Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Third Trailer

Because I've said something about the other Star Wars trailers, I think I'll put down a few quick impressions of the most recent one.


In short, I'm still really impressed. The mood here is what really strikes me. The cinematography is straightforward and yet different somehow from other science fiction epics. I think part of this has to do with the avoidance of simple orange/blue color palettes (although I could be mistaken on that). There's a bit more going on in the X-Wing and Tie-Fighter battle than what we saw in the previous trailers but this is still not the gobs of unnecessary FX of the prequels. As many observers noted, there also seems to be a real focus on emotional impact. In particular, the confrontation between Kylo Ren (he of the radioactive cross guard lightsaber) and Finn registers as very dangerous. The short scene gives us Ren dominating the frame, Finn backed into one corner of the shot. If that is the direction J.J. Abrams goes with the lightsaber fights, I'm all for it. Give me one intense duel with genuine stakes over half a dozen "gee-whiz" nifty Yoda doing aerial acrobatics.

Speaking of stakes, the trailer sets up three potential story lines with dramatic and immediately interesting conflicts. Rey says she's a "no one." Finn has "nothing to fight for." And the presumed big bad, Kylo Ren, while holding the awesomely melted Vader helmet, vows to complete his work. The original trilogy did a great job setting up odd-balls and outsiders against an unstoppable, nearly omnipotent threat. Here we get the slight twist that the bad-guy also has something to prove, and the protagonists, while still outsiders, are in search for meaning.

Anyone else feel - taking a step outside of the hype-train - one thing is already clear? This is one of the most masterful uses of teasers, trailers, conventions, toys, and new media to build a genuine interest in a movie. Any Star Wars movie is going to blow out the box office in the first weekend, but the preparatory campaign behind this movie has leveraged existing fan interest to reach the widest possible audience. I don't always like to mix business and pleasure but you have to hand it to Disney - they know how to whip up a frenzy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tips for Describing Extraterrestrials

We are long past the point in speculative fiction where seeing a bipedal cat works convincingly as an alien. Knowing how strange and multitudinous life is on our own planet gives speculative writers a special responsibility to envision alien life as least as weird and unpredictable as that we find around us.


Morgan Crooks 2015
Way back in the 60s, during the New Age of science fiction authors were already beginning to chafe at the existing models of aliens - the bug-eyed octopuses and sentient cows. A reprint of Mutation Planet by Barrington J. Bayley shows  how potent previous generations of writers were at conjuring the truly alien. Aside from the baroque biological oddities described in this story, Barrington focuses on one of the most important aspects of xenogensis, quickly illustrating how different biologies fuel different imperatives. While the story bears some defects of its time, sexism and clunky dialogue, it nevertheless captured my imagination with its ruthless and grim depiction of the universe. This is science fiction as Thomas Ligotti might write.  

Two works acclaimed from last year are The Darkling Sea by James Cambrias and The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. I liked both books very much and even though the books are written at slightly different registers: spiffy new-school space opera for Cambrias and literary fiction steeped in sci fi tropes in the case of Faber , these works provide an antidote to insipid alien cliches. The two novels employ strategies - constantly revised metaphors and fidelity to concept - that other writers would do well to emulate.

Cambrias’ project is to create not one but two convincing alien species as well as the ecosystem of one of the race, trapped beneath layers of ice on a frozen moon. Because this is more traditional space opera, the two aliens are rendered at slightly higher resolution than Faber’s novel.

The Illyatrans appear as explorers, brigands, scientists, and freedom fighters (and that’s just one character), part of an elaborate civilization that stretches for millennia into the past. Cambria’ other creation, the otter-like Sholen don’t have nearly as much screen time but also register as believable and alien, their motivation of blending into the consensus particularly well-done. I think the lesson here is to not shy away from metaphors when they help the reader grasp basic concepts but also to keep complicating that picture. While it is possible to trace details in the story to real world precedents (volcanic life at the bottom of oceanic rifts, whale songs and alike) this is ultimately a very different world than anything on earth and I loved how Cambrias constantly forced the reader to examine inadequate metaphors. At first the Illyatran are sentient lobsters but upon reflection it’s clear they have sonar, almost like whales or porpoises, but they lay thousands of eggs that only gradually achieve sentience. By the end of the novel I really did feel as though I had gained an understanding of what the Illyatran truly were beyond any attempt to fit them into neat Earth-centric terms.


Morgan Crooks 2015
Faber isn’t quite performing the same trick in The Book of Strange New Things but I found myself liking his story even more. First of all, the narrative of a Christian minister going to a strange planet inhabited by alien inextricably fascinated by Jesus was engaging. The main character attempts to hold on to his old life even as he feels increasingly drawn into the plight and problems of his alien flock. While the form of the aliens - the diminutive Oasans are somewhat more familiar than ice lobsters and space otters - there are some clever and well thought-through descriptions of the aliens.

For one thing, Oasans lack anything corresponding to a human face and so producing human speech sounds is a challenge. Faber renders this linguistic discrepancy through a series of glyphs borrowed from the Thai alphabet, slowly introducing more alien sounds into the text of the novel until . Ultimately, I did not go into this book expecting truly courageous feats of world-building but left pleasantly surprised. Although Faber takes a more subtle route than Cambrias, his world swarms with strange yet plausible alien life, life that is different from our own and yet concerned with the same basic traumas and desires. I’d suggest reading this book as a speculative writer with an eye towards using the familiar to mask the strange and outlandish. Each casually introduced word is re-examined later on, slowly pointing the way towards a fuller understanding of the world of the Oasans.


Morgan Crooks 2015

Writers interested in capturing the essence of aliens must be courageous in using familiar metaphors to point towards things genuinely indescribable. There is no simple recipe for this. However, from these examples, we can see that while writers should start with something easy to grasp, an ambitious writer will seek to undermine and complicate those metaphors as early and frequently as possible. A successful xenogensis will produce a life-form that cannot be summed up in anything as reductive as a single sentence. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel "Aurora," overwhelmed me - mostly in a good way. Through a clever use of an artificial intelligence as a narrator, Robinson was able to tell one of his farthest ranging story on a canvas both vast and intimate. The multi-generational Ship of the story experiences the complexities of human hopes and conflicts while sweeping up the observations of centuries of travel and peril in interstellar space. While relatively compact for a Robinson novel, plenty here, taken separately, would serve as an entire novel in lesser hands. 


Morgan Crooks 2015


Okay, so what is this book about? Devi, Badim, and young Freya are a family living on the Ship. Devi is a prickly, brilliant, and frequently outraged ecosystem engineer aboard the ship. Devi is a person cursed with that particular mentality able to perceive inconvenient truths about a situation, and knows how tenuous their survival is. Their home, the Ship, is flying through space on a 170 year journey towards Tau Ceti, and just arriving there will be a stroke of luck. Devi is a hard person to live with, and eventually her mix of disappointment and grinding fear for the future drives Freya out into the wider microcosm of the ship, to engage in a wanderjahr, a years-long jaunt around the various biomes spinning in two rings around the Ship. 

Neither Freya or her mother, however, are the protagonist of the story. For most of the novel, narration is supplied by the Ship itself. Here Robinson's clear-eyed prose really shines. Devi shows the same dissatisfaction with the Ship's rudimentary AI that she displays towards her daughter. The Ship proves a better student. Over the course of the novel, which stretches centuries, the Ship begins to bootstrap itself into something approaching true self-awareness, as the increasingly perilous state of affairs aboard the ship pose larger and more complicated problems. For me, this was one of the true pleasures of this novel. The Ship, in all of its iterations, has a sly but warm personality, and while its motivations are ultimately simple (it's a spaceship, and spaceship travel through space), its attempts to wrestle with the hard problems of astrophysics and human conflicts bring into focus one of the purest expressions of Robinson's own future-centric humanism.

But I also think my difficulty in describing this story come from the very personal reaction I had during reading it.

A little biography...

When I was six or seven, I remember being in an after school program at a local art museum. We were given materials with which to create small animal totems. I really didn't want to use the pinecones, feathers, and small stones we had to work with. When the adults asked me why not, I remember expressing my dislike for natural things. I said I didn't want to be on planet earth. That planet earth was a 'mud-ball' and I wanted to be out exploring space.

One of my earliest memories was of how little I cared for this planet, the only home (currently) for the human race.

This is my way of showing you, my reader, where I'm coming from when I say that I have never had my basic world view shaken and pulled into question as I have with the book.

Although there are many distinct pleasures in reading this book and I recommend it to anyone, I left the book feeling very sad and very thoughtful. Thirty years on this particular merry-go-round has given me a greater appreciation of the difficulties that aspiration entails. And yet, that is still the basic dream. I would like our species to spread out into the solar system, the Galaxy, and the universe. 

Avoiding spoilers, Robinson's basic point in writing Aurora seems is to show the seductive yet lethal folly of such ideas. The universe Robinson provides  here provides a simple, obvious, and horrifying answer to the Fermi Paradox. Although Robibson shows an obvious love for space technology and the technologies that endeavor requires, he wants to make it clear. Earth is not just our cradle, it is the one place in the universe we evolved to inhabit. The most powerful scenes in this book turn away from the grandeur of artificial biomes and alien worlds to explore what Earth is like, what our home actually provides us. 

I left the book with a profound melancholy. Because of who I am I can't shake the feeling our species or whatever our species produces will find away out of the trap Robinson describes, but I can't in any particular deny the force of his argument. 

At one point a character in the novel describes a certain class of fiction as Dark Realism. I suspect that title was provided as a useful handle by the author for this work. Philosophically this is a novel opposed to the ideas that seize us and bend us towards suffering and collapse. It is not a particularly optimistic vision but it does arrive with all of the force of simple truths expounded clearly. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Martian

I was late to The Martian party, having only read it earlier this year. I enjoyed it then and had a good feeling about the movie directed by Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon. Something about the trailers suggested the film-makers got the essential point of Andy Weir's novel and wouldn't go out of their way to ruin it.



There is a distinct pleasure in having favorable first impressions backed up by the actual product.

I very much enjoyed The Martian which marks the third hard sci-fi space thriller in as many years that I thought really worked. With $55 million taken in over the weekend, it also looks like the kind of financial success that could bring in another round of such projects. As a big fan of space exploration I tend to think that as a very good thing.

So where does this movie lie in the big scheme of things?

The challenge is that while The Martian fulfills the promise of the book and certainly ranks high in science fiction movies, it's not a great movie. Not in my humble estimation, anyway. While well-acted, produced, directed, and filmed, this is ultimately "Cast Away" in space. The point of this film is that ingenuity and perseverance pay off and that even the most impossible situations might be salvaged with a little luck and hard-work. Noble sentiments but not really in the same mind-blowing sphere as 2001 or even Interstellar.

So where does that leave us?

The Martian is my favorite movie I've seen set predominantly on Mars. Yes, I think it even beats out the original Total Recall.

It is my favorite science fiction movie with Jeff Daniels (although if one includes Arachnophia into the mix it becomes dicier).

It is my second favorite movie with Matt Damon playing an astronaut.

It also my second favorite science fiction movie with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a major role.

I would rank it as Ridley Scott's fifth best film overall and his third best science fiction film.

It's my favorite movie with Michael Pena.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this is a few notches above a good movie but it's probably not going to be in my top five anytime soon. It's definitely worth a watch, maybe even a rewatch, but I would pull a skeptical face if anyone said this was the best space movie of all time.

I do have one more positive thing to say for it though.

As I walked from the theater I heard a little boy say to his dad, "I want to go to Mars. When can I go to Mars? I want to build a house there." Considering how tense and dangerous this movie makes space travel appear - I think that is one small positive sign for the future.

If one is in the market for such things.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What I Read in September

September was a busy month for me. Back to school. Two collections including my stories. A great number of stories to pore through in under thirty days.




I am including my favorite stories out of the Bundoran Anthology, Second Contacts, that includes my story “This Beautiful Creature.” I’ll probably do something similar next month with the Game Fiction Volume 1. I think both collections contained some killer stories and it’s my pleasure to talk up them and their authors.

Okay, on to the picks for September 2015:
  1. The Oiran’s Song by Isabel Yap (Uncanny Magazine) A beautiful and terrible meditation on war and the thirst for violence and death. An oni daughter infiltrates an Imperial Japanese army unit and begins to feed upon them. Her tent mate is a boy neutered by his anguish and loss, slowly sliding into being an accomplice.
  2. The Peace of Worlds by Jaime Babb (Second contacts) So everyone knows what happened when the Martians invaded before. For all of their overwhelming fire-power and technology in the end the smallest of earthly life-forms, bacteria, laid waste to them all. In this clever alt history tale the Martians try again with applied economics. As any student of history knows, soft-power can succeed where overt uses of force often fail.
  3. Get the Message by Peter Wendt (Second contacts) Nifty story revolving around that most plausible of all impossible technologies - the ansible. Although Wendt uses a different term to describe this instantaneous communications device with alien races, what he is describing is an ansible. The pleasure here is that because the aliens are simply another voice (?) on the phone he can introduce a great number of different species in a very short story. Also enjoyable is the twists and turns of the plot as Earthlings cast desperately about for extraterrestrial assistance in the face of an alien invasion.
  4. Ten Things to Know about the Ten Questions by Gwendolyn Kiste. (Nightmare) This is my favorite Kiste story since the last Kiste story I read. She gets better and better as a writer, here weaving a Leftovers-like scenario into psychological test. I found myself gripped by a nameless extential dread, the fear the worst thing imaginable was about to happen. Another masterful story from my favorite new writer.
  5. Cremulator by Robert Reed. (Clarkesworld) A haunting story about the mysteries of love and death. Poignant and scientific and yet very magical. I’m thinking about writing a post about the few recent stories I’ve run across doing this sort of thing well - this ongoing project to incorporate fairy tales and magical realism tropes into solid science fiction.
  6. The Springwood Center for Genetically Modified Animals, by Verity Lane (Crossed Genres) One of the best science fiction stories I’ve read on CG. Easily one of my favorites this month. This poignant, uber creepy story follows a human orphan looking for a job in an animal shelter for GMO pets. A slow steady burn through a sad, sad future.