Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’


Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I remember an interview a long time ago with Ray Bradbury. He told a story — and I may be remembering this badly — of seeing a show at a carnival. The showman pointed at him and said, “Live Forever!” He almost did. He died yesterday at 91. And how apropos it happened after a transit of Venus.

There has been a lot said about the man — his amazing combination of optimism and pessimism about the future; his ability to get to our deepest fears and our highest hopes, often at the same time. He could write stories that evoked amazing pathos — my favorite being All Summer in a Day, still one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve read. He could terrify — I used to have nightmares about Something Wicked This Way Comes. He could infuse us with he wonder of technology and space travel — when I saw Columbia launch on cold morning in Florida, my first thought was, “Rocket Summer”.

But, to me, the one thing that Bradbury was best at was evoking that feeling of youth — of recalling those endless summer days when you could run forever and feel the pure magic of being alive. The sense of child-like wonder in his writings was powerful and often dragged me back in time to when each day was a month and every year a century. He often did this to contrast against what he feared would be a sterile future. A perfect example is from Time in Thy Flight, when a little girl, Janet, is brought from the future to see the “frightening” past. In her words:

“I want to see it all again. I’ve missed the motives somewhere. I want to make that run across town again in the early morning. The cold air on my face — the sidewalk under my feet — the circus train coming in.”

And later, before she jumps the time ship to stay in the past:

“No, I just want to be inside. I want to stay here, I want to see it all and be here and never be anywhere else, I want firecrackers and pumpkins and circuses, I want Christmases and Valentines and Fourths, like we’ve seen.”

(And, in typical Bradbury fashion, one little boy is caught by the teacher and heart-breakingly unable to join his two companions in the past.)

Hopefully, Ray is somewhere where it always fall and spring and summer, where it is Christmas and Valentines and the Fourth. And is “inside the big house, in the candlelight, [where] someone is pouring cold apple cider all around, to everyone, no matter who they are.”

Firefly and Serenity

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

I should have a feature-length post on this, but for the moment, I’ll like to Agony Booth’s nice video review of Serenity. The thing is, I watched Serenity as someone who had not seen a single second of Firefly. I liked it a lot, enough to make me buy the series and watch it. But I do agree with him: you did have that feeling of being at a great party where you didn’t know anyone. Once I’d watched the series, the movie was even better.

Fantasy Death

Monday, May 14th, 2012

This article, which talks about the way fantasy and sci-fi fans react to characters being killed off, reach a conclusion I find ridiculous:

I believe the discomfort comes down to the base fear of death and uncertainty that people face every day. Death is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t surprise me then that people would have such emotional reactions to fictional character death. They come to fiction to be taken away from the concerns of their everyday life. When confronted with the sudden death of a beloved character, viewers and readers are jarred into dealing with the uncertainty of life in their fiction and that can be unnerving. Look at reactions to the first murder in Psycho, or the death of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter as examples outside of Martin and Whedon if you will, as they’re not the only writers who use the tactic to drive the emotional point home.

This is psychoanalytical bullshit. The reaction of fans is much more down to Earth. They realize that these characters are fictional. And so killing them off is the writer’s choice, not something that just happened. Even the phrase “killing them off” acknowledges this.

What fans object to is not a character dying, but a character being killed in what feels like an arbitrary and capricious way. No one — NO ONE — objected to Spock being killed in Star Trek II. It was a great way to go, it was an emotional wallop and it was utterly consistent with the theme of the movie and his character. It was one of the best moments in the movies. People did object to Data being killed in Star Trek: Nemesis because it felt arbitrary and stupid. There was no reason for it to happen other than to shock us and try, unsuccessfully, to recreate the punch from Star Trek II.

Numerous sci-fi/fantasy deaths are well-regarded: Theoden’s fall in Lord of the Rings, Vader in Star Wars, Roy in Blade Runner, Ries in The Terminator, Kong in King Kong, Theo in Children of Men, Kosh in Babylon 5, the Knight’s pending death in Seventh Seal and Dumbledore’s fall in Harry Potter. All of these were cases were the death was consistent, reasonable and even noble.

If you look at the deaths that are poorly regard, they tend to be of the arbitrary “eh, shit happens” type: Trinity and Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, Padme in Revenge of the Sith, Ripley in Alien 3 or almost all the death in The Dark Tower.

I have not seen Game of Thrones or Buffy, but I did see Serenity. I didn’t object to the characters being killed. What I most objected to was Wash being killed so arbitrarily (and even then, I didn’t object that much, even though I loved his character). Yes, life is like that, especially a dangerous life. But we want to see our characters go down fighting, to die for a reason.

I mean, seriously: you’re going to take us on a journey with magic and swords or laser guns and faster than light travel; and suddenly you want to be all realistic when it comes to the characters being killed?

That’s the problem. We realize that we are in a fantasy world. And if our characters are going to go down — by the choice of the writer — we want them to go down for a reason.

The Best Sci-Fi

Friday, July 8th, 2011

I just stumbled upon this list, compiled last year, of the best 25 sci-fi/fantasy movies of all time. Considering that I just said that 2009 had four great entries into the genre, I thought I’d lay out my thoughts.



Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Having had more than a week to think about the “must-see” movie of this year, I still like it quite a bit. The science is ridiculous, of course, and not always consistent. But as an entertaining thriller, it’s yet another feather in Christopher Nolan’s cap. He has yet to make a bad movie.

What’s really interesting to me is that, over the last year, we’ve had no less than five very good science fiction movies hit the screen. This after a long long wasteland in which no good science fiction movies were being made (roughly between The Matrix and WALL-E). But Avatar, Moon, District 9, Star Trek and Inception were all good, even great. They featured novel ideas, good writing and great plotting. And you can even see the fore-runners of this surge in movies from the past few years like the aforementioned WALL-E and the vivid Children of Men.

I’m sure Time Magazine will come up with some reason why this micro-trend is happening. Back when Potter and LOTR were dominating the box office, TIme ran a front-page article claiming that the stampede to fantasy movies was a cultural attempt to escape from the stress of the War on Terror. I’m not making this up. Apparently, when both series were being green-lighted, the makers knew terrorism was going to be a big deal and we’d need something to escape to. It never occurred to Time, Inc. that people will go to good films no matter what the genre and it just so happened that the two best franchises were in the fantasy genre.

So I’m sure the recent spate of sci-fi success will stimulate someone to claim its escapism from the economy or something. Maybe. But I think it’s just that people like good movies. And the recent sci-fi films have been very good.

Post Scriptum: On the planes to and from Oz, I caught the movies Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2. The former was much better than I expected. I know there was a lot of controversy over the depiction of a 12-year-old girl hurling profanity and slaughtering rooms full of bad guys (Roger Ebert hated the movie because of this). But the depiction was so ridiculously over the top, I couldn’t take it seriously and just enjoyed the ride. The latter also exceeded my low expectations, although I wasn’t that enamored of it. I’m getting a little tired of bigger badder CGI smash-em-ups. The best things about Iron Man 2 were the interactions of the characters. More of that and less explosions for movie 3 would do nicely, thank you.

The TV Curve

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Cracked, again one of my favorite websites, has an infographic on the rise and fall of TV shows, arguing that they start out shaky in the first season, get better the second, reach a plateau and then start to decline by the sixth.

This is more accurate than they realize. One thing I used to do was copy episode ratings from and see how the quality of shows changed over time. I love analyzing pointless data — hence the astronomy career. Anyway, the ratings allowed me to look the evolution of TV shows from a biased but consistent point of view. Biased, because they are online ratings and do not necessarily reflect the general audience’s perception. But consistent, because they are the same or similar audiences (and the registration requirement mitigates vote rigging).

A few things I discovered, based entirely on these ratings:

First, most TV shows tends to follow a pattern very similar to the one described by Cracked.

1) At first, the quality is uneven, slowly improving, but with the occasional clunker thrown in.

2) The show hits its stride and is consistently good.

3) The clunkers begin to reappear and the quality falls.

4) The show ends.

No show, none, exemplifies this pattern better than The X-Files. I started watching in season four, when it was simply outstanding television. The sixth season was still good but the seventh was hurting, the eight was bad and I didn’t even watch the ninth. As the infographic notes, a big problem becomes twisting characters to fit plot … in this case, keeping Mulder and Scully from hopping into the sack because the writers thought it would ruined the show. It would have … but sometimes you got to let characters do what characters are going to do.

Some shows have an accelerated curve. Star Trek hit its stride almost immediately but had a bad third season. I would argue that Friends did the same thing — putting together a couple of great seasons before falling apart and turning its characters into caricatures.

Other shows end before the decay phase can kick in. Babylon 5 was consistently great after the first half of its first season. It decayed a little bit in the early fifth season but recovered by the end. Fortunately, by ending the series at five seasons and having the plot written in advance, Joe prevented the decay phase. Star Trek the Next Generation also lacked a decay phase, although, in my opinion, it was showing some decisive cracks in its seventh season.

Doctor Who shows a number of interesting patterns. The ratings jump when it went to color, stay high through the 70′s, peaking in the late-Pertwee, early-Baker eras. The ratings collapse in the Baker II and McCoy era before recovering with a strong season right before the show was cancelled.

Although I haven’t run the numbers on the latest season, the first four seasons of the new series were rated as high as the classic series, with a slow improvement in both quality and consistency. This improvement is mostly the disappearance of dreck like Love and Monsters.

So how did Doctor Who avoided the typical pattern of improvement, peak and decline? Or at least stretch it out over 26 years? By constantly turning over actors, directors and producers. Doctor Who was constantly remaking itself — from the educational show of Hartnell to the suspense of Troughton to the action-adventure of Pertwee to the gothic horror of early Baker. In fact, the decline of Doctor Who occurred, quite possibly, because a producer who had reinvigorated the show stayed on too long.

That’s one of the great things about Russell T. Davies leaving Doctor Who. He did a great job, but his era was showing cracks at the end, with episodes getting more and more outlandish and ridiculous. Fortunately, Matt Smith and Steven Moffat have, to some extent, reinvented the show and we’re looking at another good run.