females. Meerkats are full-fledged mammals, but Forlani are proto-marsupials, and there are thus considerable differences in physiology, such as the Forlani's elongate brain and double heart system. Unlike meerkats, who mainly eat arthropods, Forlani are primarily fruit-eaters, although they also enjoy certain kinds of grilled insects. Entara herself is a bit of an exception, since her time with Klein allowed her to develop some exotic tastes, such as a yen for crunchy toast. Forlani, like meerkats, have tails, but they are longer and almost completely prehensile, which harks back to the species' semi-arboreal origins in the primeval forests that covered Forlan before the Times of Trouble. The earthling Klein never realizes this until Entara takes him for a romp in the orchards on her home world and starts leaping into trees. This origin gives Forlani some distinctive customs that vary with those that a burrowing race like the meerkats would naturally develop. Finally, of course, the Forlani are highly adapted to tool manipulation and the development of technology, which meerkats have so far not been evolutionarily selected to exhibit. The Forlani abilities for technology were so great that at an earlier point in their history they developed an industrial civilization that nearly destroyed the planet, until a profound reorganization set up the matriline system and restrained tech development so that they never ventured into space. This only changed because of external forces, such as the Zetans and humans who wanted to exploit their world. To resist, the Forlani readily accepted an alliance with the warlike and spacefaring Song Pai, who favored the Forlani because of their strong veneration for the sacredness of procreation.
So there you have a thumbnail sketch of the similarities and differences between Forlani and meerkats, at least as far as the females are concerned. Since the Forlani are quite sexually dimorphic, the males are another story, and we will take that up at length and talk about the Brotherhood at a future time. For now, happy reading!
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
The Wonderful Xindi: Aliens Overdone or Underdone?
In the third year of its run Enterprise proposed one of the most fantastic and intriguing ideas of the StarTrek universe or any other -- the Xindi. Here was an alien civilization composed of not just one species (Klingons, Andorians, etc.) or two (Romulans and Remans) but no fewer than six! Each was based on a group of creatures more or less familiar to Earthlings, for there were primates, sloth-like arborials, lizardy reptilians, insectoids, and aquatics that seemed to be a cross between fishes and amphibians, plus an avian species that had already become extinct and was represented only by a skull (actually a giraffe's). Neither the animatronic insects nor the swimming aquatics were on screen very often. In fact, none of the xindi are really revealed until well into the season, as the Enterprise crew searches for the perpetrators of a surprise terror attack on Florida. For technical and budget reasons, the pentad is mostly represented by the more humanoid components, the primates, arborials, and reptilians. Still, even with three out of the original six types of creatures in the lens, there was plenty of room for Enterprise to leave a dominant legacy in the realm of sci fi exobiology.
Yet, the xindi story arc of season three did not elicit a rousing critical reception or a badly needed turnaround in shrinking audience share. The reasons for this disappointment provide many interesting insights into the problems of representing aliens both in visual media and in writing. This is especially true in that the species are underwritten as well as overwritten. The visual concentrationon the three creatures most similar to humans certainly tilted the showing field from the very beginning, though some effort was made to compensate for this by giving the aquatics some very cool space vehicles that are featured towards the end of the season. The fact that the insectoids play second banana to the more aggressive reptilians and the aquatics have a somewhat similar role in regard to the primates and arborials gives a pretext for their underwriting. So does the detail that these two minor races are not to express themselves in anything like normal words, whereas the others can be scripted with a little help from accents and dialogue coaches. Nevertheless, the audience has a natural curiosity about these exotic beings that is never truly satisfied. Surprisingly, the ponderous back story necessary to support the verisimilitude of the xindi is not very well elaborated or regularly sustained, with information confined mainly to two episodes and little morsels of revelation distributed unevenly, and with no obvious strategic plan, throughout the remainder of the season.
There is another, even more glaring reason for the underwriting of the xindi, namely that they are not (as they are set up to be through at least five episodes) the principal villains responsible for the devastation of Earth. It turns out that they are merely the dupes of another even less clearly described race, the Sphere Beings. Thus the motivation for the xindi, except perhaps for the reptilians, is eventually reduced to a mistake. Indeed, the primates, arborials and aquatics eventually join the humans in trying to thwart the villains' plot for a second and more deadly attack on Earth. Even the insectoids assume a more or less neutral stance towards the end. The big mystery becomes not what makes the xindi tick, but why the Sphere Beings are behind the mischief. By this time in the arc, most of the audience had begun to lose interest in this gratuitous bifurcation. The error is emphasized by the diversion away from the xindi's own back story involving a civil war between the six races and the annihilation of their home planet. It is aggravated by a huge continuity problem concerning the xindi council chamber. This set is explained as a former stronghold of the avians before their extinction. Yet, if the extinction occurred at the time of the home world destruction, which the un-spaceworthy avians could not escape, how could they have constructed a complex on another planet?
The burgeoning problem of continuity errors and ambiguity leads to late-season script details that try to resolve the incongruities. Thus, the xindi wind up being overwritten (badly) as well as initially underwritten. The original lack of concord among the xindi species, presented as a fait accompli when their delayed development belatedly takes place on camera, could have been a singular opportunity to deepen the treatment of all six life forms. And that was clearly called for, since the simultaneous evolution of six different and to some degree rival types of advanced organisms on one planet challenges scientific common sense. What a complex social situation, fraught with emotions that could captivate the spectator! Instead, the complex production and writing staff simply introduced the pretext of a civil war that posed more questions than it provided answers. We are asked to simply accept the premise that "there were these six different guys and naturally they didn't get along." This sort of "Chinese box" approach to composition is a poor one, since it progressively deflects and diminishes the attention of the audience.
As the StarTrek universe expanded, one phenomenon that unfortunately manifested itself was that costumes and makeup, superb as they were, sometimes tended to push more important issues to the back burners. I am reminded of the experienced actor who had been hired to be a Klingon in an STNG episode, only to be unceremoniously dumped because his huge frame could not fit into the snug outfit Christopher Lloyd had worn in StarTrek III. It was he who had to remind the management that in the grown-up world directors and producers have to make the crucial decisions, not the Costume Department. (To their credit, the poobahs realized their error and reinstated him). In the case of the xindi, the admittedly breath-taking achievement of filming the plethora of alien beings was vitiated by the failure to develop them -- individually or collectively -- as characters. Ultimately, any sci fi extraterrestrial, from the mute xenomorph in Alien to the linguistically talented Drak in Enemy Mine, must succeed as a fully acceptable character with a coherent system of motivation, rather than as a disembodied image, no matter how stunning.
Monday, February 13, 2017
Monday, February 6, 2017
Rogue One: Not Your Average Space Opera
In the various Facebook groups devoted to Space Opera that I belong to, there have been many remarks of late about Rogue One that tend toward the negative. It is currently fashionable to "call out" any members one disagrees with, but this usually degenerates into the kind of monosyllabic flame war that i detest. So I choose to examine the question in the form of a little essay that will begin by giving some credit to my potential adversaries: their reaction is not completely unexpected or unnatural. In fact, they are right in perceiving that Rogue One is not a conventional space opera. For me, it is instead a combination of medieval Christian epic and heroic tragedy, two historically established genres the American public is almost completely unaware of.
First, let's examine some of the main expectations of space opera. There are adventure, one-against-the-universe boldness, reliance on technical mastery or super powers, and of course a successful outcome. Add to this the tendency to project a hideous evil that is the embodiment of a psychologically concealed nemesis. Think Spaceman Spiff turning his untouchable teachers into monsters he can disintegrate. Space opera privileges a high degree of vicarious stimulation and enjoyment. The reader/viewer expects to confront and overcome the projected monster, gaining a sense of fulfillment, just as in mysteries, he or she accompanies the detective with the virtual certainty of unmasking the criminal and unraveling his plans. Nothing wrong with what Ronald Reagan, a reader of limited abilities, used to call a "ripping good story."
The Star Wars universe, though, has never completely subscribed to this formula. Keep in mind that George Lucas began with a very dystopian future in THX 1138. A New Hope was a space opera grafted onto a Bildungsroman that featured Luke Skywalker in a scenario that resembled Joseph Campbell's idea of the mythic quest, a type of space-based Perceval more than a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. It adopted just enough of the Hollywood ritual of obstacles and plot points to fit on the big screen, but its parameters were much wider, leading into the stark dilemma of The Empire Strikes Back, which ends with Luke's ritual mutilation.
Rogue One begins in a very un-space-opera fashion, with Jyn being rather unwillingly recruited by Cassian into a mission to recover her father, who has already betrayed the Empire and is in turn the object of a secret assassination plot by the Rebels that Jyn is completely ignorant of. We are much closer to John Le Carre than Flash Gordon. As they assemble their unlikely team of paladins (a reverse of the sidekicks in The Song of Roland, complete with a Jedi equivalent of Bishop Turpin), Jyn and Cassian begin to meld together while at the same time delving into their covert selves. For it is only by coming to grips not only with their past, but also with their individual potential that the couple can assume the sacrificial importance that was the center of seventeenth-century heroic tragedy. Like The Cid and Chimene, Horatius and Sabine, the reluctant lovers have to realize a blood sacrifice even as they come together. It is this generic rooting that gives the film the psychological profundity that most viewers have praised. More than the fact that everyone sympathetic dies, it is the manner and context in which they die that really matters. Even had Darth Vader been able to seize that memory device at the last moment, dooming the Rebellion, Jyn and Cassian make the rebellion, previously a well-intentioned but morally tainted enterprise, worthy to succeed.
As for the reactions of the negative audience, I will note one repeated reaction, "I was not impressed." This seemingly inarticulate and personal response is actually quite revealing. Emphasis on impressed. The space opera viewer typically seeks an impression, an essentially passive response associated with the vicarious thrill of participating with the "hero." This has always been a feature of Hollywood products and has dictated the almost universal presence of the Hollywood ending. To have the vicar (in the original sense of the word) die would break the contact with the impression. In the rare cases of endings where vicars died, there was generally a passing of the vicarious association: McMurphy to Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Spartacus to Varinia and Antoninus, Big X to Cooler King in The Great Escape. Instead of impression, Rogue One requires a process of transformation that shifts the emphasis from the putative heroic fact to the interior heroic assumption of worthiness, as in Pierre Corneille's heroic tragedies or, to come closer to our Anglo-Saxon tradition, in the fifth act of Hamlet ("If it be not now, yet it will be").
I hope I have shown that, however justified by habit some space opera fans may be in remaining unimpressed by Rogue One, the majority of its worldwide admirers are even more justified by growth in allowing it to transform them.
Friday, January 20, 2017
Sci Fi Comedies -- Why So Few?
It came up in a conversation today that it is odd that comedic treatments of sci fi on film and television are so rare. Successful ones, that is. Movies like Pluto Nash managed some good moments, but so often ran into problems of pacing, perhaps because as the great comic author Moliere said, "Timing makes the whole show." Amid the special effects, costumes, and star blather, it is hard to focus on the magical timing that characterizes both visual and dialogue comedy. This is even evident in what may be the cult favorite of the sub-genre, Spaceballs. The incomparable Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis and some of the Brooks crew regulars hit their lines with effect, but the male and female leads always seem so bedazzled by the context that they wind up being very unfunny. One could conclude that the trappings make space comedy impossible.
But if that were true, we would never have Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (esp. the original television version) or Red Dwarf. What were the Brits doing so well? For one thing -- economy of comic effects. Red Dwarf thrived with a small cast of well-differentiated characters: one very streetwise Earthling, a hologram, an overly-evolved feline, a wise-cracking software personality, and eventually that superb automaton Kryten. Each one of these figures could serve as a pharmakos, or comic butt, because of their inherent failings. Dave's slovenly habits and his lower class lack of taste, Rimmer's insufferable false pride, the Cat's clothes-horse vanity, Holly's lack of a real body, and Kryten's mechanoid Felix-Unger-fussiness could play off each other continually through any episode. The series' writers excelled at "ringing the changes" out of every permutation of contrasting traits.
And though it adhered to a classic episodic paradigm, Red Dwarf joined this to a narrative framework that was as old as literature, the odyssey quest. A double irony generated a lot of comedy in itself, for on the one hand, the odyssey quest had already been established by space operas like Battlestar Galactica as a perfectly serious standard, and on the other, this particular quest was inverted, since there was no home in the story line to return to, at least until the last seasons restored one through a trick of time travel.
Any comedy also needs some kind of comic nemesis to generate plot, and here Red Dwarf again scored a perfect ten by providing creepy aliens that were outlandishly overdone (for example, the Despair Squid), while at the same time introducing some intriguing scientific possibilities far beyond the standard sci fi fare. The fact that the crew invariably triumphs over or at least escapes from the nemesis (in Dave's case, running away from the altar of a presumptive troglodyte bride) does not pose too much of a problem in verisimilitude. It merely underlines the principle of Murphy's Law that permeates the whole show. In fact, it also cleaves to the ancient odyssey quest form, leaving its equivalents of Polyphemus, the Lotus Eaters, Circe et al on their own scattered planets. In the long run, this is a far more manageable formula for nemesis than continually reviving Cylons, Romulans, Ming the Merciless, or other long-running villains.
Hitchhiker's Guide relied on its own system for generating comedy that was at least as sophisticated as that of Red Dwarf and also quite different. It deserves a post of its own in the future. This little analysis limits itself to openings a few lines of inquiry that can start a dialogue on sci fi comedy.