Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Discarded

A friend from Slacktivist writes one of the most terrifying dystopias I’ve ever read. Terrifying because this is the dystopia that some the Kochs, the Mercers and others of our billionaire overlords are working toward right now (after all, to them it’s a paradise).

Also terrifying because this is an oppressive dystopia that doesn’t even need to use the brute force tactics of a totalitarian government. No death squads, no torture chambers, no Thought Police (though there is a hell of a Memory Hole). Everyone is their own jailer.

House of the Dread

“You’re the reporter, right?”

“Yes, Allison Stone with the Times. You’re ‘Cindy’?”

“That’s what they call me,” Cindy said. “So what do you want?”

“I just wanted to talk to you. I’m doing a story on the-“

“Discards,” Cindy said.

“I was going to say Corporate Family Adoptee Program.”

Cindy laughed. “That’s what they call it, huh?”

“The official name anyway,” Allison said.

“I’ve only heard us called ‘Discards’,” Cindy said. “Usually by people screaming at me for taking their job. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“If it makes you more comfortable.”

“I should quit. I really should,” Cindy said. She took a cigarette out of its carton, lit it, and took a long drag. “It takes up more and more of my credits every month. Vice taxes, you know. Fucking government. What do you want to know?”

“You understand what the program is?”

“Well, I lived it. But…

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Oh, This Is Gonna Hurt

Lucy-Theatrical-Poster

So.  Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman.  Coming out July 25.

This looks like a great movie. Visually beautiful. Protagonist struggling with newfound powers that seem to shoot straight past superhero territory and into godhood (with a concurrent loss of regard for human life, if her interaction with the cabbies is any indication) – I’ve enjoyed that kind of story many times before. There’s the name “Lucy”; could it possibly be a reference to the famous australopithecus, and thus a hint that Our Heroine will be the beginning of a new race? Intriguing.

And of course, there are few things I like to watch more than Scarlett Johansson kicking untold amounts of ass.

I want to see this movie. I want to like this movie.

But the central concept is just too broken. Every time it’s brought up, it’s going to break my suspension of disbelief. I won’t be able to unsee it.

“It is estimated most human beings only use ten percent of their brain’s capacity.”

No. Wrong. Wrong. We use all of it. We only use a small part to think because the rest of it is busy keeping you alive. The medulla oblongata doesn’t do much thinking because it’s too busy making you breathe. As Red Molly might say, our consciousness is just our user interface. The rest of our brain is our operating system.

“Imagine if we could access one hundred percent.”

I’m imagining. Every part of your brain that isn’t being used to think is still being used for something. What part of your automatic functions do you want to trade away for super powers? Is your sense of taste worth fifty I.Q. points? Would you trade your sphincter control for telekinesis? If you could change your appearance at will but had to think about breathing, would you consider that a fair trade?

This isn’t a situation like radiation in the Fifties, or computers in the Eighties, or nanobots and genetic engineering now, where the science is so unknown to the common person that it might as well be magic. This is stuff we know.

I really hope that this nonsense doesn’t turn off the nerd audience that this movie needs to succeed. I know that I, for one, am trying to decide if the promised awesome is enough to counterbalance twitching every time I’m reminded of the sheer wrongness of the premise. You just know that if this thing flops, it’s going to be used as yet more “evidence” that audiences won’t go to see a superhero movie with a female lead, when we’d actually do so in a heartbeat if they weren’t all half-assed, designed-to-fail efforts like Catwoman.

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“We Thank You For The Gift Of Your Body’s Water” – Worldbuilding in Dune

dune-cover

I’ve been on a bit of a world-building kick when it comes to my Writing Theory posts lately (other than that slight detour into the closely-related art of character-building last week, of course). I’m not exactly sure why. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that it was because my three favorite genres – fantasy, science fiction and horror – all depend on creating worlds different than the one we live in, and making us believe in them. I take great pleasure in exploring those worlds, and I’m always pleased when I find signs that the world was built with diligence and care.

Thusfar, I’ve mostly focused on fantasy worlds, because – as I’ve repeated over and over – fantasy offers the greatest freedom in terms of world-building. On the other hand, it would be remiss of me to leave out science fiction entirely, not least because science fiction writers are some of the most enthusiastic world-builders out there.  Oh, sure, there are plenty of political dystopias, cyberpunk slums and laser-sword space operas out there, but they’re far outnumbered by the Children of Tolkien who are willing to settle for Generic Fantasy Setting #3,786,428.  Indeed, for some science fiction writers, it seems that the worldbuilding is the whole point of the exercise.

The  primary example I’m thinking of right now is Frank Herbert, writer of Dune.  Here was a man who clearly loved to create cultures, smash them against each other, and recombine the pieces.  And he managed to create those cultures with the most subtle and masterful of touches.
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Horizon Review: The War of the Worlds

The-War-Of-The-Worlds-53-poster

Watched The War of the Worlds with my girlfriend this past weekend.  Not the 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle (nor either of the other two versions that came out that same year to ride its coattails – I know, I hadn’t heard of them either), but the 1953 George Pal classic.  And why shouldn’t I?  It is, after all, a classic.  One of the earliest and best alien invasion movies of a decade stuffed with them, it is a landmark of American science fiction.  Its influence has been enormous: there have been sequels, remakes (my favorite is the version from 1996 – you know, the one they called Independence Day), a TV series and endless imitators.  In terms of Nerd History, it is the American Revolutionary War.

So how do I feel about it?  Well, I’m reminded of something my father once told me about the Beatles: “They were a legend.  An era in music unto themselves.  And I didn’t like ’em.” (Dad is a Rolling Stones fan.)
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Get Your Facts First…

“…and then you can distort them as much as you please.”  Mark Twain.  And it seems to me that aspiring writers should take his advice seriously.

I have a very dear friend.  I met him through NerdNYC, and he spent four years as a member of my gaming group before he had to return to Sweden.  He was a graduate student at Columbia, you see, and his Visa expired when he got his PhD.  He was probably the most brilliant person I’ve ever known.  When he started talking shop, I would understand the individual words that came out of his mouth, but not the sentences they were strung into.  And yet he needed his wife to remind him to eat.

I bring this up because knowing what actual scientists are like, and how they behave, has ruined a lot of the classic science fiction plots for me.

For example.  I watched the 1986 version of The Fly for the first time this past weekend.  It was a powerful movie with awesome special effects, and all the oozy body horror you would expect from a David Cronenberg film.  Still, it was a little bit ruined for me by a simple fact: Seth Brundle’s behavior doesn’t make any goddamn sense.  Not after he merges with a fly (spoilers!), then he has an excuse.  If human brain cells in a mouse can make a mouse smarter (and it appears that they do), then fly cells in a human brain can probably make a human dumber.  No, I’m talking about before  he gets spliced. 

Brundle has invented teleportation pods that more-or-less work.  He’s keeping it secret, though, until he can use it to safely teleport living things.  If it’s released too early, his sponsors, his peers and the press will “destroy” him.

Bullshit.  He should be shouting this from the rooftops.  He would’ve won the Nobel Prize for Physics just for proving on paper that macro-scale teleportation was possible, let alone building technology, however buggy (if you’ll pardon the pun), that actually does it.  Governments and corporations would be throwing money at him.  Labs and universities would be begging him to do his experiments in their labs (which have carefully-controlled clean rooms to prevent contaminants – like flies! – from getting into the experiments). 

Even if he never successfully teleports so much as a guinea pig, he’s revolutionized the shipping and energy industries forever.  And his best defense against rivals stealing his research?  Publishing.

You see this everywhere.  The 2011 prequel to The Thing?  “We need to keep this quiet.”  No you don’t!  You found an alien!  You need to tell everybody!  Then when they find the wreckage of your camp, at least they’ll have an idea what happened!

I know that artistic license is a thing, but please don’t have your scientists act like not-scientists just so your plot can move forward.  Please oh please.  If nothing else, come up with a reason for your scientists to keep everything secret.  If you don’t have a friend like I did, visit this site to give you a bit of insight into how scientists actually think and behave.

And while I’m at it, a note on the military: the Cold War is over.  I know that’s almost as frustrating for horror and science fiction as it is for spy thrillers, but we have to deal with it.  The demand for weapons that can wipe out the entire continent your enemy sits on has been dramatically reduced.  The trend in weaponry for today is ever-increasing precision.  No one wants to create a zombie plague, no one wants Captain Trips, no one wants The Blob, and no one wants the ultrafast-reproducing carnivorous locusts.  And no one is saying “we have to do this before our enemies do”, because our enemies are hiding out in caves and tiny villages, using the weapons they’ve stolen from us.  If those things happen, they should be dreadful accidents or Cold War relics. 

Super soldiers are just as viable as ever (but remember, “berserk killing machine” is no one’s idea of “super” – no one is going to create a soldier who won’t follow orders on purpose), and out-of-control AI warbots might be on the edge of a renaissance.  Just don’t make them too much like the Terminator.

Thank you for attending the lecture, refreshments are now being served in the gallery.

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