science fiction

Blaspheming "Blade Runner"

There are cult classics when it comes to movies, and there are cult classics. Blade Runner is one. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is another. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for sure. But why is that?

In my post, “Failed at Faulkner,” I confessed to not understanding the appeal of American novelist William Faulkner. In this post, I confess to not understanding the appeal of Blade Runner.

It took me several attempts over the years, but I persevered and finally succeeded in watching the original Blade Runner movie (in particular, the version designated “The Final Cut”). And for the life of me, I just don’t see why this movie has generated a cult of fans. For those few out there who have not seen Blade Runner, let me simply say that the story concerns a not-too-distant dystopian future in which “replicants” (think, cyborgs, artificial people) come close, through advanced biotechnology, to resembling humans. The replicants pose a danger because they will do anything to claim humanity and blend in with humans. Not surprisingly, the theme of the story concerns what it means to be truly human.

Perhaps I might appreciate Blade Runner more if I took a class in film appreciation. Then maybe I could fathom its impact (good or bad) on viewers and critics. Blade Runner seems to be a movie you have to study to best appreciate it, and I’m not accustomed to studying any movie. I can grudgingly admit the movie’s dystopian setting may have influenced the use of dystopian settings by later movies. That’s about the only positive thing I can say. On the other hand, while we all know a musical score can make or break a movie, unfortunately, the soundtrack by Vangelis felt spotty and didn’t move me.

So what about Blade Runner 2049? In this movie, replicants can procreate, and thereby claim humanity. I found the storyline easier to follow, but at times confusing. Sure, the setting was very familiar: dark, polluted, crowded, consumeristic, dystopian, post-industrial, just as in the first movie. But wouldn’t things have changed more in the thirty years since the time the first movie took place? And the soundtrack, powered by synthesizers, provided a connection back to the original movie. But the movie was too long, and the reappearance of Harrison Ford, who starred in the first movie, did nothing for me.

I’m afraid I won’t be offered membership in the Blade Runner cult. And I probably wouldn’t appreciate membership if I was offered it.

World-building was easy for God. Not so much for fantasy and scifi authors.

As I complete final revisions on my soon-to-be-released novel, The Ban of Irsisri, and continue outlining a sequel, I'm spending a great deal of time making sure my world-building is internally consistent. Many people have pointed out that world-building for scifi and fantasy stories is a herculean task. Not can be, but is. Virtually every other genre of novel out there has its world-building already done - at worst, an author may have to spend some time researching a location or time period or the customs and culture of a faraway people. But they don't have to come up with something completely new that makes sense and doesn't contradict itself!

I recently wrote about atlases constructed for imaginary worlds. The importance of geography and cartography can not be overstated. One need only study Tolkien's work to see how a carefully-thought-out body of world-building knowledge can inform and enrich the experience of viewing a new world for the first time. Tolkien developed a history for the peoples of Middle Earth, their mythologies, and their languages. Though some have questioned the robustness of the geographies he created, Tolkien nevertheless successfully established his famous stories in a world whose details supported those stories. I was not only exposed to Tolkien's world-building at a vulnerable age, but that of Robert E. Howard as well. Though many other authors contributing to the Conan canon provided input to building the world in which Conan traveled and fought and wenched, Howard gave us the Hyborian Age. The reason the Hyborian age succeeded so well is because it was deliberately constructed to remind us of the ancient history and geography of a world (our world) we already know so well.

History and culture and geography are key components of world-building, but other components include language, flora and fauna, systems of magic, and monsters. Two books that address components like this are

Fortunately for fantasy authors there are also books describing extensive world-building that spans whole series of novels, as in these reference works sitting on my shelves:

  • The Wheel of Time Companion: The People, Places, and History of the Bestselling Series, edited by Harriet McDougal et al., clocks in at 815 pages. The book jacket says the Companion includes entries for each named character, a dictionary of the Old Tongue, maps of the Last Battle, histories and customs of the nations of the world, the strength level of many channelers, and descriptions of unique flora and fauna. This reference work is organized in a simple A-to-Z fashion.

  • Robin Furth's Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance: Revised and Updated, is almost 700 pages long, and includes "Characters and Genealogies," "Magical Objects and Forces," "Mid-World and Our World Places," "Portals and Magical Places," "Mid-, End-, and Our World Maps," "Timeline for the Dark Tower Series," "Mid-World Dialects," "Mid-World Rhymes, Songs, and Prayers," "Political and Cultural References," and "References to Stephen King's Own Work." As a concordance, Furth's volume provides book number and page number references for each entry. Despite being comprehensive and detailed, I found this concordance a bit difficult to use whenever I needed to look something up.


Faith, and Surviving the Apocalypse

It is with some chagrin that I admit I do judge many books by their covers. Or their titles. Had my daughter not passed along to me When the English Fall, by David Williams, I most likely would not have given it a second glance. But I read it, and I'm so glad I did.

The story is narrated in first person by a devout Amish farmer named Jacob. He and his family are living in a community in rural Pennsylvania when a massive solar storm gives rise to apocalyptic circumstances for the people on planet Earth. Because of their minimal reliance on technology, the lifestyle of Jacob's family and their Amish neighbors is nowhere near as impacted as that of the "English" -- their name for the non-Amish. But as time goes on, and social order breaks down, bringing the starving and the criminal onto their farms, the Amish are hard-pressed to adapt.

Using as he does the main character to narrate the story through a series of journal entries, author David Williams uses a simple style of storytelling that flows easily, mirroring the spirituality and lifestyle of Jacob, his family, and their neighbors. Jacob turns to prayer over and over again, and it is his faith that sustains him through all their troubles. The Amish willingly share with those in need and struggle with the use of violence to combat violence as gunfire comes closer and closer to their homes, week by week, day by day.

In the end, the Amish make a key decision to ensure their survival, a decision based on divine guidance and the ability of Jacob's daughter to share a vision of a different future. In both good times and bad, it is the faith of these people that sustains them.


J. G. Ballard's "The Crystal World"

I was about eleven years old when my parents signed me up for the Science Fiction Book Club. I had outgrown the Weekly Reader Book Club years before. I had seen subscription postcards for SFBC inserted into many of the paperbacks I was reading, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series published by Ace Books. Yes, I thought, I want scifi! This is what I want to read!

One of the first books I received from SFBC was J. G. Ballard's The Crystal World. Recently I reread this book. I had vague memories of a mysterious space-time-defying crystallization of the jungle, and the dangers of becoming trapped within it. Finishing the book for the second time in over fifty years, the sense of wonder returned, and I quickly finished it.

I also recalled a certain sense of difficulty with reading it at eleven years old. Now, with rereading, I realize why. Ballard's style is much more literary than a lot of science fiction. And there are some adult themes of love and sex, of intimacy and perceived betrayal, that went right over my head when I was in the sixth grade.

I was also reminded of the power of mystery, as I recently described in one of my blog postings. I see now that at an early age I latched onto this power, even hungered for it, though I might have had a hard time explaining what it was I sought. Fortunately over the years I've found many other books to satisfy this need. I can only hope that I've succeeded in introducing mystery into my own writing.

Mysteries in Religion, and in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This time of year is one of several during the year sacred to Christianity or Judaism. One thing common to yearly observances of religious "holy days" is the aspect of mystery. The foundations of Christianity are based on events that go beyond miraculous - there is a deep mystery behind each one. How is it that a supernatural being chose to split part of himself off to become incarnate through the birth of a boy to a humble Hebrew virgin? How could the gruesome killing of the man that boy later became serve as a gateway for a renewed relationship between humans and their deity, with a consequent promise of life after death? How could that crucified man, both human and divine at the same time, rise from the dead and visit his disciples before returning to heaven?

Some of the most profound stories in fantasy and science fiction have great mysteries at their core. Who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel (2001: A Space Odyssey)? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? How are prophecies revealed? How was a hero's destiny created in time past, and by whom? How were the means by which the prophecies are fulfilled come into being? 

In some cases, sufficient research by characters in a story may elucidate these mysteries. Ancient ruins on other planets may be studied to understand the civilizations that left them behind. But in other cases, the mysteries run so deep they can never be understood, for they go well beyond what science can ever explain. They are literally of mythic proportions, and may form the basis of a fictional world's religions.

Have a good example of a fundamental mystery in a fantasy or science fiction story? Leave a comment and share with us!

The Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the ShellGhost in the Shell by Tow Ubukata
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Short enough for an experimental read? Check. Eye-catching cover? Check. Decent price through Amazon? Check. Tie-in to a movie I want to see? Check. Worth the effort of reading? Sadly, no.

The Ghost in the Shell: Five New Short Stories is a collection of stories by five Japanese media authors/creators that builds upon the story presented in the movie "The Ghost in the Shell." It is a quick read, which is the only reason I didn't abandon the book part-way through. Too often I felt like I was reading a comic book or graphic novel without the graphics, and that just doesn't work. I have not yet seen the movie, but I don't believe my opinion of the book would change if I had.

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Revolution Rising

Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1)Red Rising by Pierce Brown My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Red Rising" is the first part of a story of revolution on a terraformed Mars, revolution by the lowest class of society -- the Reds -- against the highest class -- the Golds. Martian society is physically as well as socially stratified -- the lowest class lives underground and mine helium for a living, while the highest class is aboveground, and in the sky, overseeing and governing while while enjoying all the decadence that their class affords them.

The Reds are (for the most part) oblivious to the truth of Martian social stratification. But when, as a result of personal tragedy, one of these Reds is exposed to the truth, he accepts a mission. Darrow is a young Red who agrees to undergo reconstruction of his body and speech and mannerisms so that he may pass for a Gold, and infiltrate Gold society with the goal of destroying the stratification that enslaves his people. This reconstruction is a gamble on the part of his "creator" and sponsors, because they must turn him loose and hope for the best, not knowing how many years it might take for Darrow to achieve success. And previous "experiments" have failed.

For Darrow, success will require playing his role without being detected, and reflecting Gold values without sacrificing his own. His motivation is not only the desire to free his people but fulfill his wife's wishes for a better world, while exacting retribution for what Golds have done to his family.

A substantial part of the first novel in this trilogy is taken up by a war-game played by a number of elite Gold youths (including Darrow, the impostor) who are being screened and conditioned for a selection process. I thought this part of the story was too long, although I understand why it was necessary for character development. But can the author carry us to the expected (?) conclusion (where the Reds achieve their freedom) in just two more books?

I didn't find the main character very likable. But I have to say he's interesting, complex. He is ruthless and compassionate, confused and determined, triumphant yet able to sink to his knees and weep. It is sad at times to watch as his experiences shape and harden him.

Thankfully, there are some surprises along the way, as well as a great unexpected ending. When I finished the story I decided this first book did not sufficiently interest me in the reading the next book in the trilogy. But, after reading the exciting sample from the next book, "Golden Son," I will likely change my mind.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads "First Reads" program.

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Beyond Human: "Transcendence" and "Lucy"

Speculations regarding the next step in human evolution have abounded since the emergence of science fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As new advances in science and technology have appeared at an accelerating rate in the last fifty years, practitioners of each, as well as writers and philosophers and theologians, have pondered the effect of these advances on human evolution. Some, such as Ray Kurzweil, take this very seriously, treating it with a mixture of extrapolation, excitement, respect, and caution. (Also, see transhumanism.) Others simply approach the topic with entertainment in mind. Two recent movies, "Transcendence" (starring Johnny Depp) and "Lucy" (starring Scarlett Johansson), depict science and technology out of control. Like thousands of other stories, they depict the irresponsible use of power by scientists and technologists. (Hence, the tiresome stereotype of the "evil" scientist.) "Transcendence" focuses on an overworked theme: autonomous computer technology with god-like powers, not necessarily used for good, or what silly humans (!) might consider good. There are parallels to be found in the story of "Lucy." Here, a scientific advance in the field of biochemistry plays a role in accidentally super-charging the brain of an "unwilling volunteer." This person develops god-like powers, not necessarily for good.

In each movie, the main character is transformed into something superhuman, capable of manipulating matter and energy and even (in "Lucy") time. In one movie the superhuman is feared and silly humans attempt to control it. In the other movie, most witnesses are awestruck, and the ones seeking control want the culpable chemical compound for drug trafficking.

The plots of these movies are riddled with scientific and technical holes. For viewers, attaining and maintaining a "willing suspension of disbelief" is difficult. But holes are inevitable in stories like these, where science and technology are extrapolated so far. In "Transcendence," somehow we must map a brain a high level of detail, reverse engineer that mapping to recreate thoughts and memories, and connect the resulting model to the real world in a way that allows the model and the real world to modify each other. In "Lucy," we must accept the notion that we only use a fraction of our brainpower, that using more would be of benefit, that a chemical compound could open all that up, and that this increased brainpower would allow manipulation of one's environment in ways that defy the fundamental laws of physics.

Both stories raise questions of course. If a brain can be reverse-engineered and captured within a computer, would this not amount to a technological Tower of Babel? Let us build an intelligence, we might say, that will display superhuman powers, and we ourselves can become superhuman. And if supercharging a brain can give its owner the ability to manipulate anything at all, would the development of this also not be something from which we would be cast down by our Higher Power? The mind-brain-soul debates will rage into the future, but we might ask, if a brain is replicated electronically, and (by extension) the mind associated with this brain, what happens to the soul? And what effect would there be on the soul if the brain was capable of unlimited power?

In the end, while neither movie really broke new ground, I found both movies entertaining. But I enjoyed "Lucy" more, for the fast pace and suspense, and also because certain scenes reminded me of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- one of my favorite movies -- as well as "Altered States," a suspenseful horror story about chemically-induced devolution (vs evolution).

Orson Scott Card's "Pathfinder"

Pathfinder (Jimmy Coates, #1)Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will confess that I was drawn to this book by its cover. The colors are grand, there is a metallic sheen underneath, and -- thankfully -- there is no hooded protagonist on the cover, as so many other covers have been using over the past few years. As I began reading this book, I was intrigued by two things. First, the story line juxtaposes high technology (spaceflight) with low technology (your typical fantasy world of taverns and swords etc.). Presumably the story eventually ties these together, but I don't know -- I decided to abandon reading it. The second thing that intrigued me was that the main character was able to manipulate time, and see the paths that others have taken through his environment before he arrived there. But after I had invested several not-unpleasurable hours of reading, it seemed like the author was having too much fun confusing the characters (and the reader!) with time travel paradoxes. I simply lost interest in the book. It was one of those cases where the book was interesting, but because it is competing for my attention with many other books (on my shelves and on my wishlist), I chose to give up on it. Sorry, Mr. Card.

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City at the End of Time

City at the End of TimeCity at the End of Time by Greg Bear
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

When I learned of this book some time ago, I was intrigued by the premise of time and space gone awry, and of a group of misfits who will save reality. Despite some negative reviews, I finally purchased a copy and tried to slog my way through it. Let me be clear: I really wanted to enjoy this book. I don't expect to fully understand the metaphysics and astrophysics in a story like this, but it needs to be clear enough that my "willing suspension of disbelief" isn't taxed by gleaning nothing from chapters where there is nothing understandable to stand on. I finally and reluctantly realized I was not enjoying it, so I abandoned the book part way through. This will appeal to some; it didn't appeal to me.

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