I sent out the latest issue of Wordplay to subscribers yesterday, in which I recounted Star Wars Celebration and hanging out with other Shoretroopers, a bit about Rogue One, and some rants/thoughts about how the literary genre is simultaneously using / ignoring science fiction as a genre, even as more literary-styled novels are telling what are pretty much science fiction stories.
I’m back in Vermont after a couple of days of travel to and from Chicago for Star Wars Celebration. I haven’t been since 2005’s Celebration III in Indianapolis, and it was an outstanding time.
Since i joined The Verge in 2016, I’ve gone to a bunch of big conventions — San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic-Con, both of which were a lot of fun, but extremely busy. We didn’t send anyone this year, but I’ve been wanting to go, so I took time off to attend on my own to work on a project that I’ve been working on, and I’ve just been wanting to go, you know, as a fan. The last couple of Celebrations have found me sulking at home, watching pictures of the fun on Facebook.
Because I wasn’t working for this con, I was able to bring along my Shoretrooper. I ended up buying a new case for it (one of these — I’m kicking myself for not buying one earlier) to transport my armor, and got on the train in Albany, and got in Friday morning. There were a bunch of panels that I thought about getting in line for, but ended up skipping everything in favor of just floating around taking pictures of cosplayers and conducting a bunch of interviews.
That ended up being a huge highlight. Big conventions like this bring out a ton of costumers and cosplayers, and just about everyone I asked was eager to pose for a quick portrait. I took a bunch on my regular camera, but I ended up taking most with my iPhone’s portrait mode, which worked out nicely. You can see the images I took in an album here. I’ve got some more that I need to process and upload.
Of course, I saw the trailer, standing in the middle of the exhibition hall with a ton of people. It looks fantastic. Palpatine’s laugh at the end had everyone screaming in the room, but what was really something was seeing Ian McDiarmid coming out on stage: “Roll it again.” My friend Bryan Bishop made a good observation on Twitter: that Palpatine has been the antagonist from the beginning of the franchise, and it seems appropriate that he’ll be there at the end, in one form or another. Plus, Lando back on the Falcon! Leia and Rey! Remnants of the Death Star! I’m excited for it.
The only other thing I was able to really check out was the Vader Immortal VR game coming out for Oculus Rift. That was something — I haven’t really used a VR headset before, and playing with a lightsaber was quite a bit of fun in that format. I don’t know that it’s something that I’d buy, but it was quite a bit of fun to experience.
The most fun that I had was hanging out with other Shoretroopers. I spent Friday looking for them, but only caught glimpses of one or two, but on Saturday, I came across a group, took a couple of pictures, then ran up to my room to suit up. It took me 20-30 minutes to find the group. We then wandered around for a while, posting for pictures. I found myself in another group on Sunday after the big 501st Legion picture. We ended up at a big prop — a TX-225 tank — and posed for pictures with people there. I didn’t have my gun with me, and ended up on top, where I directed people to imagine that they were firing down range at rebels. The tiny bit of immersion was fun to play with. I de-suited for lunch, then returned a couple of hours later to take part in a larger Rogue One picture, which had a bunch of characters from that film, which was a lot of fun. (Still haven’t seen pictures of that floating around, weirdly).
And then, it was over. I got back on the train to Albany, rewatched Rogue One on the ride back, met up with Megan and Bram at a resort for the next day, then returned to Albany to pick up a couple of friends who had their flight canceled from under them. This was a lot of fun, and I’m kind of meh today — post-con blues are a thing, y’all.
What I loved about this show was just how positive things were. Everyone was thrilled to be there. Celebration is a good name for it — people are sharing in this collective obsession, and it was fun to be part of all of that. I’m already thinking about going to Celebration 2020 in Anaheim, California.
San Diego Comic-Con 2018 has come and gone. This year was my second year covering / attending the show for The Verge, and it was a good time all around. I wrote about a bunch of things: DC's new streaming service, new Star Wars novels, the return of The Clone Wars, interviewed Timothy Zahn, reported a UFO sighting, and rode a couple of scooters. A couple of things fell through, which was unfortunate, but it was a good time all around.
Along the way, I got to catch up with a bunch of friends and colleagues from around the science fiction community, which was fun. The trip back had a bunch of delays, but it was bearable because of fellow Vermont fantasy author Katherine Arden, whom was on the same flight.
There's a lot of people who complain about the convention: it's too big, too crowded, too commercial, not enough comics, and so forth — I've complained as well, in that it's 5-6 days of flat-out running from place to place to cover things — but I've enjoyed myself the last two years. The main crux of it is that it's a gathering point of like-minded people. I saw people dressed in costumes from just about everything — it was especially cool to see people dressed up as characters from The Expanse — and I ran into a bunch of fellow 501st members from California, Texas, and elsewhere.
There's been a lot of talk about how fans have been incredibly shitty in recent years (mind, it's not a new occurrence) and Timothy Zahn had a good observation that while a lot of these attitudes have been around for a while, they're amplified by social media. We've seen actors and directors become the focus of intense scrutiny by "fans" with an ax to grind because they're upset about women being in Star Wars or something.
But I didn't see any of that while I was there. I don't doubt that it existed, but what I saw was people reveling in what they really love. When a room full of Clone Wars fans learned that the show was coming back, there were actual tears. I saw costumers who'd (presumably) never met one another strike up conversations, and people posing for countless pictures. It was a good reminder that fandom isn't always this awful thing. The internet has a habit of equalizing various groups, which isn't the case.
This is pretty exciting: my First Order Stormtrooper (known in the 501st as an FOTK), has been approved for use!
This has been a really long, and at times, frustrating build, more so than some of the other costumes I've built over the years. I picked up this kit second-hand, after a prior owner had begun work on it, then abandoned it. This meant that there were some things that had to be undone: bits of glue and other things like that that were left over, while some other things that needed to be done, like sanding and trimming, were complete.
Getting the suit to fit took some time: I had to make some adjustments, such as with the thighs and calves, as the base kit was a bit too small for me. That necessitated cutting the thighs and expanding them (then filling the new hole with Bondo automotive filler), then lots of sanding.
Then the painting. With most kits made out of ABS, you don't usually have to paint up a stormtrooper. I've had to paint other kits before: my AOTC Clone and Shoretrooper both got robust paint jobs, but this took a considerable amount of work: first with base layers of primer, then five or six layers of gloss white. I'm sort of satisfied with the end result, but unless you're looking for flaws, you aren't going to find them if you're a couple of feet away. My original goal had been to cover some of the flaws up by weathering the entire kit, but that's not approved for the 501st. Maybe some future film will see them dirtied up a bit.
This kit is also much heavier than my other kits: at least 50lbs, which makes it uncomfortable to wear; much of that weight sits on my shoulders. There's also the added gasket details on my elbows, knees, and shoulders, which are done with what's essentially an extra set of sleeves over an already not-really-breathable body suit. Even in pretty reasonable temperatures, I get warm fast. It's also difficult to put on: I require help from a wrangler to get the shoes, detonator, shins, spats, ammo vest, and shoulders on. This isn't going to be something I'm going to truck out during the summer months.
But, the end result is probably one of my favorite kits altogether: it's a badass looking trooper, and the weight of the kit changes my stance to something that's a little more crouched and imposing.
It's not 100% done just yet. I need to get the two guns that he carries — a longer rifle and a pistol for the thigh holster — and I've got a backpack that I need to figure out how to mount to the backplate. I've got some ideas for how that can be done, but I just haven't gotten around to doing it just yet.
Hey you! Yeah, you. Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict is now in stores! You can get a copy of your very own. I particularly recommend it if you a) like Star Wars and b) like astute commentary on modern military conflict. This book has both!
Heather, from the NEG
Last night, I came across a story out of Chicago about a girl named Katie. Katie lives in Chicago, and for the school year, she had picked out a Star Wars backpack, lunch box and water bottle. She packed her lunch with her mother for a couple of months, before wanting to abruptly switch to a different water bottle. When her mom asked about what happened, the entire story tumbled out: a couple of boys had been making fun of her every day, saying that Star Wars was for boys, and to try and make them stop, she wanted to change.
It's a sad story, and there were a couple of points that struck me. Her mother caught the change in behavior in her daughter, and questioned her on it. One of my past jobs was working at a summer camp, working with boys for a couple of weeks at a time, and kids are strange. Their social interactions are different, as well as their perceptions of what happened. The first, and most important thing out of this whole story is that the problem was caught, identified and Katie was reassured. The article's since gone viral, with the internet showing their support for her, and the fact that there's tons of other women out there reaffirming that it's not only for boys is a good thing.
When it comes to the idea of Star Wars is only for Boys, it's easy to see why that perception is out there. As Erika on Club Jade wrote the other day, it's heavily marketed towards guys, and it has been for years: men make up a large part of the Star Wars universe. That's changing, gradually, that that's good, because it's decidely not the case. The first thing that ran through my mind after reading the article was: "I know a couple of girls who are proof positive that that Star Wars is for everyone.", and went and posted the article to the 501st Facebook wall, soliciting support for Katie. This morning, I've asked for pictures of women in armor.
Marie, from the Canadian Garrison
The Star Wars universe, (and Science Fiction / Fantasy in general, for that matter), isn't a male-only playground, despite perceptions that it is. Star Wars alone has a number of strong female leads throughout the books, comics, movies and TV show. The same thing goes on with a number of other shows and films throughout the genre in every medium. While there are the strong points, there's the weaker characters that also exist from within, and I'm hopeful that we'll see more characters such as Ashoka Tano, Kara Thrace, Sam Carter and Shan Franklin that will serve as good role models for kids and fans of the genre, which is what will ultimately overturn the general perceptions. Within fandom, I hope to see more people like Vivienne, Megan, Marie, Heather, Terry, Amanda and Jodi, amongst many others, demonstrating their passions like we do in the 501st.
Bullying seems to be a hot button issue at the moment, between the 'It Gets Better' campaign that's been working its away across the country, as well as countless other stories that appear: kids humiliated for being who they are, which is possibly the worst thing for their self-esteem, outlook on life and general health. Bullies can be powerful motivators with the right environment: a problem to overcome, or they can be detrimental. I hope that most kids can learn to move above the problems, but it's something that takes patience, work and the right attitude.
When I was in elementary school, there was a girl who was different: Angela. I remember some of my classmates making fun of her for something stupid, and I had joined in at one point. I can't imagine that she was happy there. At one point, she fell or hurt herself on the playground, and I remember stopping to ask if she was okay, or waiting with her while a teacher came up. I've always regretted making fun of her then, and I hope that wherever she ended up, she's overcome our mindless thoughts and inconsiderate behavior at that age. As I became more of a geek in middle and high school, I came across my share of bullies, who made fun of the books I read, my glasses and clothing. It made me an angry kid at times, but I'd like to think that I made it out okay with a bit of maturity. Talking with some friends, I got off easy, and I feel for the kids who have worse troubles than I ever did.
Star Wars is for Everyone, and it's in a unique place in that it has a major, world-wide build in community of fans who have a similar interest, regardless of gender, race, class or orientation. Take a look at the growing gallery of 501st women that we've collected, and spread the word: Star Wars is for Everyone, and Bullying is not okay.
This past weekend was the Wizard World Boston comic convention, held at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston, something that the New England Garrison has been planning for almost a year now. This has been quite the year for conventions for the group. We were at the Boston and Granite City Comic Cons earlier this year, then Celebration 5, and now this one, with SupermegaFest coming up.
Generally, I'm not a fan of conventions. I don't like standing around, waiting for people to take pictures of me with them. I never really feel that it's a good use of my time and so forth, but this one had a bunch of options to allow us to really interact with the general public: A Jabba the Hutt puppet that people could pose next to, and a shooting gallery, where we raised around $840 for Autism Speaks, a charity that the NEG works with closely.
The weekend was also Megan's first time at a con, along with the added bonus of getting to see some of the people from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I'm not a huge fan, but she and some of her friends enjoyed it – We inducted James Marsters into the 501st as an honorary member.) Adam West and Burt Ward (Batman and Robin - at $60, they were too expensive to really talk to), Doug Jones' Manager (Jones himself was talking to someone else when I was around) and Christopher Golden, who wrote the book Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, which I coincidentally picked up at the same con.
The opportunity to take part in the shooting gallery was definitely the highlight, because I could act out a bit and be really ridiculous with it. Kids, somewhat unsurprisingly, are really good shots with dart guns, and I was hit in the face and head a lot. Something about a Storm Trooper falling flat on his face seems to get people laughing, so that made it worth it. I've got a couple of pictures here.
I've been doing a bit more reading lately, and I've got a stack of really good books stacked up next to my bed. Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six and Other Stories is the book that I'm carrying around at the moment, which is a fantastic collection from a fantastic author, while I'm also reading the aforementioned Baltimore, which is proving to be a really cool read (and with some awesome illustrations from Mike Mignola), Cherie Priest's Dreadnought, which is proving to be fun (but not quite as much fun as her prior book Boneshaker, but better than Clementine), Masked, edited by Lou Anders, which is a fun, but somewhat dense anthology of superhero stories, and Nights of Villjamur, by Mark Charan Newton, which is proving to be a slow read, and unfortunately, not as good as I was led to believe. (It's interesting thus far though). I've got a couple of other books on the horizon that I really want to read before the end of the year: Ian McDonald's The Dervish House and China Mieville's Kraken.
I’m thrilled at this pile of books, and some of the other ones that I’ve read already this year - The City and the City (China Mieville), Pattern Recognition (William Gibson), Stories (edited by Neil Gaiman), Spellbound (Blake Charleton), How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu), Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemisin, and the River of Gods (Ian McDonald, just to name a few, because I've fallen into company in person and online that have pointed me to some fantastic books and I feel that I've learned and grown as a reader and writer because of them. There's been some duds of reads this year, but overall? I've been pulled into fantastic world after fantastic world.
Still, reading is something that I enjoy, and I've been finding that I really don't enjoy the entire book-blogger environment that I discovered. Too much drama, complaints about how SF/F isn't perceived as a legitimate genre, sucking up to authors and so many reviews a week / month that I can't believe that people can read and retain the contents of dozens of books a year. It's not for me, and I've found that I've got little patience and interest in it. I'll stick with my moderate pace and go from there.
John Scalzi posted up a fascinating essay earlier today, Today I Don't Have To Think About..., which fully and utterly puts one into one's place. After being amongst and listening to a number of coworkers, family members and friends complain about how things are going in their lives and the drama that ensues, this is a really good thing to read, because there are people who are a helluva lot worse off than me in the world. It's hard to remember that sometimes, but it's worth remembering. I've taken the essay and printed it out. One copy went onto my desk’s wall. I’m not sure where the other nine will end up, but they should be read.
When the Star Wars Special Editions were released in 1997, I came out of the theater wanting to be one of the storm troopers from the films, and within a couple of years, dressed up as a Storm Trooper for the 501st Legion and for Halloween on a number of years. (And the past couple of years - you're never too old for fun like that). That's probably the reason why I've been listening to John Anealio's song, 'A Stormtrooper for Halloween' nonstop since I downloaded it this morning.
John Anealio has captured a lot of what I feel about putting on my armor whenever I go out to troop or for Halloween. There is an enormous amount of nostalgia that I feel, taking me back to a couple of special moments for me: seeing Star Wars with my Dad in Montpelier, seeing my first 501st trooper up close and personal as a senior in High School, attending Celebration 3, and the numerous troops that I've been on over the last couple of years.
I first 'met' John on Twitter, where we talked off and on about related topics, and when I attended ReaderCon, he mentioned that he would be there as well, and we hung out for part of the convention, chatting about various science fiction things and his music. He generously gave me a copy of his CD, Sci-Fi Songs, which was released a year ago, and features a wide range of topics, from Blade Runner to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica to Firely and quite a bit more. It's a great little album, and since then, I've diligently listened to just about everything that he's put out on his website. This song, A Stormtrooper for Halloween, is one of his best songs to date, adding to a really great list of songs that speaks to the geek community as a whole. These songs are also not the slicked up pop songs that seem to be coming out, with a wikipedia list of geek topics. Anealio's the real deal when it comes to appreciation of the genres, and this song just goes to prove that just a little more.
A Stormtrooper for Halloween suits John's style quite well - Sci-Fi Songs has a really good, laid-back style that focuses on the core subject of any given song. A couple of songs that it really fits with would be Rachel Rosen, Cylon #6 and The Millennium Falcon For Christmas, all on that album, as well as a couple of the songs that he's since released through BandCamp and his website.
If you haven't checked out John's music, you really should, especially if you're a SciFi/Fantasy geek like I am.
[bandcamp album=3630744838 size=venti bgcol=FFFFFF linkcol=4285BB]
I saw this earlier today: "I'm a diehard 'Han shot first fan'."
I couldn't care less. Go away.
Last night, the news broke that LucasFilm Ltd. intended to re-release (rererelease?) the entire Star Wars series to theaters in 3D in 2012. There's no further details beyond that, except that the first film to be released again will be The Phantom Menace. The announcement has the usual complaints and accusations coming, from: "George Lucas is raping my childhood!" to "How can they make it better?! Leave it alone!" which evolves into: "Han shot first!" I just don't care.
Re-Releases aren't intended to be better. The usual argument of any remake, reboot, or extra special edition looks to the quality of the film, which isn't really the right thing to look at. In the case of a complete remake of a film, it's a different interpretation of the same story, generally within a new context or with the new technology that's available. In the instance of George Lucas's updates to the film (or the other notable re-releases of Blade Runner, Abyss, Lord of the Rings and so forth) goes towards updating scenes based on new technology, or adding in deleted or altered scenes, generally to better fit with the filmmaker's vision of what he wants the film to be.
This brings me to my point about Han Solo shooting first. I first saw the films with the special edition, but that one shot didn't really leave any lasting impact on exactly which one shot first. The point is, Han kills Greedo. Lucas's rationalization for the switch was that he wanted Han to be a more likable character by making him less of a 'bad guy', which has always struck me as odd: Han still fries the Rodian, kills several Sand Troopers in the spaceport (and later Death Star), to save himself and his friends. Making the switch, then, really doesn't make any significant difference in what people thought of Han. He's the lovable rogue, shooting first or whatever, and the only way to really make a major impact would be to turn Han into a vegetarian and someone concerned with the Falcon's fuel mileage. The same goes for some of the other changes that were made: the run into Mos Eisley, the introduction of the digital Dewbacks, Jabba the Hutt and so forth: there's nothing that really changes the film beyond its aesthetics. Similarly, I don't believe that adding the third dimension into the mix is going to significantly change anything in the film, beyond the visual appeal.
The real question will be: will it look good? Star Wars was filmed in a certain style, and there are points where the new CGI sections look somewhat out of place, and the conversion over to 3D is a complicated, expensive process, and I'm not holding my breath that it will be as good as Avatar's 3D, which was filmed natively. Still, it seems that the studio isn't rushing into this conversion, but will be working on it over the next couple of years (if they haven't started already).
Star Wars is a commercial empire: look at the recent diagram of where most of the money has come from for the franchise, and that's from merchandising, which strikes me as a smart move: it creates an incredible brand that people continually go to for all sorts of different things, from playing with the toys as a kid, to wearing a shirt or reading one of the books. It acts as a self-replicating advertising machine, and looking back, there's been a continual release of Star Wars works since the first movies were released. The prequels in 1997 set the stage for the prequel films, which in turn have been continued with The Clone Wars, bringing in a whole new generation to the franchise, who will be right at the proper age to enjoy the films in the theaters again in a couple of years. In all likelihood, we'll see a whole new marketing campaign to go along with this. I wouldn't be surprised if the live-action television series would follow in the mid 2010s, potentially with a new series of films following that. The long and short of it is, Star Wars isn't going anywhere, and with the attention span of the average consumer nowadays, it's no surprise that the franchise has kicked into overdrive. The franchise is now going into its 3rd decade, competing with films such as Avatar, which James Cameron has said is hoped to become a franchise on par with the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. Economically, Star Wars has a major upper hand, but if given a choice, would the current rising generation go for Star Wars, or Avatar? I know which, and it isn't Star Wars.
3D is the next logical step in this move, given that studios can make a couple of extra dollars per ticket, but also because I've thought that Star Wars would be a fun thing to watch in 3D, going back to the visuals over storyline. (And if you don't believe me, go watch the prequels again) 3D films capitalizes on new technology, and will make the franchise grow even more: people will still going to go out and see them in droves, no matter the sputtering of the fanboys who can't see that the films aren't designed for broad introspection: they're blockbusters on a military scale, and the studio executives who have kept Star Wars a house-hold name for over thirty years, and multiple generations are doing their job well.
This isn't to say that everything that has been released with the Star Wars logo has been high quality: far from it. The prequel trilogy was lack-luster at best, with The Clone Wars series matching that for the most part. The books and comics have likewise been of mixed quality, but quality has never been a huge concern: it doesn't have to be. (It should be, but that's another argument altogether) The franchise has raked in billions (yes, with a B) based on the material that's been released, under the current formula, because of the efforts that have been made when it comes to branding and its awareness, not to mention its large fanbase. It really has no equal when it comes to popular culture influence: the book that I'm currently reading, The City and The City by China Mieville, just had a main character drop the 'Force is not with me' line a couple of pages ago, and any time that I've been out in armor, I've found that even if a person hasn't seen the films, they know exactly what I'm from.
To the people who say: "George Lucas is raping my childhood!", I say: George Lucas is not raping your childhood. Your childhood was back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and shouldn't be defined by a single film series. Childhood is a series of rose-colored memories that include things such as Star Wars, and the impressions that you had of any film will change with time as you learn and actually grow up. The original films was something that I watched countless times after school, and over the years since, as I've graduated from high school, college and graduate school, has drastically changed as my outlook on life and the world has changed along with everything else. Attempting to hold onto the past through reliving it seems like a sad proposition. I certainly wouldn't return to my childhood, as much as I treasure most memories. When all fails, there's certainly nothing that compels someone to go and alter their impressions of the films, and you *don't* have to turn over that $10-$15 for a movie ticket, buy the next book, action figure or whatever.
With that in mind, a lot of the arguments that people have made against the prequels, rereleases and upcoming rerereleases are essentially meaningless, simply because this franchise doesn’t really need, or really care about what the fans really are looking for in the series: they’ve put together a good product, and it’s something that people are willing to dump a lot of money into. While they’ve done so, they’ve found ways that the films and books have given them meaning, direction and inspiration in life, which is fantastic. But that meaning and understanding that people find isn’t what drives the bottom line: it’s their wallets. Does it matter if Han shot first? Not really, in the greater context, and even then, it doesn’t impact the story in any significant way. So long as people are continually arguing and talking about it, LFL is happy.
Am I going to see the re-release in a couple of years? Probably. I distinctly remember coming out of Avatar thinking: Star Wars would look pretty damn cool in this format, and I think that the visuals will be worth it, especially on the big screen. Star Wars has always been about flash over substance, and watching the films again in theaters is easily worth my time and money for that thrill. Plus, it'll more than likely mean some prime trooping opportunities for the 501st.
So, don't tell me that Han shot first. I really don’t care; it's irrelevant, annoying and honestly doesn't have that much of an impact on the film's story. There's going to be more Star Wars throughout the rest of our lives.
* Required listening for this rant should be MC Chris's 'Han Solo'.
Lately, it seems like there have been numerous article and opinion pieces on the state of the science fiction genre, as opposed to the fantasy and horror genres, with science fiction losing out to both and declining as a field. More women make up the total readership, and tend to read more towards the fantasy genre, while commercial ready fiction such as True Blood, The Dresden Files and Twilight have pushed their respective genres towards audiences that are highly receptive towards what they have to offer. Speculative fiction as a genre is not going away: rather, it seems to be growing stronger, with more ties towards the literary fields and with a growing readership. Science fiction is not a genre to be counted out, but it is a style of fiction that will need to undergo much thematic change in the future in order to remain relevant to readers.
Science Fiction as a whole is one that covers a wide range when it comes to themes and topics, and simply stating that the genre as a whole is failing is a rather meaningless, if somewhat dramatic statement. To say that people will stop writing about the speculative future is to say that people will stop imagining what will happen next: that is simply not going to happen. Rather, it is more realistic to assume that some of the more traditional stories might go away as our understanding of the world around us changes: this is a natural expectation.
Science Fiction is a genre that acts as a mirror for the present. It acts as a rare opportunity for creators to examine commonplace issues in a way that it relates to the present; viewing current events out of context as a way of examining them from afar. This is something that I don't believe is new or revelatory when it comes to analyzing the genre, but it is something that bears reminding as people attempt to predict the future of the genre as a whole.
The future of science fiction isn't limited to literature.
Amongst other articles that I've heard reiterated most often is the decline in the fiction that is presented in book (or soon, in virtual book) form. While that might be the case, especially compared to the rise of competing genres, science fiction is not limited to the printed page. As technology progresses, new avenues have presented themselves as methods for the genre to thrive. Content-wise, science fiction is a genre that fits very well with any number of video game systems, and the rise of games with larger story arches, such as Mass Effect, Halo, Gears of War and others demonstrate that science fiction has moved forward with interactive stories that have appealed to a very large audience. I don't believe that I've seen a comparable success with the any sort of video game that follows 'high-browed' literature style to tell a dramatic story.
Similarly, while the same isn't true with films, it's very clear that while they don't win awards as consistently as dramatic films, they can still do very, very well when it comes to earning money for their creators and generating a wide following. One doesn't have to look far beyond Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and Avatar in recent years to realize that people do like science fiction and fantasy in large numbers. Even looking at the critical reception of films such as Inception, Moon, District 9, and Pan's Labyrinth to see that the genres are capable of being far more than 'just' crowd pleasers, but can also act as an introspective on the problems and conflicts that surround us in everyday life, addressing themes on identity and culture, morals and ethics, just to name a scant few.
Speculative fiction hawks have to get away from academic acceptance.
Listening to a piece on NPR the other day, I listened to Margaret Atwood note that it paid to be somewhat cautious when labeling works of fiction. She herself was caught up in a bit of drama when she characterized her works as being speculative fiction, rather than science fiction, characterizing her work as speculative fiction, creating a distinction between the genres, which rubbed numerous science fiction fans the wrong way, prompting a lot of speculation as to the nature of the genre. Reading over numerous book blogs and talking with fellow readers, it's clear that there is a large rift amongst people as to how to accept science fiction.
Science fiction seems to largely be unclaimed by the literary academic fields, dismissed from major awards on numerous grounds. I noted the bitterness in an acquaintance's words that a literary award was left devoid of science fiction and fantasy works, and I have had to wonder there is such attention paid to the status of the genre in these fields as other books have gained considerable attention in the mass media, such as Cormic McCarthy's post-apocalyptic The Road to Lev Grossman's The Magicians, both of which seemed to fall under a more mainstream section of the genre, while enjoying what appears to have been quite a lot of critical and commercial success. At the same time, other books, such as Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, and Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora seem to have done very well within their speculative genres, if the outcry of fans over the delays in the third book of Lynch's stories and the quick sellout of Priest's sequel novella are anything to go on.
Obviously, labels matter to an extent, but only when it comes to the marketing of said fictions, which makes the complaints about the literary discrimination seem only stranger to me, from both sides of the spectrum. While Atwood's remarks seemed remarkably short sighted for an established storyteller, numerous science fiction novels that line my shelves are ones that I can point to as superior works of literature, groundbreaking even outside of their own genres. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials was a series that provided some profound philosophical and religious points for me as a high school student, while Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 provided an understanding and appreciation for knowledge that remains with me to this point. The fantastic fiction that is out there provides argument and understanding on par with numerous works of literature, and I heartedly believe that genre snobbery is something that is largely baseless and short sighted.
Despite the labels that are out there, books like The Road and The Year of the Flood demonstrate that there is a leaking out of the genre to other genres, and one doesn't necessarily have to go to the science fiction section of the bookstore to find books that could largely fall within the genre. The label on the back of the book matters very little, and readers should be more aware of what else is out in print, especially as regular fiction catches up to the present. Given that we are increasingly living in a world that is science fictional, it stands to reason that some of that will bleed into our entertainment.
That all being said, the genre has survived for going on a century at this point, often as a crowd-pleasing genre, and one that certainly wouldn’t attract any academic or critical interest at various points in its history.
Fans need to understand that Speculative Fiction is about change... and it is changing.
If there is any one lesson that Science Fiction as its own, self-contained sub genre can impart, it is that the future is going to present a changed reality for all of those who inhabit it. The stories tend to follow how the protagonists can change their world for the better, usually based upon their actions. (This is a broad assumption, but one that I feel is valid) As such, it needs to be understood that the environment that fostered the genre in its earlier, formative days has given way to a world that has been drastically changed by economic, environmental and political events that leaves the current generation of readers with a vastly different understanding of the world as opposed to those who grew up during the Cold War.
Science fiction of the recent past was heavily influenced by world events: a book such as A Canticle for Lebowitz is one that likely could not have been written in the present day, ground breaking as it is. Fiction generally relates to its surrounding cultural contexts: It comes as no surprise that a film such as District 9 would succeed commercially and critically in today's present environment, whereas a film such as Star Wars did the same in the 1970s.
As such, the works within the genre should be expected to change with times, as our understanding of the present (as well as our understanding of technology and the things that surround us) changes. Works of epic space opera such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and some of the minor space arcs such as Timothy Zahn's Conqueror's Trilogy or Ender's Game fit within their own contexts.
A common argument that has been talked about is that the futures presented in the past tended to be optimistic, with people believing that the future held a brighter future for humanity, which in turn translated into works of science fiction. Today, the opposite seems to be true, and as such, the fiction that tends to look backwards towards better days - fantasy - seems to be on the rise. At the same time, the science fiction that seems to be garnering more attention is the dystopia stories: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl and assorted stories, Cormic McCarthy's The Road, and the multitudes of zombie novels that predict our demise in the rise of undead and lone libertarians seeking to preserve the American way of life out on their own. In a way, the most successful form of science fiction to come is likely Steampunk, which presents a darker form of science fiction, set in the past, where readers can feel comforted that their current world of advanced technology (or at least medical science) leaves us much better off than in the Victorian world.
Science fiction isn't dying, dead or going anywhere.
I don't believe that this is the case, at all: science fiction is a genre that has been seen to present some utterly fantastic and relevant stories for readers, addressing concerns of the present day in a twisted context. Looking beyond the artificial walls that genre terms provide, it's likely that the stories that we grew up with are likely going to change a bit: the random adventure in a space ship with strange aliens and laser guns might not be quite as common in the wider genre world, but they're likely to be replaced by stories that offer far different visions and interpretations of the future, by simple virtue of being written and created in the present day. 'Real life' is rapidly becoming something out of a science fiction novel, with hand-held computers, global positioning sensors and advances in all sorts of other technologies.
While some of the subject matter is changing, so to is the mediums that we can see the genre, and by this virtue alone, science fiction and fantasy is a genre that is here to stay, simply because it is a resilient genre that can fill numerous forms. Life itself spreads and survives on numbers, so to does the speculative fiction genres, where massive franchises of video games, movies and tie-in fiction enthralled millions of fans each day, generating excitement at the box office, blogs and conventions, where people look to the next really cool thing that they can take in. In its popularity, it is already bleeding into the mainstream consciousness through any number of forms. At this point, do mainstream literary awards matter for the genre as a whole, or signal some form of mainstream acceptance of the genre? I doubt it.
Starting today, Orlando Florida becomes Lando Florida for the multitudes of Star Wars fans flocking to Celebration V. When it comes to Geek History, the Star Wars franchise represents a formative element of popular science fiction in theaters, and helped to define the modern blockbuster movie. 2010 marks the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, and even three decades on, the series gains a considerable amount of face recognition from the general public. Often, when I have suited up in Storm Trooper or Clone Trooper armor, I've found that people might not know what character I am, what film I'm from, but undeniably, they know that I'm from the Star Wars films. With its release, Star Wars has changed both popular culture and the film industry that created it.
When the first Star Wars film was released in 1977 by director George Lucas, most expectations from the production companies was that the film would not do very well, but within the first three months of its release, Star Wars reined in over $100 million, becoming one of the highest grossing films ever. Subsequent releases in 1980 (The Empire Strikes Back) and 1983 (The Return of the Jedi) continued the series, bringing in new fans to the series by expanding the story and pushing the boundaries when it came to special effects. When Lucasfilm Ltd. returned to the franchise in 1997 with a re-release of the original trilogy with updated special effects, and in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), it became clear that the franchise had endured in public memory and financially, were highly successful, even it was widely felt that the Original Trilogy were superior films.
In 1977, the first Star Wars film was filmed in a period of time when special effects were still in their infancy. The largest special effects film previously had been Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, almost ten years earlier, a period of time which saw many special effects experts who had pioneered effects for that film retired. Thus, Lucas and his crew were forced to pioneer their own effects in motion capture on their own while they filmed the film, utilizing models and cameras together in very new ways. The Empire Strikes Back utilized its own advances in motion capture for several of the battles, and puppetry, as did Return of the Jedi when it came out. These advances helped to lay the groundwork for future films, and in the 1980s, a number of special-effects driven science fiction films were released, capitalizing on the successes of Lucas' trilogy, providing fans with more visual spectacles in the years since.
The Star Wars franchise is a notable one for retaining such a strong core group of fans throughout the years. Much of this success can be attributed to the branching out from the films as the single source of canon story. Marvel comics created their own Star Wars line, while the original Han Solo and Lando Calrissian book series have attained a sort of cult status. The introduction of Hugo award winner Timothy Zahn to pen a trilogy in the early 1990s launched an enormous series of books, many of which have been best sellers, continuing the story with new characters and transformations of the universe. This is after the huge numbers of toys, action figures and other collectables. In addition to pioneering special effects, Star Wars and Lucas pioneered the marketing of a film to a diverse and receptive audience, which keeps them in touch with the films long after they have left the theaters, whether its children reenacting their favorite scenes or readers wanting more stories after the credits have rolled.
The recent release of the prequel trilogy and the ongoing Clone Wars television series is another element to this continued marketing for the larger franchise as a whole. While the prequels don't match up with the originals for fans that grew up with them, it's irrefutable that they have been extremely popular, especially with younger generations. Their creation not only continues (or in this case, adds to) the story, but it works to revitalize the original films by introducing new fans who have yet to watch a series of films that most younger viewers will find outdated compared to what they will be used to with other, current films.
The notable element that this all leads to for Star Wars is the incredible fanbase that has been created as a result. Each Star Wars Celebration pulls in tens of thousands of people from across the world, while millions of others watch the films, read the books and listen to the soundtracks. Entire fan groups have come to life, from Theforce.net's FanForce, to the New York Jedi to the 501st Legion, which has just had its 5,000th member join. While numerous films and franchises look to create a comparable group of fanatics, the Star Wars franchise is the only one that comes to mind that regularly sees groups acting on their own in public, in costume to various charitable causes or fan gatherings. Personally, I'm a member of the 501st Legion, from behind my own helmet, it's very clear to see that the franchise remains because of the efforts that have been made to keep the fans happy with new content and stories.
The original Star Wars film that started all of this represented a number of changes in the way that films were marketed to fans, how the movies were filmed. George Lucas' creation alone is likely responsible for much of the current film industry that most science fiction fans (those who like the movies, anyway), which in turns helps to inform much of the public consciousness when it comes to science fiction in all genres.
Today, May 25th, is Geek Pride Day. Marking the anniversary of the first Star Wars film release in 1977, the day also coincides with 'Towel Day' to commemorate the passing of Douglas Adams back in 2001, as well as the Glorious 25th of May, for fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Overall, while a tongue-in-cheek holiday to commemorate all things nerd, it's a good time to sit back and realize the very real importance of 'geek' and 'nerd' values.
I have long called myself a geek, and it's something that I've written about, and looked at frequently. I've never really gotten the negative connotations of that label: I had my geekier side in High School, that all important time when social stereotypes are defining, and unlike some of my friends, I never had a difficult time with it - Harwood was pretty small, very accepting, and one of my favorite English classes taught Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem. I worked and spent a lot of my spare time in the library, reading away at the extensive Star Wars backlog, before discovering that the library had an extensive collection of science fiction classics. Things were only compounded, when I met several friends at Camp, where I was introduced to such things as Monty Python and Dungeons and Dragons. College brought much of the same, and geeky pursuits have been a common mainstay and interest with my life thus far.
The trick comes with reconciling the vast interests that seems to encompass the 'Geek/Nerd' type of person. Star Wars, Star Trek, Monty Python, Shakespeare, Gothic Literature, Sherlock Holmes, Twilight Imperium, Spiderman, Pirates, Ninjas, The Decemberists, NASA, Narnia, Harry Potter, and so much more all are common interests from most of my friends, sometimes, the same person. Unlike any one field, geeks tend to have an extremely wide range of interests, and while not everyone likes every single element, or just a single one. Reconciling the wide range of franchises and interests that most geeks partake in is close to impossible, where the interests lie with just about everything. A geek, in the larger sense of the word, is essentially someone with a dedicated interest in something - an expert, master, obsessive.
I believe that the speculative fiction genre, which is a sort of umbrella for SciFi, Fantasy, Horror, Gothic and Weird fictions, appeals particularly to geeks because of the immersive and encompassing nature of some of the content. Science Fiction, when done properly, can be literary, scientific, heroic and interesting, all at the same time. There's deep roots to the genre, going back to mythology, but as time moves on, literary influences and scientific advances add on as time goes on. Even when franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek pop up (not to mention things like Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Stargate, etc), the longer storylines, characters and events add in a lot of information to be gone over.
The genre also is one of the rare ones that really translate well over various mediums. Fiction, non-fiction, comic books and graphic novels makes up a lot of the paper content, but video games, films, television shows, online shorts and web comics come across extremely well. The cultural additions that things such as Star Trek and Star Wars have contributed are astounding. Even if someone's never seen the films, they'll generally recognize the Vulcan hand gesture, or the deep breathing of Darth Vader.
There’s a hidden set of values within this sort of interest on the part of geeks. While geek interests been characterized as childish, foolish, a waste of time and so forth, like trying to nail down the definition of the social type, geek values transcend the content, and go more towards the method. There are some exceptions here, especially if one can make a career or living out of what they like to do. Geeks are attentive to detail, and this is a good thing. While the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres are largely passed over by academia, many of the lessons that the traditional mainstays of literature and fiction can be taught with science fiction book. As a student, I was often bored by some of the readings that were assigned: I couldn’t see any practical value in Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, but when it came to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the lessons were something that I still value today. The same is most likely true with others. Where people, especially geeks, might be uninterested in one thing, their focus and obsession with what they are interested in is something that can be used as a teaching tool. Some of the biggest industry leaders are geeks, because of their attention to detail, intelligence and vision.
These are good things. A population that is ready, willing and interested in learning is something that is invaluable in today’s society. In a time when there is a perception of apathy with today’s youth when it comes to learning, the right avenues need to be sought out and used, encouraged and nurtured. I firmly believe that my ability and interest to read is one of the key foundations of how I perceive and approach the world. Should I ever have children, they’ll be fed a diet of all sorts of foundations of literature, going back to the Greeks. While I’ve had people question why I’ve read hundreds of Star Wars books, keep hundreds of books in my apartment, and why I’m constantly reading or watching a television show, I point to how these things spark new interests, thoughts, ideas, concepts and so forth, in my mind.
Moreover, the geeks of today are curious, questioning. Science Fiction often is associated with the question: “What If?”, something that is incredibly important in all walks of life. Without that question, humanity never would have crossed the oceans, travelled to the moon or examined something that they weren’t sure about. This, combined with a good education, is something that can be learned from the Geek community.
Plus, Geeks are just damn cool. So, today, on Geek Pride Day, be nice to your friendly, neighborhood geek. In all likelihood, they have some thoughts on world domination, and I can tell you, the high school bullies of the world won’t fare well.
30 years ago tomorrow, The Empire Strikes Back, the follow-up film for George Lucas's Star Wars, was released to theaters. Hailed as one of the best sequels , Empire is easily one of the strongest entries in the Star Wars Franchise. Ultimately, Empire has long remained one of my favorite Star Wars films, for its strong story and memorable characters, but also because it demonstrated that Star Wars was more than a simple one hit wonder out of Hollywood. Indeed, the successes of The Empire Strikes Back allowed Lucas to continue his story with Return of the Jedi, and ultimately, with the Prequel Trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back was certainly faced with a daunting problem: how did one follow up the incredible success that was Star Wars with something bigger and better? The first film had been a major, unexpected blockbuster hit, with theaters selling out and sending lines around the parking lot in ways that revolutionized how the film industry marketed summer films. Taking place five of so years after the events of A New Hope, Empire opens with the Rebellion once again facing hard times: the victory over the Empire with the destruction of the Death Star was short lived, and are forced to take refuge on the planet Hoth, a desolate ice world. Tracked to the planet, the rebels wage a costly battle on the surface of the planet against Imperial Walkers before once again escaping, separating the main characters. Luke flies off to the planet Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda, while Han Solo and Chewbacca take off through an asteroid belt in the Hoth system to evade imperial pursuit, with C-3P0 and Leia Organa in tow. Their ship damaged, they make their way to Bespin for repairs, where they are captured by Darth Vader and his soldiers, while Luke is in turn drawn to the planet in a trap prepared by the dark lord, using his friends as bait. In the end, Luke learns of his parentage, loses a hand, and Han Solo is put on ice, and we're left with an ambiguous ending, with an uncertain future.
The Empire Strikes Back worked simply because it built upon the successes of Star Wars. The first film demonstrated that a film with excellent special effects, a story that drew upon numerous sources and putting in quite a lot of space warfare worked well. Empire looked inwards towards the stories and characters, rather than building upon the previous successes, something that modern day filmmakers should take note of when looking to top their sequel. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, Empire is a far more complicated film. Han, Luke and Leia seem to have developed their own little, complicated relationship between the three of them, while the Empire clearly has additional plans for Luke Skywalker. Rather than an evil yes-man for the Emperor, Vader looks to Luke as a way to expand his own personal power beyond being the 2nd in command to Emperor Palpatine.
Furthermore, there is far more added onto what Luke needs to do in order to become a Jedi Knight - he clearly has some of the basics down, but as Yoda demonstrates, much of what a Jedi has to do is mental - with that amount of power, there is much restraint and maturity required to fully master the force: Skywalker is not nearly at that level, and his showdown with Vader in the cave on Dagohah demonstrates that there's a clouded future for him.
This all pales in comparison to the revelation at the end: Darth Vader is Luke's father, which further reinforces Empire as a stronger, character driven drama, rather than one mainly fueled by the effects and action that so many other sequels are characterized by. There's some true issues that face the characters: Luke's father is one of the rebellion's sworn enemies, and he's being asked and tempted, to work with him to overthrow the Emperor. Lando Calrissian is forced to betray his friends at gunpoint, and has to reconcile with Leia and Chewbacca in order to save Han. Luke must forgo part of his training to save his friends. Empire works well, not because the heroes come out on top, but because they're beaten back. Luke's lost time training (and his hand), they have lost a close friend and ally and are still on the run. In light of that, the last shot, with Luke and Leia staring down at a galaxy, is one that really seems hopeful, and that despite their setbacks, will continue onwards with their ultimate goals. This to me speaks to far more than the victorious closing scene at the end of Star Wars.
In the end, what saves the Star Wars franchise, is the darker, more serious nature that Empire takes on after A New Hope. In a lot of ways, the story represented a huge risk, one that didn't pander to the audience, but helped to bring up their expectations for what quality cinema should be: challenging, entertaining, exciting, so forth. Instead of more intense action, the major fights are in the beginning of the film, with a fairly epic lightsaber battle at the end, and the action in this film is smarter, not there just for the sake of putting people into theater seats. The Empire Strikes Back is a superior sequel, one of the few out there.
As such, Empire remains my favorite Star Wars film, standing far and above the prequel trilogy and A New Hope and Return of the Jedi for me. The complexity in the story and characters, as well as the excitement that I had when I first saw it when it was re-released in 1997 still floods through me when I watch this one. It's one of the reasons that I've tailored my own Storm Trooper costume over to the Empire Strikes Back style, and why I'll inevitably pick it up first when wanting to watch a Star Wars film.
Looking over my bookshelves, I had a bit of a revelation: there are very few books that really use robots as characters in them. Taking a look, I only see Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and several additional collections of short stories, a collection of Ray Bradbury stories that contains 'There Will Come Soft Rains', a couple of Iain M. Bank's Culture novels, Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone and maybe a couple of others that I passed over. An additional trio of books: Ambassadors from Earth, Edison's Eve and Wired For War all represent a significant figure when it comes to real - life robotic systems and theory. However, looking over the movies that I have on my shelves, robotic characters readily come to mind: C-3P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, The Terminator from that franchise, Robbie from Forbidden Planet, the replicants from Blade Runner, Ash from Alien, Andrew from Bicentennial Man, Sonny from I, Robot, and so forth.
I have to wonder about this: there is a large gap in recognizable characters between the two mediums, film and literature. Film seems to contain far more in the way of robots, androids and mechs that come to mind, while I have a difficult time remembering the names of some of the characters from some of my absolute favorite science fiction books.
The first element in which film readily becomes the better medium is its visual nature, allowing for elaborate costumes, props and CGI'ed components of metal and plastics that make up what audiences really think about with robotic characters. Some of the most dramatic imagery from science fiction cinema includes robots: C-3P0 and R2 in the hallway of the Tanative IV, The Terminator coming out of the flames, Ash getting his head bashed in, and so forth. Simply put, robotics are more visual, allow for some differences between living characters and their mechanical servants.
The use of the term 'Robot' goes back to 1923 (1) with Karel Čapek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots, and according to genre historian Adam Roberts, came at a certain time of anti-machinery sentiment with science fiction at the time, with other books, such as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon's The Last and First Men look to the use of mechanical and scientific processes and as a result, a population that overly depends upon them as something wholly against nature and counter-productive to humanity as a whole: societies are generally dystopic and dehumanize their inhabitants. This somewhat fits with some modern science fiction films, such as the far futures of The Terminator and The Matrix, and even with Wall*E, where an overreliance of machines results in our destruction, or at least an enormous disruption of society. (2) Indeed, Robot comes from the Czech term robota, which translates to servitude.(3)
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that early views towards robotics weren't necessarily looked at in any sort of favorable light: throughout history, a constant struggle between leaders and those being led has come about, and one lesson that a history teacher (Mr. David Munford, thank you), imparted was the destruction of clocks and machines during one early worker uprising. The use of factories in particular lends itself well to machinery and associated dystopia images and themes. Henry Ford put to good use the assembly line, which relegated skilled labor to fastening single bolts day in and day out. It is particularly ironic that those human workers were in turn replaced by robots who do the same roles for them.
In literature, then, the use of robotics goes far beyond characters, but is typically used as part of a larger theme that a novel is trying to push across to the reader. The Three Laws of Robotics that are central to Isaac Asimov's robot books are particularly conscious of this fact, and represents some level of paranoia on the part of the human race that at some points, robots will eventually take over humanity because of their inherent strengths over human flesh: stronger, faster, smarter, etc. This makes Asimov’s novels somewhat different from the earlier books with mechanical imagery linked to dystopia: Asimov’s world shows where a fall of society has not occurred because of the indulgences by humans, but generally only because the robots that we’ve essentially created in our own image are just as screwed up as we are. Dystopia, in this case, may be in Asimov’s futures – we certainly see that in his Foundation stories – but for the time being, he views a world with robotics as one where robotics act as a natural counterpart for humanity, rather than a replacement, although the threat, held in place by his three laws, is still there.
In films, however, different elements are brought out: robots are the servants of humanity & associated sentient life in Star Wars, performing vital and specialized tasks while interfacing with their creators. The same goes for the robots in Blade Runner and Wall*E. At other points, they're used for war, such as in Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, where they then turn on their human creators for a variety of reasons, or under the control of a vast, superhuman intellect, such as in the Terminator franchise. Here, these elements often, but not always, hearken back to a sort of dystopia, where robotics are part of a larger problem: it represents the failure of the human race to continue with its biological need to reproduce, and demonstrates some basic elements of life itself: Darwinism or survival of the fittest. Those that cannot keep up, will be destroyed, or at least overcome.
Within literature, the larger themes of dystopia and robotics are used, with the protagonist generally someone who overcomes the system/society/social norm to relearn what it means to be human, and there is a larger theme of the scientific, mechanical, logical order, represented by robotics, and a more organic, theological, chaos, represented by people. At points, this is represented with some very pointed examples: Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, which shows a robotic house living diligently on long after its inhabitants have destroyed themselves. However, the reason that robots themselves seem to be fewer and farther between is because there is an inherent need for this dystopia theme to be present in the film: it represents the weakness of humanity, carries with it religious overtones and two extremely different styles of thinking all wrapped up into a single character, which oftentimes, seems to be difficult to work in or really justify as a regular character in a book that takes just part of the story, especially if they are not the central part of a story. Their existence represents so much in relation to their human counterparts, it would seem almost a waste to have a story with a side character as a robotic entity, rather than fleshing out everything that he/she/it represents.
With movies, these themes are there occasionally, but generally, explosions and violence comes first and foremost in the eyes of paying audience members.
1 - Jeff Prucher, Editor. Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2007, 164 2 - Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Press, 2005, 159 3 - Ibid, 168
Earlier today, science fiction author John Scalzi unveiled a long-standing project that he's been working on for a while, a sort of reboot of a novel called Little Fuzzy by H. Bearn Piper, entitled Fuzzy Nation. While the book is still being written and shopped around, it's likely going to hit shelves at some point in the near future - Scalzi is a Hugo-award winning author, written a bunch of good books, has an insanely popular blog and is a creative consultant for SyFy's Stargate Universe, a reboot in and of itself. The idea behind this book is that it's a complete reboot, using elements of the original, but in and of itself, is an entirely new story.
Scalzi's announcement earlier today is an interesting one in the current state of the entertainment industry, where sequels have largely been changed out for reboots: taking old subject matter and updating the story, characters and other elements that are familiar with an audience. Most recently, the movie Clash of the Titans has been released to theaters, a take off of the original story, with its own elements updated, with modern actors and special effects to provide audiences with a fairly mindless pre--summer blockbuster.
The major reboot of our time, which likely started up this process is SyFy's Battlestar Galactica, where Ron Moore took on the major story elements from the original 1978 television series and reworked everything: the titular ship, some of the characters and background elements remained, but the larger story grew on its own with changes to other characters, the tone of the series and so on. The result was fantastic: the original show, which has been largely seen as something between Star Wars and Mormons in space, has taken on an entirely new mythology, message and feel that has not only brought the show to modern audiences, but has done so successfully.
There is a quote from a television series regarding art (the show was Law and Order: Criminal Intent - the context doesn't diminish the significance here), that fits with this situation: Art is a product of the time that it is created in (paraphrased). This is something that can be applied to any number of paintings, films, television shows, and now, books.
The purpose of a rebooted franchise or singular film is not necessarily to improve upon the original, but to bring it to the attention of modern audiences. While in some instances, this could be achieved by merely bringing out the film in a big sort of re-release on an anniversary, oftentimes, there are things that have become dated in their visual effects and/or stories. As stories are created within their own time, they are influenced by a number of other elements surrounding them: global politics, the state of their country of origin, and so forth, and as such, these stories, which might have been relevant at the time of their creation, become dated because the context in which they are relevant is no longer around.
One very good example of this is the Star Wars franchise, wildly popular from the beginning, with allusions towards World War II, Vietnam, good and evil, all within a specific time and climate in which the United States maintained ongoing hostilities against the Soviet Union. It was a time where there was a very clear-cut picture that could be painted, whereas nowadays, the picture is far more convoluted, with any number of problems cropping in. As such, when the prequel films The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones hit the big screens in 1999 and 2002, they entered a very different world, and societal context, and as such, the stories suffered. Revenge of the Sith was somewhat of an outlier here, where there were some more relevant themes throughout the film, and because of that, the film was stronger than the prior to. Another notable example of where a major franchise has failed is the recent Superman Returns, where the creators attempted to bring around the nostalgic feel for the classic character. It just didn’t work in the modern day.
Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, demonstrates where an established franchise can be improved with time. With the modern version came a much darker attitude, terrorist bombings, secret agents, all elements borne out of the feelings in the United States after September 11th, 2001. Galactica transitioned well, because it was an entirely new story, but because of the major changes, it succeeded. For that reason, the proposed sequel shows likely would have failed.
Essentially, there is a major difference here between bringing back a show for nostalgic purposes, and for bringing back a show or established franchise to essentially wring more money out of a fan base, and even to resurrect an old story because there is some genuine elements to it that can stand to be updated for a modern day and age. Star Wars largely failed on the story front because it was too caught up in trying to bring back the original feel and themes behind the original. The new Star Trek succeeded because they captured a modern look and feel that younger audiences could identify with, and Battlestar Galactica fell in with a fantastic look and feel, in addition to a very good story.
Scalzi has experience with reboots already, with his work on Stargate Universe, which is arguably a reboot of the Stargate franchise, of the two preceeding shows, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, which is, in and of itself, a great case study within a franchise. SG-1 worked well, for a number of reasons - great cast, momentum, fun stories, and so on, while it was cancelled because it stuck with the formula for too long. Atlantis failed for the same reason: it was too much like SG-1. This new show, Universe, has succeeded thus far because it takes a step beyond the safe territory by taking cues from Galactica. Thus far, it's largely worked, and the show is easily stronger in the story department than the original show.
This brings in the question of reboots as superior to their originals, which is a fairly ridiculous notion to begin with. Inherently, films are different because they have different stories, characters, attitudes and contexts during production that makes them largely different entities, especially where reboots are concerned (less so for Prequel/Sequels/Threequels). Because a reboot seeks to bring back an old story, but different, there really shouldn't be any sort of expectation that a prequel has been brought in only to be better than the original: it should be brought back to update the characters in a very different context, which will hopefully in turn mean that the story is more relatable to a modern audience. Hopefully, Scalzi will be able to transition this into the literary world: it should be interesting.
So, this year, I read a total of 21 books, far below the total number that I was shooting for - around 40 or so. There are some large gaps - February, March, May, and much of the fall, which coincides nicely with the numerous writing projects that I had going on throughout the year. With this coming year, I'm hoping to read quite a lot more as my schedule allows, and I've got quite an extensive list, as I've been steadily expanding my own personal library - I'm up to 748 books now. That number is sure to grow in the next 12 months.
1 - Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, Matthew Stover (1-2) This was probably the last Star Wars book that's come out that I've really liked. Stover is always an interesting writer, and here, he takes cues from some of the earliest Star Wars books and plays up the pulp factor. This one is fast, engaging and entertaining. In a nutshell, it harkened back to the Bantam Spectra days of Star Wars literature, and that's a good thing. I've got a huge backlog of books from the series that I just haven't gotten around to reading, simply because I'm not all that interested anymore.
2 - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Suzanna Clarke (1-11) Jonathan Strange is by far one of my favorite books of the decade, and one of the greatest fantasy books since J.R.R. Tolkien. Elegantly written, plotted and conceptualized, Clarke has put together a masterpiece. It took me several years to get through the first half of this book, but when I finally sat down to read it, I absolutely couldn't put it down. I can't wait to read it again.
3 - The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas Disch (1-25) I completely forgot about this book, and had to look it up - it's a history of Science Fiction. It was interesting, but I took some issue with some of the things that he brought up at times. I can't for the life of me remember what, but I preferred Adam Robert's history of SF. I picked up the book because I was thinking that I was going to be reading and writing more about the origins of Science Fiction, but that never really panned out. Still, it wasn't a total loss of a read, and it did make some good points about the genre.
4 - Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Kenneth Chase (1-25) This was the only school book that I've actually gone back to, to read over again (although there's one other one that I'm planning on reading again), and that's the history of firearms. This book does a bit more than go through the motions of firearms - it examines the impact on tactics and the makeup of armies (it was revolutionary) and how the technology travelled from Asia to Europe. I used for a couple of my classes and it's highly engaging, interesting and informative.
5 - Wired for War, PW Singer (3-19) PW Singer's book on Robots in Warfare was a fantastic book, easily one of my favorites and something that I'll read in the future. Exceptionally thought out and researched, it not only looks at robotics, but the military command structure and environment, which to me, is far more interesting, and gives the book a significant party piece when it comes to talking about the future of the military. I got to see Mr. Singer talk, and he signed my book, and had a blast doing it.
6 - It's Been A Good Life, Isaac Asimov (4-1) Asimov's shorter biography, this was a quick reread that I'd wanted to do for a while. His life is pretty interesting, from his experience with the military to his start as a writer. Asimov is one of my absolute favorite Science Fiction writers, and it's interesting to see some of the behind the scenes elements to his works. It's a little self-indulgent, I think, but worth reading all the same.
7 - The Catch, Archer Mayor (4-7) Archer Mayor's book from last year, this was another fun book from him. This one introduced a couple new characters and themes, but I liked this year's better - this one was ultimately forgettable, until this year's Price of Malice, and the plot fell pretty flat for me. I think that the two of them could have been combined to become one novel, and it would have worked much better. It's a good reminder that I really need to read some of the older ones again.
8 - It Happened In Vermont, Mark Bushnell (4-16) This is a book of historical thumbnails on Vermont. Lots of fun information on a variety of topics throughout the state's history, but it misses some crucial ones that will be historically relevant in the coming years. The earlier elements provide quite a bit of detail, and some good stories about this state, but honestly, how does one not include something like Civil Unions?
9 - The Soloist, Steve Lopez (4-27) There was a movie based off of this, which looked good, and the book was only a couple of dollars in the bargain pile. It is the story of a reporter for the LA Times and a Schizophrenic man who was a musical prodigy and provides an interesting look at the homeless and LA.
10 - The Book of Lost Things, John Connolley (5-28) I really enjoyed this fantasy book by John Connolley - It's quite a dark book, but I like that. It takes a number of fantasy fairy tales, such as the knight in shining armor, the seven dwarves and a couple others, and puts a new, modern twist on them in a way that reminded me of Pan's Labyrinth.
11 - Rocket Men, Craig Nelson (6-13) This book was instrumental in my capstone and my thinking about space. This is the story of the Apollo 11 mission, and talks a lot about the mission beforehand. I gather that there are some inaccuracies, but I'm willing to let that slide because of some of the concepts that he brings up - the economics of a space program, for example.
12 - The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (6-15) Neil Gaiman's latest book was a delight to read - a wonderfully dark young adult novel that's been nominated for a number of awards, about a boy who grows up in a graveyard. I wonder when a movie will be made of this one.
13 - Explorer's House: National Geographic and the World It Made, Robert Poole (7-29) This is the type of history that I really like - looking at the world through a much smaller thing, and what is more influential than the National Geographic? This book traces the magazine and society's history from the beginning to the present day, and gives a very interesting insight to both.
14 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (8-19) I loved this book, a modern, dark, brooding and realistic fantasy tale that takes points from the best of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia. Grossman has put forth an interesting entry into the Fantasy genre, and it's become one of my favorites.
15 - Old Man's War, John Scalzi (9-8) I've rapidly become a fan of John Scalzi because of this book, and his blog, Whatever. This is a pretty ordinary take on the super soldier/ military SF theme, but it's a fun one, and I've already picked up the sequels for some time that I'm in the mood for military Sci Fi.
16 - Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (9-17) Banks came highly recommended to me, and this book was a fun one to read. Exceptional world building - the pacing was a bit off - and interesting characters. It's an epic space opera and adventure, and I'm looking forward to the next couple books in the series.
17 - The Windup Girl, Paolo Bachaglupi (10-6) If this book doesn't win a Hugo Award, I'm going to be very, very annoyed. This has to be the best SF book in years, with a brilliant future imagined for the planet, with multiple storylines, politics and motives from the characters. It’s an exceptional book.
18 - The Price of Malice, Archer Mayor (10-11) Archer Mayor's latest, and one that I really enjoyed, more so than The Catch, and it took on a bit from his earlier books, in my mind. I can’t wait for next year’s book.
19 - The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, George Friedman (10-19) Ugh. I didn't like this book that much, but it had some interesting points. I found Friedman's book to be an infuriating read, simply because of the assumptions and things that he missed over. Not highly recommended, but there are some good points that he makes - how to think about history and historical events, for example.
20 - Clone Wars: No Prisoners, Karen Traviss (10-20) One of Karen Traviss's last Star Wars books, it's an okay entry, nowhere as good as her Commando books. It’s a fun, throwaway reading for an afternoon. I read it in a day.
21 - Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt (11-1) The last book that I read last year was back in November, although I have a bunch started that I'm working on getting through. This book is a fantastic one to read - reminded me a lot of Wired for War, in that it's well researched and interesting, and in my mind, essential for anybody who wants to get behind the steering wheel. Already, it's helped me to understand why we drive the way we do, and it's affected how I percieve traffic problems, and how I drive.
That's what I read last year. I've already got quite a list for the coming year, and I'm excited to see how many I get through.
Now that it's close to the end of the year, it's time to look back, like everyone else and their mother on the internet, on the past year. 2009 has been a fantastic one for all things geek. There have been a number of fantastic movies, books, television shows and so forth, as well as a bunch of things that really didn't come off as well. Here's what I've been geeking out (or complaining about) this year:
Moon Moon is easily one of the best Science Fiction films that I've ever seen. Ever. It's been added to a very small list of films (The Fountain, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, etc) of exceptionally conceptualized, produced and thoughtful SF/F films out there. Moon is one of two really good films this year that I really enjoyed and for a number of reasons. The story is fantastic, playing off of common themes with new eyes, it's visually stunning and it's a largely original story, one that's not based directly off of prior works. And, it has a fantastic soundtrack by Clint Mansell.
Star Trek This appears three times on this list, because I'm still largely split over how I feel about it. The best parts of this is that it's a fantastic, visually stunning film, and really does what Enterprise and Nemesis failed to do: reboot the franchise in grand style, with over the top action, adventure, everything that really comes to mind when you think Big Budget Space Movie. The cast, pacing and visuals made this one of the most successful films of the year, and the best of the big budget films that came out this year.
District 9 When it comes to fantastic Science Fiction films, Moon and Star Trek didn't have a monopoly on this at all - District 9, coming out of San Diego Comic Con with an incredible amount of buzz and a good viral marketing campaign showed that there was still a place for an innovative filmmaker armed with a good story. The end result is a compelling take on first contact. Instead of an us against them, or invaders from outer space flick, we see refugees from outer space, with an acute political message that makes this movie even more interesting.
The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button This was an interesting film, one that got a bit of press, but wasn't a blockbuster by any means. The story of a man who ages backwards from birth, one that proved to be a powerful and somewhat heartbreaking love story leaves much room for discussion, but at points, was slow and ponderous. Brad Pitt did a fantastic job, as did the special effects artists who provided the CGI throughout.
The Magicians, Lev Grossman The Magicians was a book that came out of nowhere for me, until a Borders email let me know about it. Picking it up, with few expectations, I was enthralled with Lev Grossman's take on the fantasy world. Drawing much from C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and elements of Harry Potter, this book looks at a boy in a magical academy in a far more realistic sense, injecting a good dose of post-college reality into a field that is often ripe with monsters and epic quests. A quest of sorts is in here, but the buildup is fantastic.
Wired For War, P.W. Singer Wired For War is a book from earlier this year that looked at the developments of robotics in warfare. P.W. Singer takes a long and comprehensive look at not only the state of robots and their use in combat operations, but also looks to how the use of robotics is integrated into wartime planning, and how this impacts command and control structures already in place. From this point, he looks to the future of warfare, where robotics will go through the next decades and what the face of futuristic warfare might look like. It's also peppered with numerous Science Fiction references. I had a chance to speak with and interview Mr. Singer, who was extremely pleasant and eager to talk about his book, and write up several major articles for io9, which was a thrill as always.
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi Recently selected as one of Time Magazine's top books of the year, Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl is a stunning one. Taking place in the near future, in a world without oil, alternative energy has become paramount, while agricultural firms have put profit before common sense and as a result, plagues ravage the world, except for Thailand, whose isolationist policies hold back the outside world and its problems. The book covers a lot of ground, from governmental policy to corporate greed to bioethics, with a wide range of characters who all fall within a gray area. This book is fantastic, and if it doesn't win a Hugo, there's seriously something wrong with the world.
The Moon Reigns Supreme - 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 & Water on the Moon This year marked 40 years since 1969, when man first landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and with a successful follow-up mission with Apollo 12. Easily one of humanity's greatest accomplishments and it has been followed up with a number of projects. NASA found and restored footage of the landing and EVA activities, cleaning it up a little. NASA also took pictures from orbit of the Apollo landing sites, down to footprint trails with some stunning work from LCROSS. In addition to NASA's efforts to celebrate the anniversary, there were a number of other things out there. The Kennedy Library launched the website 'We Chose the Moon', which documented, in real time, the Apollo 11 mission. I listened at the edge of my seat, following along with the mission transcript and listened as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface. Finally, Craig T. Nelson's book, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men On The Moon, was released earlier this year to also commemorate the mission, which proved to be a detailed and fantastic read, one that helped to influence my thinking on the lunar mission. The Lunar landing wasn't the only press that the moon got this year - the LCROSS mission launched a component that slammed into the surface and let up a plume of debris - analysis revealed that there is water on the moon - a lot of it. And for all of those people who complained about this, keep in mind the number of craters that are already there.
Last servicing mission to Hubble. NASA wasn't just in the news for Apollo 11; this year marked the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in orbit since 1990. Despite its troubled history, the satellite has returned some of the most fantastic, beautiful and stunning images of the universe around us, and will continue to do so for a couple more years. Space Shuttle mission STS-125 was launched in May, where a new camera was placed onboard and several other minor repairs. The satellite is slated to continue operation through 2014, so don't fret yet.
James May's Toy Stories James May, one of the three presenters on Top Gear, has been doing a limited TV show on classic toys, including Mecano, Plasticine, and eventually, Lego, looking a little at their history and then building something supersized out of them. It's quite a treat to watch.
Fringe I called Fringe one of the worst things last year, but it's turned around for me. Picking up the boxed set, I was hooked. It's a bit cheesy, gory, but a whole lot of fun. Walter, weird science, teleportation and alternate universes make this show a huge joy to watch. Season 2 is proving to be just as good, now that they've locked down a story, and I'm eager to see where it goes.
Dollhouse Dollhouse debuted earlier this year with a short, 13 episode season that started off slowly, but picked up an incredible amount of steam. While it's more uneven than Joss Whedon's earlier show, Firefly, Dollhouse's better episodes help make up for the slack by introducing some of the most challenging moments in Science Fiction, and deal with issues such as the soul, personality and consent, while also offering cautionary tales on the uses of technology. Unfortunately, with the show's cancellation right as it gets good, there's a limit to what can be told, but with plenty of time for this show to wrap up all the remaining storylines, I think that this will become a cult classic.
Battlestar Galactica Where to begin with Battlestar Galactica? It's been a rush over the past six or so years, with a miniseries and four seasons of television and two movies, and like all good things, it had to end sometime. Fortunately, it ended when it was good, and while the finale garnered quite a lot of talk and dismay from some people (io9 listed it as one of the bigger disappointments), I think that it was carried off well, with a rich blend of religious allegory, action and a satisfying ending that few science fiction shows seem to get.
Kings Sadly, Kings was another short lived show that was cancelled before its time. Taking the story of David and Goliath from the Bible and updating it in a modern, alternate world with inter-kingdom politics, faith and destiny. The stories were superb, well told, with a fantastic cast. This is precisely the type of show that should have been on SyFy, especially with their upcoming show Caprica.
Stargate: Universe SyFy's latest show from the Stargate Franchise, Stargate: Universe is possibly the most interesting and compelling installment in the series. Taking the very basics of Stargate SG-1/Stargate Atlantis, this show takes more cues from Battlestar Galactica than it does Stargate. The result is a far more realistic show, with more personal stories and situations that are much darker, and more grown up from the first show.
Landing At Point Rain The Clone Wars thunders on, with mixed results, but easily the best episode that's aired thus far is Landing At Point Rain. Taking influences from Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and other war movies, the show finally lives up to its title: The Clone Wars. There's plenty of action, less of the stupid lines and fantastic animation that really made this episode one of the most exciting moments in the entire franchise.
The Hazards of Love, by the Decemberists The Decemberists have long dabbled in interesting and wordy music, as well as fantasy, with their last album, The Crane Wife, and The Tain, but The Hazards of Love is their most ambitious attempt at a concept album to date, one with an overarching story of Margaret and William, a town girl and a cursed man, their love for one another and the Forest Queen who conspires to keep them apart. The album is filled with supernatural elements, and seems to draw from Lord of the Rings and traditional mythic stories to put together one of their best works to date. The band in concert was also a treat to see.
Dr. Horrible Wins an Emmy Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog was one of the coolest things to come out last year, and this year, it received an Emmy, which helps to solidify the web as a growing platform for serious and professionally produced entertainment. Hopefully, its success will mean that we’ll see smaller, independent productions going online and succeeding.
Symphony of Science Symphony of Science is a project that puts noted scientists (notably Carl Sagan) to music by using an auto tuner. The result is a series of music videos and songs that help to convey some of the beauty and wonder of physics though some fairly clever songs. I've been listening to them constantly, and as a sort of electronica style music, they're quite fun, and very geeky to listen to. Best of all, there is plans to make further songs.
Star Wars In Concert One of the most iconic elements of Star Wars isn't just the action and epic story; it's the music that it's set to. For much of this fall, a travelling show, entitled Star Wars In Concert has been travelling around the nation. Unfortunately, it's winding down, but it will likely continue into next year. The 501st was called out at most of the events, and through that, I was able to watch the show. Combining a live orchestra, clips from the movies and narration from Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), the entire evening was a fantastic experience that gave me chills throughout.
Tauntaun Sleeping Bag The Tauntaun Sleeping bag started out as an April Fool's Joke, but the demand and interest was so prevalent that ThinkGeek actually went out and made it. What a fantastic idea - I kind of want one.
Slingers The final thing on this list is Slingers, a short conceptual teaser for a show that's heading towards production. The 3 minute teaser is easily one of the best moments in SF that I've seen in a while and I've been bouncing around, positively giddy at the prospect that this might be made. It's got humor, some interesting characters and a very cool look to the future. Plus, it's a space show, and there aren't many of those around now. It left me seeing more, and I'm sure that we'll see more in the next year or so.
Fanboys For all the hype, Fanboys was a bit of a letdown. The cancer story was kept in, but so were some of the immature and cheap laughs that brought the entire film down. It's good for a laugh, and there's a lot that went right with it, but still, I was left wishing that there was more to it, without the frat boy humor in it.
Watchmen Don't get me wrong, Watchmen was stunning. It looked, felt and acted like the comic book that it was inspired by, and the transition to the screen worked fairly well. At the same time, for all the hype that there was here, I'm not that enthused to see it more than once or twice. It's still on my to get list, but it's not necessarily a priority. I think my biggest issue with this is that it's too much like the comic book, and that the drive to make everything exact harmed the overall production. It's less of a movie than it is an homage from the director. Sin City was the perfect comic book movie, this wasn't, and it really should have been. Still, it's worth watching.
Star Trek Star Trek, one of the best, one of the eh, moments of the year. It looks and feels spectacular, but when you get down to it, there's the shoddy science, and an incredibly weak story that pulls the movie along. The story's really not what the film was about, this was a character start for more Star Trek, but for me, story is central to Science Fiction, and this just didn't have it.
9 The trailers for 9 looked great, and there was quite a bit of interest in this. I went into the theater with high expectations, and those were largely met - the film looked spectacular, and it was a fun ride, but the story and characters were pretty lacking. It needed quite a bit of story and character development that was needed, and that harmed the film. Plus, it didn't seem to know if it was a kid's movie or one for an older audience. This is probably something to rent, not to buy.
V The new V should have been great - the cast, producers and network put together a good premise, but with the first couple of episodes sped through just about everything that made the show interesting. The themes of first contact, of a ship arriving over earth with a message for peace contain so much when it comes to religion, science and society, all rich territory that could be exploited, but instead, it's gone past too quickly, with crappy teenage romance storylines. I'll probably not pick up watching again, but I'll see what's going on in the show, in case, by some miracle, it's picked up for a second season.
The Prisoner AMC's The Prisoner was another show that should have been great. The trailers presented a fantastic looking story of psychological stress with a weird desert backdrop, but honestly? I can't tell you what it was about. It was convoluted, unconnected and dull, and while it looked very pretty, and had some decent episodes, it was a pretty big letdown.
Spirit gets stuck in the mud The Spirit Rover on Mars got mired down in a patch of sand earlier this year. Put into operation in 2004, and only intended for a 90 day mission, the rover was still going strong until it got stuck. Hopefully, the boffins over at the JPL will be able to get it out and about once again, although if I remember correctly, the last thing that they were intending to try was to back it out the way it came in. I would have thought that would have been the first thing to have tried.
Google Wave - lights are on, but there's nobody there. Late this year, Google Wave got turned on, and like any major Google product with exclusive access, it was, well, popular. But nobody really seems to know what it's for, and unlike Gmail, which could be used as an e-mail client from day one, its limited access restricts a lot of what you can do with this. People aren't using it like e-mail if it was designed today; it's essentially a glorified Gmail chat window, or a really good business collaborative tool. Still, it's pretty nifty, and I really hope that they can integrate it into Gmail someday.
G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Transformers, Terminator & Big Budget Crap I know I've singled out Star Trek a couple times here, but more than ever, especially with far superior, low budget films competing with them this year, we see once again that tons of special effects doesn't necessarily equate to a good film. G.I. Joe landed with horrendous reviews, Star Trek had a smaller plot than a television episode and Terminator: Salvation was a huge disappointment, critically. (I thought it was decent, but nowhere near as good as the trailers led me to believe). My biggest gripe is extravagant use of CGI and an over-reliance on special effects for a dumbed down audience. Among other things, Moon and District 9 demonstrated that a good looking, intelligent film could be done for a fairly low cost, and I know that I'll be going back to those far more than the others. Still, big budget summer movies aren't going anywhere - a lot of these films made quite a bit, and the jury is still out on Avatar, which drops in a couple weeks.
Karen Traviss Quits Star Wars - Twice Karen Traviss was really a shining star within the Star Wars Universe. Her first entry, Republic Commando : Hard Contact, was followed up by several very good novels, with some different and intelligent views on the Clone Wars. Then, there was a bit of a row over Mandalorians, causing her books to come into conflict with the Clone Wars TV series. Since then, there's been a bit of a row about this, and Traviss has left the universe for others, such as Gears of War and Halo, and hopefully, her other works. Karen explains everything here, and makes some good points. She will be missed, however.
Black Matrix Publishing Row With harder times coming around, some publishers found a new revenue stream: aspiring writers who have little common sense. One notable SF ones was Black Matrix Publishing, called out by author John Scalzi recently on his blog, Whatever. While Scalzi had quite a lot of very good advice in his usual up front fashion, there were a number of people who went on the offensive and critizised him as an elitist writer, issuing some of the most ridiculous arguments for why Black Matrix had been wronged. I'm not necessarily involved in either side, but Scalzi presented a reasonable argument. Why is that so hard?
The ending to Life On Mars I really got into Life on Mars. It wasn't as good as the UK version, but it was unique, interesting and divergent from it. While the show basically adapted the original show to a large extent at first, they had an interesting pace and storyline starting up, and far better than the first pilot that was shot, which was just terrible. The creators had a delicate balancing act to follow, and did a very good job with giving their characters their own personalities and stories that diverged from the UK version. Then, the show was cancelled and they ended it, and the last ten minutes of the show just dropped like a rock. Clunky, very, very poor production values that made me wonder if this was all slapped together at the last minute, and quite honestly, it dimmed the entire series for me, especially compared to the brilliance of the UK version. I'll watch the show again, but I'll be doing my best to forget about the conclusion.
SciFi becomes SyFy, nobody cares One of the biggest furies of the year was when SciFi became SyFy, and the internet erupted into such indignation that I thought the world was going to end. Quite simply, the channel changed names to create a stronger brand, not change content, and so far, they seem to be doing pretty well, with Warehouse 13, Stargate Universe, Alice and presumably, Caprica doing really well in the ratings. All of which is good, for the network to expand further and really show that geek is really in right now. While the name looks silly, it's really a superficial change. Now, if they would just get rid of wrestling. Or pick up Slingers for five seasons.
Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashes - Mission Failure This was a satellite that I tracked earlier this year while really watching the space stuff. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was an expensive one, designed to monitor global carbon levels to get a better idea just how climate change is progressing and providing us with a very good look at just how the environment is changing around us. Ultimately though, part of the nose failed to separate from the capsule, and with the extra weight, the rocket crashed into the south Atlantic.
Heroes continues. Meh. I've given up on Heroes, after the dismal decline in quality, storytelling and characters. They should have stuck with the original plan, and killed off the first season's cast when they had the chance, instead of bringing people back time and time again. The fact that ratings are declining is just stunning to me, especially now that the show is into it's fourth season, and I have doubts that it will return. Hopefully not.
FlashForward Look, if I want to watch LOST, I'll watch LOST. I'm not going to watch a show that's a poor copy of it.
Deaths: Every year, there are a number of deaths in the geek genre/fan community. A couple notable ones were Ricardo Montalbán, who played Kahn in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Michael Jackson, who's song Thriller places him on the Geek spotlight, Kim Manners (X-Files/Supernatural Producer), Philip José Farmer, author of Riverworld and numerous other SF books, Dave Arneson, one of the D&D co-founders, and Norman Borlaug, who saved the world through science. There are others I'm sure, but it's still hard to see people in the genre leave us forever.
A couple of unknowns for me include The Lovely Bones, Sherlock Holmes, Avatar and Zombieland, which I haven't seen, Deathtroopers, which I haven't read, and Halo ODST, which I haven't played. (Okay, haven't played much. I've liked what I've played. And the soundtrack. And the fact that the entire Firefly cast is somewhere in there)
What's coming up for next year? The new Tron movie is coming out, which I'm horribly excited for, especially after watching the trailer and then the old movie. Slingers is likely going to get some more buzz. Iron Man 2 will be big, as well as Clash of the Titans, Inception (Really want to see that one), Chronicles of Narnia 3, The Book of Eli, and Toy Story 3. Hopefully, Scott Lynch will have his third book out, and Caprica will be beginning (High hopes for that one), as well as the second half and second Season of Stargate: Universe. Who knows what else?
Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who had died for one's country. In the United States, November 11th has been designated as a day to reflect and celebrate the sacrifices of American Servicemen, while in the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day likewise commemorates the those who made the ultimate sacrifice. November 11th was selected because of a worthy anniversary: the end of the First World War, on November 11th, 1918, the conflict that had shocked the world so much, that many hoped that it would be the last.
Sadly, this never came to fruition, as humanity has continued their destructive streak across the century, and will likely to far into the future. In many ways, the trials of soldiers in the far future have provided some of the more interesting science fiction tales.
When thinking to military science fiction, the first book that often comes to my mind is Starship Troopers. Robert Heinlein's masterpiece has the right tone and the right messages throughout about not only the plight of the soldier, but the responsibility and honor that veterans upheld because of their service. In one particularly early scene in the book, when Johnnie and Carl go to join the service, they are bluntly told that military service isn't the romantic adventure that seemed to have been the perception. This doesn't come too much as a surprise, as Heinlein himself was a Veteran, having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1929, and served as an officer until 1934, when he was discharged. As the Second World War roared into the lives of Americans, Heinlein worked once again for the military as an aeronautical engineer, alongside two other notable science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Starship Troopers realistically and in a relatable fashion, sums up the soldier's experience in wartime, and demonstrates that Science Fiction can be used as allegory in a number of instances.
Another remarkable example of military science fiction is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and related books that take place during and after. Card's character, Andrew 'Ender' Wiggen, a tactical prodigy and statistician, is a prime example of a soldier who has a varied experience with warfare - and a mixed legacy in the years following his and humanity's successes over the Buggers at the end of the book - a nearly complete and utter destruction of the alien homeworld. Ender's Game is brilliant in its use of characters - Ender proves himself in Battle School, where he uses unconventional tactics to ultimately succeed and demonstrate that he has a superior mind for this style of warfare. A second series of supposed tests are designed to prepare Ender for the invasion of the Bugger's homeworld, only to find that there was no tests - his battles were real, and he was ultimately responsible for the destruction of an entire race. Ender's story is an interesting one, compared to other soldiers, in that he never hit the front lines - rather, he was orchestrating the war from light-years away. Despite this, the war had a profound impact on Ender for his actions - a similarity that is shared with American soldiers who pilot UVAs, according to P.W. Singer in his book Wired for War.
The franchise that embodies warfare in space is Star Wars. Love it or hate various elements of it, I've been greatly impressed with the stories that have been told about the Grand Army of the Republic, through a couple of different sources. The first is the Clone Wars television series, for really emphasizing on the troopers who fought on the part of the Republic. However, the real person who deserves attention for the portrayal of the troopers is Karen Traviss, with her fantastic Republic Commando series. Traviss had quite a lot of experience with the military to draw upon. As a result, Traviss goes far more into the mentality and motives of the soldiers, bringing them far more into view as people, not merely clones. Even better, the events of Order 66 seem very relevant throughout, and Traviss works hard to not only ensure that their motives for following those orders are explained in a logical fashion, but as to the intentions of the soldiers entire existence. The Clones are in a unique position here - bred only for the purpose of war fighting. For them, they're not volunteers, and they aren't expected to live beyond the war - something that the TV series touches on a little bit as well.
While thinking of Traviss's Star Wars books, another good look at war comes with her book City of Pearl and the follow-up novels in the Wess'Har Wars, which examines interstellar conflict over several systems and many thousands of years. Two of her races, the Wess'Har and the Isenj, have been at war over conflicting lifestyles - the Isenj are rapid colonizers, due to a high birthrate, and did so at the cost of their environment, while the Wess'Har believe heavily in the natural world and literally applied a scorched earth policy to planets that they felt were out of line - there's a heavy environmental message here, but it does help to reinforce a point that theorist Carl von Clausewitz made, that Warfare is an extension of policy, and thus, fought on the terms of one's society. The soldiers here are deeply affected by the conflict, as several are essentially immortal, because of a parasite that they had picked up, one that ensures their survival. The long term toll of warfare on these soldiers is an interesting one, and several are noted to have killed themselves (prior to the events in the books) because of the stresses associated with their condition.
When it comes to interstellar warfare, as well as the potential for long term and dedicated purpose, John Scalzi's Old Man's War is another prime example of this sort of Science Fiction. This book, the first in a series (I have the follow up book, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet), sees a world where old men and women are taken, because of their life's experiences thus far, and had their minds transferred to a new, enhanced body. There are many similarities to Starship Troopers and The Forever War (another one that I have, but have yet to read), and Scalzi has an interesting take on the enhanced soldiers and their purpose. One argument in the novel is that these soldiers have been given an artificial lease on life - the best that they can do is to continue to fight. However, in this instance, they aren't necessarily fighting for any particular cause, just the broad, overarching idea of 'humanity', as their citizenship on earth has been terminated by joining the fight in space. This somewhat bothered me, and a couple of the main characters, but highlights another, important aspect in warfare - soldiers, foot soldiers, are trained to fight for one another, to preserve their squad and fellow soldiers, and that message rings heavily through Old Man's War.
Timothy Zahn has also addressed the idea of enhanced soldiers, through his books Cobra and Cobra Two, where a group of soldiers have been enhanced with a number of internal improvements - better skeletons, weapons, a sort of commando unit that are nearly unstoppable in urban combat on alien worlds. However, what really struck me with these books is that the focus is not necessarily on the fighting, but the lives of the soldiers afterwards - these soldiers, with permanent enhancements, had to adapt to civilian life where they were mistrusted and abused because of their abilities, enough to cause conflict in their homes and enough to force the entire Cobra population off world to better offerings.
Military Science Fiction has its share of veterans, and examines, as a whole, not just the cool elements of science fiction, such as powered armor, lasers, epic ship to ship combat and the like, but also the impact, and continued impact that warfare will have on those that are asked to do the fighting, for whatever reason. The concept is such a large one that it is interesting to find a number of different themes - all of which might be found with any given soldier in a real military - have essentially been separated out amongst a number of novels, and examined in depth. The overall message that can be taken from this is that the hopes following World War I were unrealistic, and that humanity will continue to fight - wars large and small will continue, and no doubt, that will continue when we reach the starts. However, it is important to remember the human cost of warfare, not just on society, but upon those who ask to serve their countries, or even worlds.
A year ago, I wrote up something about the perceptions of tie-In fiction and how it compared to other, more original stories. Author Karen Traviss came up at one point, because she has remained a staunch supporter of tie-in fiction as a sort of professional writing, on the same level as other, more original stories. I've never really come down on either side as to whether tie-in fiction is better or worse than other ones, but Traviss's recent announcement that she was pulling out of the Star Wars universe came with a bit of interest from me. Karen's approach to tie-in fiction is one that I think needs to be emulated by other writers. There is a reason why this sort of genre is looked down upon, I suspect, because authors essentially work from a script, and do little beyond transcribe the script and a couple more details. In contrast, Karen seems to get the stories, and really makes them into a worthwhile book while she's doing it - Matthew Stover has done much the same thing with his own books, as well as a couple other authors who have dabbled in the Star Wars universe for their various tie-in books. The Star Wars editors and LFL have a pretty good grasp of their universe, which ultimately helps things.
Because of this, and because of Karen's article, Sprinting the Marathon, I'm honestly a little surprised that she decided to pull out. Though out this essay, she stresses the importance for authors working in the tie-in field to be creative, and just how this field quite literally forces one to be far more creative than other avenues of the literary world - working within a tie-in universe has many constraints, and especially something with Star Wars, the challenges in putting together a book are far more frequent.
In a recent blog entry on her website, Traviss announced that she was going to be moving on from the Star Wars universe. The reasons that she listed are mainly that the established story lines that she's put into place over the past couple of books, and with the new Clone Wars series, there will be conflicts with the higher up canon within the universe. While I'm happy that she isn't going to be changing over a couple of the story lines and screwing things up more for the literature people to argue about, I'm a little annoyed that she's throwing in the towel, because she's one of the better writers to have come to the Star Wars universe in a while.
I have to wonder if there's more at play here. Traviss is clearly aware of the limitations that are placed upon her as a writer, and that the story lines that she comes up with - original within the universe it might be - but essentially, they're hers to come up with, not to totally own. Therein lies the big difference, I think, between tie-in fiction and an author's original story: ownership. There are limitations to what you can do with a story that you don't own, even if you're given relatively free rein, because the higher ups at LFL can do pretty much whatever they want in the universe, no matter how it tramples on other stories. This was a big issue that a lot of the books and authors had to dance around prior to the prequel trilogy. Authors who got it wrong, got it wrong, and these are bits of the books that fans will endlessly argue over.
When it comes to tie-in fiction, and the ownership distinction, I'm a little baffled at this sort of distinction - if it is just ownership that separates the two (I think that it is), at least on an academic level, why is it that people take such notice and relegate the significance? I think the answer there lies in precisely why I think that Karen's books are a step above, say someone like Max Allen Collins or Keith R.A. DeCandido - the writing style, attention to the story and the focus on the story over a mere paycheck is the deciding factor (Not to say that these guys only write for the money). Traviss's books are different because there is the attempt to make these books a real reading experience, while other times, I get the impression that other authors don't care nearly as much, and essentially are just trying to pay the bills. Whether this is intentional or not, I don't know, but as a reader, I appreciate being able to read a story that is more than the screenplay. If I wanted that, I would just go see the film.
Really, the ownership issue is a really minor one - it all comes down to the one thing that I continue to gripe about, and that's the story, story, story. The reason why tie-in fiction is disliked and looked down upon is the long bibliography of less than stellar, and if Karen's example is anything to go by, the number of restrictions and lack of ownership tend to put off other authors who might otherwise write for a franchise. I find that second part a little more sobering than the first, because with more authors willing to write tie-in fiction, the genre as a whole would improve quite a bit.
Producer Jesse Alexander just wrote up an interesting guest column on website io9 recently, (which you can read here), where he talks about a couple of subjects that I've been thinking about lately: the vast difference between substance and visual appeal of the science fiction genre, particularly in movies.
In his piece, he notes that CGI-laden blockbusters have really taken over the movie theaters over the summer season, almost completely. This past summer, we've had Terminator 4, Transformers 2, GI Joe, Star Trek, and Harry Potter all costing in the hundreds of millions of dollars to produce from beginning to end, none of which were really all that great, while the two standout movies in the SF genre were Moon and District 9, both of which cost $5 million and $30 million to create, respectively. This begs the question, as Alexander does, where did these two films succeed where the others failed.
The above films all did really well at the box office, grossing back quite a bit of money (although Terminator: Salvation did pretty poorly, but it will warrant a sequel, if the rumors are to be believed) but of everything that was released this summer, only Moon and District 9 really captured the essence of science fiction on all levels. They were wholly original, influences aside, and are the ones that have come out of this summer that will be remembered for a long time as solid entries in the genre's film side of things.
One of the things that charges are laid against is the use of CGI in films, which has become far more sophisticated and prevalent in films, especially science fiction films. I'm not totally sure that CGI is really the thing to blame here, but the effect that it has on filmmaking and the entire process. CGI is a fantastic tool for filmmakers, especially in the science fiction field. The problem comes when the glamor and expanded visual field overtakes the story in terms of importance.
For me, story is everything with a film or television show, and the Science Fiction genre is a fantastic place for any number of possible stories. There have been a number of fantastic films out there that I can put forward as an example for good storytelling: Minority Report, The Prestige, Serenity, The Fountain, Pan's Labyrinth, and of course, Moon and District 9. These movies utilized special effects throughout, but did so in a way that didn't jeopardize the story to the extent that other films might have. A couple of television shows, such as Battlestar Galactica and Firefly have followed much the same philosophy with their approaches to CGI: the visuals are placed in the film/show to support the events in the story.
My favorite example is 2005's release of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Serenity. Both films with significant fanbases, but with very different approaches to the stories. Serenity was a much smaller film, with a killer story to finish up the Firefly TV series, while Revenge of the Sith was a far more bloated and cumbersome film that cost a significant amount of money to produce. Given the financial troubles and uncertainty of the next couple of years, I would bet that that type of filmmaking will continue, but there will be a rise in films such as Moon, Serenity and District 9. Each of these films received a large amount of critical favor, and while none approached the same amount of money that these larger films pulled in, they didn't cost as much as the much larger films.
One thing about these huge CGI films that I noticed is that the ones this summer were already part of a larger storyline or franchise - there were a lot of numbers after the titles, and I have to wonder if that is part of this empty storytelling trend that Science Fiction seems to have picked up over the past couple decades. I don't mind sequels - There's a number of stories out there that I love seeing more of. But, when does a good franchise become a cash cow, with more of the same to it? Transformers was reportedly like that, even up to the director's level, where more of the same, but just more intense was better. Harry Potter has largely been like this from day one, and Star Trek wasn't all that impressive after you started thinking about it. This, to me, is a sad thing for the genre, one that I've always seen as being far more creative than most of the other genres out there, if only for the exotic subject matter.
There are a couple of things that bother me about this sort of thing, mainly that people are more than happy to take any sort of mind-numbing entertainment and expect nothing more. While this is a bit of a leap, it seems like this is a problem that extends far beyond the entertainment realm, from education to politics. Moon and District 9 worked brilliantly together this summer because they were two films that had intelligent plots, good characterization and an unconventional way of presenting the stories. Despite that, I read a number of reviews that noted that the plots didn't make sense, that there weren't enough explosions and the like. These sorts of reviews usually bother me, as they did with reviews about Lev Grossman's The Magicians, where people just didn't, or couldn't understand what the stories were about, and because they didn't like them, refused to think any more about the subject.
What I am hoping will come out of this is that smaller, cheaper, genre films will become more popular, with producers who are willing to take a little more of a gamble. The films this summer proved that filmmakers could get around expensive effects, by using models, preexisting locations and actors who might not necessarily be as well known. If there are any lessons to be learned from this summer, it is that when a good story is in place, the film can succeed toe to toe with any of the big blockbusters. For me, I'm happy that there's something out there that's a little different, a bit challenging and above all, something that makes me think about what I'm watching.