Monthly Archives: March 2010

A long time ago, in a courtroom far far away…..

Well, it’s done. The sci-fi legend of our generation is now complete. Our parents had Dr. Strangeglove and 1984. Their parents were transfixed by H. G. Wells. The generation before that had Jules Verne. And we got Star Wars….

Title: Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time
Editors: David Brin, Matthew Woodring Stover
Year: 2006
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Love it or hate it, most people would have to agree that the Star Wars saga is undoubtedly one of the greatest phenomena of modern pop culture. Of course, with popularity comes criticism, and Star Wars is no exception. Is it mythically rooted drama with something to say, or merely brainless eye candy? Is it science fiction or fantasy? Are the spinoff novels a good thing or an abomination? What about the politics, philosophy, and ethics of that galaxy far far away? These and many other questions have been discussed by fans and critics for years, and are discussed yet again in the present volume. Part of the Smart Pop book series from BenBella Books, Star Wars on Trial looks at this cinematic juggernaut from every possible angle (including a few unexpected ones). The book is laid out as a courtroom drama, with David Brin as the prosecutor, Matthew Woodring Stover as the defense, and a droid judge to maintain order. There are also essays or “briefs” submitted by many other SF/F authors on both sides of the debate (see the tags for a full list). This courtroom format comes across as silly sometimes (all right, most of the time), but the book does a good job of bringing a wide variety of opinions to bear on the subject.

The main topics for debate are presented as a series of charges, with each charge then being addressed by both prosecution and defense. The charges are as follows:

1. The politics of Star Wars are anti-democratic and elitist.
2. While claiming mythic significance, Star Wars portrays no admirable religious or ethical belies.
3. Star Wars novels are poor substitutes for real science fiction and are driving real sf off the shelves.
4. Science fiction filmmaking has been reduced by Star Wars to poorly written special effects exravaganzas.
5. Star Wars has dumbed down the perception of science fiction in the popular imagination.
6. Star Wars pretends to be science fiction, but is really fantasy.
7. Women in Star Wars are portrayed as fundamentally weak.
8. The plot holes and logical gaps in Star Wars make it ill-suited for an intelligent viewer.

If those accusations sound overly negative, let me put your mind at ease by saying this book is not merely an exercise in Star Wars bashing. Brin and his supporters do come on strong and put the screws to George Lucas and his creation (and rightly so, I think). But on the other hand, Stover and his defense team manage to hold their ground quite admirably. In fact, I would venture to say that most readers who begin reading this book with a preconceived bias, either for or against these movies, will likely come away with the feeling that things aren’t quite as simple or clear-cut as they thought. Many good points are made on both sides of the debate, some that I had never considered before. I, for one, now have a better view of both the flaws and the strengths of this film series (I think there are many of both), and for that reason it was well worth reading.

Advice to would-be sf writers, from sf writers

The sf writer cannot avoid man’s problems; by the very nature of his craft, he must meet them head on. That is sf’s challenge, and it is as big as the future of mankind.

Title: The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy
Editor: Reginald Bretnor
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Here’s one of those “advice on how to write from the writers themselves” books, which I picked up not because I have any goals of writing myself but simply because I like reading what sf writers have to say about their field. This is one of several such volumes helmed by the same editor back in the 1970′s, and is a fairly interesting collection of essays for any sf fan who also likes reading works about sf. Strange fellow though, this Bretnor. His introduction provides some insightful thoughts on sf, but things get a little weird when he starts professing his belief that clairvoyance, dowsing, and other assorted woo is “proven.” Uhhh, yeah, whatever. Anyway, who cares what the editor has to say? What’s important is what the writers themselves have to share. Here’s a rundown of their contributions and a few comments on each:

Poul Anderson, “Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come.” This one’s rather dry, with not much of importance to say.

Hal Clement, “Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies.” A decent article on the use of science in sf and the importance of internal consistency.

Norman Spinrad, “Rubber Sciences.” One of the best essays in the book; it covers some of the same ground as Clement, but from a different perspective. Spinrad says what’s important in sf is plausibility, and not necessarily a rigid deference to scientific fact. He sums up by saying science fiction writers are….

… the poets of the future, the seers of human destiny. Hard science, soft science, or rubber are tools of the trade, means to the end of visionary insight and artistic creation. They should never be mistaken for the end itself.

Alan E. Nourse, “Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps.” Focuses largely on that all-important fictional element, the premise, as well as other fiction basics. Solid article.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Future Writers in a Future World.” This was a pure joy to read. Sturgeon does a better job than anyone else in this volume of getting across the sheer sense of wonder of science fiction, and his essay is full of enthusiastic inspiration for future writers and valuable advice on where to find story ideas. He also stresses the importance of connecting your ideas to real human concerns:

And whatever your idea or statement, gimmick, gadget or message, you will (to be read) encase it in love, and pain, and greed, and laughter, and hope, and above all loneliness.

Jerry Pournelle, “The Construction of Believable Societies.” A good look at the need for social depth — what we often call “world building” — in sf.

Frank Herbert, “Men on Other Planets.” Herbert makes some great points about sf’s ability to escape our society’s unexamined assumptions and play around with them. He also quite correctly warns the potential writer that there’s more to writing sf than thinking up an idea — the development of that idea is the crucial thing.

Katherine MacLean, “Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences.” MacLean chose an intriguing topic, but her thoughts on the matter were scattered and unfocused and, to be honest, boring.

James Gunn, “Heroes, Heroines, Villains: the Characters in Science Fiction.” Pretty self-explanatory. Solid article on the importance of characterization.

Larry Niven, “The Words in Science Fiction.” On how to add some linguistic depth to your fiction. Interesting.

Jack Williamson, “Short Stories and Novelettes.” A few words on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the shorter fictional forms.

John Brunner, “The Science Fiction Novel.” And here’s Brunner on the other end of the spectrum.

Harlan Ellison, “With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image.” A long and involved article on writing screenplays for television and film. I didn’t find it that interesting myself, but I’m sure it would be helpful to anyone looking to do that kind of work.

Frederik Pohl, “The Science Fiction Professional.” A rather tedious essay on the business aspects of being a writer — all about agents, publicity, contracts, and such.

Basically it’s a few boring articles, mixed with a few really pleasurable ones, with a lot more falling somewhere in between. I’d recommend this book to would-be writers; for anyone else, it just depends on how much interest you have in this sort of thing.