Monthly Archives: June 2008

An alternative to the (alleged) Sci-Fi Channel

Add this to the list of all the deep unsolvable mysteries of life: why the (supposed) Sci-Fi Channel offers programming that sci-fi fans hate. At least, most fans I know hate it. I hate it. Best-case scenario: when the seasons of the few shows I do watch coincide, I might, I just might, watch the channel three hours a week. More often it’s only one or two hours. Currently it’s none, nada, nothing. Nothing that could come close to being interesting enough to drag me away from a good book (or even a mediocre book). Pretty pathetic when you think about it. The (pseudo) Sci-Fi Channel can’t even manage to get me — a science fiction fan who has watched sci-fi shows his whole life, someone who should be their core audience — to tune in to their crappy excuse for programming.

Someone else hates the (phony) Sci-Fi Channel too: the Crotchety Old Fan. And guess what? He decided to do something about it. He tracked down a ton of links to science fiction tv shows, movies, and radio programs that are available (legally) on the web, gathered them all into one place for your convenience, and named the project The Classic Science Fiction Channel (now going into my Resources section at the side).

If you’re tired of of all the giant animal/monster movies, the silly ghost-hunting shows, and all the other 3rd-rate (or worse) fare on the (I only wish it was) Sci-Fi Channel, then turn off the TV, come to the web, and find something good to watch for a change.

And a great big “thank you” to COF for doing all that work so that we, the fans, may benefit. I’m still working my way through all those old Twilight Zone episodes!

Kress sheds some (alien) light on human nature

After loving Nancy Kress’ Sleepless series (Beggars in Spain and its follow-ups), and Probability series, I thought I’d backtrack and try one of her earlier books. After writing some fantasy early in her career, she moved on to science fiction, with her first such novel being An Alien Light, published in 1988. And I was pleased to find it showcasing the same high quality of writing that I have come to know from her later work.

The novel is set in the mid-distant future after humanity has developed the ability to travel between the stars. And out there among the stars, humanity has found an enemy and is at war with that enemy, the Ged, who seem to be at roughly the same technological level as the humans. The reasons behind this war and how it started are never given, and in fact it plays only a background role and is never described in any detail.

The focus of the book is a small population of humans who have descended from a colony ship that landed on a distant planet, who have forgotten their origins and know nothing of the existence of the rest of humanity. They are primitives, existing at something like an Iron Age level, and furthermore are divided into two bitterly warring factions, each based around its own city, each with its own social identity. The Ged discover this planet and its primitive humans, and see it as the perfect laboratory in which to study aspects of human psychology which they find extremely puzzling, hoping that whatever they learn will aid them in the war (in which they seem to be taking a beating lately).

So the Ged send a team to the planet to set up a massive anthropological experiment to study what they call the Central Paradox. The paradox that has them so stumped is how humans, as violent as they are, could have lasted long enough to achieve interstellar spaceflight without first destroying themselves. As we learn from the Ged, this is absolutely unheard of. Any species whose members commit violence against each other invariably destroys itself long before reaching the stars. Humanity is the first species encountered that has proven to be the exception to the rule. The Ged simply can’t fathom how a species could be intelligent and at the same time exhibit conflict within itself. This is completely alien to the Ged, who value solidarity above anything else — “singing in harmony,” they call it.

I must say that I found it a bit hard to swallow the Ged’s claim about humanity being the sole example of an intelligent yet violent species. Evolutionary logic goes a long way toward explaining violence, and it is very likely that species from other worlds would have developed under that same logic and would thus have violence as at least some part of their nature. And indeed, at the end of the book, when the Ged finally find a solution to the Central Paradox, that solution does seem to imply that violence evolved with a certain level of functionality. It just seems strange that the same didn’t happen anywhere else in the galaxy. I suppose Kress wanted to isolate our own species in order to better examine our own nature, which is of course what good science fiction does. And so it wasn’t too hard to set aside any theoretical debates about the nature of aliens, and focus on the humans, which is after all where the real strength of this novel lies.

One thing Kress is very good at (there are several) is characterization. Her characters are people you can sympathize with and really care about, people who draw you into the story because they seem so real. And An Alien Light was no exception in this area. These characters displayed so much real emotion, and were so complex in their interactions with each other, that they took on a life of their own, and that’s what made this such an enjoyable read.

It’s interesting how conflict is so deeply woven into this novel at every level. There’s the conflict between human and Ged. There’s the conflict between the two human city-states of this lost colony. There is conflict between smaller groups within each of those subcultures. And then, within many of the major characters, there is conflict within a single individual who struggles — often agonizingly — to find the right path between opposing sets of principles, creeds, or desires. But then, set against the concept of conflict is the concept of cooperation; more and more throughout the book, the most unlikely and unpredictable alliances form between characters who, before meeting the Ged, would rather have killed each other than help each other.

In the end, I find it hard to distill a single, cohesive message from this book. If I had to try, perhaps it would be that traits like violence or cooperation aren’t all-or-nothing propositions, but are highly dependent on context, and the context means everything in how they play out. And they played out in all sorts of fascinating ways in this novel full of vivid and believable characters.

Science fiction movies: worse than other genres?

SF author John Scalzi recently wrote an article titled With Sci-Fi Movies, Classic Does Not Equal Good at his Sci-Fi Scanner blog on the AMC website. (I learned of it via crotchetyoldfan, who gives his own take on the matter here.

Scalzi’s basic argument is this:

But what makes science fiction different than every other genre of film — what makes it unique, for better or worse — is that a strangely high percentage of the classics of the genre are not good films; some are structurally flawed in major ways, while others are just plain awful.

Now of course this is all subjective in the extreme. There’s no way for everyone to agree on what is “good” or “bad” or “awful,” and there isn’t even a definition of “classic” that everyone shares. Still, while Scalzi is of course free to offer his opinions and like or dislike whatever suits him, I think his argument is weak and unconvincing. He gives three or four examples of movies many consider classics, and gives his reasons for believing those movies are bad. Well that’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s a far cry from making his case. To do that, he would have to do the following:

1. Settle on a concrete and usable definition of “classic”
2. Go through the classic films of every genre and sort them all into “good” or “bad” categories
3. Figure the percentage of bad classics for each genre
4. Show that Sci-fi has a higher percentage of bad classics

I know that’s a huge project and not something that could be presented in a single blog post, but without that kind of thorough review and statistical analysis, all Scalzi has to present is his own vague and unsupported opinion. And it’s fine for him to have his own opinion, just like it’s fine for me to have mine.

Honestly, if he did go through that whole process of deep analysis, it’s hard to say what he’d find, but I doubt there would be any major differences between genres. If there’s one thing I can say about movies, or literature, or music, or any type of art, it’s that Sturgeon’s Law most definitely applies to all of it: 90% of everything is crap. Like most of you, I’m sure, I’ve seen plenty of bad sci-fi movies. But I’ve also seen plenty of bad comedies, thrillers, dramas, horror flicks, action movies, and any other genre you can think of.

And just for the record, here are a bunch of SF movies I consider to be “good” at the very least (whether “classic” or not, I don’t really care): 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Abyss, Alien, Aliens, The Bicentennial Man, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Code 46, Contact, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Empire Strikes Back, Enemy Mine, Forbidden Planet, Gattaca, Imposter, Logan’s Run (no matter what Scalzi says), The Matrix, Millennium, Minority Report, Paycheck, Pitch Black, Planet of the Apes, Silent Running, Soylent Green, Stargate, Star Trek: the Motion Picture, Star Trek 2: the Wrath of Kahn, Star Wars, Terminator, Terminator 2, Total Recall…. and if I really shook my brain I could probably get some more to fall out. No single other person is going to agree with me on all of those, but my point is that I would be hard-pressed to put together a list of good movies from any other genre that would be substantially larger than that.

How much can you read in a year?

I’ve noticed there are a lot of people out there in the literary portion of the blogosphere engaged in a “50 book challenge” — an effort to read 50 books in a year. I’m not sure where it started, but it’s a great idea and a great challenge. Especially for those of us who are not exactly what you’d call speed-readers. Some people can read a book in a couple days, but I’m not one of them (I can only wish).

However, even though I’m reading more this year than in any previous year of my life, I still don’t think I’m gonna make it to 50. The year is almost half over and right now I’ve read 17 books, and working on numbers 18 and 19. So optimistically, I might make it to 40. But then, quite a few of the books on my “unread books” shelf are long ones, so I’m aiming for a respectable goal of 35 this year.

Next year, maybe we’ll raise the bar and actually go for 50!

Along with the numerical goal, though, I also have another goal for myself. I’d like to read, during this year, science fiction from every decade of the 20th century. I think I’ve got the majority covered already, but I still need to fill in the earlier parts of the century, specifically the 1900′s, 1910′s, 1920′s, and the 1940′s. If anyone has any favorites from those periods, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Excuse me, I have to go read now……

The world ends with a heavy dose of satire

I can’t remember ever reading a novel with such a serious message, presented in such a humorous way, and layered with so much satire you could cut it with a knife. This Is the Way the World Ends is James Morrow’s 1986 apocalyptic warning about the dangers of nuclear arsenals and the philosophy of “mutually assured destruction.” It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read; and if you ask me if I mean that in a positive or a negative way, I’ll probably say “both,” but definitely more to the positive side. Let’s just say this book was…. different.

The basic plot outline is that nuclear brinksmanship goes one step too far, and America and Russia unleash their nuclear weapons and the human species is destroyed. With the exception of six survivors who are put on trial for crimes against humanity. Put on trial by whom, you may ask? By the Unadmitted — the ghosts of people who would have existed in the future had there been no nuclear war. Much like Ebenezer Scrooge facing the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future, the six survivors must face the Unadmitted from the future, as well as representatives from the past, who are rather pissed off that all their work in building history was just a waste of time if the species was going to commit suicide. Given the presence of ghosts (as well as the inclusion of Nostradamus and his future-predicting ability), it might be better to use the term “speculative fiction” here. Although the novel has the biting social commentary of the best science fiction, it also has a foot (or several) in allegorical fantasy. It seems like the strangest books are always the ones that are hard to pin down to a single genre. But even if ghosts, spirits, or other supernatural elements aren’t your cup of tea (they certainly aren’t mine), I can still recommend this book as a worthy claim on your reading time. Even if absurdity abounds, there is also a great deal of serious reflection on the human condition, and Morrow’s writing style is first-class.

There is plenty of satirical roasting to go around, with targets such as nuclear strategy, the military mindset, the ability of diplomats to achieve nothing and then spin it as a victory, and the willingness of a population to accept the bad and dangerous decisions of its leaders. It is that last item which just may be the worst, Morrow seems to suggest. The core of the novel is the trial of the six survivors for humanity’s extinction. Four of them are politicians, scientists, or military men who had some actual relation to the design or deployment of nuclear weapons. The fifth is a famous television evangelist who supports a strong U.S. nuclear capability. But the sixth, a simple gravestone inscriber, is on trial for the complicity of average citizens in going along with the madness of their leaders. The prosecutor’s closing argument is very good, and this piece of it seems to go to the very heart of what Morrow wants the novel to say:

And then, one cold Christmas season, death came to an admirable species — a species that wrote symphonies and sired Leonardo da Vinci and would have gone to the stars. It did not have to be this way. Three virtues only were needed — creative diplomacy, technical ingenuity, and moral outrage. But the greatest of these is moral outrage.

[....]

And it is the world of George Paxton, citizen, perhaps the most guilty of all. Every night, this man went to bed knowing that the human race was pointing nuclear weapons at itself. Every morning, he woke up knowing that the weapons were still there. And yet he never took a single step to relieve the threat.

There are quite a few of these very serious, very moving passages throughout the book, illustrating the tragedy (or tragicomedy) of human nature. Another example that really struck me:

The human mind could accomodate anything. Some parents beat their children. Auschwitz. Sundeath. It’s just blood, the mind said. It’s only pain. It’s merely putting people into ovens. It’s simply the end of the world….

But the book is rich with humor too, sometimes enough to make you laugh out loud. For example:

“What else do you forsee?”
“Myself. Writing a large book.” Nostradamus wove his crow quill through the air. “One hundred prophecies, in ill-phrased and leaden verse. Gibberish, every last line, but the mob will love them.” [....]
“If your book will be gibberish, why write it?”
“Fun and profit.”

Morrow’s novel is definitely not gibberish, but is is fun, and also profitable in the social commentary department. Make sure you try it before the world ends.

Sci-fi in music: The Dream Sequencer by Ayreon

Here’s the story: in the 22nd century humanity finally manages to wipe itself out in a massive world war…. Earth is dead, with not a single person left alive. A few colonists on Mars have enough supplies to last a few more years, but slowly they die off as well. This is the story of the last survivor, the last member of the human species anywhere. He was born on Mars and has never been on Earth, and now he too faces death soon. He chooses to end his days inside the Dream Sequencer, a sort of very advanced virtual reality machine. Inside it, one can relive earlier parts of one’s life, but what’s more, under the “pre-incarnation protocol” it can take you back to relive your past lives as well. So this last human being decides to get in the machine and go back, back, back… as far back as he possibly can before he dies (and trust me, he goes far). After the first song to set things up, each remaining song is about one of his previous lives.

Hokey as hell? Sure. But hey, there’s some good music here. This is, after all, Ayreon — the main project of the very talented multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen (a name you may remember from my previous Star One review. And of course there’s a whole gang of guest vocalists: Damian Wilson (Threshold, Landmarq), Edward Reekers (Kayak), Floor Jansen (After Forever), Jacqueline Govaert (Krezip), Johan Edlund (Tiamat, Lucyfire), Lana Lane, Mark McCrite (Rocket Scientists), and Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic). So… some nice progressive rock with lots of great vocals, and a SFnal-ish-type story to boot. Not too shabby.

My favorite songs are the first three, and I’ll give you some clips below. “The Dream Sequencer” sets up the story as our protagonist enters the machine. In “My House on Mars” he relives his days growing up as a Martian colonist. In “2084″ he goes back to his immediately previous incarnation, who dies during the final war on Earth. This is my very favorite, featuring the lovely voice of Lana Lane (I’m a huge fan of the female voice in rock and metal, and some of Lane’s solo work too), as well as some quite mournful yet poetic lyrics:

My body lies motionless
Upon the kitchen floor
The Earth has died, the world’s at rest
2084

…..

We carried on down the road we chose
The path of nevermore
The journey ends, the book is closed
2084

This is part one of a 2-cd set called The Universal Migrator; but I didn’t care as much for part two, so I won’t delve into that.

For a tracklisting, audio samples, and more info, I’ll refer you to Lucassen’s Universal Migrator page on his website.

As promised…..

“The Dream Sequencer”

“My House on Mars”

“2084″