Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for December, 2009

Who Goes with Fergus?

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

W. B. Yeats

Galactic Vista

January 2010 will mark three years since the launch of Starship Reckless. The experience has been wondrous for me, and I want to thank all my visitors, regular and irregular, for making the journey an unalloyed pleasure. For those of you who are lurking, I’m curious to know what your (pre)occupations are and what drew you to the site. Drop me a line when you have a moment, here or by e-mail.

And unless a meteorite pierces the hull or we get too close to a black hole, we’ll keep flying…

“…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”

Ulysses; Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Image: Galactic Vista by John Whatmough

Music: Serenity, “Love” by David Newman

Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

Monday, December 21st, 2009

“…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

– Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act V, Scene V

Sarah ConnorJames Cameron made two films that are high on my list of favorites: Terminator 2 and Aliens – not least because powerful women are central to the stories (even though he gave them the most conservative and clichéd motivation for heroism: maternal protectiveness).  He was a taut, visually inventive storyteller once.  But all his films after The Abyss increasingly resemble the Hindenburg: bloated, self-indulgent, lacking originality and subtlety in all but F/X.

The latest iteration, Avatar, is the culmination of these traits and a poster boy of the industry’s tendency to let CGI spectacle be the sole concern.  A quarter of a billion dollars went into the film, the GNP of a small country, yet they couldn’t pay a decent SF writer a paltry sum to give even a whiff of freshness to the story. The characters are stale broad stereotypes, the plot reheated canned slurry, the dialogue rusty nails scratching a cement slab. The borrowings are endless, starting with the ersatz Campbellian mythology that failed so abysmally to add resonance to Star Wars.  But the definitive stamp of hackery is that many elements are frank rip-offs of older Cameron creations.  The vaunted 3-D effects are devoid of unique payoff and the Pandoran life forms look like shiny hood ornaments.

The worldbuilding is equally shoddy.  As I said in SF Goes McDonald’s, scientific accuracy is not crucial in SF.  However, consistency and informed imagination are.  A moon as close to a gas giant as Pandora is would be awash in radiation and wracked by earthquakes and volcanoes like Jupiter’s Io.  Also, its independent biogenesis would give rise to life forms that would not remotely resemble us.  But let’s concede that point for the sake of audience identification.  Since all Pandoran animals are six-limbed and four-eyed, the Na’vi would share these evolutionary attributes.  This would actually make them far more interesting.

oceancoverThe clunky clichés and logic gaps of Avatar are wince-inducing even if you accept the film’s premises.  Here’s a species that’s essentially the “neocortex” of a sentient planet – yet they have… nuclear families and hereditary chiefs.  The conceptualizations of the avatars and of the Na’vi neural links to the Pandoran flora and fauna are too silly to dissect.  If the link worked as advertised, they wouldn’t need to hunt (or, conversely, killing an animal would have concrete physiological repercussions).  I discussed mind uploading in Ghost in the Shell. If you want to see a linked, communing ecosphere done right, read Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean or follow Odo’s individuation struggles in Deep Space 9. And if you want action with stunning animation, elegiac depth and heartbreaking stakes, watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime.

The Na’vi are sexed-up Ewoks and Pandora is a prelapsarian Eden where they can live dilemma-free with Stone Age technology.  Yet like all Others, they’re helpless until a White Alpha Male steps down literally from on high to rally them to battle, while in turn they enable him to reconnect with his inner Mother Earth anima.  Soft-focus imperialism and New Age fuzziness mix queasily with post-genocidal sentimentality about Noble Savages — a pernicious mindset that I described in And Ain’t I a Human?

It’s bad enough that films since the maturation of F/X have been aimed at 15-year-old boys.  Far worse is the fact that the most lavish Hollywood films have been made by their directors’ 15-year-old inner boys – tightly conjoined with plans for lunch boxes and video games whose complexity far exceeds that of the films.  Welcome to Infantileland, where crudity, banality and sloppiness rule, where clouds of sycophants allow directors to call themselves Emperor of the Universe or Master Jedi without a trace of irony.  In one of my visions of hell, I’m forced to endlessly watch Lucas’ Star Wars (except, perhaps, episode V), Jackson’s King Kong, all of Spielberg’s SF/F and Cameron’s Avatar.

Q'Orianka KilcherThere’s nothing wrong with adults enjoying Disney-level spectacle, as long as they don’t make it their moral, intellectual or esthetic measuring stick.  An artist with Cameron’s credibility and clout should undertake real challenges that inspire our innate desire to explore instead of recycling militaristic violence porn and preachy feel-good platitudes.  He did it incredibly well before, he can do it again.  And some childish dreams should remain dreams.  They work far better as beckoning beacons.

Images: top, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s Terminator 2; middle, David Switzer’s cover for Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean; bottom, Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in Terence Malick’s New World.

Update: The Huffington Post just re-printed this article. I’m donning my asbestos space suit!

Related articles:
Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Rat Brain
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Eleven years ago, Harvard Alumni Magazine asked me why I wrote The Biology of Star Trek despite my lack of tenure.  My answer was The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.  In it, I described how science fiction can make science attractive and accessible, how it can fire up the dreams of the young and lead them to become scientists or, at least, explorers who aren’t content with canned answers.

syfyThe world has changed since then, the US more than most.  American culture has always proclaimed its distrust of authority.  However, the nation’s radical shift to the right also brought on disdain for all expertise – science in particular, as can be seen by the obstruction of research in stem cells and climate change and of teaching evolution in schools (to say nothing of scientist portrayals in the media, exemplified by Gaius Baltar in the aggressively regressive Battlestar Galactica reboot).

This trend culminated in the choice of first a president and then a vice-presidential candidate who flaunted their ignorance and deemed their faux-folksy personae sufficient qualifications to lead the most powerful nation on the planet.  Even as the fallout from these decisions deranges their culture, Americans cling to their iPods, SUVs and Xboxes and still expect instant cures for everything, from acne to old age, seeing scientists as the Morlocks that must cater to their Eloi.

Science fiction is really a mirror and weathervane of its era.  So it comes as no surprise that the dominant tropes of contemporary speculative fiction reflect the malaise and distrust of science that has infected the Anglosaxon First World: cyberpunk and urban fantasy have their feet (and eyes) firmly on the ground.  Space exploration is passé, and such luminaries as Charlie Stross delight in repeatedly “proving” that the only (straw)people to still contemplate crewed space travel are deluded naifs who can’t/won’t parse scientific facts or face unpalatable limitations.

Jack of ShadowsI’ve been reading SF since the early seventies, ever since my English became sturdy enough to support the habit.  In both reading and writing, I favor layered works that cross genre boundaries.  This may explain why I have a hard time getting either inspired or published in today’s climate, in which publishers and readers alike demand “freshness” as long as it’s more of the same.  Yet old fogey that I’m becoming, I do believe that people who write SF should have a nodding acquaintance with science principles and the scientific mindset.

So imagine my surprise when the following comment met with universal approval on a well-known SF blog: “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into SF that you need to know real science to write good SF. Which is of course rubbish.”

Let me rewrite that statement for another genre: “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into historical fiction that you need to know real history – or at least the history of the era you plan to portray – to write good historical fiction or alternative history.  Which is of course rubbish.”

Cell phones in a Renaissance novel?  Tudor court ladies on mopeds?  Why should anyone notice or care?  Likewise, “cracks” in the event horizon of a black hole?  Instant effortless shapeshifting?  Only an elitist jerk would object, spoiling the fun and causing unnecessary angst to the author!  Never mind that such sloppiness jolts the reader out of the suspension of disbelief necessary for reading the story – and is particularly unpardonable because a passable veneer of knowledge can be readily acquired by surfing the Internet.

Many of today’s SF writers and readers don’t just proudly proclaim that they don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no science; they also read only within ever-narrowing subgenres – and only contemporaries.  When I attended an SF workshop supposedly second only to Clarion, a fellow participant castigated me for positing the “completely absurd” ability to record sounds off the grooves of a ceramic surface.  Of course, this is essentially a variation of sound reproduction in phonographic records.  No wonder that much of contemporary speculative fiction tastes like recycled watery gruel or reheated corn syrup.

Downbelow StationPlease understand, I don’t miss the turgid exposition, cardboard-thin characters and blatant sexism, parochialism and triumphalism of the Leaden… er, Golden Era of SF (though the same types of attributes and attitudes have resurfaced wholesale in cyberpunk).  My lodestars are Le Guin, Tiptree, Anderson, Zelazny, Butler, Cherryh, Scott – and Atwood, despite her protestations that she does not, repeat not, write science fiction.  They all prove that top-notch SF can incorporate gendanken experiments that contravene physical laws: FTL travel, stable wormholes, mind uploading, a multiplicity of genders and earth-like planets, anthropomorphic aliens, to name only a few.

Fiction must be the dominant partner in all literary efforts.  Imaginative storytelling trumps strict scientific accuracy. Nevertheless, SF requires convincing, consistent worldbuilding.  This in turn demands that the author stick to the rules s/he has made and that the premises adhere to known laws once the speculative exceptions have been accommodated: if a planet is within a red dwarf sun’s habitable zone, its orbit has to be tidally locked barring incredibly advanced technology.  If a story contravenes or doesn’t depend on science, real or speculative, it’s not SF.  It’s magic realism or fantasy.  Not that it matters, as long as the plot and characters are compelling.

Avast, Impure Cooties!

Avast, Impudent Cooties!

There have been recent lamentations within the tribe about SF losing ground to fantasy, horror and other “lesser” cousins.  Like all niche genres, speculative fiction further marginalizes itself by creating arbitrary hierarchies that purport to reflect intrinsic worth but in fact enshrine unexamined cultural values: hardcover self-labeled hard SF preens at the top, written mostly by boys for boys; print-on-demand SF romance skulks at the bottom, written almost exclusively by girls for girls (though the increasing proportion of female readership is exerting significant pressure on the pink ghetto walls).

The real problem is not that science is hard to portray well in SF.  The problem is impoverished imagination, willful ignorance and endless repetition of recipes.  In short: failure of nerve.  Great SF stories are inseparable from the science in them.  A safe, non-demanding story is unlikely to linger in the readers’ memory or elicit changes in their thinking.

If science disappears altogether from SF or survives only as the gimmick that allows “magic” plot outcomes, SF will lose its greatest and unique asset: acting as midwife and mentor to future scientists.  This is no mere intellectual exercise for geeks.  To give one example, mental and physical work on the arcships so denigrated by Stross et al. would also help us devise solutions to the inexorable looming specter of finite terrestrial resources.

Rick Sternbach: Solar Sail

Rick Sternbach: Solar Sail

The political and social pseudo-pieties of the US cost it several generations of scientists, some in their prime.  The full repercussions won’t appear immediately, but already the US is no longer the uncontested forerunner in science and technology and its standard of living is dropping accordingly.  Breakthroughs in physics and biology are happening elsewhere.  Of course, all empires have a finite lifespan.  Perhaps the time has come for the Chinese or the Indians to lead.  But no matter who is the first among equals in the times to come, I stand by the last sentence in my Double Helix essay: “Though science will build the starships, science fiction will make us want to board them.”

Update 1: Huffington Post just re-posted this article (without the accompanying images, though, which add texture to the story).

Update 2: The article is now also on the new blog I Like a Little Science in My Fiction.


Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Traveler from afar who sailed to our shores –
ask the Sea Rose for a gift…


Most of my friends know that I write fiction.  Publication started fifteen years ago, when five of my stories (collected in the file In the Realms of Fire) appeared in After Hours, a venue pointed out by my friend and fellow writer Calvin Johnson.

Since then, in addition to writing The Biology of Star Trek and the essays here and elsewhere, I spun six novels in an alternative universe where the Minoans survive the explosion of the Thera volcano.  The saga starts in the Bronze Age and extends into the far future.  A small press is interested in the first novel in the series, Shard Songs, which gives me strong motivation to finish it.  The trouble is that the entire opus needs global editing – a full-time job that requires focus and calmness of mind.

Several friends saw parts of the saga as it unfolded.  It inspired two of them (Heather D. Oliver and Kathryn Bragg-Stella) to create the beautiful artworks that grace the site’s cover, blog logo and gallery.  However, none of it had officially seen the light of day till this August and I had serious doubts about its publication potential.  This was in part because it doesn’t fit into any category and ignores several recipes… er, rules.

In it, legends, songs, vision quests and geasa intertwine with genetic engineering, wormhole travel, planetary settlement and sapient aliens.  Some portions have multiple narrators, the cultures are not Anglosaxon and an invented language whispers through it: my version of the lost Minoan tongue.  Worse yet, in an era where dismemberments earn a work a PG rating, kudos and awards whereas glimpses of a nipple earn it an NC-17 rating and snide sniggers, my saga contains as much sex as it does war – and though it’s not romance, love is a powerful engine in it.

Then, in August, Crossed Genres accepted Dry Rivers, a brief story from the  saga that takes place in Minoan Crete.  The just-released issue 13 of Crossed Genres contains Planetfall, a much longer braid from the saga’s tapestry.  Planetfall consists of five linked stories whose human protagonists are descendants of the characters in Dry Rivers and Shard Songs.

BasinI don’t know if any of these novels will ever get published.  But these two green shoots have given me great joy and hope.  It was my tremendous luck to have devoted friends who urged me to keep writing the saga; to meet Kay Holt and Bart Leib whose vision of Crossed Genres focused exactly on hard-to-categorize works like mine; and to enjoy the unwavering certainty of Peter Cassidy, who’s convinced that one day the entire saga will emerge from its cocoon and unfurl its wings.  Dhi kéri ten sóran, iré ketháni.