Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Science Fiction

It’s not just the shell, it’s what’s inside that counts

I didn’t think they would screw it up that bad, but they did.

Now let’s pause a bit and say, before we start caterwauling about this version versus that version, that there may be some real cultural differences that would cause thematic or idea loss in transfer to another culture. Having paid lip service to that, I will go on to say some of the biggest themes in the original was lost not by cultural differences but by misunderstanding or just plain ignoring them.

Yes, there are spoilers here. Many spoilers.

The live-action 2017 Ghost in the Shell was already steeped in controversy even before the film was released in the casting for the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi. A Japanese or at least Asian actress should have played the part, the criticism goes, not a white actress in the Hollywood mold no matter how much box office she’d pull in. Still, if you have to hire a white woman, you could do a lot worse by not casting Scarlett Johanssen, given her performances in Lucy, Her and Under the Skin. Plus, that voice – there’s no mistaking her for anyone else.

Mamoru Oshii, the director of 95 Ghost, has said it the Major is a cyborg with an artificial body so it doesn’t matter what she looks like on the outside (or who plays her). If that’s the case, why is she even female? And why so voluptuous, especially for an androgynous being? It could just turn out that if you’re going to put a human brain into shell, it might be better psychologically to match gender characteristics to the sex of the donor. Some people might not be able to relate to a robot or android or cyborg who doesn’t look human, but then there’s the problem of the “uncanny valley” wherein an android or robot or cyborg looks mostly human but not quite, thus eliciting feelings of revulsion among other humans [cf. Polar Express]. (Honest Trailers went ahead and censored the Major’s fake nipples in the 95 Ghost video apparently because they looked too real and elicited not revulsion but other physiological reactions, at least for the men. For women, I dunno. I wonder if anyone has even asked them.)

But that’s not the first question that should’ve been asked, and that question is “Why do you need to do a live-action movie in the first place?” Hollywood is going full speed ahead on this and damn the torpedoes. Disney’s got Beauty and the Beast this year, Jungle Book last year, Lion King in the future, and many, many more in the farther future. Wasn’t the original good enough? Is there some shortcoming in the original animation that disappoints and leaves viewers unfulfilled? (In the case of Jungle Book, yes; the other two, no.) Plans are afoot to do this live-action baloney to another Japanese anime, Akira (and if there are gods in this universe, please don’t let that happen). Just because you have the technical capability to redo your animated films into “reality” doesn’t mean you should. Go find or write a new, original story and dazzle us with that.

Alas, Hollywood finds it easier to remake something than start from scratch for the big movies. It speaks to the financing and risks associated with making big films, but also people who grew up with watching the original films saying “I can do better.” Turns out, that’s not always the case.

The 1995 Ghost in the Shell was a thrilling ride into future, with human-machine interfaces and technical  gizmos and the electronic cityscape. The Major is a combination of human brain in a cyborg shell, and she begins wondering about her past and her future. In the meantime, she and her colleagues in Section 9 are trying to find out who’s hacking personal memories and making supposedly free-will humans do their bidding. Along the way, the film gets philosophical on what it means to be human in the face of encroaching technology.

In Japanese anime (and the manga sources for many of the films), time is set aside for philosophical introspection, often in slow, meditative scenes without dialog. We’re given time to breathe and ponder before the next action sequence. Not so in in an American film. Introspection is outward, not inward, usually explored with another character even if that character is never seen again.

We get little introspection in 17 Ghost as opposed to 95 Ghost. Gone from 95 is the scene where, as the Section 9 crew loads weapons and prepares to face the enemy, Togusa asks why he, as a mostly human mundane police detective, was recruited by Section 9. Because they need the outlook from a different perspective, he’s told. Gone is the scene when the Major is riding a slow ferry along a canal, taking in the cityscape as music plays in the background.  She spots a woman who looks amazingly like her in an office building. It’s just the Major’s expression telling us she has many, many questions about herself, but not a word is spoken. In 96 Ghost, the Major never really finds out about her past, or if she even has one. In that film, the past isn’t as important as the future.

In one of the main scenes of 95 Ghost, the Major goes diving in the river. Batou, one of her Section 9 colleagues, asks her why she does it if it frightens her and she says fear is one reason why; not many things can scare a cyborg. They get philosophical, and at one point he Major speaks in an odd voice. The scene is in 17 Ghost, but bereft of philosophy from the secondary voice. The conversation is just surface, no introspection.

The 2017 Ghost also is afflicted with a Hollywood disease of Everything Has To Be Explained. Example: I was perfectly satisfied with the knowledge that a small band of rebels managed to steal the plans for the Death Star; I didn’t need to know who they were or how they did it. But now we have an entire movie explaining it. I was OK with knowing Han Solo was a smuggler and a rogue, but now we’re going to have an entire movie to explain how he got there. (More profits for Disney being another motive, of course).

17 Ghost is all about the Major’s backstory, something 95 Ghost only hinted at. She finds out she’d been lied to about her origins. She’s egged on by a mysterious hacker who’s also killing the scientists involved, as it turns out, in the creation of the cyborgs. This leads to the big, bad corporation that made her first by murdering her and stealing her brain. She’s the 99th effort to meld mind and machine, the other 98 being failures, some of them her friends who were killed in the same raid she was. So the CEO becomes the real bad guy — big cliché No. 1– and she has to turn rogue in her search for Truth – big cliché No. 2. (On a motorcycle – big cliché No. 3.) We also find out how Batou, a colleague from Section 9, lost his eyes and had them replaced with super-tech lenses. I was satisfied not knowing in 95 Ghost; indeed, I thought he’d had the procedure done voluntarily.

One thing we – meaning Hollywood – should have learned by now is that translating anime into live action has some real problems. So it is here: The Major’s body looks heavy and awkward, as opposed to lithe and limber in 95 Ghost. (Both versions make the same mistake, though. When the Major lands on a roof, it partially collapses under her because of her weight. But why? By the time the movies are set, newer materials should be available, materials that are strong yet light and flexible. Remember, when the Major starts one of her super-human runs, she’s got to accelerate all of that mass. Yet neither movie shows that as a problem.)

The neon-lit megacity with tall skyscrapers, huge blocks of residential towers, small open-air food vendors and giant advertising holograms has now become its own cliché. Blade Runner started it in 1985, though Japanese manga had been moving in that direction. But more movies have been slavishly copying it. Blade Runner was a breakthrough in showing the gritty, multicultural, techno-city of the near future, but the time has come for someone to break that mold and show us something different.

References to The Matrix and Blade Runner are obvious for the 2017 version. One influence not mentioned, though, is Dark City (1998), especially the scene where the doctor is about to wipe out the Major’s memories with some kind of a hypodermic needle. However, the doctor changes her mind and instead gives the Major something to fight back with. Sound familiar?

17 Ghost tosses the biggest main theme of 95 Ghost, that of the future of human and machines, the future that Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have been warning us about. The villain in 95 Ghost isn’t really a villain; he’s an artificial intelligence created in the lab. He escapes because he wants to answer that same question: Who am I? He discovers Major Kusanagi, and is intrigued by her because of her human-machine split. In the end, they combine to form an entirely new life form. “Where does the new mind go from here?” she asks as she looks out over the city.

None of that in 17 Ghost. The Major (given another name for most of the movie; it’s only later does she realize her real one) tracks down her past, finding her mother and realizing that the bad AI was one of her fellow artists that the evil corporation killed. “I’m not ready to leave,” she tells the AI, so she stays and remains the same. We last see her standing on a roof, same pose as at the beginning of the film, ready to fight for justice. And so begins Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. No new life forms, no new experiences. Just the old human conditions and experiences.

I almost walked out of this, but I waited because I wanted to see the end. I knew I was going to be sorry, and I wasn’t disappointed. The 95 Ghost in the Shell isn’t a perfect movie, but it does bear rewatching. The new version cut and paste many scenes from the first, but it sucked all the life and intrigue from them. The 17 Ghost does get one thing tight, and that’s the caring the personnel of Section 9 have for each other. There are some nice visuals and performances, but none of this is enough to save it. The soundtrack by Clint Mansell is OK, but they tossed the original music except for a little sample over the credits.

Again, we have to ask: Was this necessary? Can’t we leave well enough alone?

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Another victim of the changing technological winds gives up the ghost

Video killed the radio star; streaming killed the video store.

So it is with Hastings Entertainment. The company has thrown in the towel and is in the throes of its final liquidation sales. Once upon a time, it was a source for books (at that time printed on paper) and music (at that time recorded in the grooves of vinyl platters). Video (at that time magnetically recorded on half-inch tape) and video games (at that time recorded on various types of electronic media) came later.

I found my first Hastings in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Amarillo, Texas. Rock music blared from speakers, the record section was huge, the book section was enticing, the posters on the wall bright with color. Some of the stores were found in those temples of consumerism, the indoor mall, but others could be found in the old-style strip shopping centers or stand-alone buildings.

When I went back to New Mexico, I found Hastings already had invaded, including a couple of stores in Santa Fe. Once the legality of home viewing of Hollywood movies on rental tapes was confirmed, Friday nights became busy places as individuals, couples and whole families came in looking for a weekend’s entertainment possibilities. Sometimes all copies of the movie they wanted were all gone, setting tempers on edge. A waiting game was sometimes played as employees brought in the returns from the drive-up drop-off bin. That paid off only occasionally, but for some customers, always worth the chance.

I worked one summer at one of the SF Hastings stores. I was assigned the Books section (naturally), and found that the chain practiced what I call the “shallow inventory.” This meant only those books that moved fairly quickly were stocked and if they didn’t, they were out. Even so, the sheer number of books was amazing. Once, the entire staff stayed all night doing a “purge” — the managers called it “inventory” — where we pointed a hand-held electronic device at the UPC code (the store pasted its own code over the publisher’s before the book went on the shelf) and if it beeped, the book was pulled. By daybreak, the aisles were jammed with the new rejects, which soon disappeared from the store, probably as fodder for the pulp mills. Or to return as bargain books to be placed on the special shelves. You could get some pretty good books for little money but of course the authors don’t get a cut of sales. Cheap for you, total loss for them.

Stocking the shelves was the Task That Would Not Die. The guys in receiving would cram wheeled carts with the night’s arrivals and they’d be waiting when I reported for work. Morning, noon or night, those damn carts never seemed to empty. Help a customer find a book, go back to shelving the new ones. Clean up the children’s section — another constant task; kids, you know? — go back to shelving books. Make the four thermoses of coffee in the morning, go back to shelving books. Put away the magazines and books left on the chairs where the customers had been reading and drinking coffee like the place was Starbucks (also just getting going), go back to shelving books. It lasted until it was time to play janitor and vacuum around the Books desk, the last task if you were the closer. During the night, some strange magic would be performed and the stocking carts would appear the next day loaded to the point of collapse again.

The only respite came when I was assigned to a cashier slot. I hated that, I’d rather shelve books than cashier. I’m not a people person, so being pleasant to a long line of customers was a real trial. Most of the customers were video renters, and if late charges showed up their accounts, they could get nasty. Gift certificates — not cards then, paper, another sign of antiquity — took special processing. And the soda companies thought it’d be fun to stick coupons for free drinks on the caps of the plastic bottles, creating another pain for cashiers.

Vinyl records were still the main option for music when I started. There was something zen about standing flipping through the eye-catching art on the sleeves. But, technology changes, as it always does, and new gadgets started rolling in. First it was cassette tapes (eight-track tape cartridges had pretty much withered away), then CDs slowly started to proliferate. (Digital audio tapes, DATs, came and went practically unnoticed.)  Vinyl is having its last laugh, though, rising from the dead on wings of audiophile preferences.

On the video side, VHS won the war against Betamax, but soon they were succumbing to DVDs. Tech advances add new capabilities, but the disks seem to be the end of physical media. Streaming is the new paradigm for now, as it is for music and video games. Books still cling to printed life against e-books, but Hastings evidently missed the import of all this streaming and electronic downloading and such. So it has to pay the piper, as it were.

One time my friend and I were waiting our turn to get a Saturday night movie when a woman in the next line freaked because she didn’t want her name entered in the store’s computer. That’s Santa Fe, N.M., folks, and that’s not unusual. She asked if there was a video store that didn’t use computers, and, that again being Santa Fe, of course there was.

(That store was called Video Library, and Hastings reportedly opened a second store in SF with the express purpose of running them out of business. Didn’t work; they’re still renting VHS tapes and DVDs and still keeping track of them on file cards filled out with pencil. The locally owned bookstore, Collected Works, also has out-lasted Hastings. The record store, alas, didn’t.)

When Santa Fe raised the minimum wage, Hastings retaliated by closing one store (the one I had worked at, but I’d long since left). That left the one in the DeVargas Mall Center, which needed a viable store badly at the time as malls themselves were being rattled by changes in shopping habits. It wasn’t the only video store in town, but the Friday and Saturday crowds made it seem so.

In their heyday, the stores became nodes for pop culture. Comic books became a staple, and the stores stocked theme merchandise, everything from bobble-head dolls to clothing to posters to kids toys. Some electronics, too; headphones, portable players, that sort of thing. The last time I saw a Hasting store, the shelves were jammed, the music loud, the lights flashing. What they looked like the day before the bankruptcy was announced I don’t know.

The other cultural phenomenon Hasting rode for a while was the rise of the “speculation genres” — science fiction, fantasy, horror — into the mainstream of popular culture. The revolution in special effects in movies made possible by computers helped spark this boom. It was necessary. Harry Potter had jolted popular culture with a huge blast of storytelling magic. Seeing the movie version with the old special effect methods would have made them laughingstocks. Suddenly stories that had been around for years — Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Beowulf — became fodder for the new tech in the new movies. Along with that was the realization that books for children and young adults held some great source material for Hollywood producers eager to get a share of the disposable income the new generations of entertainment-savvy youngsters had rattling in their pockets.

I asked George R.R. Martin during a signing in the DeVargas store why he, having spent time in Hollywood working on TV shows, thought the old, venerable tales like Lord of the Rings had to be made into movies. He gestured around at the store with its mass of merchandise and said something like “it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” Uh, yeah, I said, but beyond money, isn’t just reading books good enough any more? We did agree that visual storytelling pulled in more people to the material than just books could, and perhaps some of them then would turn to the original sources, which was a good thing. Thus was Hasting’s mission defined: To be a conduit for fans to get access to their favorite stories be it videos, CDs, books, video games or music.

(This conversation likely took place around the time of the publication of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Yes, it was possible to have a conversation with George at a signing because not many people showed up that day. Not like now, when such an event would cause eager fans to form a line that would go out the door, up the highway and into the next county. Plus, at that time, he had no desire to make a movie or TV series out of his tale. Ha, ha, ha, how quickly things change, right?.)

I don’t mean to suggest that Hastings was a haven for all that was cool and hip. It was a corporate operation that looked upon all that merchandise with a cold eye for profits, not cultural milestones. The stores looked pretty much the same inside wherever they were. The music playing on the sound system generally was top-forty, with only an occasional foray into something cutting-edge. (And when that happened, it was quite noticeable.) The trailers playing on the monitors above the cashier stations were for that week’s new movies, but if you wanted something more esoteric — small independent, foreign, cult, obscure — your best bet was to hit one of the local video stores. Same with the books. Same with the games. Same with the music.

The shutdown of the chain signifies the end of another American cultural touchstone, like the passing of the malt shops of the ’50s or the malls of the ’70s, and ’80s. And while Gen-Xers and Millennials might look upon this as just another Baby Boomer lamenting the passing of his childhood, it could be worse — this could be about head shops with their psychedelic posters, background sitar music, albums (vinyl, of course) with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix and such filling the racks, all in a haze of incense (and perhaps something, shall we say, more pungent). So count your lucky stars.

So long, Hastings, you were a bright and noisy source for home entertainment and the occasional community hang-out for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy some stuff from Amazon.com.


The ‘Star Wars’ juggernaut is about to squeeze your wallet thinner than a light-saber beam

With the special showings to privileged people and backers just hours away and the general opening for everyone else days away of the new Stars Wars movie, The Hype Awakens Revenge of the Corporation The Monetization of Fandom The Force Awakens (hereinafter known as Star Wars 7 or SW7), a review of the protocols to ensure that the common consumers are given the fullest opportunity to spend as much as they can and beyond and will do so with the correct attitude. That is, with open wallets and shut mouths.

Corporations with no connections to the movie business whatsoever, as they have been doing all of 2015, will be doing promotions both serious and silly as per orders and guidance from the Walt Disney Company. As the time for the suckers common movie fans to be allowed to view the movie approaches, these efforts will increase this week until almost everything else has been pushed aside and all media outlets, personal blogs, online sites, TV commercials, podcasts, “factual” programs on the few remaining radio stations and “neutral” articles appearing in the few remaining newspapers will have some kind of mention of Star Wars as many times as possible. Intrusions of unwanted and unsanctioned “news” material‑ presidential campaigns, climate change, terrorism, interest rates, food poisonings at chain restaurants, police-citizen clashes, immigrants, natural disasters and such ‑ should be expected, but Disney representatives will be working closely with media CEOs and their minions to assure that not too much time is wasted on those issues and time better spent presenting articles and related material about the Star Wars 7 movie. Non-cooperating media venues will be cut off from future coverage ‑ including but not limited to press junkets, one-on-one interviews with Disney celebrities, access to “leaks” ‑ of Star Wars, Marvel Universe, Pixar, Muppets or any Disney-owned entertainment venues for a period not less than ten years (by which time, it is felt, such discordant organizations will have faded away).

(And sometimes, help just falls out of the heavens ‑ so to speak ‑ from the unlikeliest places. Last week, a NASA scientist discussed how to build a Death Star out of asteroids. Don’t you just love those “scientific” nerds?)

Beginning at the Thursday, Dec. 17 first screenings and continuing until the end of the year, special crowd control officers will be deployed to theaters across the country to ensure that no less than 90 percent of common customers buy tickets for Star Wars 7. Although some officials at the company and associated investors would rather see a higher mandatory percentage, it is felt that allowing some customers to see other movies opening/still playing (sort of like standing on a beach as a hurricane come ashore, as it were) will count as a public-relations gesture to show that the Disney company can be lenient. (Besides, a Disney film, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, is one of those movies still playing. Unfortunately, it needs the help as it is not performing to Disney standards. This is unacceptable and an internal review has already been launched.)

There have been rumblings among stockholders and other investors that the income from the already released Star Warts Wars 7 merchandise has not generated enough billions of dollars, that many were expecting trillions. The Disney company urges patience; after all, the movie, as of this date, hasn’t even been released yet. The mountains of cash are still to come, believe it.

The campaign since the announcement that SW7 will be a reality has worked well. Anticipation is at a fever pitch, and thanks must be given to the PR and marketing departments. The little tidbits that have been allowed to dribble out have caused massive reactions among what’s laughingly called “fanboys.” (It has been hysterical to watch). And in another brilliant move, film reviewers will not be given advance screenings so their judgmental articles about the film won’t be seen before the mass audience is snookered lured ordered allowed in. Who needs ’em? Yeah, fuck you, movie reviewer, and the Prius you rode in on.

***

So I’m not a real fan of Star Wars (hey, really? gosh). You may see the above as a cynical take on studio motives, but I say there’s more than a few grains of truth in there. Ever since the original Star Wars in 1977 became a monster hit, the reaction by money people switched from “What the hell is this??” to “Cash cow, we gotta get our hooks into it.” Entertainment became a strictly a secondary consideration.

Now, George Lucas definitely set out to make something entertaining. The first Star Wars film ‑ A New Hope, as it later became known ‑ made such an impact because Lucas was in love with old science fiction (hereinafter called SF) movies, serials and old TV shows and he made the world in the movie look like something that could exist, solid and real, not something automatically cheesy and ridiculous. The story itself is as old as humanity, as has been mentioned ad nauseam. Being a “space” adventure adds nothing to this story: Light sabers are swords, Jedi masters are wizards, X-wings are horses, the Millennium Falcon is a pirate galley, the Emperor is an evil witch-king, the Death Star is a windmill, Princess Leia is a damsel in distress. (Yes, admittedly, a kick-ass damsel, but stop and ask — how many other women are there in the original trilogy?)

The packaging was part of the appeal, the characters were another. The hero, Luke, is as bland as heroes in these stories tend to come, but, again, as usual in such stories, he’s surrounded by characters who are much more interesting. The plot? Callow youth reluctantly goes on journey that ends with the collapse of the social order and he’s hailed a hero for causing that.

(In this discussion of the Star Wars films, I do not include the prequels or whatever they’re called. They made such a mess of what the original trilogy had established that I just pretend they don’t exist.)

So, what can we expect from the third trilogy? More of the same. This isn’t an independent film exploring the vagaries of human emotions . This is an action franchise. The plot , as based on what’s been discussed all over the web and seen in the trailers, is about some kind of resistance fighting some kind of empire-leftovers. Dogfights ‘twixt A-wings and TIE fighters are in the mix. (In the trailers, some of these take place in the atmosphere of a planet, so they look at least a little realistic. These kinds of dogfights cannot happen the same way in space, but I have a hunch that’s going to be ignored just as it was in the originals.) Looks like there’s going to be a scene in a cantina, maybe even the same one as in the first movie. (SW7 supposedly takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, so if the cantina is still in business, that’s a remarkable accomplishment. Those wretched examples of scum and villainy sure are loyal.)

And there are new things, too. Can’t afford to piss off the merchandisers. There’s a droid call BB-8, a rollicking, rolling machine whose purpose I can’t fathom. And is that a love interest for R2-D2, all pink and cute? (Will there be a love scene ‘twixt the two? Better hope not.) And what about C3PO? Is he just his irritating self, no love interest for him? And while the X-wings and TIE fighters are leftovers from the originals, they’ve been “updated,” so of course that means a whole new toy line. Don’t want to be caught with 30-year-old versions, do we? And, of course, all sorts of other machines, weapons, space ships, characters too numerous to mention. So fanboys, get them wallets open. Time’s a-wastin’!

What SW7 won’t have is Darth Vader (unless they go the comic-book superhero route and say “He’s not really dead, he just looked it.”) Vader is one of the greatest villains to menace the heroes on-screen. Even my jaded self remembers the thrill when he first stepped through the smoke to the thomp-thomp of John Williams’ music. Man, I had high hopes for him. I didn’t want him to be human, I wanted him to be a physical manifestation of the evil Emperor’s hate, coalesced into this humanoid form that cannot exist outside of the mechanical suit. A truly evil being, with no remorse and no humanity whatsoever. Alas, he was just someone’s dad who once gave in to lust and thus allowed himself to be turned to the dark side. (See, teen-agers? Stop that fooling around before it’s too late.) So with Vader dead (we think), we need a new villain. The trailers have showed us some guy in a dark mask vowing to continue Vader’s work. See? More of the same. Vader-light will give the heroes hell until he’s taken down by those same heroes. Luke Skywalker might be that hero, but since we haven’t seen Luke in the trailers we don’t know what he’s been up to these last 30 years.

One of the things I’m hoping for in this new trilogy is a career boost for John Boyega. (His character is Finn, an odd name for the SW universe. Could be worse, though, he could’ve been Capt. Phasma (Capt. Phasma? Sounds like someone out of those cheesy ’50s TV SF shows). Boyega was terrific in Attack the Block (2011) as the guy who first causes alien monsters to invade his neighborhood, then takes the lead in getting them out, even to sacrificing his own freedom. That character had an edge, an uncompromising sense of right. Those rough edges probably have been sanded off for SW7, but I hope he stashes the money from these movies in the bank and then chooses some challenging parts in future movies. Luck, Mr. Boyega.

What Should Happen in SW7 but is Highly Unlikely: The rebels, after successfully bringing down the Empire, have split into factions and the years spent years fighting among themselves have finally resulted in a government that in order to solidify its position, turns into something worse than the Empire ever was. (The Empire grew out of trade disagreements; this government rose out of ideological conflict.) In order to try to regain the ideals and hopes ( a new new hope, in other words) of the original rebellion, a new rebellion flares with Princess General Leia in command. A new generation of young rebels answers the call, including at least one new force-sensitive warrior, who has to face a new almost-Sith lord, Luke Skywalker He is such an emotional wreck that the new Emperor-wannabe has twisted Luke’s mind into believing what he’s doing is righteous and correct. Instead of destroying Luke, she (yes, please, let the new Jedi warrior be a woman) helps him see where it all went wrong and after a painful self-examination and purge of the dark side, turns around and tries to save the new rebellion and redeem himself.

And what of Han and Chewbacca? I have no clue. The trailers show them back on the Millennium Falcon, but why? That ship was a wreck in the original trilogy, 30 years later it should be scrap. And if it had been kept up, perhaps the current owners aren’t too happy about giving it up to these old dudes with vainglorious boasts about the old days and their part in the Empire’s demise. Perhaps Han went rogue again, abandoning Leia and any children, and he and Chewie went back to their old smuggling ways and Han is now the new Jabba. Redemption is required all around.

Well, as you can see, my ideas have nothing to do with the actual SW universe. The fans must be placated, they must like the new Star Wars, otherwise they might not shell out as much of their money as they’re supposed to. Yeah, that’s cynical, but I will allow that the movie might have a few nice surprises for me. I also have no doubt it will be an entertaining, wild romp in the SW universe and just might well bring a totally new take to the story.

However ‑ keep this in mind, padawan. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (awakens? I thought the force was a big part of the New Hope-Strikes Back-Return pantheon; where’s it been the last 30 years? wouldn’t a better title be The Force Re-awakens?) was directed by J.J. Abrams. The same J.J. Abrams who destroyed the Star Trek franchise.

Just sayin’.


Of Plasticine dinosaurs and muddled storytelling

If you’re going to tell a story that suggests the dinosaur-killing asteroid missed, then you should be prepared to follow through and explore the ramifications of that idea.

If you’re going to let several million years pass before your story begins, you should allow for “nature” to progress for all living creatures, not just a few. All of your creatures should be subject to the same rules that all of the other living things — plants, animals, birds, insects, bacteria — are subject to. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a misshapen ecology.

You’ll end up with The Good Dinosaur.

(Spoilers coming)

Basically, the film makes no sense as a story. It’s beautiful to look at, and an occasional interesting moment arrives and leaves, but overall it looks like the result of one of those “I know!” ideas that people have and they get all excited and have what they think are dynamite ideas and they work hard on them, but no one ever steps back and says “I don’t think the pieces are connecting very well.”

Pixar being Pixar, they never do things by half measures, as seen in the incredible landscapes that are based on U.S. government geological maps and data of Wyoming and Montana. It’s not all one-to-one correlation, there are made-up mountains and rivers and such, but the real places served as a base for software programs. Real mountains rise in rocky splendor, real rivers flow through canyons with liquid movement, real trees make up the forests, real clouds from puffy to intimidating thunderheads fill the skies — or so it looks. A common reaction from a viewer might be “I’ve been there.” Maybe not that exact spot, but you’ll be reminded of a hike, or camping in a forest, or fishing in a favorite river bend, or climbing up mountain sometime in your real life.

The details don’t just apply to the grand landscapes, either. One scene takes place in a shallow river edge where the water is just a few inches deep. We see how the light dances on the water surface, we see the sunshine reach the flattened, smooth stones that line the riverbed and we see it all bathed in a golden glow of late afternoon light.

Exquisite.

But then we see a toy dinosaur made of green Plasticine as if some kid had dropped it there. Its skin is a smooth, featureless shape, its toes are just lumps of clay and its face looks like it was drawn by a 10-year-old.

The story was written for 10-year-olds, too.

Well, let’s be fair. While the story is typical Disney-Hollywood fare, it’s been around since someone thought that morals and lessons are important ingredients for stories. A frightened youth loses/has already lost one or both parents must face his, hers, fears and learn how grow up emotionally and mentally in the world. This generally requires a journey, help from unexpected friends, advice from an old sage or two, a threat or two to be overcome, and a triumphant return home.

The twist here is the youngster is a dinosaur, an apatosaurus named Arlo. True to the story, he’s the runt of the litter, and as the runt, he’s afraid of everything, including the family “chickens.” His older brother, Buck, and sister, Libby, dump on him for being such a weenie. He botches every task his father assigns him in trying to make a man dinosaur of Arlo. Poppa builds a corn silo, and it’s good, so he gets to put his mark — a footprint — on the side. Buck chops down trees with his tail, and it’s good, so he gets to make his mark on the silo. Libby plows the field with her face, and it’s good, so she gets to make her mark. Momma does something extra — she’s the mother, what extra does she need to do? — and gets to put her mark on the silo. Arlo is a dweeb so he doesn’t get to put his mark there. (Buck and Libby, being competent and obedient, are like all the competent and obedient siblings in these stories: They don’t get to go on an adventure. They stay home and do extra chores to make up for the missing runt. That’s what you get for being normal, people.)

So — Poppa gives Arlo one last chance: trap the critter that’s been eating the family’s winter stash, then bash his head in with the club he’s going to be holding in his mouth. Of course, Arlo fails, and Poppa finally gets mad and makes Arlo come with him to chase after the critter. In the chase, Arlo gets hurt — of course — and Poppa gets swept away in a flash flood. Of course. Arlo, wracked with guilt, vows to do better, so the next time the critter shows up, he chases him and falls into the river and is swept away. Let the adventure begin!

This is a story that could be told with anyone — and, apparently, any thing — in the title roles. There is nothing in Good Dinosaur that shows how putting dinosaurs as the central figures can change the story. It’s just humans in dino disguise. But, it’s the meteor, see? It missed, and —

That’s the “I have a great idea!” moment. The meteor missed, and everything changed. Except it didn’t. As has been pointed out elsewhere. these dinosaurs never got the advantage of natural selection, the process that favors physiological change that gives a species an advantage in survival. They don’t have hands (except for the T-rexes and we all know how funny their hands are, giggle snort), they don’t walk on two feet, they don’t shrink in size so they don’t need as much food to survive the winter, they don’t even evolve feathers or fur. (Some raptors have a few feathers, Pixar’s bone to evolution, but even after all these millennia, the raptors never developed the ability to fly.) So they’re stuck with plowing the fields with their faces ’cause they didn’t develop many tools, either. To water the crops, they must suck in great amounts of water and blow it all back out like land-borne whales. They lift rocks and branches with their teeth, and, as Buck demonstrated, use their tails to cut down trees. (And those tails slice through easily, despite not having developed any bone or a hardened shell.) We see woven ropes knotted around containers, but we don’t see how the weaving is done. They’ve built themselves a dugout house — which has to be packed pretty full when everyone’s home — but we don’t see any outhouses. Maybe they just poop in the river. (It’s like in Pixar’s Cars — the characters drive up to the gas pump but have no hands or arms to pick up the nozzle, jam it into their own sides and squeeze the trigger. Some things humankind is not meant to know.)

This is where evolution got the dinosaurs when the meteor missed — hardly anywhere. The most realistic dinosaurs in the film at the beginning when we see the errant meteor blaze a trail overhead and some grazing dinos look up for a moment, then go back to grazing. That scene looks like it was stolen lifted borrowed from the “Rite of Spring” section of the first Fantasia movie.

Everything else gets to evolve, though. Trees — both evergreen and deciduous — flowering plants, fruit-bearing plants, insects, birds (wait — birds? did some dinos evolve after all?) snakes (with hands, no less) and insects. Especially fireflies. Oh, the dinos do love them fireflies. In fact, maybe only fireflies. I saw no clouds of stinging flies, no dino blood-sucking mosquitoes, no biting ants, no multi-legged horrors crawling out from under a rock just as you’re dropping off to sleep.

The biggest beneficiaries of evolution in this universe are the mammals. This is actually where Good Dinosaur got a few things right. In the days of real dinosaurs, mammals were small, timid creatures trying to avoid getting stomped/chomped by the ruling species.

But this is not the world of real dinosaurs, or dinosaurs that act like real dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex has become to be known, through the fossil evidence, as a fearsome meat-eater. According to Pixar, though, if left alone they would evolve into — cowboys, complete with folksy, western accents and slang. Oh, they’re big and have huge teeth, but they evidently they don’t eat their own kind (i.e., other dinosaurs). They fight off rustling raptors by chomping down on them hard — then hurling them away. After a hard day of rustler flinging, they sit around a campfire and tell tall tales. And what are they cowboys of? Big, hairy, shaggy beasts — mammalian beasts. You’re supposed to read “buffalo” here, but “cowboys” is a Texas thing, don’t y’all know, so we’re gonna call ’em “longhorns.” And longhorns they are, a sort of amalgamation of buffalo and steer. Well, then, you ask, did horses evolve so that the “cowboys” could have something to ride on? No, they did not. The T-rexboys must chase the herd on foot. We also don’t see them, y’know, chowing down, either. Do the T-rexes slaughter the beasts, then roast them over an open fire? Or do they just jump on one and rip the thing apart with their teeth and swallow raw chunks, including the innards? Alas, we never find out. Someone decided such questions are too intense for young viewers, but I’d bet money some of those young viewers are asking that very question.

So there are some large mammals in this world. Which brings us to another set of mammals, without whom we’d have nothing to empathize with: humans. (Did the filmmakers, in addition to saying “what if the meteor missed?” also ask “what if humans walked with dinosaurs?” which opens a whole other paleontological/theological can of worms.) Remember that critter that kept getting into the dino family food? That was a feral boy, age indeterminate, who doesn’t talk, doesn’t walk on two feet, scratches himself and thumps the floor with his rear leg like a dog, and howls like a dog. He’s an orphan, of course, lost and alone, so he makes friends with the clumsy dinosaur, helping him find food, protecting him from threats such as the snake-with-hands, and goading Arlo into action, usually by biting him. However, as feral as he is, he’s still civilized enough to wear a breech clout (made of bark and leaves, evidently). All the humans wear something, though the “domesticated” dinosaurs don’t. (They don’t have genitals, either, so reproduction among them is one of those mysteries humans etc., etc.) We can’t have naked humans in a Hollywood movie, even feral ones (Mowgli, Tarzan), but it makes the dinosaurs that much more cartoony, separating them from the humans. The dinosaurs may be civilized, but they’re reptiles, after all, they’ll never amount to much. Later, when the boy meets a pack of humans, they all have clothes, too. Where do the clothes come from? Do the humans have a pact with the T-rexes to get the pelts of the longhorns who ended up as dinner? Are there other large mammals around that the humans hunt? Have humans developed tools to make them? The short scene with them gives us no clues.

And, yes, I said “pack” of humans. The humans communicate by howling, and they move mostly on all fours, However, their evolution gave them the same arms and legs we have now, which have developed to help us stand. We no longer are built to move like that, despite we see on the screen, and it looks difficult. Still, the last we see of the boy he’s standing on his own two feet. (If that isn’t a metaphor for the whole movie, I don’t know what is.)

All of the mammals, human and otherwise, fit better into this world than the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are these plastic creations superimposed on the landscape; the mammals live in it.

Well, anyway, the boy — eventually we learn his name is Spot, arf, arf, arf — saves Arlo’s butt and they become fast friends. (Spot is more interesting as a character than Arlo, IMHO.) Arlo learns bravery and finds maturity by in turn rescuing Spot from ravenous pterodactyls, a flash flood (again) and against all other odds the writers can think of and —

Spoiler: Arlo goes home, and because he did something good, gets to put his mark on the silo next to Poppa’s (those prints are mud, how do they stay put in the rain?) because he’s now a hero because he saved the life of the boy who’s head he was supposed to bash in ’cause the boy was stealing their winter food but because Arlo failed to do that, he and Poppa had to try and catch the thief but they got caught in a flash flood that killed Poppa which made Arlo very sad and angry and later chased the boy again but got lost and without the help of the thief he would have starved to death, been trampled or killed in a flood and so he saved the thief from being eaten/drowned but was man dinosaur enough to send the boy with his own people and finally made his way back after the harvest was in. Yup, he deserves a mark all right.

Dude, you’ll probably be saying, you’re putting way too much into this, man, it’s just a cartoon. And you’d be right. On the surface, the film can be a delight for all of the things we expect in a Pixar movie. But there is also something missing, something that pulls against the movie as a whole.

Pixar filmmakers are known for their meticulous and thoughtful preparation and production, not afraid to revamp or shut down a film they don’t think is working. This one reportedly got one of those revampings, but I think they went off on the wrong track. Instead of going where the idea took them, they put on the brakes and switched to an easier route. Questions they should have asked: After 65 million years, what would a dinosaur society look like? What would the dinosaurs themselves look like? Can tools really be used by picking them up in your mouth? (Though Arlo later does knock a pterodactyl out of the air by throwing a club that way)? Would humans develop a canine sense of smell and locomotion? Would humans and dinosaurs really get along? (Or, as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, would they just eat us?) Instead, they gave us a kiddie cartoon with some of the most realistic settings ever seen in an animated movie. They pulled back from where the idea was taking them in favor of just another coming-of-age story. They spent a lot of time and effort in getting the settings perfect, but they are not extrapolations of landscapes of the age of dinosaurs. Walt Disney constantly was trying to make animated films “real,” but sometimes going real undermines all the other elements of the film. Realistic mountains and clouds, but cartoony dinosaurs, the central element of the film. It does not work.

There was so much potential here that was lost. I just wish the creators had the courage to follow some of the more interesting aspects of their great idea.


At play in the universe of S.M. Stirling

The old world goes away and the new one comes in with strife, terror and death …

These days, that seems to be the only story, told well or poorly. One of the better ones, though — one with depth, complex and emotional characters, incredible details from the food the characters eat to the armor they wear to the lands they travel through — is The Change series by S.M. Stirling

Back in 1998, Nantucket Island was suddenly whisked off to Bronze Age Europe. That was the start, three books worth, but then Stirling turned his attention to a part of the world that was left behind, and thus began the Emberverse Series. That started in 2004 with Dies the Fire and has continued through ten more books with the 12th, The Desert and the Blade, due in September. What happened to the world wasn’t pretty — electricity stopped flowing, steam power lost its punch, explosives lost their bang and internal combustion engines stalled forever — and the books have chronicled how a real post-modern history has unfolded with the rise and fall of kingdoms, petty tyrants and religious fanatics (with a real edge to them). And underneath it all, good people trying to find answers and create new societies.

Though Stirling gave us a peek at some of the rest of the U.S. — his characters had to traverse the continent on a quest, after all — and some hints about the rest of the world (hint: Prince Charles does not come off very well), he, like any author building new worlds, has to limit his scope in order to keep the story on track. So he generously opened his world to other writers, asking them to write short stories, setting them wherever they liked as long as the rules of the universe are followed.

The result is The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth (ROC, $27.95). Fifteen authors telling 16 stories (Stirling tells one of his own) in several places around the globe, including Florida, California, New Mexico, Nebraska, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Canada, Australia and Greek galleys battling it out in the Mediterranean,

Authors, both known and upcoming, include A.M. Dellamonica, Kier Salmon, Lauren C. Teffeau, M.T. Reiten, John Jos. Miller, Victor Milan, John Birmingham, Walter Jon Williams, John Barnes, Harry Turtledove, Jane Lindskold, Jody Lynn Nye, Emily Mah, and Diana Paxson.

And Terry England. Yeah, me. And I can tell you I’m proud and honored to be a part of this.


One day steeped in the world of KC SF and fantasy

I spent one day this past weekend at ConQuest 46, the Kansas City science fiction convention.

One. Lousy. Day.

Why only one day is an explanation for some other time (having to do with bad choices, stupid actions and unreal expectations, but let’s not get into that now. Or maybe never. Some things are just too depressing for public discourse).

No, the con was not what was lousy. What was lousy was that I only got to spend one day out of a two-and-a-half-day event. The con itself was a pleasant as a con can be, with fans coming to see writers and partake in discussion panels, check out offerings by fantasy-based artists, see what the merchants were offering — books, T–shirts, medallions, swords, the usual things except for the life-sized R2-D2 units; don’t know if any were for sale, but it was a kick to be sitting in the foyer and seeing an R2 unit diddly-beeping along . You could get your picture taken sitting in the throne of swords from Game of Thrones. You could play games, electronic and board. You could write a story based on what you pulled out of a bag, or you could have had one of your stories critiqued by people willing to give up a holiday weekend (and a couple of weeks before) to do that. And, of course, dress up in costumes (called “masquerades” in the standard SF con vernacular; perhaps the term is now being co-opted by “cosplay”).

And writers, of course. Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor, and if you know him as only the guy who finished the Robert Jordan Wheel of Times series, you are missing a lot. This man is a writing machine. George R.R. Martin was editor guest of honor . Yes, editor. Wild Card series, anyone? Dangerous Women, Rogues, Old Mars, Old Venus — just a few of the many anthologies he’s edited or co-edited. Of course, he can’t get away completely from his writer status. At one point, Sanderson was at a table in the second-floor foyer signing books and Martin was in one of the ballrooms. Sanderson’s line of fans went along one wall and Martin’s down the middle of the foyer, down a hallway and — who knows? — perhaps out the door and down the sidewalk all the way to the Missouri River. Who says people aren’t reading books any more?

(There were other guests of honor, but alas, I didn’t have enough time to see them: artist Nene Thomas, fan Mark Oshiro and toastmaster Selina Rosen. My apologies, folks.)

This all took place in the Downtown Kansas City Marriott Hotel, which will be the main hotel for next year’s worldcon, MidAmeriCon II. It was nice as modern hotels go, but it has its quirks. See, it’s not enough any more just to push a button to summon an elevator. No, now you have to tap a keypad on a screen, then watch a graphic that tells you which elevator to expect. All nice and 21st-century-ish, but while high-tech hits the call button, the elevator itself is still subject to gravity and other forces in moving up and down the shaft. So, if you plan to stay at this hotel for the worldcon, be prepared for the usual pile-ups of people waiting for the elevator. (Experienced con-goers are already pretty familiar with that phenomenon, I’m thinking.)

Comic-book cons perhaps have taken the spotlight from SF cons, but if you like science fiction and fantasy — and horror, or anything in the related genres — you really should consider one. There are regional cons all over the country. The two I know best are this one and Bubonicon, New Mexico’s version held in Albuquerque. It’s a chance to meet other fans, plus you get an idea of that’s going on not only in publishing but on the Internet, blogs, sites and podcasts. And the people who run them are friendly and welcoming. I mean, come on, how many conventions honor the people who come to the conventions? Just ask Mr. Oshiro, cited above.

For me, it was a chance to shove aside current frustrations and relax among people with similar interests (and senses of humor, which helps.) I got to see a New Mexico friend, John Jos. Miller, a Wild Cards writer from the beginning and 1950s SF movie freak. (Check out his Cheese Magnet site for deep, academic [heh-heh] discussions of the classic and less-classic films.)

ConQuest is sponsored by the KC Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, Inc., or KaCSFFS (they say it’s pronounced “kax-fuss.”) . The next ConQuest will still take place next May. (The worldcon doesn’t happen until August. While KaCSFFS is involved with MidAmeriCon II planning, the group isn’t the only one. Worldcon is just too damn big for that.)

I plan to attend both. This is a goal. Whether either or both happens, we’ll see.


The Spandex brigade begins its annual flight to the movieplex

Once again, the silly superhero season is upon us.

As the Avengers prepare to battle that Ultron thing (at least in the U.S.; in some markets overseas the battle has already been joined), more superheroes will be coming out of the screens in the movie complexes and the toy stores and the fast-food joints and whatever other merchandising the companies have in store. There will be more this summer, this fall, this winter, next spring and on and on and on until the third for fourth decade of the 21st century probably. Back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s of the last millennium, we had been waiting for flying cars; instead we got flying Spandex-clad superheroes.

Superheroes or superhero-related shows haven’t all been relegated to the summer, television has had a bunch of such shows going on for a while to mixed success. But it’s summer, and that mean big, bombastic movies, and so we’re getting ’em, like ’em or not.

I suppose the big one is Avengers, Age of Ultron. I gather the plot is about Tony Stark screwing up and instead of making a robot mind to aid people instead makes one that decides to just replace them all. Leave it to the movies to tap into our collective angst: Big Important Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have been warning us that Artificial Intelligence might be a dangerous thing to be messing with. Yeah, when’s that ever stopped us?

As I’ve said before, I’m not all that charged up by superheroes. The stories just repeat themselves ’cause it’s easier to recycle an old villain that come up with a new one. I will to admit enjoying — and also being a bit surprised — by one or two or three. Captain America: The Winter Soldier mostly; to a lesser extent the first Avengers movie and The Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter two, though, were less interesting because they dealt with some amorphous threat from outer space while Winter Soldier stayed on Earth and dealt with real, imminent threats to privacy and government overreach. That made it more immediate and more topical, a rare thing in superhero movies.

As a tiny counterpoint to the big Marvel release this week, DC has been dropping trailers for its next big film, Batman v. Superman, which has nearly a year to go before we see the whole thing. No, it doesn’t look promising, but at least it does seem to be addressing a big issue from the end of Man of Steel, the wanton destruction of the city and the deaths of thousands. We’ll have to wait to see if it’s just a trailer-tease or if the issue is really addressed, but I like to think that the makers have been pressured to respond by the criticism about that ending. (Evidently the Avengers do sort of mention the destruction that occurred at the end of their first movie, but they’ve also evidently moved their battles overseas. Less of a problem if it’s some foreigner’s city that gets flattened.)

The Batman trailer also illustrates a pet peeve of mine (outside of being, dark, colorless, hopeless and dreary), and that’s how superheroes get a pass on the laws of physics. When Superman started in the comics, he was just a powerful man. He didn’t fly, he just leaped pretty far. Gradually, he gained the ability to fly (along with X-ray vision, super breath, super hearing, etc., etc., etc.) Now he not only flies, he hovers. How the hell does he do that? If science fiction writers tried to do that with their protagonist, they’d be laughed out of the convention unless they had a sound, plausibly scientific explanation. Even fantasy writers have to keep their magic consistent, so if they give the hero hovering ability, it better have a solid root in the general magic realm. So superheroes are neither SF nor fantasy, but a class of genre fiction all their own. Akin to myths, legends and gods — yea, verily I say unto you, superheroes are the new gods for the allegedly rational 21st century.

Despite what Warner Brothers, DC, Marvel and Disney would have you believe, those superheroes aren’t the only ones around. Other comics, other novels, even a couple of movies have explored more rational attempts at explaining superheroes and how they work. However, I’m going to focus on one, a series worth reading because it explores how having super powers can be a curse and how so-called heroes can have feet of clay. That’s the Wild Card series edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. There are several books out and the latest, Lowball, has just been published.

I also lied because I’m going to plug another different take on superheroes, and, yes, it’s my own book, Tyranny of Heroes. (This is my blog and I’ll shill my books if I want to.) My superheroes don’t mess around, they take over the word, they kill their enemies and they make sure everyone on the planet behaves themselves. And, of course, they change history, which is explored by an underground what we would call blogger, except the Internet is closely controlled by the Supers, so our underground writer has to resort to more prosaic methods. (Remember mimeograph machines?)

Information on getting the e-book is available at the right where you see the cover. (And, OK, I’ll admit it, I’m looking for some sales here. I think it’s a good book, and if you agree, please tell your friends. But please give it a try.)