Tag Archives: science fiction

Visions of the Future

There are a lot of things I like about science fiction, chief among them the genre’s capacity for using metaphor to discuss bigger ideas. Like how the original Gojira explored nuclear fears and Edwards’ Godzilla discussed the question of the relation between humanity and the environment.

But another thing I really like about science fiction is the way it tries to guess what happens next. Ender’s Game saw the potential of computer networks for a user generated news network, though writer Orson Scott Card didn’t quite capture just how prolific the user generated and focused content of Web 2.0 would be. The divide that exists between the future that could be and the future that is is the source of so much fun.

It also says a lot about the concerns of society. Look at how many 80s films set in the near-future showcased crime-riddled New Yorks and Los Angeleses. Or New York as a walled off prison colony that Snake Pliskin has to escape from. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that rising crime was on the public consciousness.

So then it’s interesting to look at what today’s science fiction says about tomorrow. Now, the beauty of science fiction is that it doesn’t have to be accurate, just plausible. I doubt anyone seriously believed New York would become a giant prison, but the looming potential for crime was there. Take Firefly, which envisions a future where the combined might of the United States and China was able to colonize space in order to escape a decaying earth. A logical assumption, what with China on the rise in the early 2000’s.

The Expanse also features a spacefaring humanity, with one of the protagonists being part of a crew mining ice from asteroids. Which makes sense, since getting water would be an essential part of sustaining and off world colony. Another tiny detail of The Expanse that I love is the existence of a seawall around New York. It’s a small thing, but one that grounds the future in a certain kind of realism. Rising sea levels will necessitate some sort of countermeasure, and a seawall makes enough sense.

The Windup Girl takes things in a different direction. Rising sea levels consumed many cities (including New York — why’s it always New York?) and others, like Bangkok, sink a wealth of resources into keeping the ocean at bay. But Paolo Bacigalupi paints a grim image of the future, one where a scarcity of fuel has plunged humanity into a time when electricity as we know it now is a distant memory. Now genetically engineered domestic animals turn cranks to power machinery and store springs with potential energy. It seems old fashioned, but at the same time, all too likely.

It’s a bleak outlook to be sure, but Bacigalupi’s novel (which I’m still reading, as of this writing) is also set against a world where genetic modification and patented genes are rampant. Sure, it sounds like science fiction, but both are things currently being discussed. A world where rice itself is copyrighted isn’t as nonsensical as it would have sounded a few years ago. The Windup Girl just takes sends things to a pessimistic conclusion.

Maybe in a couple decades we’ll have solved the energy crisis and stopped the sea levels from rising and these futures will look as ridiculous as assumptions that the United States and USSR would still be at war in the 2030s (in space!). But it’s okay to be wrong, it’s fun to imagine what’ll happen next. Sometimes things turn out right, sometimes not. Still makes for a good read.

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Living in Science Fiction

Is the movie Gravity science fiction? This was the discussion a friend of mine and I were having while talking about science fiction and fantasy winning Oscars — Gravity got Best Director, but is it really science fiction?

Wikipedia, IMDb, and such call it science fiction, given that it’s, well, in space. That’s usually the threshold for science fiction.

But something in space is hardly imaginative anymore. An astronaut who just returned from spending an entire year in space. SpaceX launches rockets on the regular. Of course, there is the room for an outlandish situation; Moon was grounded, but had mining on the moon, countless others have aliens. Gravity, though, is about someone being stranded in space because of a freak debris field. For all intents and purposes, the setting of Gravity is as much science fiction as Apollo 13. That is to say, it’s not, it’s really not.

Gravity is, in many ways, a more modern Castaway. In both stories relatively unqualified people are, due to an event beyond human control, stranded in the middle of nowhere by themselves that then prove the resilience of the human spirit by making their way back to civilization. Granted, Gravity takes place over a far shorter period of time, but that’s kinda due to the fact that it takes place in modern reality where people can’t breathe in space.

In other words, labelling Gravity science-fiction is a product of an outdated standard that something in space is automatically considered science-fiction. That’s something that makes science-fiction so weird as a genre: what’s scifi might not always be scifi. We don’t consider the first episode of Sherlock science-fiction, even though its heavy use of smartphones would definitely qualify it as some sort of techno-thriller were it produced in the eighties. Same with Gravity; it isn’t science-fiction today, but to, say, the sixties it’d be what The Martian is to us today.

Science-fiction, at least the sort inhabited by movies like Moon, The Martian and Ex Machina (more fantastical fare like Star Wars and Star Trek are another matter entirely), are rooted in having some bit of futuristic technology. Moon’s got lunar mining, The Maritian’s got a Mars base, Ex Machina incredibly advanced AI. But if we were to develop any of those technologies the fiction part of the science would be closer to the events surrounding them. If we were to develop both rogue AI and hover cars, the biggest incongruity in Blade Runner would be that Atari was supposed to still be a major brand.

I think that’s one reason why I’ve always loved science-fiction — there’s this air to it of asking what if. What if there was something new that would change the world. It takes what you know and twists it to be something, well, more. It’s a dreamer’s genre. What if you could live on a submarine deep beneath the sea? What if we made contact with aliens? What if there were giant monsters trying to kill us and so we made giant mecha to fight back? What if we could carry phones out of the house and in our pockets?

So is Gravity science-fiction? If it is, it’s still a good movie, but it’s pretty low-grade science-fiction.Yes, it fully utilizes the genre’s capability for telling parables, but it doesn’t really do anything with the almighty What If. Not to mention it’s something that, given the right circumstances, could happen tonight. I realize I’m going back on what I said some time ago in another blog post (the one I just linked to), but no, I don’t really think Gravity should count as science-fiction.

‘cuz we’ve already got people in space doing space things on space stations.

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When Science Dreams

The Martian is an intelligent film. Or at least it expects its viewers to be smart. Within ten minutes the titular astronaut is stranded on Mars and the science fun begins. Unlike another recent movie with Kate Mara as a scientist, it doesn’t take long at all for the movie to get started and we get to watch Matt Damon pull a Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

It’s cool, and there’s a lot of science happening that’s remarkably coherent for the most part. What’s funny though, is that less than a week before this movie came out, scientists found signs of actual water on Mars. Which, if it actually works out, will already render The Martian mildly scientifically out-of-date. Like the mention of the missing data-tapes in Star Wars, time marches on.

But a lot of it is extensions of what we know now or what we’re expected to do. The habitat on Mars makes a lot of sense, as does the Hermes ship. It’s science we have, are planning on, or are talking about. And science we want.

It’s very much old-fashioned science fiction, in the sense of dreaming big about what could be. Heck, it’s where the genre started. Questions like “What if we had rockets that could do stuff?” or, more classically, “What if we could go to the center of the earth?” Stories were built around these ideas and then, bam, genre.

Look, I really like science fiction. And it does bug me that a lot of older science fiction is more about the tech than the people, but there’s a sense of wonderment. There are these cool ideas about science and how it will make things different, how radar might actually be a thing, or how communication could be made so easy. Science fiction, of the Asimov and old pulp-fiction variety, is very much about what could be.

Which can be oddly prescient. Star Trek communicators are everywhere, only we call them cell phones and they do so much more than Roddenberry and crew could have imagined. Teleporters and warp drives may not be real, but 3D printers are more than a little like replicators. It’s the sort of thing that would have seemed ridiculous not too long ago (printing physical objects, what?), but now it’s possible. At home.

Not to say science fiction always gets it right. Orson Scott Card had blogging in his vision of the future in Ender’s Game. He may have beaten reality (and a lot of fiction) to the concept of Web 2.0, but, as xkcd points out, reality isn’t quite the same as fiction. Though it would only take a rewrite or two to make the Locke and Demosthenes plot work.

Science fiction does a lot: it can work as a great metaphor, it can create a capacity for new events, and it can dream up cool ideas. The latter is something that’s more or less exclusive to science fiction — nothing else consistently invents for its stories.

So I want science fiction to dream bigger, to come up with newer, weirder, more out there ideas. Because now that we’ve seen pictures of Charon and can more or less confirm that it is not a Mass Effect Relay encased in ice, we’ve gotta think of some new way to explore space.

Or at least get to Mars already.

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Cold War Relevance

Alright. Quick one today because it’s my birthday and I have plans.

I talk a lot about science fiction and how often it works as a way to commentate on current events and what not. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to look at the interplay of fiction when it’s something that happened in the past (See: Gojira). The Cold War too, which was also when modern science fiction began to really take shape, has great influence on the stories of its time.

Ray Bradbury opens his short story “The Last Night of The World” with a simple question: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” The answer isn’t wild revelry, rather the husband and wife at the center await the upcoming end with simple acceptance, living the last night of the world as if it were any other night.

Published in early 1951, the short story tries to capture the mindset of people who have been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation for two decades. In Bradbury’s view, these people are powerless to change anything about their fate, and thus they feel that they have no recourse but to accept the end of the world. There’s little concern for a matter of how the world ends, it’s just described as like the closing of a book.

By focusing so small Bradbury is able to make implicit statements about those with power. Though the short story lacks actual overt commentary, “The Last Night of The World” is an indictment against the Cold War and the associated political atmosphere. There is an undeniable link in the short story between the end of the world and the actions taken by leaders during the Cold War.From the point of view of the story, the world can only take a certain amount of guns being constantly pointed at each other before the plug is pulled.

In this story, people can adapt to the constant fear of death to the point that when the end finally comes it is not so much greeted as it is all-but-ignored. Humanity can get used to anything, even if it means adjusting to a constant expectation of the end of the world. The end of the world has progressed beyond inevitability; it has become expected.

Compare this to Star Wars, released 26 years later. Written and directed by someone who actually did grow up in the Cold War’s tensions, the movie disagrees vehemently with Bradbury’s message. Luke Skywalker grew up under the Empire, or at least the far reaches of it, and dreams of fighting back. He’s not resigned to his fate, rather, he jumps at the chance to do something about it.

See, Star Wars has to be seen as a piece of Cold War literature. You’ve got the Death Star threatening to destroy an entire planet, reminiscent of the whole nuclear risk thing. A lot of contemporary (American) writings painted the Soviet Union as a faceless, evil, Galactic Empire-esque nation with the United States as the noble underdog espousing a rugged individualism. In light of all this, Luke Skywalker being able to rise up and destroy the Death Star is a statement that, hey, they can win. Not at all unlike how Pacific Rim is a millennial anthem, Star Wars was a generation growing up under the threat of nuclear doom saying that things would get better.

Writer’s Note: Do give “The Last Night of The World” a read, it’s short and findable online. Also, I feel like there’s a connection between the Cold War atmosphere and the idealism of ‘80s movies, but that’s another post for another day.

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Where No One Has Gone Before

Let’s talk about space, because of Interstellar. Now, it’s hard to discuss the film because so much of what makes it Interstellar is because its based so fundamentally on the curves and turns of the plot. So for the sake of avoiding spoilers and ruining everything, we’re not talking about Interstellar’s story.

Instead let’s talk about the set up; about the initial question asked by the film, the question of space travel. Many of the early parts of Interstellar can be read as a vindication of space programs. There’s a strong lament for the abandonment of space exploration.

Interstellar espouses the idea that we’re supposed to go beyond earth, what with the whole “humanity was never meant to die here” tagline and all. It’s a theme of science fiction that’s been preciously scarce as of late. Gone is 2001: A Space Odyssey and movies about going to Mars. Instead we’ve got films like District 9 and Godzilla which while great, are very terrestrial science fiction. Or Guardians of the Galaxy, which while fantastic, is a straight up space opera (and all the better for it). Think about Avatar, a fairly recent movie that had elements of exploration: The message was that humanity should stop screwing up ecosystems. Europa Report, Prometheus, and even Gravity were more horror inclined than about a desire for exploration.

The closest we’ve had in recent years is Into Darkness. Granted, it’s very space operatic (as was the old Star Trek TV show), but it (again, like the old TV show) has hints of the want of exploration. Of wanting to go where no one has gone before. If anything, Into Darkness, like Interstellar after it, is a defense of why space exploration is still relevant.

Into Darkness pits two ideas against each other. There’s the one argument that militarization is the route forward, that humanity’s presence in space is fundamentally a militaristic one. On the other hand there’s the argument that exploration is a reason and goal in and of itself. It’s not the tidiest of presentations of the themes, but the revived franchise has to prove that over half a century later the idea of exploring the final frontier is relevant and engaging. It shouldn’t have to.

I, like I’m sure many others, wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. Right up until I found out it would take over a dozen years of training which, to an eight-year-old, is a very long time. But fifteen years later there’s still that want to go to space, thanks to a steady diet of Star Wars, Firefly, and just about anything else involving spaceships. Even now a video of astronauts playing with water in zero-g is one of the coolest things. Because it’s space, it’s terrifying, it’s cool, and I want to go there.

Watching Interstellar conjures up images of today’s space program and how it’s almost become an afterthought. We’ve got a rover on Mars, probes exploring the far reaches of the solar system and beyond; but the classic image of a moon colony lies all but dormant. Where’s the luster gone? Where’s the want to go before.

Though there’s a massive amount of words to be said about Interstellar, one thing I liked was its commentary on it. Space travel is important and is arguably the next big step forward.

If only because I want a spaceship.

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It’s Topical!

Let’s talk about science fiction. Again. One of the things I’ve said I love about good science fiction is its way to address things without overtly addressing them. That is, science fiction can often be seen as a sort of allegory, or even to write out things that wouldn’t work otherwise. You can read the short stories in Olivia Butler’s Bloodchild and get a very real sense of alienation and the idea of The Other. Which makes sense, given that she was essentially the only African-American woman writing science fiction in the ‘70s. District 9 deals, rather bluntly, with Apartheid, fitting South African director Neill Blomkamp.

In Star Wars the good guys are under the threat of being obliterated in one fell swoop by the bad guys, courtesy of the Death Star. It seems nondescript, until you remember that Star Wars came out in 1977 — during the Cold War. Impending annihilation was a topical threat: to have the threat realized in space and ultimately destroyed was somewhere between propaganda and wish fulfillment. That the film and its successors are still enjoyable (and somewhat still topical) today is a testament to how science fiction can be timeless, Admiral Motti chiding Vader about the missing data tapes notwithstanding.

Which brings me to God\jira. Not the recent Godzilla (that comes later), the original Japanese 1954 one. I’ve heard it aptly described as ‘psychic national catharsis,’ since it came out only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gojira is a very real manifestation of the atomic bomb. When he finally makes landfall proper he unrelenting devastates Tokyo. The military tries in vain for much of the sequence, until he’s finally warded off by jets. Afterwards we get several shots of the aftermath, of survivors trying to, well, survive. There are far more of those than you see in a ‘normal’ disaster movie (think 2012); it’s almost as if the director is presenting a case.

The case being the killing of Gojira. The scientist Serizawa, while trying to create a new energy source, accidentally made a superweapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. A subplot of the film is him wrestling with whether to use it. Does Dr. Serizawa want to be remembered for making a superweapon? Is it worth becoming a monster to destroy another? Through it all, director Ishirō Honda is asking the audience a troubling question: If you could have stopped the atomic bombings at the cost of your collective soul, would you? There’s no easy answer, and though they do end up using the Oxygen Destroyer, it’s not without its own bittersweet moments: Serizawa sacrifices himself and the death of Gojira is not without a sense of loss.

It’s befitting, then, that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is topical in its own way. Rather than dealing with nuclear fallout and such, Edwards and team instead looks a little at the folly of humanity and more at the power of nature. The destruction wreaked by the M.U.T.O. is a result of humanity’s mistakes, but what’s striking is that Edwards doesn’t ever condemn the scientists or military; rather, he treats them as people who, well, messed up. Godzilla, instead of an executioner, takes the role of cleaning crew. He’s a force of nature who resets the balance of the world upset by humanity and the M.U.T.O. Though Edwards lacks the punch of Honda, the topicality of it still shines through: nature was here before and it’ll still be here after. The Dr. Serizawa of this film, played by Ken Watanabe, puts it succinctly: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” In Godzilla, just as in his prior Monsters, Gareth Edwards is looking at the sublime: the awful majesty of nature manifested by Godzilla. The pursuit of the sublime is further enhanced by the human angle the film takes; we’re shown the kaiju and the destruction through the eyes of people. We’re powerless compared to them.

Science fiction can be a mirror and a lens. Warren Ellis addressed the growing interconnectivity of the world in Extremis, Gravity looked at what it means to be alive. Gojira and Godzilla both use the idea of an unstoppable monster to look at ideas that would be unfeasible otherwise. After all, this is what science fiction does.

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Why I (seldom) Write About Ships

I grew up on a ship. I also like writing.

Now, these two should go hand-in-hand. Write about living on a ship, it’s what you know! But then, who lives on a ship. No one would believe that. So I write science fiction. Because it’s easier to believe folks living on a spaceship than on a real ship. Less time explaining stuff. Also, I really like science fiction.

But, and I do get asked this, why don’t I write about a real ship instead? After all, then I can reap the prestige literary fiction. Why do I waste my talents/history on science fiction?

Because, surprisingly, living on a ship is actually quite boring. Yes, you travel, but that’s hardly unique (you could do the same in a bus or plane). The actual parts of living on a ship are terribly routine. You wake up, go to school (or work, but I went to school), come home, read, homework, video games, eat, whatever, sleep. Whether we were in Sierra Leone or Barbados, that’s what we did. Life is life.

So what is it then that makes living on a ship special? Relationships. Bonds. The sense of a weird sort of family formed by virtue of having no one else.

Like in Firefly. I’ve found that show to be the most honest take on life on a ship. Sure, my ship was lacking in the fugitive doctors and smuggling part, but there was certainly that sense of community. On the show Jayne may antagonize Kaylee, but when the chips are down he’s as ready to protect her as the captain. Serenity’s crew has a decided “we’re in this together no matter what” mentality. Sometimes it touches on the idea of family, but, as cemented by Mal’s speech at the end of Serenity, it’s about making a home. You want a story about life on a ship? About what makes life on the ship special? Look at Firefly and Serenity.

But that feels pretty obvious, y’know, Serenity is a ship, of course it’s going to have parallels. What about when there’s no ship?

Well, this might explain one of the many reasons why I love Chuck. Over the series, Team Bartowski and the other characters slowly come together to form, well, a crew of sorts. Even though the lot of them don’t always get along, they’ve formed a sort of family. Yeah, it’s very similar to my example from Firefly above, but it’s that idea again. For much of the series Casey doesn’t even like Chuck, but again, will come through for him when it counts; as will the others for him. Everyone has this forged bond with each other. That’s the essence of life on a ship.

Sure, there’s the incredible sublime feeling of being in the middle of the ocean at night, the ship’s running lights extended less than a stone’s throw away; but it’s nothing that can’t be transported elsewhere or substituted. Because that’s just setting, it’s not the interesting part.

I suppose that’s one reason I love writing science fiction; it gives me liberty. If I want to explore the idea of home I can add a plot device that threatens it. Could be, say, a mysterious box that shows an alternate world. Wanna stress the bond between the Captain and his Bosun? Arrest one of them. There’s a great freedom in a world where you get to make the rules.

Not to say I don’t put everything in science fiction. One of my short stories I’m the most proud of is set in a small town (though there’s a ship in a character’s past) and the screenplay I’m working on with my brother is set in the real world, though on a boat. But the former is about coming home and the latter is about an adventure. Writing about a ship in and of itself is boring. It’d like be writing about everyday life in the suburbs or a city or anywhere.

But writing about home, about family, about leaving? That’s interesting. So I seldom set my writing aboard an actual ship; but I always write about life on a ship.

 

Writer’s Note: Yeah, did something this week. Something almost…bloggy. Stuff in this vein may show up again; for now it’ll have the tag ‘bloggish.’

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