Category Archives: Science Fiction

Real or Fake?

jackalope1So I’m reading a Kindle sample of a novel and in the beginning pages a character is listening to a song on the radio. The singer’s name is made up, the popular song being sung is made up, as are the equally unimpressive lyrics1. Then I find out that the singer got famous when she was on a TV program called Popstar! and, well, that along with some of the other problems I felt the book had, it kind of did me in for wanting to read the rest. I mean, why not just say American Idol?2

Why not indeed? I mean, doesn’t Stephen King, who some people praise for his immersive style of writing, sometimes drown you in brand names – Louie sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a Budweiser and a bag of Doritos, and turned his Sony flatscreen on to ESPN, waiting to see the start of the Boston Red Sox game… I think King’s point is to have people believe his creepy stuff could happen in the real world, so he throws in real world stuff in the name of verisimilitude. And it works for a lot of readers.3

On the other hand, you have writers who throw in fakes, and, well, I can’t really explain why. Years ago I was really excited to start reading James A. Michener’s Space, his novel about the U.S. space program. But early on it described a character going outside to look at the night sky “in the state of Fremont” – and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down like a house of cards. I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s a novel about NASA, it takes place in the United States and some of the other characters are real people, like Werhner Von Braun and Lyndon Johnson… then why make up a state fercryinoutloud? Why not just say Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa?

Now there are times when you definitely want to fake it. If you’re an insider to history or popular culture and you want to vent your spleen on the subject from an insider’s point of view, the roman a clef is the way to do it. Just change the names and everything is good to go. And if you want to keep your job, better fake your name, too – Anonymous is very popular among this set, and you can join novels like Primary Colors and Elimination Night4, along with all the attendant “who wrote it?” publicity.

Unfortunately, to me novels like that become a jokey guessing game with no real point. Everyone knows which Presidential candidate is really Bill Clinton, which recently rehabbed rock star grasping for relevance is really Stephen Tyler. if you’re going to this, I have two pieces of advice: first, make sure you have a really good lawyer. Second, if you’re going to fake the names, go all the way. Don’t play the assonance game and make William Clinton into Wilson Fenton (Primary Colors makes him Jack Stanton). Doing that strikes me as being too cutesy and cloying. Make him Frank Stevens instead. And if you’re going to have a cameo by an iconic figure, you have to be consistent and play it out ’till the end, changing his/er name, too. Just don’t call him Rob Snopes.

In Science Fiction it’s easier to get away with fakery. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that sound different in the future because, well, things will sound different in the future. Except when they stay pretty much the same, as evidenced by the brand names that pop up in films like 2001 and Blade Runner.

Still, when you’re in the future you need to play nice. While working on the Pembroke Hall novels, my editor asked me to change the way that I talked about Timex in the book. They were afraid the watchmakers would be offended by things and the lawyers would come out. I made the alteration because she had a point, it was an easy fix, and I didn’t really have anything against the company or their products.

If you’re writing Historical Fiction, then it’s probably best not to fake it at all. Readers of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist partly did so to watch how the characters interacted with a future President who at the time of the novel was Police Commissioner of New York City. They didn’t want to guess which leader Theophilus Rosenfeld turned out to be. The trick to not faking it here is use the real person’s character to enhance the goings-on – a recent episode of Downtown Abbey centered around a meeting with playboy Prince Edward, whose womanizing ways contributed to the plot in an ironic way.

So if you’re going to be real, play nice and be consistent. And if you’re going to fake it, well, go in all the way and don’t be ridiculous about it.

That concludes my thoughts. This is Joe Clifford Faust, signing off from the state of Midlandia.

  1. But then, I’m at the age where most of the lyrics I hear on the radio are unimpressive.
  2. And I have problems with ALL these shows that grind out cookie cutter singers, but I’m not going there today.
  3. See, I can write about King and not say anything nasty!
  4. Which I always thought was a really lame fake name for American Idol. Popstar! is much better.

The Sci-Fi Blues

Here’s the second part of Scoob’s missive wherein he asks a very good question: What is it about Sci-Fi that is so difficult for TV to get?

His point is that, in an era that is ready to embrace the genre as its own – there’s even a channel dedicated to it now – why is it that program after program appears, only to screw things up, or, on showing promise, disappear?

He theorizes that it may be the marketing of the program, citing examples like Firefly, and Invasion, which ended on what may be a never-resolved cliffhanger. Also, he speculates that the overall vision, and the control over same as exercised by the creators, may have something to do with it, citing Roddenberry’s influence over the return of the Trek franchise. That could explain the endurance of shows like Babylon 5, which was almost the single-handed work of J. Michael GuywhoselastnameIcan’tspell.

One factor I think he missed is that, more and more often, programs are not given a chance to find their audience. I seem to recall an odd little sitcom that got off to a rocky start, being bounced from one time slot to another. But the core audience stayed loyal, and word spread, and soon it was a hit. It was about some bar where everybody knows your name.

Nowadays, airtime is money, and if a show is not the hit, it gets the axe. Note: this is also true of music acts and authors now.

But there’s one other thing that I think is at work. This should be the Golden Age of SF Cinema (lumping TV in with that for convenience). After all, the years of bad 50’s Sci-Fi are behind us, special effects are incredible, and there’s never been a bigger market for the stuff.

Yet so much of it is terrible. And so much more is just plain gone wrong.

What’s the deal?

I think the main issue comes down to a second question: Why can’t Hollywood seem to get Science Fiction right?

Personally, I think it’s because Hollywood has little if any concept of how ingrained Science should be in SF. They think that if you put a scientific concept, e.g., space ships, in something, it makes it Science Fiction. Not.

(Case in point, Gene Roddenberry’s pitch to NBC about what Star Trek was all about: “It’s Wagon Train in space.”)

There are a lot of definitions of SF out there. Probably the best one is “Science Fiction is what we’re pointing at when we say it.” I’m more of a purist and prefer my own less-forgiving criterion: Take a Science Fiction story. Remove all of the Science. Do you still have a story? Then it’s not Science Fiction.

This is because I feel that science should be integral to the plot. Note that this instantly dismisses stuff like Star Wars*, the Alien films, two thirds of classic Star Trek episodes,** and in the interest of being fair, most of my own SF novels.

When you lose sight of that, you lose sight of what makes SF, meaning you put out bad product, which gives you something like… okay, I’ll pick that scab one more time: Jericho. Yes, I know that the show is supposed to be CBS’s answer to Lost, therefore making it Not Sci-Fi, but bear with me for a moment because it’s flaws illustrate my point well.

And the point is the unwillingness of Hollywood to go the extra mile to make something worthwhile. When Stanley Kubrick sat down with Arthur C. Clarke, their goal was to make “the proverbial good Science Fiction movie.” I don’t know what the creators of Jericho were thinking, but they did prove one thing: a little research is a dangerous thing.

In the case of Jericho, the creator knew that one nuclear bomb could ruin your whole day. But then, he tells an interviewer, he did some research and found out some amazing things about nuclear explosions, things that nobody thought much about. Apparently this had to do with fallout, and how rain could wash it out of the sky. So he strove to reflect this in the series.

Unfortunately, his research stopped there. The episode I saw showed a guy poking around a barn looking for some stolen horses (honest). He saw hoofprints in the dust. He kicks at the dirt and stirs up some dust. Cut to a medium shot and he’s surrounded by a nice sunlight that shows he is surrounded by… you guessed it.

If our Hollywood writer had bothered to keep reading the chapter on fallout, he would have learned some other things. Like about “half-life” and “residual radioactivity” and “this stuff can be dangerous for weeks” and “even years later can still make you linger with painful cancer that there are no longer any drugs to treat.”

Needless to say, I gave up on the show just after that. I can only hope that the half-life of Jericho is only a couple of weeks.

So what does work in the world of SF? What has Hollywood done right? In my opinion, films that are true SF are few and far between: 2001: A Space Odyssey and yes, its sequel 2010 (just because it stayed so true to the book); Blade Runner; The Andromeda Strain; and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

This brings us back to Scoob’s original question. I just listed five films that should be seen as the Gold Standard for great SF . How many of these were hits? How many are considered “difficult?” How many are even argued over vis a vis their worthiness as entertainment?

I hate to say it, but the answer to Scoob’s question might be as close as a look in the mirror (okay, not for Scoob, and definitely not for me – but you get the idea). The audience just might be as responsible as lazy Hollywood. Do they want something that will provoke thought about man’s insignificance when compared to the cosmos? Do they want something that makes them think about what it means to be human? Do they want to believe that science can save us at best or enslave us at worst?

(Time or Newsweek did a story not too long ago about the fantasy boom saying that SF was in decline because, in real life, the science that was supposed to save and enlighten us has let us down.)

Or does the audience want spectacle, even if there is a casual disregard for the laws of physics? Hey, Star Wars got away with that – and bad writing, too.+

So what’s the answer? Smarter writers? Smarter producers? A smarter audience? Unfortunately, judging from what I’ve seen written about this nation’s composite SAT scores in the Math and Science fields, those won’t arrive any time soon.

Our recourse? We vote. We vote with the only thing that Hollywood understands: our dollars. So the next time you see something challenging, brilliant, moving, and soundly grounded in whatever makes SF proper SF, see the movie, get the T-shirt, buy the soundtrack, see the movie again, then buy the DVD.

But don’t hold your breath. Because the next great SF film or series probably won’t come around for another blue moon.++

Now you and I make up perfect things
Watch me trade my wheels for wings
But don’t ever use the wings to fly
Just the essence of a lullaby

(via iTunes)

* Star Wars could have been a great pirate movie, with the two robots being a stuffy English butler and a bulldog. To make this point, at one time I proposed rewriting (and trying to sell) my novel Desperate Measures as not only a pirate novel, but a biker novel, a trucker novel, and a western.

** Note that I like the first two Alien films and I adore classic Star Trek – in fact, it’s hard for me to pull myself away from G4’s uncut airings of Classic Trek on Saturday mornings (as opposed to Star Trek 2.0, which is just plain goofy). I never warmed to The Next Generation – it got too bogged down in political correctness and Gene Roddenberry’s sense of self-importance. I guess this means that TOS is for Republicans and TNG is for Democrats, huh?

+ Kind of like how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera was a hit despite a lack of singable songs because of the falling chandelier.

++ The metaphorical blue moon, not the scientific one.

The Fudge Factor, or,”How Much Can I Get Away With Before My Audience Deserts Me?”

An interesting exchange of e-mails with my old college buddy Scoob has given me fodder for not one but two posts. This is the first, and the second will straggle in at some point in the future.

Scoob started the ball rolling when he sent me this link to a blog wherein a physicist nitpicks the goings-on in a new TV series called Jericho.

Now even though I now have cable, I hadn’t heard of Jericho. In fact, I can only name one new show to come out this season, Standoff, and only because it comes on after House. But it did, at first, sound like something I would have been interested in – the idea of a small, isolated community surviving a nuclear war echoes the classic novel Alas, Babylon, so at least the idea had some promise.

Well, it’s a good thing that I didn’t hear about the show and start watching it, based on the physicist’s review. It sounds to me like the writing suffers from either a blatant ignorance of, or a casual disregard for, the realities of science. Now I suppose that one could attribute lines like “Hydrogen bombs set the atmosphere on fire” to writers who don’t want to stop and explain things to audience members who would be put off by such a thing… but if you’re playing the Alas, Babylon card, you’ve got to realize that you’re going to draw some people to the show who are going to quickly spot the zipper running up the back of your monster’s suit. Well, you should realize it, anyway. Apparently, they didn’t.

Which prompts the question, “How much fudging of the facts can a writer get away with before losing readers, or worse yet, credibility?”

First, let’s keep in mind that there are always going to be people who nitpick little details. And you’re never going to get all of them right. You might think that you know all there is to know about Onion Rings, based on your 20 years of experience as a flack for the American Association for the Cultural Advancement of the Onion Ring, but someone is out there waiting to point out that you made the critical mistake of putting cumin powder in the batter, and no self-respecting maker of Onion Rings would ever, ever do that. So let’s put that aspect aside and forget about it, along with that highly annoying analogy.

As with most of my answers, I don’t think there’s anything that’s black and white. And, as with most of my answers, I offer a set of guidelines that might help you think this kind of thing through.

1) It depends on how big or important your fudge is. God might be in the details, but if you leave a gaping hole as a result of your fudge, it is going to be noticed. Like in the movie U-571, which would have you believe that the German Enigma Code was broken because we Americans disguised one of our subs as a U-Boat and used it to go and hijack a real U-Boat, which had an Enigma machine on it. This conveniently overlooks the many hard centuries of man-hours that British intelligence took to unravel how the system worked (although, to be fair, as a sop to any Brits in the audience, there was a credit at the end of the film giving them credit for helping crack the code).*

That is called ignoring the facts so you can have a plot. It is B-A-D. Not to mention S-T-U-P-I-D.

On the other side of the coin, in the play that I hope to start editing this evening, I have an extended courtroom scene, and I left out one detail: a bailiff. Every bit of logic says I should have one, because emotions at a child custody hearing would naturally run high, and it is a good thing to have a stocky gentleman with a badge to be handy to pry people apart.

But I left out any mention of a Bailiff completely. Frankly, I did it to expedite the scene, which I knew was going to be long going in, and one more character to juggle wasn’t going to shorten things any. Besides, I had an eye on my audience – I want this play to be picked up and performed by community theater groups around the country, and in some cases a play’s viability is determined by the number of male characters (men are traditionally in short supply when it comes to community theater).

(Okay, yeah, we could have a female bailiff, but I already have three characters who could be played by a woman or a man, complete with unisex names, so give me a break.)

My philosophy was this: 1) if the director really would sleep better at night, s/he could put one in him/er self; 2) for the audience I am after, it’s a small but forgivable indiscretion, annoying perhaps only attorneys, who are probably going to be annoyed by things other than this anyway, and; 3) the only thing I’m losing is suspense, because a bailiff would represent the possibility of a fistfight breaking out, and frankly, this isn’t that kind of a play. It’s kind of like Chekov’s admonition (the playwright, not the guy on the U.S.S. Enterprise who seems to do nothing but raise the shields and get beaten up) – “If you describe a gun hanging on the mantle, it better come into use during the play.” Or words to that effect.

So is what I am doing a gamble? Yeah, but a small one – like calling in with a queen and an off-suit number card. Is it B-A-D? Is it S-T-U-P-I-D? Not in my B-O-O-K. But your mileage may vary. Think about it and tell me what you think once you’ve seen the play.

2) It depends on your audience. Maybe the creators of Jericho never heard of Alas, Babylon, but a little homework would have told them that this kind of show was going to attract some people for whom science was an occupation, a hobby, or in the case of fandom, a way of life. And that these folks would be rather vocal in pointing out the rather gaping holes in the fabric of the story.

One of my favorite films is How to Murder Your Wife. The climactic scene of this battle of the sexes comedy takes place in a courtroom, and after a beleagured Jack Lemmon pleads his case, the Judge looks over at the conveniently all-male jury and asks for their verdict. They all reply at once, without going off to deliberate. It’s a funny moment, even though it makes the Fudge-O-Meter go off the scale. But you know what? Even though I think “this would never happen in real life” every time I see this scene, I still love it. Because, as the audience, I am expecting a comic battle of the sexes film. I’m a lot more lax on the rules than I would be were I to see the same indiscretion in, say, a John Grisham novel.

My favorite example of this being done badly is in a film I have never seen – the infamous NBC mini-series Noah’s Ark. Apparently, the film begins with a credit saying that some liberties have been taken with the story. Okay, I can understand that. The story of Noah takes up three chapters in Genesis, and to stretch the story out to 160 minutes, you’ve got to make up some dialogue and extrapolate some action based on what it would take to spend 100 years building a huge boat while your neighbors complained about the noise (extrapolated) and laughed at you (Biblical). Hopefully, all of this fudging would draw from what you know of the time and culture, and from the Bible itself.

(Foreshadowing moment: Hollywood writer knowing something about the Bible. Heh.)

Well, the liberties didn’t stop with additional dialogue. The film apparently begins with Noah rescuing Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Scratching your head because you don’t remember that from Sunday School? Of course you are. See, the writers forgot, or chose to ignore, or most likely simply didn’t know that Noah was the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Lot — who was actually rescued by Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Abraham.

Then there were other liberties – like the ark having to flee from ocean-borne pirates (!) and hooking up with a sailing man whose vessel was a floating haberdashery shop, and… I can’t go on.

The lesson here is: You’re writing a Biblical epic. Think maybe that might draw an audience of persons interested in seeing it because they’ve read that particular book quite a bit? Think maybe they’d expect the story to stay within the bounds of what they consider to be the facts? Think maybe they’d notice – and quite possibly raise their voices – if some of the facts were completely out of whack?. Well, the benefit of hindsight gives us what Hollywood’s answer was, and it ends in the words, “…and give me another hit of that Columbian while your at it.”

(For a look at a what may be the best Bible adaptation ever, check out Joseph, which extrapolates wisely, tells the story completely, and fudges only in the timing of one of Joseph’s speeches at the film’s end – but it makes for a great moment, and I understand completely why the writer did it that way.)

3) It depends on why you’re fudging. The mention of the Joseph fudge brings this up. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, part of his speech is taken from one that was actually given after their father, Jacob, died. As I said, this little bit of rearranging puts a cap on the story without having to drag the film out for another half an hour as we wait for Jacob to die and the brothers to worry about their fate in Egypt.

Sometimes you fudge because of audience expectations. When a rough cut of Star Wars was previewed at a Science Fiction convention, a representative for the film was on hand afterwards for a Q and A session. According to the legend, he opened the session with these words; “Before any of you says anything, yes, we know that there’s no sound in space. Are there any other questions?”

This tells me that George Lucas knew of that particular fact of science, and ignored it for the sake of making a more exciting film. He also knew it was something he could get away with.

(The only film I can think of that has a soundless explosion was 2001: A Space Odyssey – but if there was ever a film that should have had silent explosions, it was Alien – just because of it’s now-famous tag line: “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”)

So to sum up this point, ask yourself why you are fudging. Your answer will give you an instant assessment of the balance of risks versus reward:

  1. It’s just a little fudge that will allow me to have greater dramatic impact at an opportune moment in the story,
  2. This is a time-honored fudge that, in our cultural lexicon, is seen more as tradition than error,
  3. My story’s a bit unwieldy, and by bending the rules a bit, I can make a more efficient machine out of it,
  4. I’m really in a hurry to get this done, I don’t have the time or gumption to really fact-check this,
  5. Nobody in flyover America will notice, and the important people I know won’t care,
  6. Listen, this is my story, and I can’t really be bothered with the facts,
  7. Hey, don’t bogart the Columbian, I’m getting a buzz kill here!

To fudge this whole thing to a conclusion, when it comes to the literary cheating, sometimes you have to knuckle down and do the right thing, even if you think it’s going to kill you. It’ll discipline you into doing the story right and making it more airtight, and better for the effort. Besides, research won’t kill you. You might even learn something.

Thus, I rest my case. And yes, that’s in a courtroom that has a bailiff.

it took ten years to realize
why the angel stopped crying
when you sail on down the lane
your happy smile, your funny name

(via iTunes shuffle play)

* This is also only fair because the British once made a film about how an intrepid RAF pilot was the first human to use an airplane to break the sound barrier – conveniently ignoring that whole Chuck Yeager/”The Right Stuff” thing.**

** I’m not fudging – the first time a human broke the sound barrier was in ancient times, probably when an Egyptian taskmaster cracked a whip across the backs of some slaves.

PS: For those of you writing space travel epics, here’s a great article that will keep your fudge factor low.

The Old Gray Genre Ain’t What She Used To Be

I just received an e-mail from a reader who tells me he has read through the Angel’s Luck trilogy about ten times (!). I don’t think I’ve been through those books that many times counting writing, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and correcting the galleys (I never read the books after they come out). In his letter, he asks me, “Do you have anything on the horizon?”

This put me in the position of telling him that, with the exception of one SF novel that I really want to finish, I’m not really writing Science Fiction anymore.

Part of this is by choice – I realized a couple of years ago that there were other genres where I could do quite well that have larger audiences than SF, and my agent agrees.

But there are also some factors at work that I don’t have much control over. For one, I think a Joe Clifford Faust SF novel would be a tough sell right now. I was dropped by Del Rey for disappointing sales – never mind that there was zero advertising or promotion, other than the fact that they were fired up over the book and pushed a copy into the hands of anyone who came into their office (this is how I ended up getting my first agent, which is a lengthy story for another post – if I haven’t already told it). When I asked about advertising before A Death of Honor came out, I was told “Our novels sell themselves.” Guess what, folks?

A few years later the Pembroke Hall novels landed at Bantam. They did advertise them, in Locus, the magazine of the SF trade. When I told them I had an idea for a promotion involving putting copies in the hands of the people most likely to appreciate the book – ad folk – I was given another line about how they knew how to sell their own books. Guess what, folks?

The month that Boddekker’s Demons came out was the same month that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print. I got a call from Bantam asking, “Do you still have that marketing plan of yours?” I did a mental debate about the wisdom of marketing a book that was the second half of a duology, especially when the first one had been taken off of the shelves, but shrugged and sent it to them anyway. I don’t know if they did anything with it. Likely not. The two books were my two worst sellers of all time – the two books combined sold fewer copies than my previous underachiever, The Essence of Evil.

It’s not a cry in my beer kind of story, and I’m not looking for sympathy. It happens a lot to authors. Musicians, too. Ask Stan Ridgway why he didn’t stay with Geffen Records. The bright side is that, because of the movie deal that went nowhere, the Pembroke Hall novels were also my biggest moneymakers, making more for me than what I made on the other five novels combined.

However, editors don’t look at what books make for authors. If a new Faust SF novel lands on an editor’s desk, he’s going to look at what previous titles did for Bantam and Del Rey. And that sales record sticks to authors like a bad credit rating. Thus, that one SF novel I really want to finish will be a hard sell if and when it gets to that point.

Another factor is that SF just ain’t what it used to be. It’s been beaten back into a corner by Fantasy, and what’s left of the genre has been co-opted by franchises, the largest offenders being the Star Trek/Star Wars axis.

There are still SF authors publishing SF novels, but try to find them. Just try. Without going to a specialty store. If you go into a drugstore or grocery store and find any speculative fiction at all, you’ll find a couple of classic novels by old masters (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke), a couple of StarWarsTrek novels, and the rest are fantasy. Go into a Waldenbooks or other mall store, and you’ll get the same mix, only more of them. If you’re lucky you might find an old William Gibson (whose current works are now considered mainstream) or, if the planets are aligned just right, a Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s even getting tougher to find new and proper SF at Borders. But maybe that’s because the titles sell out because it’s the only place where they can be found.

Why has all of this occurred? A couple of reasons. As far as the dominance of franchises goes, it’s because, heaven help us all, they sell. Slap “Wars” or “Trek” on the cover of a book and you’re guaranteed that your carefully calculated print run will more or less fly out the door. Publishers, not being stupid, put before the public what sells, and it’s not necessarily what is good for them.

(This brings to mind the notion of another unwanted government agency coming up with an ever-changing, increasingly incomprehensible chart of Daily Intellectual Nutrition Requirements – “Sorry, you’ve had enough Piers Anthony – time for some Phillip K. Dick!”)

The rise of fantasy is something else altogether. Around the time the Lord of the Rings film frenzy was in full swing, one of the Mainstream Media newsmags ran a sidebar article on why SF had been supplanted by Fantasy as the escapist literature of choice. Their theory – and to be honest, I can’t disagree with their thinking – is that science has let us down.

I love to look at magazines like Popular Science from the ’50’s and’60’s. You get visions of personal flying automobiles, undersea highways – that whole sense of optimism captured by Donald Fagen in his song I.G.Y.: On that train all graphite and glitter / Undersea by rail / Ninety minutes from New York to Paris / Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.

Well, we might have the equivalent of Dick Tracy’s two way wrist radio now, but I still don’t have my own personal Gyrocopter. The underseaways and zeppelin routes never materialized. We did get longer life spans, but the antibiotics that did it for us are now creating superbugs that eat them (and us) for lunch. We used to go around in a peaceful oblivion, not knowing that a well-placed asteroid could End It All for us – now we’re setting up telescopes and satellite networks to warn us of things that we won’t have a chance to save ourselves from. We avoided the nuclear war bullet, but the waste management is another thing. We’re close to all being wired, and what does it bring us? Ads for Teen Slut web sites and prescription drugs without a prescription.

Sheesh. Compared to that, facing down a Balrog in a deep, dank mine, armed with nothing but a little mithril and a sword that glows when orcs are around is a picnic. A picnic, I tell you!

If SF is no longer the escapist literature it once was, it’s because science, in all actuality, is in the business of raising more questions than it answers. And, as I have alluded to before when writing about how to craft the genre, one thing you have to look out for is that An Answer science gives us always has some kind of unforeseen side effect. Nuclear power, si! Nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, hmmm…

There’s one last factor I suppose I should mention. I started out wanting to write mainstream thrillers to begin with. My big influence at the time was Michael Crichton, who had just blown me (and everyone else) away with The Andromeda Strain. Those were the kind of books I wanted to write. Adventures with cutting edge science. That I ended up in SF can, as well-chronicled elsewhere in these pages, be attributed to the fact that I got mononucleosis at an inopportune time in my college career and ended up writing what would become Desperate Measures just to prove a point.

So that’s where SF is, and where I’m not, and why. It makes me a little wistful thinking about it – it’s like leaving your small hometown and coming back to find they’ve built an Applebees. I will always like and respect the genre, but I don’t know that it’s home anymore.

Not to worry. My love of science is going with me. There are some science moments in and that’s the end of the news…, albeit in a more Crichtonesque vein. If you look at it that way, then perhaps I’m not so much leaving home as coming home.

Listening: Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless” (via iPod Shuffle)

Ten Favorite SF Novels

I was asked in an e-mail what my favorite science fiction novels were. It was a real trip down memory lane, since I haven’t read much if any SF in a while now (I don’t know if Cryptonomicon counts or not).

I got to thinking about it, and before I knew it, I had enough for a decent sized list. So here are my off-the-top-of-my-head choices for my ten favorite SF novels, alphabetically by book title and subject to change to allow for ones that I forgot:

1. The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton)
The novel that inspired me to want to write books.

2. Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke)
I have always admired Clarke for his stunning ideas (his characterization always left a lot to be desired). This is his best novel.

3. The Diamond Age (Neil Stephenson)
Nanotechnology meets the cultural precepts of Victorian England. The book is hobbled because it comes off the rails at the end, and really needed another 50 pages to end properly, but up to that point it’s an impressive read.

4. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
Another classic, this one with one of the greatest opening lines of any novel I’ve ever read.

5. Mother of Storms (John Barnes)
A brilliantly realized novel of global catastrophe (imagine a hurricane that scrubs all forms of life off of the Hawaiian islands) and the dark side of human survival. Graphic and disturbing in places (hey, it’s John’s divorce book – can you blame him?).

6. The Past Through Tomorrow (Robert Heinlein)
A collection of short stories and novels that formed Heinlein’s “Future History.” Ambitious, classic SF.

7. Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
I think Vonnegut wanted this to be his “bitter old man writes anti-war screed” novel. That doesn’t matter to me – this book is a fascinating read that uses time travel to turn storytelling upside down. This book is why Vonnegut was an important writer at one time.

8/9. Starship Troopers (Heinlein) and The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
Forget the movie of the former. These two books are now fused together in my mind because they both take the same concept – future fighting men wearing suits that give them extraordinary fighting abilities – and look at them from two different angles. Heinlein’s book is hawkish and jingoistic; Haldeman’s is an examination of war’s insanity. Both are excellent.

10. Startide Rising (David Brin)
My favorite SF novel. Great plot, great vision, great characters. A book that really stirs up my sense of wonder.

11. When Gravity Fails (George Alec Effinger)
Cyberpunk in a world dominated by Islam. You’ve never read anything like this before. Great stuff. George will be missed.

Okay, so it goes to eleven. Call me Nigel Tufnel.


On today’s writing front, I was so busy at work that I actually forgot to work on Deadline over lunch. I’ve been suddenly crushed by three of the other kind of deadlines all at once, so my lunch was kind of an eat-and-run kind of affair.

I think I could have written more tonight, but I simply ran out of steam. The last couple of weeks at work have been long and involved, ditto goings on at Church, ditto the weekend spent working on making a stall in the barn a more suitable chicken coop. That’s okay. I’ll still take these numbers.

Today’s Scorecard
And/News – Chapter Twenty
673 pages (+6)
148,180 words (+ 1258)

NP – iTSP (Evita OST, “Requiem for Evita”)

Literary Snobbery

I’m not really writing Science Fiction right now, but this still ticks me off.

Gary Gibson, over at White Screen of Despair describes a run in he had yesterday with a literature snob. If you’re not into SF at all, you probably haven’t seen one in action, so in a nutshell – they’re the types who equate all Science Fiction with 1950’s black and white films like Mars Needs Women and therefore feel the genre is worthless and beneath contempt. They think that there’s nothing in the world that SF can bring to the table of intelligent thinking.


Let’s see. I’ll pick on John Updike for starters. What kind of thought provoking literature has he produced? Car salesmen having affairs in book after book. He’s never had a kind word to say about SF – until he produced his own SF novel – and even then he was quick to distance it from mainstream SF – “It’s not Science Fiction,” he told Newsweek. “It’s Updikeian Science Fiction” (emphasis Newsweek’s).

Incidentally, his SF project was a post-holocaust novel – a genre that’s a cliche within knowing SF circles. To be taken seriously, this kind of novel needs some kind of fresh, new twist, like David Brin did with The Postman (yes, the one mangled into a bad Kevin Costner movie).

Then there’s Margaret Atwood. Her novel The Handmaid’s Tale was nominated for a Nebula award, the equivalent of the Oscars for Science Fiction (the Nebula is voted on by peers – the Hugos are the equivalent of the People’s Choice awards, being voted on by the fans). She did absolutely nothing to acknowledge the nomination, and needless to say, didn’t show up for the awards.


Frankly, I’d take Brin or Connie Willis or Lois McMaster Bujold or the late, great George Alec Effinger over Updike or John Irving. While they’re worried about extramarital affairs and wrestling bears on unicycles, these SF authors are in the heat of the debate about real issues like genetic engineering, cloning, the rise of Islamic culture. And in years past SF has also debated things like pollution, overpopulation, bioterrorism, and yes, space travel and nuclear war.

Maybe I’m being a snob in reverse. But on the other hand, I get really, really annoyed at people who criticize things they know absolutely nothing about.

Okay. I’m breathing deeply… I am calm… I am calm…


Fudging Science

I am working on writing. It’s just that there’s not much to report because the work is not that exciting; going through and changing everything to the same 12 point font, reformatting all of the tables into something a PDA reader can understand and changing all the underlined material to italics (publishers want anything italicized to appear underlined in a manuscript, apparently in spite of the fact that this is the way things were done before electronic typesetting. Interestingly enough, when I originally turned the manuscript in, I had to go through and make all the italics into underlines… now I’m having to undo all of that work. If only I had known…).

So basically it’s drudge work, and there’s nothing particularly exciting or writing-worthy about it. I guess I could discuss some of the things I’ve noticed while going through the manuscript, like how I rediscovered an obscure Joe Jackson reference I put into one chapter, or how the character of Levine is one of my favorites because of the way he insults people. But that seems a little too self-indulgent, even for a blog.

So I’ve been using this space instead for other things until this project is out of the way.

I guess I could discuss the films Independence Day and Signs. I’m watching the latter with my wife (she can’t take any kind of suspense, so I have to see the film first and then talk her through it), and I am reminded of how it is still being hotly debated in the SF community as to 1) whether it’s SF or not, and 2) why it does or doesn’t suck as a film.

This is one reason I’m kind of relieved to be away from the SF community. Sometimes the fun gets sucked out of things in the name of Accurate Science or someone’s definition of what SF is or isn’t (but don’t talk about bad science in Stars Trek or Wars).

Both Signs and ID4 endured a critical drubbing in the SF community because of things like idiot plot and science that doesn’t make sense. And I’ll admit that while watching these films for the first time, some things did occur to me, such as (in the case of Signs), Why doesn’t this farm family have at least a shotgun handy? and If the aliens hate water, why are they invading Earth in general and sunny, humid Pennsylvania in particular?

But that didn’t totally kill my appreciation for either of these films. I tend to be very forgiving of things like that if there are some other things that work for me. And both of these films had it in spades. So I’m very unapologetic about liking both of them.

In the case of Independence Day, I went because I’d seen the ad during the Super Bowl of New York City blowing up, and I was in the mood for a special effects extravaganza. The movie delivered just that. It also delivered a fun and witty script, and as a writer I loved the way they took things like Area 51 mythology and the military’s penchant for $500 toilet seats and wove it all into something that works. This is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as any movie is with Jeff Goldblum playing Jeff Goldblum playing a scientist. Plus, Brent Spiner’s line, “I don’t get out much,” is a look into the camera and a wink that says, we’re here to have fun, folks.

As for Signs, perhaps folks were looking for ID4 done right, or a recreation of War of the Worlds. Without falling back on the it’s not about an alien invasion so much as one man’s spiritual journey defense, I’d like to say that I would have been disappointed if Shyamalan had made a special effects extravaganza. That’s not what I expect from him. I expect quiet, deliberately paced thrillers where the characters actually mean something and develop and change. And he, too, delivered.

As for the lack of the alien invading fleet, and the complaint that for the most part the invasion was seen through a television set – welcome to the 21st century. How many of us are actually experiencing the liberation of Iraq by being out there in real time? Television is how we experience things now, and it was refreshing to me to see the TV as the family’s lifeline to the outside world during the invasion.

One thing Shyamalan understands is that you don’t need a large effects budget to put people on the edge of their chairs. You simply have to be able to relate your audience, and in this case the relation is “Alien invasion? Run to the television set!”

For all my carping at Stephen King’s sloppiness as a writer, one reason for his success is because of his ability to relate to his readers. Critics complain about his use of brand names, but when his hero grabs a Budweiser, sits in his La-Z-Boy, eats Doritos and watches his Sony TV before being eaten by a monster, people can relate. “Hey… I have a La-Z-Boy and a Sony, and I like Bud and Doritos… this monster could be eating me.

The Science Purist Crusaders among us should realize that when average people sit down with a tub of popcorn to watch a movie, they don’t care about whether or not there is sound in the vacuum of space. They want a good time at the movies. If the Crusaders can’t suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours it’s not my problem (and ironically, these are the same folks who can suspend their disbelief to the point where they buy into the idea of a world inhabited by elves, dwarves, and hobbits… but I’m not going to go there).

I’ve made a study of this. Most SF movies fudge science to various alarming degrees, but I’ve concluded it’s a necessary sacrifice, because movies with accurate science stiff. The science in 2001 was dead on for its time. It was also a Kubrickian incomprehensible mess. 2010 was better as a movie, but nobody went to see it, even though science got a fair shake there. And one of the best true SF movies ever, Gattaca, wasn’t exactly a blockbuster – but it should have been. The science was right and it was so woven into the plot that the movie would have collapsed without it.

So there’s an element of fantasy in science that makes visual SF (that is, in TV or films) work; if you want accuracy, stick with novels (if you’re interested in this notion of fantasy leakage into SF, check out James Bow’s blog of late… he’s been busy discussing this exact thing).

Besides, if you look closely at ID4 and Signs, you’ll see an interesting pattern. It wasn’t the humans who had the bad science. It was the aliens. Both times. Maybe their home worlds had serious budget cutbacks in their educational programs.

No wonder we humble terrestrials so consistently kick alien butt at the movies.

NP – Shine.FM