Wordplay: streaming TV, science fiction & advertising, and fan fiction

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The latest issue of Wordplay is now live and out to subscribers!

This issue covers a couple of topics: the proliferation of streaming services, and the opportunities that that leads to for creators, some thoughts on science fiction’s relationship with advertising, and some complaints about some recent fan fiction coverage online.

You can read the latest issue here (and past issues here), and subscribe to the letter here.

Spiders! In! Space! Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time

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In December, I put out a call for recommendations for standalone science fiction novels — in part to assemble a list for The Verge — but also because I was looking for something along those lines. I got a bunch of recommendations, but one that stood out was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s 2015 book, Children of Time. A friend of mine had already highly recommended the book, so I picked it up, and when we did a bit of traveling over the holidays, we listened to the audiobook. It’s a magnificent, epic story, and it’s well worth reading if you’re in the mood for book that deals with big ideas.

The story begins in the distant future. Humanity has begun to spread to the stars, and has enacted a variety of terraforming projects on several planets. Dr. Avrana Kern is the researcher overseeing the final efforts on a planet that she’s called “Kern’s World,” which has been made habitable for human life. She’s also about to kick off an experiment — two cargo capsules are to be dropped to the planet’s surface: one carrying a monkeys, the other a nanovirus that’s designed to uplift said monkeys in a handful of generations. It’s a grand experiment on evolution, and it goes drastically wrong when a crew member sabotages the mission, sending the monkeys to their doom. At the same time, a war breaks out on Earth, destroying space habitats and wrecking the planet’s surface. Kerns barely escapes, driven by the desire to oversee any hope that her experiment might work out.

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That’s just the prologue. The story then jumps ahead. Remember those monkeys that were supposed to get uplifted? They burned up in the atmosphere, and the nanovirus jumped to another creature: a jumping spider. Tchaikovsky introduces a spider named Portia who has an uncanny realization while she’s hunting a larger spider — she can get help from others like her, and by working together, they’re able to get a tiny evolutionary foothold.

Tchaikovsky then jumps to another perspective: the crew of a human starship called the Gilgamesh, and a “classicalist” named Holsten Mason. Humanity, as it turns out, wasn’t wiped out completely in that war, but it was set back, with a new civilization blossoming on Earth during an ice age, only to realize that when the ice recedes, they’re going to be left with an uninhabitable rock. The survivors cobble together a generation ship, and set out into the depths of space, trying to find a new home. Mason is awoken a thousand years into the voyage, when they come across a beacon — Kern’s signal over her planet.

The novel alternates perspectives, first with a new generation of spiders, and then the crew of the Gilgamesh as they try and find a suitable place to set down. By shifting perspectives, Tchaikovsky shows off two things: the rise of the spiders, who are quickly evolving a sophisticated society as they overcome their neighbors, and figure out how to survive and thrive by coopting the skills and directing the evolution of other creatures, like ants and beetles. On the other hand, we see the downfall of the humans, who quickly devolve to an almost feudal society aboard the ship. They’re turned away by Kerns when they reach her world, and are directed to another, only to find that it’s unsuitable, and are forced to turn back in order to safe civilization.

Gerry Canavan (the scholar who spoke highly of the book) mentioned somewhere that he was reminded of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem, and there are a lot of parallels between the two works. They’re both huge, epic stories of evolution and the rise and fall of civilizations, much in the mold of authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, or Frederik Pohl. Tchaikovsky builds on this trope by exploring a wide range of topics that complicate any civilization — gender roles (the spiders form a matriarchal society), and he flips arguments about sexism and culture nicely.

The juxtaposition between humans and spiders also plays out a larger story about how a culture is composed. Over the centuries, Kerns is deeply concerned with what she sees as failures of humanity: that they’re prone to warfare and balkanization, arguably poor footing and habits to extend out into space. We see that play out on the Gilgamesh as well — the ship’s captain becomes obsessed with his assigned task to shepherd humanity to safety, which causes its own problems as he works to keep the ship going, and as new generations of people appear over the millennia. By the end, the two cultures will have a pretty epic clash, and those differences force a resolution between the two. The book has shot to the top of my hypothetical “favorites” list.

Canavan compared the books to Three-Body Problem, and i’ll toss in another comparison: The Expanse. One of the things that’s attracted me to James S.A. Corey’s series is its focus on humanity’s tribalism and how we’ll likely bring some of our inherent issues with us if and when we begin to establish a foothold in space. Tchaikovsky doesn’t specifically look at racism in the same way that Corey does, but there’s a number of parallels that ultimately stack up to “humanity has the capability to improve itself, and it should.” Children of Time really makes a good argument that propagating out into space means that there are major issues that need to be addressed if humanity wants to survive long into the future — not necessarily in the depths of space, but here at home, too.

Wordplay #6: History, generation ships, and suspension pods

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Issue #6 of Wordplay is now up online! It’s the first issue of the year, so I’m using the opportunity to talk a little about what my reading plans are for the year, and what I’m excited to get to in the coming months. I also look at a trope that I’ve noticed in a couple of books lately: the use of suspension pods to allow characters to cover large swaths of time, notably in Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.

Give it a read or subscribe here.

Wordplay #3: Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and using science fiction to frame the future

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Newsletter issue #3 is now out! For this letter, I decided to focus on one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately: how Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics helped add to the conversation about robots and AI, why we need more fiction that is aimed at solving technological problems, and why more leaders really should read stories that are about that.

You can read the issue here, and if you like what you read, subscribe!

From the beginning to the end: Liu Cixin's Three-Body Trilogy

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I dipped my toe into the world of Chinese science fiction over the course of this summer, as i did a bit work on my home. To keep myself on track and entertained, I began listening to a string of Clarkesworld Magazine’s podcasts — their fantastic translations from China. (In particular, “The Wings of Earth” by Jiang Bo, “Farewell Doraemon” by A Que , “Your Multicolored Life” by Xing He, and “To Fly like a Fallen Angel,” by Qi Yue) I’ve read stories from the China before: I wrote a post for Barnes and Noble about the history of Chinese science fiction, and through Ken Liu’s anthology, Invisible Planets, and of course, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (which I reviewed for Lightspeed Magazine a couple of years ago.)

I’ve begun work on a new project for The Verge, and along with the stories that I had been listening to, I decided to go back to The Three-Body Problem and its sequels, which had been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, books that kept telling myself that I’d pick up eventually. So, after I reviewed Liu’s novel Ball Lightning for The Verge, they were books that I picked up right away, to revisit that world. I blew through each of the three books in the trilogy, and I’m kicking myself for not reading them earlier.

The most impressive thing that I found with the trilogy as a whole was the scale that Liu was writing at. Reviews and blurbs for the series teased that it spanned the entire future: from the 1970s all the way to the heat death of the universe, and he manages to do that, in a really interesting way. Spoilers ahead.

The Three-Body Problem begins in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution: a woman named Ye Wenjie watches as her father is killed during a riot. She’s sent first to a labor camp and then to an isolated scientific facility, where she’s able to put some of her astrophysics training to work. While there, she conducts some research, and ends up testing a way to amplify a radio signal to beam into the cosmos. She’s surprised, eight years later, when a representative of an alien civilization, the Trisolarans, contacts her, warning her not to respond to any further messages. Fed up with the human race, and with the treatment that she’s endured, she responds, allowing the Trisolarans to locate Earth.

Trisolaris, it turns out, is a harsh world: it orbits three stars in an unpredictable pattern, destroying civilizations over and over again. Now, the system knows where a stable, habitable planet is, and they’re bent on traveling to it. It’ll take them 450 years to reach Earth, however, and to prepare, they form a fifth column of like-minded Humans to prepare for their arrival. The Three-Body Problem jumps back and forth between various time periods, and in the present day, the Trisolarans send along a device called a sophon — a multidimensional supercomputer that interferes with advanced physics research, effectively stalling scientific progress to counter the Trisolarans.

In the first novel, humans uncover the Trisolaran plot, but are left with a conundrum: anything they do to prepare will be seen instantly by the Trisolarans. The next installment, The Dark Forest, we follow Earth’s various efforts as they work to counter the alien invaders, electing four individuals with immense resources to act as “Wallfacers,” who are tasked with formulating plans that only they know, in order to prevent the plans from falling into enemy hands. The book largely follows Luo Ji, a scientist who initially refuses, and after taking advantage of the resources, formulates a plan to “cast a spell” on a star — testing to see whether or not there are other observers in the galaxy. It turns out that there are, and it forms the basis for a sort of mutual self-destruction pact between Earth and the Trisolarans.

In the final book, Death’s End, the Trisolarans and Earth reach an uneasy balance during what comes to be known as the Deterrence era. This book largely follows a woman named Cheng Xin, who finds herself in the role of Swordholder — someone who maintains the deterrence that keeps Earth safe. When that fails, we follow as humanity prepares to take whatever means it can to ensure its survival.

That summary is just a tiny, thumbnail sketch of the entire series: Cixin covers an incredible amount of territory over the course of the trilogy. The Three-Body Problem is the most straight-forward of the trilogy. The Dark Forest and Death’s End each deal with incredible jumps in time as characters enter hibernation, and as society makes its own leaps and bounds technologically. Earth’s society swings between incredible austerity and poverty to utopian-like periods of high technology, and beyond. There’s really everything in this book, from massive space battles, political intrigue, and social commentary embedded in here. The books as a whole are a bit uneven: Cixin likes to devote a lot of time to exploring futuristic technologies and infodumps (which I don’t mind, but some people complain about), and there’s a lot of tangents that give me the impression that the entire trilogy could be tightened up quite a bit. But the adventure is in the ride, and that awesome scale really plays well here.

One of the biggest points that Cixin makes in this series is a grim answer to the nature of life in the universe: in all probability, there’s life beyond Earth — there’s just too many planets out there for us to be alone. Cixin’s world is teeming with life, and everyone is quiet. He likens the galaxy to a Dark Forest, in which there are many people, hidden from one another. The rise of one planetary civilization means a potential, existential threat others, and the moment that one becomes visible, they’re immediately in danger. The Trisolarans are certainly one threat, but Luo Ji realizes that there’s likely others, and that lighting up one’s location for the rest of the cosmos to see would mean a quick response from another, more powerful neighbor.

This actually happens — Death’s End has an gripping, and utterly horrifying example of what that looks like. It’s a brilliant scene, and it’s part of a larger culmination of the trilogy as a whole.

But what Cixin is doing is playing against the larger body of science fiction. There’s plenty of stories throughout the genre’s canon that imagines peaceful (and sometimes not so peaceful) coexistence with other aliens out there — the world of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War come to mind, but those don’t come close to the grim world that Cixin portrays. With a veneer of hard physics limiting the characters, everyone in the galaxy is essentially moving around this dark forest, trying to avoid being spotted, for fear of being wiped out. In many ways, I think this series helps set a tone for science fiction that will follow: a new way to look at and conceptualize the universe around us.

This, to me, is big. There’s always been a sort of argument between the hard-SF crowd and the softer space opera circles between how to realistically portray the harsh nature of space, and Cixin’s trilogy essentially finds a newish way to look at the cosmos, somewhere between awe and wonder, while also recognizing that we’re an incredibly small part of the universe.

Engaging the Future: The Art of Future Warfare

Earlier this week, I attended a conference put on by the Army's Training and Doctrine Command's Mad Scientist Initiative, a program designed to explore "the future through collaborative partnerships and continuous dialogue with academia, industry and government." The conference was titled "Learning in 2050," and was designed to examine how the Army would train soldiers in the deep future (which they define as the future where you can't realistically predict politics / technology) I was invited in the capacity of a science fiction writer, to give my thoughts on how science fiction might fit into the equation. That's a difficult question, because science fiction really isn't good at answering that question, but it does allow people to think about the future. Here's the talk that I gave: 

When I graduated from Norwich University with my Masters’ in Military History a couple of years ago, I began thinking a bit more deeply about how the real-world military intersected with another passion of mine, science fiction. The genre has a grand tradition of depicting the armed forces over the course of its history, something I’ve contributed to with stories of my own, as well as an anthology that I edited.

Stories about future wars are well-suited for science fiction: the confluence of major technological advancement and investment in the years that followed World War II brought about stories of atomic weapons, spaceborne warships, and soldiers kitted out in advanced suits of armor, predictions of what we might go to war with in future conflicts.

But science fiction isn’t about predicting the future in a meaningful way. It’s true: authors like Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others have anticipated or even inspired technological advances: we certainly have submarines, satellites and the internet, but the future is more than just the technology that we deploy into the real world. Rather, science fiction is a framework and mindset with which we engage the future, thinking about the present moment and how our actions today will play out tomorrow.

Science fiction is a framework and mindset with which we engage the future

Science fiction’s efforts to try and imagine and interpret the military world stretch to the earlier days of the genre. In 1871, a novella called The Battle of Dorking appeared in Blackwoods Magazine, set fifty years from its publication — 1921 — of a soldier recounting a battle to his grandchildren. England is invaded by a technologically superior enemy, and falls. It was a warning written by British Army general George Chesney, who had fought in India and was sent home due to injuries, and worried deficiencies he saw in the country’s armed forces at the time. While it wasn’t the first such “future war” story published, it was enormously popular, and would help to prefigure other stories of warfare that would come.

One such follow up story is far more recognizable: H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a dazzling story of invasion as aliens from Mars land on Earth with the intent of occupation, only to fall prey to microbes that they don’t have immunity to. Note: when you decide invade a planet, make sure you invest in biological containment protocols.

War of the Worlds and The Battle of Dorking gave rise to numerous successors: Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Ender’s Game, Red Storm Rising, Ghost Fleet, and many others. But if there’s anything that links these stories together, it’s that they haven’t realistically predicted the types of wars that we’ll actually face on the battlefield. We haven’t established bases on the moon or Mars. While there are early efforts at creating them, soldiers don’t go into the field clad in powered armor, and predictions of imminent hot wars between major world powers haven’t come to pass, although some stories could come close. But as no plan survives first contact with the enemy, no science fiction story survives first contact with the future.

But as no plan survives first contact with the enemy, no science fiction story survives first contact with the future.

Military science fiction is frequently set in the future, and it’s exciting! You get laser guns, giant robots, epic space battles, power armor, and more when you visit your bookstore or movie theater. But it’s a poor predictive tool. Science fiction promised us flying cars and bases on the moon, but we got Facebook and Twitter instead. Given the behavior of people on Facebook and Twitter, I think it’s probably a good thing that we haven’t been handed the keys to those jetpacks and flying cars.

So, if science fiction isn’t a good or accurate predictor of the future, what good is it, and how can it be harnessed as a tool in the arsenal of teaching soldiers how to anticipate the future?

This is something that I think about quite a bit. I’ve written stories of my own, and I’ve read and edited military sf stories, with the aim of using the genre to explore the world around us. Science fiction, in many ways, is an exercise in examination of the present world around us and how we got here. I might write about armored mechs and power armor-clad soldiers, but these stories simply wouldn’t make sense if they aren’t firmly rooted in the concerns of today. A couple of years ago, I published a short story called Fragmented. Its origins stem from an NPR article that I heard on the radio about how the army decontaminated tanks coming back from Iraq. It was an involved process, and it got me thinking: what would happen to a soldier who lived in their armor on a battlefield? It stood to reason that it would be an integral part of their survival, and that having that armor stripped away when they were done with their tour could be a traumatic experience, or might force them to face existence without it, the one constant thing that kept them alive through their trials.

When it came to editing War Stories, my co-editor and I wanted to get away from what we saw as jingoistic stories of heroic soldiers killing bug-eyed aliens. Instead, we put out a call for stories where the impact of warfare was central to the characters, whether they were soldiers or civilians. These stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and I hope that they’ve helped people understand that as obsessed with technology as military science fiction is, it isn’t the most important part of the story: it’s the characters and how they cope with the changes around them.

This is where I feel science fiction can be an important resource for any effort that looks at what we face in the years ahead. We don’t know what the future will hold — after all, science fiction has a terrible track record when it comes to predicting the future. But what it does do is allow people to make a critical first step towards defining the question: “what’s next?” It allows us to interrogate the present and think and grapple with the world that we’ll soon find ourselves living in. At its worst, it can be escapist fantasy of the thrill of action that has no lasting impact aside from a nice mental detour. At its most durable, it’s a close examination of where we are today, how today will morph into tomorrow, and influences the works that come after it.  

Science Fiction enables people to make a critical first step towards defining the question: “what’s next?”

How do we use the genre to prepare soldiers for the conflicts of that they’ll face in the decades ahead? If we think about the world that we’ll inhabit by 2050, think about the gulf in time between 2018 and 1986: 32 years ago. Cell phones were in their infancy. With those primitive phones in mind, think about how much more computing power we now carry with us, and the types of things that we can do. Just in the last couple of days, I navigated over 500 miles, using real-time directions and incident reports, I hailed a stranger in a car, caught some creatures with a geolocation-based game, and looked up a restaurant on a map all from my phone. The best science fiction stories don’t just imagine how technology functions, but how it’s used. Look at how people have abused app-based technologies or platforms like YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, either through routine mass-harassment from afar to soliciting like-minded friends for terrorist activities. Look at how the proliferation of cameras on these devices and how that correlates with the rise in coverage of police brutality, how these networks can bring marginalized communities together, or how the crowd can amass incredible amounts of data — all from their phones. This was the stuff of science fiction just decades ago.

We are living in a science fictional age. Think about some piece of technology that you might use in the field, and try to imagine how that technology might change in the same amount of time. When the cell phone was invented in 1973, I don’t think its inventors could have fathomed the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which were coordinated through the use of mobile phones, VOIP calling, and Google Earth. I recently wrote about a fitness app’s heat map that accidentally revealed the locations of military bases in the Middle East, data that foreign intelligence agents would have died to get their hands on. I think we’re all in agreement that technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace, and that it will continue to evolve, and will be used in any number of incredible ways. The future will be weirder than we can imagine.

Think about the technologies that are coming down the pipeline: autonomous vehicles, exoskeletons, new types of information at our fingertips. Science fiction has put these types of technology to use already, and it’s useful to play with the possibilities. In Linda Nagata’s The Red, soldiers use exoskeletons and brain interfaces to enhance their abilities on the battlefield. In Adam Robert’s New Model Army, he imagines crowdsourced warfare, where armies spring up instantly. We can write about these coming changes in clear, analytical reports or white papers. But as Peter Singer told me these are like paper Ambien. It’s stories about characters that excite us, and pull us into the world to imagine how we’ll react and what happens next. Stories are good at figuring out where technology breaks down because of how it’s used by people. I can easily imagine a story in which the first casualty of a future war isn’t from enemy combatants, but a bored soldier goofing off with a set of powered armor. I can imagine an enemy combatant stymying a new weapons system with a can of spray paint. There will be battlefields in new environments: dense urban combat in super cities, in regions wrecked by climate change, or in low earth orbit. Science fiction can allow us to understand problems — big and small —in ways we can easily grasp and comprehend, how to overcome them and fully understand the ramifications of introducing a new piece of expensive tech into the field.

But these stories are only as good as the problems and worlds that authors can imagine, and it’s important to remember not only that the futures imagined by science fiction authors aren’t always great predictors of the future, but that they can carry our own biases and weak points. When developing a body of work, it’s important to bring in a wide spectrum of viewpoints, to seek out and invite authors and thinkers who look and think differently from yourself. The best stories draw on all of the real world’s complexities and nuances to present a story and world that draws out those complex and nuanced problems and solutions.

We learn from these challenges, and with each new story, we practice how to approach those roadblocks and how to get comfortable with a rapidly changing environment.

Changes in technology, climate, and politics are the building blocks, but it’s how people and future soldiers inhabit those worlds that makes for good stories. How will soldiers of the future deal with the presence of robots on the battlefield? What decisions will they make to survive? What motivates them — and their adversaries to act? This is where science fiction storytelling has an added advantage: the emphasis on realism begets a fictional construct much like our own, where its characters are constrained by their surroundings. By framing these imaginary futures in a realistic framework for which we can create moral dilemma that force characters to act, we can use fiction to put ourselves in the place of the characters, ask how we would make the decisions that they need to make, and learn from their mistakes. Stories aren’t about an advanced piece of technology; they’re about how the characters exist in whatever futures we’ve imagined for them.

This is where storytelling can be a powerful tool. Storytelling sparks curiosity, and gets us interested defining an unknown future. I’m very fond of a quote from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, that he’s “never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before,” because of the books and stories he’s read. When done right, fiction goes beyond mere entertainment: it’s a way to generate discussion about those conflicts that drive good stories. Ideally, your future soldiers won’t be involved in something that makes for a good science fiction story (just remember, biological containment protocols in first contact scenarios).

Ultimately, the future is uncertain, and uncertainty is scary. Engaging with the future through fiction, where the stakes are low, allows us to learn and practice those first steps that we take into tomorrow and prepare us for the world that we’ll soon inhabit.

Alongside any plans for the future, there should be a strong body of artistic work to complement it, to educate and inspire the people who will fight for us. We’ve discussed many plans and theories for what to do next at this conference, and I’d like to challenge you to help take this first step: pick up a new book and carve out time to read it. Do it over and over. Pick up a pen or open a word document, and imagine a future you want to see. Then do it again. And again.

Presentation: Army TRADOC's Mad Scientist conference: Learning in 2050

Next week, I'll be in Washington D.C. to present at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Mad Scientist Initiative Conference, Learning in 2050. TRADOC is the command that oversees the training of the entire army, operating a dozens of schools and facilities. One of their initiatives is Mad Scientist, which looks to explore the future through "collaborative partnerships and continuous dialogue with academia, industry and government." One of those partnerships is with some science fiction writers: they've solicited soldiers to write fiction, and basically use that project to get people to think about what's to come in the decades ahead. The people who are just joining the military now will eventually inherit command of the branch. Science fiction isn't a great way to predict the future, but it's a good way to get into the right mindset, so they've asked me to come talk about military science fiction. 

The event is taking place at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. I don't believe that it'll be open to the general public, but it will be livestreamed, according to the project's Twitter feed

I've been interested in military SF for a while now — I grew up on Star Wars, Starship Troopers, and Ender's Game, and it's something that I've increasingly been working in and thinking about. It's a durable genre, but it's also one that I've been seeing as being incredibly useful, for all of the reasons that TRADOC set up the Mad Scientist Initiative: it's a way to get people to think about what's coming up, whether that's fantastical technologies or wartime scenarios. Defense Secretary James Mattis has spoken often about the importance of reading, with one notable e-mail going viral every now and again in which he outlines its importance: "

"Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn't give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead."

Military SF is the same way, I think, and there's a body of work that's being developed in the field that explores the battlegrounds of the near future, aimed at getting people to think about the bigger picture. One notable book is Ghost Fleet, authored by P.W. Singer and August Cole, which they wrote by incorporating all of the technology and geopolitics that experts are developing or watching. They noted that the book could have been written up as a future war white paper, something they described as "printed Ambien." By dumping all that information into a novel, with characters and plot, they found people better related to the information the might have just skimmed. 

The conference will take place on the 8th and 9th. I'll likely be jotting down notes on Twitter, and I'll try and find the livestream link when that's live. 

Ian McDonald's Time Was is a haunting time travel romance

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Ian McDonald has become one of my favorite science fiction authors in recent years: his novel Luna: New Moon kicked off a fantastic trilogy (the third installment has sadly been delayed until next year), while River of Gods and The Dervish House used the intersection between cheap technology, poverty, and politics to present a really intriguing set of futures for Earth. McDonald's latest, Time Was, is a change from that model, but it's no less a gripping read. 

Set during the Second World War, it follows two men, Tom and Ben. Ben is a scientist working on a secret project, and as he and Tom fall in love, the project goes wrong, sending both men to wander throughout time, trying to find one another through messages left in books. The story ping-pongs between the story of a man named Emmett Leigh in the present, who discovers letters from the two men and embarks on a mission to try and find out who they were as they intersect throughout time, and the story of the two men leading up to their accident.

McDonald does something impressive over the course of its short length, blending hard physics with a really tragic romance that comes full circle in a sort of reciprocating way — a form that I really love reading, as in Lev Grossman's The Magician King and Joe Hill's Horns. But McDonald also treats his characters well, showcasing a gay couple that feels natural, and not playing to tired tropes. It's incredibly well written, and is well worth picking up. 

Gardner Dozois got me into science fiction

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Word broke the other day that science fiction editor Gardner Dozois died suddenly. There's been a number of tributes to him from around the science fiction community, and for good reason: for decades, he's been one of the foremost forces in curating the cream of the crop that is the SF short fiction world, via his The Year's Best Science Fiction anthology series. 

I wrote about the series a while ago for my Kirkus Reviews column, where I looked at his work as a writer and later anthologist, but since his passing, I've been thinking about how his work impacted me: he is really one of the ones that got me interested in modern science fiction in a very big way. 

The re-release of Star Wars and Legends of Zelda: Link's Awakening were two big influences when it came to discovering science fiction and fantasy — later followed by Brian Jacques Redwall series — which in turn steered me towards some of the classics: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and others. But it was an anthology by Dozois that made me realize that science fiction wasn't a genre that rested entirely on the classics: there were plenty of new and brilliant stories being published every year. During a family trip to New York in 2000 — I think it was a wedding or funeral — we stopped at a Barnes and Noble. I vividly remember the bookstore, and coming across The Year's Best Science Fiction: Eighteenth Annual Edition, and thought back to the classic anthologies that I'd been reading. This seemed like a good way for my teenage brain to read up on a whole bunch of adventures, so that was my purchase for the day. 

To this day, I haven't read all of it: (I read anthologies sporadically), but stories like Stephen Baxter's "On the Orion Line," and John Kessel's "The Juniper Tree" still stand out to me. I've picked up a handful of other Year's Best Anthologies over the years. Dozois always had an impeccable eye for curation, and beyond just the fiction that he included, there was a great survey of the output of the science fiction community: collecting the entire series and reading that alone would give you a great chunk of the genre's recent history. 

I went back to the anthology time and again, and a couple of years later, I first subscribed to Asimov's Science Fiction, which Dozois edited. Again, I found his curation to be fantastic, introducing me to authors such as Allen M. Steele, Walter Jon Williams, Robert Reed, Charles Stross, John Varley, Karen Traviss, Tanith Lee, Charles Sheffield, Nancy Kress, Bruce Sterling, and so many others. I never really read through each issue cover to cover, but Dozois's short introductions to each story served as a good guidepost for what appealed to me the most: adventures in space, biotechnology run amok, robots, and the like. 

Dozois's showed me that science fiction was alive and that it was not only something that was continually changing, but it was something that I could contribute to: I remember stuffing envelopes with terrible stories and mailing them off to Asimovs' and Dozois, only to get the standard form letter back. They were always polite messages that encouraged me to continue to try. 

For a long time, I stopped reading Asimov's and short fiction in general, but it's something that I've returned to in recent months, but when I was at a bookstore, I'd often flip through his latest Years' Best Anthology to see who made the cut for the year, even sitting down and reading through a story or two if I was killing time. 

There's a number of Year's Best Anthologies crowding the market now: Neil Clarke's Best Science Fiction of the Year series and John Joseph Adams' The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series are just two examples (and there's a ton of other, subgenre-specific ones that have popped up as well), but Dozois's loss leaves a Chicxulub-sized crater in the field. The genre and fandom community will move on, but that hole will never completely be filled, and he's a figure that will leave long-lasting changes on the genre for years to come.

 

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book to review for SF Signal, looking for something different. That book was Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and it turned out to be one of those books that quietly never quite left my head.

Thinking about Roadside Picnic and its authors, as well as our last column on Stanislaw Lem, we get a good starting point for examining how science fiction developed outside of the United States. Given that a lot of SF has been published here in the US, we appear to be a leader in the genre, for better or worse.

At the same time, we forget, ignore or simply don't realize that authors such as Lem and the Strugatskys were as big as the giants in the United States: on par with Bradbury, Asimov or Heinlein. Examining their publishing experiences and approaches to the genre is good to highlight the limits and potential of genre, but also where US authors and fans tend to put on blinders for the world around them.

As awareness of foreign SF grows (see Clarksworld's Chinese SF project, funding now), it's important to realize that a) this isn't a new phenomenon, and b) SF isn't limited to the United States and England.

On top of all that, go read Roadside Picnic. It's a phenomenal book.

Go read Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Russian Experimental Fiction: Resisting Ideology after Utopia, Edith Clowes. This is a particularly detailed volume on Russian literature, and partiularly looks at the science fiction's complicated relationship with utopian fiction and their own country's political history. This particular book looks at how the Strugatsky's works fit into this.
  • Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. Landon discusses the brothers at length, with a fairly good analysis of their works.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, Frank Magill. There's an excellent review of Roadside Picnic here.
  • Soviet Fiction Since Stalin: Science, Politics and Literature, Rosalind J. Marsh. This book has a good look at works of the brothers.
  • The Strugatsky Brothers, Stephen Potts. This is a short book, but a good overview of the brother's works and career.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a couple of paragraphs of the brother's career and how it fits into a bigger picture.
  • Critical Encounters II: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction, edited by Robert Staicar. There's an excellent essay about the brothers here.
  • Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. This was my introduction to the brothers: the 2012 translation, which threw me at first, then drew me in completely. It's a Weird book, while also a Hard SF one at the same time. It still sticks in my mind, years after reading it. Ursula K. Le Guin opens the book, while Boris provided an afterword.

Online Sources:

  • SF Encyclopedia. As always, the SF Encyclopedia has a good, comprehensive entry on the subject, particularly when it comes to their placement in the genre.

Two obituaries for Boris, one in the Independent and one in the New York Times helped provide some details of their lives, as well as some critical look at their careers:

I hate to do it, but I had to rely a bit on Wikipedia's entry for the brothers, which provided some minor details, although I tried to rely on entries that were backed up with sources.

The Left and Right Hands of Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of science fiction's greats: her stories Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dispossessed rank among the genre's best works, and she moves easily between science fiction and fantasy, writing things that science fiction authors had barely touched before she came onto the scene. To say she was influential is to undersell one's words.

I have to say, of all of Le Guin's works that I've read, the ones that I've enjoyed the most was A Wizard of Earthsea, which I read years ago. Of all the fantasy novels I've picked up, it's probably one of the ones that's stuck with me the most.

I'll say this once: there's some columns that have come together quickly. Others are far harder to put together: case in point, trying to summarize the influence of one of the genre's greatest living figures, Ursula K. Le Guin. Never mind that her fiction still challenges me and makes me feel incredibly tiny, or that her words are something that I can hardly imagine coming close to in style or grace. This was a hard one to write, but rewarding, all the same.

Go read The Left and Right Hands of Ursula K. Le Guin over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss devotes a number of pages to Le Guin and her influence on the genre, holding her critically at arm's length, which is interesting to see: few authors have really had this treatment in this particular book. He acknowledges her stance in the genre, but chastise her for being preachy.
  • In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood. Atwood actually dedicated this collection of essays (which is very reminiscent of Language of the Night), and devotes one essay to her, where she discusses her fiction in a very useful way.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion, by Susan Bernadro and Graham J. Murphy. This is a dedicated volume on Le Guin, and I found it to be exceptionally helpful with some publication details and commentary on her works, especially the stories I haven't read (yet).
  • Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, by Elizabeth Cummings. Another critical survey, this one likewise had some helpful commentary and details.
  • The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Essays on Science Fiction, by Samuel R. Delany. Delany's complicated survey of the genre is a dense, detailed one, and contains a good section on The Disposessed.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, by Thomas Disch. Disch's history is a decent one that I've used before, but I was a little surprised to see him absolutely castigate Le Guin and other feminist authors here.
  • The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin's book of essays on science fiction and introductions to her book is possibly one of the best non-fiction books that I've read on the subject. It's an excellent demonstration that Le Guin is an utterly powerful, brilliant and intimidating figure in the genre.

Online Sources:

Octavia E. Butler: Expanding Science Fiction’s Horizons

For years, I've had friends tell me that I should be reading Octavia Butler's works, especially Kindred. I actually own a copy, and it's been sitting on my shelves for years, waiting for me to pick it up. When it came to the point where I'd start writing about the 1970s, it was pretty clear that Butler would be one of the authors that I'd be covering, and I picked up the book as part of my research. She's a powerful author, and I'm a little sad that I didn't read the book earlier. Researching Butler's life is fascinating, and it's becoming clear to me that some of the genre's most important works emerge from outside of it's walls.

Go read Octavia E. Butler: Expanding Science Fiction’s Horizons over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

Book Sources to come - I don't have them on hand at the moment.

Pasadena College Carl Brandon Society McCarthur Foundation SFWA Interview LA Review of Books: One / Two

Many thanks as well to Steven Barnes, Ann Leckie and Gerry Canavan for their input for this.

Edward Everett Hale's Brick Moon

The Brick Moon - FC I've got a bit of a bonus installment for my column on SF History. I've got a limited amount of space that I've got to work with for Kirkus, and as such, I've had to blow past a couple of things. Fortunately, with Jurassic London's new release of The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale, I've had the opportunity to circle back and write about this particular novel. The Brick Moon is the first science fiction story that uses the idea of an artificial satellite, and it's an excellent example of what science fiction is: extrapolation into the near future. In this instance the need for a navigational beacon in the skies. It's a cool premise, and in one fell swoop, Hale comes up with the idea for a satellite, communications satellite and space station. (Yes, Clarke came up with the idea as well. His invention is notable because it wasn't in SF, but a non-fiction speculation).

 

Read Edward Everett Hale's Brick Moon over on Pornokitsch. Here's the sources which I used:

  • Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it, by Mike Ashley. Ashley has a nice chunk of text devoted to this book, and it provides some helpful context.
  • The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. There's a single mention in this book, but it's a juicy one that places it in a bit of context with similar works from around the same time in Arthur B. Evan's piece, 'Ninteenth-Century SF.)
  • To A Distant Day, Chris Gainor. It's not often that I get to break out books on space history. This book is about the dawn of the rocket age, from the fantastic People's History of Spaceflight series. Hale gets a good mention here.
  • Alternate Worlds, James Gunn. Gunn has a mention of The Brick Moon, with a little background.
  • The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. This new edition from Jurassic London has an incredible historical essay on The Brick Moon, which helped provide some vital details to this piece from Richard Dunn and Marek Kukula.
  • Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction. Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz is someone I'm reluctant to use, and I'm realizing that much of the perception of SF and its history is really framed by him. There's an entire essay about Hale, and it provides some good information, but nothing hugely specific.
  • The High Frontier, Gerard K. O'Neill. There's a single mention of Hale in this book, about habitats in space.
  • Edward Everett Hale, Harvard Square Library. This is an excellent short biography that provides some good detail on Hale's early life.

I would also be remiss if I didn't put something in that Jurassic London's edition is now available.

Anne McCaffrey's Dragons

I've had a passing fascination with McCaffrey's books over the years, even as I never really dabbled in them. (I owned one book, Dragonflight, years ago.) I was always somewhat intimidated by the sheer size and scale of the series, and I was always more interested in SF than I was Fantasy (although now, I realize that that was a bit misguided.) Anne McCaffrey was always an author I was aware of: one of the female authors alongside the Asimovs, Herberts and Heinleins in my high school library.

Yet, in recent years, as I've been researching, I've become aware that McCaffrey has occupied an important role in the genre: she's an extremely successful female author, but she also writes in such a way (and is marketed as such) that she's an excellent gateway into the SF world for a huge range of readers.

Go read Anne McCaffrey's Dragons over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss has some excellent points about McCaffrey's early works in his book, although she's mentioned sparingly.
  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950-1970, Mike Ashley. Ashley provides some outstanding quotes and background into how McCaffrey got her start in the genre, and especially how she was aided by John W. Campbell Jr.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1970-1980, Mike Ashley. This book follows up with Transformations, but likewise provides some good information on McCaffrey's work.
  • Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965, Eric Davin. This was a particularly good source, providing some interesting background information that didn't appear anywhere else, but also helped my thinking with how McCaffrey got into writing in the first place, but how she viewed her stories.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, vol. 2, William Magill. There's an excellent review and overview of Dragonflight in this volume.
  • Dragonholder: The Life and Dreams of Anne McCaffrey, Todd McCaffrey. This was a particularly helpful source, but very poorly laid out and written. It's jumbled, and jumps from point to point, making it difficult to locate the right information.
  • The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. This text had some good background information.
  • ISFDB. As always, this is a particularly helpful site for figuring out when and where stories were published.

Hugo Gernsback: Father of Science Fiction?

With Chicon-7 coming next month, I wanted to take a look at the man behind the main event: the Hugo Award ceremony. Over on Kirkus Reviews, I've got a brief history of Hugo Gernsback, often called 'The Father of Science Fiction'. While it's true that Gernsback coined the term science fiction, we've seen that he's not the founded of the genre as a whole. Rather, he's the founder of a modern strain of science fiction, and his influence persists to this day. Read Hugo Gernsback: To Great Heights And Down Again over on Kirkus Reviews.

An interesting letter that I came across came from Alex Eisenstein, who left me with the impression that Gernsback sat at the crossroads between quality literary style and commercial success. While the two aren't mutually exclusive, looking at the attitudes science fiction over the last half-century, it's clear which style won out. Here's the sources that I used for this piece:

- American Inventors, Entrepreneurs and Business Visionaries, by Caharles W. Carey Jr.: This book compiles a number of profiles of people, including a good thumbnail of Gernsback’s life and accomplishments.

- Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones: This book is a great look at the rise of the comic book industry in the United States. Gernsback makes a brief appearance here in a section devoted to the pulps, which helps to provide a bit of extra insight into his life and how he influenced others.

- Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction, by Gary Westfahl: This is an an academic book on the man and his influence: it provided some in depth information on Gernsback, but it is quite dense at points.

- History of Science Fiction, by Adam Roberts: Roberts puts together a good profile and analysis of Gernsback’s contributions to the genre, highlighting not only his life, but how he affected the genre as a whole.

- The Trillion Year Spree, by Brian Aldiss: Aldiss is less kind to Gernsback, providing an notably critical profile of the man and his contributions to the genre.

- Wells, Verne, and Science, Alex Eisenstein, from Science Fiction Studies: This letter was a turning point in how I thought about this piece: rather than just looking at the contributions of Gernsback, it made me realize that the story is more about just how much he influenced the genre that we know and love.

For the Hugo Awards, I did a bit of research online between a couple of websites:

- INFOGRAPHIC: Everything You Need to Know about the Hugo Award: SF Signal’s Infographic covering the high points of the Hugos.

- A Short History of the Hugo Awards Process: This page on the official Hugo Awards website is a good one to look into for year to year, and a general overview of the award.

Adapting Philip K. Dick

This week on the Kirkus Reviews Blog, I jump ahead from some of the older stories to a very modern author: Philip K. Dick and the adaptations of his works.

This was an interesting article to write, because I wanted to tie it in with the upcoming movie release of Total Recall. Prior to writing it, I was able to find a number of the films and watch through them over the course of a weekend, to get a sense of how they were adapted. Some were a pleasant surprise: Total Recall and Screamers were two that I particularly liked. Others, like Paycheck and Next, I didn't like very much.

Dick's works have translated interestingly into film, I suspect because the premise that he's really known for - this world is not correct - is something that's easy for a film to capture and challenge its characters with in ways that audiences can easily understand.

Here's the sources that I used for this piece:

The Library of America Series (Four Novels of the 1960s, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, and Valis & Later Novels): This series examines notable works from American authors, seldomly looks at Science Fiction. These books are fantastic examples of the author's works, but are also excellent for their in-depth chronological look at Dick's life.

Minority Report Special Features: This is something that I watched way back, when Minority Report was the first DVD that I ever owned. It's an excellent collection of special features, not the least of which the one that talks about the adaptation of the story and how it came to be.

Prophets of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick: This was a really neat one to watch, even as it glosses over much of Dick's life and dramatizes some of it. The most interesting thing was Ridley Scott's impressions of the man, whom he met at a screening. There's also some interesting points about how Minority Report was going to become a sequel to Total Recall.

Internet Speculative Fiction Database: This large archive was useful for tracking down the original publications of each of the stories, which allowed me to string them out in publication order.

The films: I was able to track down almost all of the films, with the exception of A Scanner Darkly and Radio Free Albemuth. Watching each (and reading most of the stories that they were based on) really helped to see what exactly was adapted.

Usual Suspects: The Stuff Dreams are Made Of, History of Science Fiction and Trillion Year Spree each have sections about Philip K. Dick and his works, which provide good background material on the life of the author and his contributions to the genre.

Looking Far into the Future: Olaf Stapledon

My latest post for the Kirkus Reviews Blog is now online! This time, we look at English author Olaf Stapledon and his legacy.

This wasn't the post I'd intended on writing. Originally, this spot had been reserved for an examination of C.S. Lewis, and his Out of a Silent Planet trilogy. As this series has progressed, I've been finding a curious evolution of the science fiction genre, something that will continue on. From Mary Shelley to Edgar Allan Poe, to Jules Verne and to H.G. Wells, there's a facinating story of connections between one another. They found influences in themselves, carrying ideas forward in time, changed somewhat by each author's own sensibilities. Following Wells, we find Olaf Stapledon, who by his own words, was influenced by Well's stories, and in turn, inspired future authors, such as Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Lewis, I found, wrote in opposition of the two, and in a large way, was out of place in my plans.

Stapledon was an interesting author, and the scale of his works and the themes behind them set him apart from just about everyone in the field at the time and since. Read Looking far, far into the future: Olaf Stapledon over on the Kirkus Reviews Blog!

Here's the sources that I used:

An Olaf Stapledon Reader, By Olaf Stapledon, Robert Crossley: This book contains an interesting series of articles on Stapledon and his writing, but of most interest is two letters that Olaf wrote to famed science fiction author H.G. Wells, where he talks about how the former influenced him.

The Olaf Stapledon Online Archive: Located here, the site for Stapledon contains a fairly good biography on the author and some of his works, which provided a good starting point for the biographical elements of this piece.

Last and First Men / Last Men of London, Olaf Stapledon: This collected version is a book that I picked up on a whim a couple of years ago, and read through Last and First Men. An interesting story, it was of particular use when coming to understand the scale and scope of Stapledon's efforts - it's a very different, but highly recommended novel.

Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, by Neil McAleer: This biography of Clarke helped to confirm that Clarke was influenced by Stapledon's works.

Survey of Science Fiction, vol 3 & 5, Frank Magill: This book as usual, is a particularly useful resource in looking up specific meanings and critical reviews of Stapledon's works.

The History of Science Fiction, by Adam Roberts: Roberts devotes an entire glowing section to Stapledon's legacy, shedding some light on the author and his influences.

Jules Verne and the Moon

My latest column for Kirkus Reviews is now online! In it, I talk about Jules Verne and his fantastic novel From the Earth to the Moon. I recently talked about Jules Verne in his influences that stemmed from Edgar Allan Poe, and I was particularly eager to return to Verne as a major influence in the genre.

As July is the month where the anniversary of the first Moon landing rests, it seemed like a good time, although Verne's novels are closer to what happened with Apollo 8, when we first reached the moon, rather than landed on it.

You can read the entire post here on the Kirkus Reviews Blog.

Here's the sources that I used for the column this time around:

Billion Year Spree, by Brian Aldiss: Once again, this book provides some good background on Verne throughout, and some of the things that helped to influence him and this particular novel, especially Poe.

The History of Science Fiction, by Adam Roberts: Roberts takes to task the idea that Verne 'predicted' how the space program would be put together, and lambasts critics who nitpick Verne's story based on some of the things that he didn't get right - such as using a giant cannon to get into space as opposed to that of a rocket. It's a good perspective to understand, that Science Fiction doesn't predict the future, but if the author is paying good attention to science, it's not likely to change all that much, as is what happens in this situation.

Survey of Science Fiction Literature, Vol 3, by Frank Magill: Magill's collection provides a great analysis of From the Earth to the Moon in its themes and influences.

To a Distant Day: The Rocket Pioneers, by Chris Gainor: This is a great history (and part of a great series on human space exploration, the Outward Odyssey series), on the development of Rocket Science. This book points to a number of rocket pioneers who read Verne's stories and looked at how they could do that in real life. Verne's an excellent example of where fiction becomes real.

Jules Verne, inventor of science fiction by Peter Costello: This biography of Verne was a particularly good one, outlining much of Verne's life and some of his influences when it came to science fiction and storytelling. He's a facinating individual, and the book provides a good overview.

From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon, Jules Verne: Of course, there's the source material, in this instance, a nicely bound collected edition that my wive brought with her when she moved up to Vermont. This edition has several other books, and I look forward to someday reading it to whatever children we end up having.

Prometheus has Landed

Ridley Scott's addition to the Alien franchise has finally hit theaters following a fantastic marketing blitz. Prometheus is a good, but at points flawed, predecessor to his own 1979 start to the franchise. One of my more anticipated films of the year, I found it to be a decent film, living up to my somewhat lowered expectations, and certainly one that I'll watch again.

Prometheus follows a lot of similar formula as that of Aliens, with some notable differences. An archeological team comes up with a series of star maps that points the team to a distant world with extraterrestrial life. An interstellar expedition is assembled and financed, and sent off to a moon designated LV-223 in a far off system. Overseen by a robot overseer on the 200 day trip, the crew lands on the moon, and discover an unnatural feature. Suiting up, the scientific contingent set off to find what message might have been left behind. Helmets come off, people get lost and suddenly, chaos ensues as the relics infect the crew.

The key to enjoying Prometheus seems to be ignoring that the film is connected to the Alien universe. While it's not as good as Alien, I did enjoy it a bit more than Aliens, and when compared to your average summer blockbuster, Prometheus comes off rather well.

What's notable for Prometheus is how absolutely gorgeous it is: the design of the world is one of the best that I've seen, a spaceship that looks practical and well-rooted in the modern world, much as the Nostromo likely felt back when it was first released. Outside of the ship, the film is treated to a phenomenal opening credit scene, and continues to put together some wonderful planetscapes and general images. It's a slick, great movie, visually. Even the 3D, which I normally can't stand, worked exceptionally well throughout the film - there were none of the flat sections where the film reverts back to 2D outside of the action sequences. Here, it's seamlessly in the background, where it's never intrusive.

Prometheus's story is where the film begins to stumble, while also attempting some very ambitious things. There's a lot that Scott's tried to pack into the movie, ranging from overarching themes of science verses faith, the idea of maker-gods who have helped along the human race, to the responsibilities of science and technology. It's easy to see where the ideas are, and where they're attempting to go, but it's lost in a bit of a muddle. While watching the film, I got the distinct impression that there was quite a bit cut out of the movie to keep the run time under a certain level, and I can't help but wonder if somewhere down the road, we'll get the bits that were cut out, which will hopefully help to reinforce some of the characters and overarching themes.

Beyond that, some of the letdowns come with some of the really stupid things that the characters do throughout the movie. Characters take their helmets off at every point, even when it seems like it might be a really bad idea, quarantine protocols are ignored, and everything that should be done to keep a trillion dollar mission on schedule and safe really isn't done. This is where Prometheus is a disappointment: there's a lot of potential that's lost in the characters and their actions.

The characters frequently have their moments to shine: Charlize Theron does a fantastic job as Meredith Vickers, the Weyland Corporation rep, while Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw finally finds her legs towards the end of the film, after she's been pushed to the brink. Most notable, however, is David, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, the ship's robot who has some considerable issues when it comes to his maker, Peter Weyland. Frequently though, each of the characters are drawn with too broad a brush and the often come off poorly. Other characters, like Captain Janek and the bridge crew, have great appearances - Benedict Wong especially, but just little enough to make us want more.

Where the story really does work is looking at the big ideas, and I applaud the film for really trying something, rather than simply mirroring the audience's expectations. The idea of an alien race bringing their technology to seed a world, only to find that they've made a mistake is a rather epic idea, and I'm thrilled to see the ideas there: I simply wish that they'd been followed up on a bit more. The ideas of religion and science that come out of those ideas are similarly brought up, and not fully explored. While that's not great, I can't really think of the last major science fiction movie that put together interesting ideas with a dramatic story, (Maybe Inception?) and I'm happy to see a film at least try to do something a bit different.

Weirdly, this film felt very optimistic throughout: focusing on exploring and learning about our surroundings, it's an interesting change from many of the reactionary (and still excellent) science fiction out there, even up through the end. Where Alien was purely a horror film set in space, Prometheus feels more like a space opera film, with quite a few horror elements.

Looking back, the film is stymied by its lack of focus: there's several subplots, focusing on David/Weyland, the Engineers, and corporate intentions, all of which try to share the space with each other. The film never quite meshes in the way that it should have, and coupled with the extraordinarily high expectations set forth by the film's marketing contingent; it's no wonder that the film has received such mixed reviews. In a lot of ways, the film would have likely fared better if its connections to Alien had been completely severed, with it released as a stand-alone science fiction adventure. Here lies the major problem when attempting to bring back a well-worn franchise with an established fanbase: it's almost impossible to capture what everybody loved about it, and entrenched expectations really prevent the filmmakers from really innovating. Prometheus is able to get away from this a bit: I'm sure that continuity hounds and nitpickers will argue for a long time about this, but Scott really is able to pull out a good movie out for his return to the genre.

But, despite all of the issues with the film, I really enjoyed it. I'm a sucker for great imagery in the genre, and Prometheus certainly delivers here. But beyond that is a film that, once some of the extra baggage is ignored, is a decent film when you look at it against the lesser Alien films, or even the broad canon of summertime blockbusters. It doesn't quite stack up as high as Blade Runner and Alien do in the greater picture, but it's a good film that should have been great. I can live with that.

Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

Fahrenheit 451 Over on the Kirkus Reviews Blog, I've written up a short sketch of Ray Bradbury's life, which you can read over here.

I'll forgo the usual sources that I've been posting: I've been seperated from my usual research materials (which are sitting on a shelf at home), and went for a number of obituaries, fan sites and articles about the legendary author.

For my part, Bradbury was a giant figure in my early science fiction years. I was first introduced to him while a student in High School, when my English teacher, Mrs. Page (seriously the best name for an English teacher), had us read Fahrenheit 451 for a class assignment. I blew through the book and paid more attention to class after that. At some point in class, we also read Soft Rains Will Come, and I was encouraged to read more of Bradbury's stories, particularly R is for Rocket and S is for Space. I picked up more of his books (although to this day, I've never been able to get through The Martian Chronicles), and whenever I picked up a new anthology, I always flipped to the Bradbury story first.

Bradbury's words always captured me and my imagination, bringing me out to Mars and back down to Earth, and there was always a story to fit whatever moon I was in when I picked up the book. Along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury was the most influential for my young, impressionable mind, and I shall always appreciate his prose and his exceptional mind.