science fiction

Road trips in alternate realities

I have this somewhat self-centered tendency to look at amazing speculative artwork and think how much I would love that to be on the cover of a book I (someday) publish. I'm working on it. 

But holy crap, Simon Stålenhag's work is so amazing, I want to write a book based on the weirdness that spills out of his paintings. There are wild mecha, enormous rubber ducks, and people roadtripping in landscapes littered with alternative technology. Check out his tumblr and his print store

(I bought a poster of this.)

(I bought a poster of this.)

Keep the engines running

I remember the first time I watched Star Trek: the Next Generation on a television with a halfway decent sound system. Until that moment, I'd never known that every scene aboard the ship had been Foley edited to include a subtle underlying audio track: the constant thrumming of the ship's engines. 

Now you can listen to the Enterprise's engines in your own sleeping quarters, idling uninterupted for a full twelve hours.

If's that's not your ship of choice, you can fall asleep to the gentle engines of Deep Space Nine, the Nostromo, and the Millennium Falcon.

Best fascist propaganda film ever

Red Letter Media does a good recap of Starship Troopers on the 20th anniversary of its release. Many audiences at the time panned it as a predictable rehash of old sci-fi military stories, but in time more people noticed the film was a subversive satire of fascist propaganda, one that never stoops to wink at the audience, but maintains its facade through the last frame.

I was particularly taken by the notion that director Paul Verhoeven purposely cast actors with a wooden, cheesy delivery to emphasize the heavy-handed presentation of the film's ostensible themes: that might ultimately makes right, and all citizens have the duty to endorse state-sponsored violence. Even Neil Patrick Harris, who has gone on to bigger and better things, was best known at the time as the boy doctor, Doogie Howser. He was the perfect pop-culture boy-nerd for the film. By the end, of course, his transformation into what looks like an SS officer is all the more appropriate. Only the shallow and compromised characters survive.  

The end of Mary Sue

Charlie Jane Anders recently tweeted a New Year's wish that everyone "retire the term 'Mary Sue,' which at this point just means "female hero" with negative connotations."

A "Mary Sue" has traditionally been genre fiction shorthand for a wish-fulfillment character. I believe it may have originated in critiques of fan fiction, which at times featured characters who were thinly-veiled surrogates for the writers' fantasies of interacting with their literary heroes. Often, these characters were ridiculously skilled and smart, drawing the appreciation of Kirk, Harry, Aragorn, or other franchise star.

I've used the term in my writing groups, not so much as an accusation but in discussions of characterization. I also remember when a beta reader suggested that my first novel-length project flirted with wish fulfillment, as its main character shared some meaningful aspects of my life. I had believed I was merely "writing what I knew" and found this critique dismaying and insulting. Being told you've written a Mary Sue character is essentially being accused of not doing your job as a writer.

I had no idea the term had acquired a broader, gendered connotation before I read that tweet. Then I went back and read Anders's article about how Rey from The Force Awakens has been accused of being a Mary Sue, simply because she's a capable female sharing screen time with the characters of the original trilogy.  

What the “Mary Sue” thing shows—other than that people will find any craptastic excuse to tear down female characters—is that memes have a decay rate. 

This is a startling idea - that a term that helped me understand characterization (and improve my own writing) can be shot out from under me by people who approach fiction with a radically different agenda. Anders isn't describing a natural process of decay and replacement, but a purposeful appropriation of terms. "Mary Sue" may not be the meme worth fighting for, but it once served a useful function. What will take its place, and how long before that, too, is ceded to people determined to Make Science Fiction Great Again?

Love and tentacles

No one conveys the touching humanity, and inhumanity, of tentacle monsters like John Wisell. I loved an earlier tale in which an invading alien's attempts to communicate through its primary sense of taste go spectacularly wrong for the humans it encounters. In Where I'm From, We Eat Our Parents, a tentacle monster endures a human rite of passage as he accompanies his new human girlfriend home for dinner with her parents. 

What was missing from Stranger Things

Some shows I just watch. The Netflix show Stranger Things, a supernatural/horror/sci-fi series set in the 1980's, has stayed on my mind since I finished the 8-episode season. It's like if E.T. and Stephen King's "It" had a love child, and I fell in love with it.

Stranger Things hits so many high points: it's beautifully filmed (as discussed in this video), the synth soundtrack is both evocative of the times and ethereal in its own right, and the acting - particularly the performance of the children - is unbelievably good. What's more, it calls forth 80's imagery and filmmaking so well that it scratches a nostalgic itch for anyone who was young in the decade - particularly a certain D&D-playing social set who were nerds long before it was considered cool. Hell, it even has a requisite product placement, evoking that moment when we saw E.T. gobble Reese's Pieces and wondered, with naïveté that seems now both refreshing and depressing, if the film makers actually got money to put that in the movie. 

Stranger Things can seem so familiar, and employ so many of the hallmark plot devices of the time, that you can at times predict where it's going next, but I seldom cared. The show is a paean to how old stories are reinvented and made new again. The first couple episodes are jammed with moments that are so, so 80's: kids run around on their bikes out at night, with little parental supervision. People don't form commas around cell phones during every moment of inaction. The school is open and unsecured against any threat.  In general, it feels like the kids live in a world in which the very concept of safety is almost unrecognizably different, an alien set of rules as surprising as anything from a speculative fiction novel. 

Herein lies the one aspect where I couldn't help but feel the show fell short. The dichotomy between what frightened us in the 80s and what scares us now is like a great vein of gold beneath the characters' feet, and I kept expecting someone to stick a shovel into the earth and start digging. 

It's OK to set a series in the past, to evoke and honor the techniques and narratives that formed your own aesthetic sense.  Stranger Things succeeds in part because its characters live in a time that's at once both familiar and impossibly strange, a lost world. It's an exceptional show; this and Mr. Robot are the best TV I've seen in years. 

But once I got through all 8 hours or so, I began to think about it as a supernatural/horror film. Horror is often an evocation of what scares us as a culture, a reflection of our collective anxiety - death, loss of control, the seemingly mindless actions of people we don't like or understand.

There is a monster in Stranger Things, but some of the tension in the series is carried by the fact that the kids are on their own, trying to deal with a frightening presence that is far beyond their ability to control. If you were alive during this time, maybe you experienced that feeling yourself while watching The Day After, Threads, or the news, and wondering if you would be among those unlucky to die in the coming nuclear war, or unlucky enough to be one of the survivors. 

Now, that fear has been replaced by post-911 anxiety and an amplified concern over being victimized by the unsavory among us. The freedom the kids in the show enjoy, biking at night out of reach of cell phones, would be terrifying to many parents now. This is true even though crime is significantly lower now than in earlier decades, and the omnipresence of cell phones means no one is very far from emergency services.

Fears change with the times. We are taught what to fear, through some sort of emergent property of our culture. Someone out there will succeed or fail, profit or lose, based on what you makes you feel helpless and afraid. That's a very strange thing, and I would love to see the capable producers of Stranger Things go spelunking down that darkand murky cave in Season Two.