Previous Posts: April 2013

Science Fiction Repair Shop: Gap Redux Dept.

No, I actually like tech -- with caveats.


Reading back over my earlier post about "SF hitting its limit because we have hit ours" (as I summarized it), I suspect I seem rather like a Luddite itching to throw his wooden shoe into the machinery.

Let me put it this way: I'd rather have the technology we have now than not have it. There is no question in my mind that having these things has immeasurably broadened the scope and quality of our lives. I wouldn't be posting this stuff on a blog if I didn't think so. I wouldn't be working in this field if I didn't think so.

What I don't believe is that such improvement is automatic; it has to be earned. The fact that we have enormous amounts of data at our disposal only helps us if we are also capable of making native distinctions between facts and fancy. I know a few too many people who still equate having recall of — or access to — facts (or "data") being the same thing as being smart, when it's plainly not. I would rather have someone with splendid command of only a few facts, versus incompetent or middling command of many of them.

Many of the "tech is making us dumber" pundits have a kernel of truth, even if it's expressed very badly, or in the service of an agenda I profess no sympathy for. It's not that tech is making us all into dolts — it's that tech makes it easier for us to delude ourselves into thinking we know something, when in fact we don't. It does also makes it easier for genuine learning to take place, but if we don't know the inherent differences between those states in the first place, we're lost.


Tags: learning technology


Science Fiction Repair Shop: The Gap In Our Selves Dept.

SF has hit its limit because we have hit ours.


The Great Science Fiction Gap? | Fan To Pro

... most science fiction these days bores me. It all looks the same, I’m tired of Stargates, would-be-treks, and other work that just seems to rearrange the pieces we’re used to. There’s nothing, in my mind, that I’ve seen to inspire people to make something new. If there is something “beyond” the rehashes we’ve seen, it often seems to be hard to relate too or way too far out, strange cyberpunk and transhumanism. Perhaps useful in some cases, but in a scale of decades or centuries, not right now, when it seems we’re terribly out of ideas. Also we need something to bridge any gaps into a future of, I dunno, immortality in cyberspace and the like.

I came up with two responses to this — one somewhat self-indulgent and the other more outward-directed. The first one is a naked sales pitch: most science fiction these days bores me too, which is why I wrote Flight of the Vajra. Let's see if my own attempts to cure my boredom work for anyone else as well. (I also had to wrestle in the book with the same problems of, e.g., having things too far-out for a reader to connect with emotionally. I think I told a friend at one point, "If you haven't cried by the end of this book, then I haven't done my job.")

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Tags: culture fandom fantasy Flight of the Vajra science fiction sociology


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Old But Not In The Way Dept.

Every movie, every book, is time in a bottle, if only you let yourself see it.


CHUD-IAFT: Why Old Movies? | CHUD.com

Often in my film school classes, I hear students complain about the screening of older movies. They say they’re not interested. They think old movies are boring. They complain about black-and-white, and they’ve got difficulties relating to those old actors. What qualifies as an old movie to these students? Anything made before the year 2000. And certainly nothing of any consequence or relevance was made before 1980.

If someone claims to be a film fan but can't stomach the idea of watching something before they were born, I submit they're not much of a fan to begin with.

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Tags: aesthetics fandom movies Science Fiction Repair Shop


Art Not Artifact Dept.

A book is not just a wad of paper.


You never realize just how much stuff you own until you try to sift through it and prune it down. I'm in the process of a major housecleaning, which includes slimming down the book and movie collections. It's nowhere nearly as much a packrat's paradise as it used to be — there was a time when I had a pile of unopened DVDs as high as my waist — but there's a lot in here I could live without, and so it's 'bout time I decluttered.

Among the first things to get sorted out were what I call the "ubiquities" — things that you can find in any public library or movie rental place, most of which I've watched once and really don't need to revisit anytime soon. Many of them were movies which have since been reissued on BD in far superior transfers anyway; if I ever get the urge to put them back into my library, it'll be trivially easy to do so. The out-of-print stuff, the titles which have slipped through the cracks or fallen out of licensing — e.g., my Criterion edition of Ran — those stay.

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Tags: art literature media reification


All The People, None Of The Time Dept.

Can't please. Shouldn't try. But don't confuse that with blowing your toes off.


From a discussion about software: You don’t need every customer – Marco.org

When evaluating complaints, we need to consider whether the complainer is credible, whether they have reasonable expectations, and whether a significant number of others have made similar complaints or are likely to have experienced similar problems. For many complaints, a reasonable outcome isn’t possible or pragmatic, and the best solution is to ignore them.

For "complaints", substitute "criticism"; for "software", subtitute "literature" (or "entertainment" or "fiction").

There is nothing more subjective, or difficult to quantify, than someone's tastes. If you ask someone why they liked Skyfall but didn't like The Dark Knight Rises (to pull two wholly arbitrary examples out of my hat), you are almost never going to get an answer that has its roots in anything objective. Nor do I think you ever could. You're going to get an expression of taste, which is the distillation of an entire personality at work.

The hardest part about creating anything is finding an audience for it — a mirror that is bigger than the one that reflects just you. So we think about what's popular, what sells — and why not, when everyone who's buying is also looking to such things to see what to sell. The more popular something is, the more we think of it as being the desired model to emulate — but only because it's popular, and not because of what that popularity signifies. Is something popular because it satisfies a widespread unspoken thirst for the new, or because it just flatters people en masse and tells them what they want to hear? The latter happens orders of magnitude more often than the former, but it's the former that brings on real sea changes.

There is no sense in trying to please everyone, but this should not be the same as thinking that attempting to please is mere prostitution. It is far easier to find an existing audience than it is to attract a new one, but which of those you should choose lies entirely with you. Sometimes, very occasionally, you can do both. To wit: David Cronenberg once lamented that he'd never created anything as popular as E.T., but that was a mere couple of years before he made The Flywhich entered the cultural vocabulary on a level all its own. He hasn't been as popular, but he's left his mark in the right ways.


Tags: audiences self-publishing


Learning Curveball Dept.

Why functional competence is no place for an artist to rest on one's laurels.


How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner | DaedTech

The Expert Beginner has nowhere to go because progression requires an understanding that he has a lot of work to do, and that is not a readily available conclusion.

First, some background. The author's conceit is that some classes of people who learn a certain practice get stuck at a phase he calls the "Expert Beginner", where they reach a kind of plateau of functional competence but deprive themselves of the outside feedback needed to progress any further, and thus founder in a swamp of self-delusion about their own skills.

His large-scale analogy for discussin the topic is bowling. Mine, as you might guess, is writing.

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Tags: creativity learning neuroscience writers writing


Raw Shock Blot Dept.

Suspension of disbelief: exercise for the brain.


What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art - NYTimes.com

... the brain is a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it. We can see this with illusions and ambiguous figures that trick our brain into thinking that we see things that are not there. In this sense, a task of figurative painting is to convince the beholder that an illusion is true.

It's been said (via Scott McCloud) that people who start reading comics when they are young train their brains to recognize artistic patterns a little differently than people who don't. Not to say that comics are the only way to do this, but that's one example of an effect that can be manifested multiple ways. The more we train ourselves to suspend disbelief and allow the imagination to do its own thing in different ways, the easier it becomes to enter the world someone else has created.

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Tags: art comics creativity creators imagination neuroscience Scott McCloud suspension of disbelief


Do It (To) Yourself Dept.

On self-publishing, self-promotion, and self-delusion.


There's a New York Times piece about big-name authors choosing to self-publish  — this time, though an agency (ICM) that is offering a new package to its clients for same. The big-name author cited this time around is David Mamet, and there was all the usual stuff in the article about control over one's work and a bigger slice of royalties, which is all fine.

Very little discussion, though, of the fact that self-publishing for a name author is an easier deal because of the built-in name recognition — the Louis C.K. Effect, as someone else I know calls it. Just because he can self-fund and -vend his concert film doesn't mean you can, because there are tons more people who know who he is than there are people who know who you are. The vast majority of people who self-publish either find a comfortable niche of fans to address (a la successful webcomics, which set up a fanbase and then capitalize on it gradually), or remain obscure.

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Tags: publicity publishing self-publishing


Buddy, Can Youse Paradigm? Dept.

Knowing more than others is not a form of oppression.


The Fascism of Knowing Stuff | Robinince's Blog

There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. ... The price of technology, comfort and hopefully greater understanding of the universe and our place in it is an acceptance that we may not know best in all events and common sense, a hammer and a bag of leeches may not get you through it all.

I've seen (non-)thinking of a similar caliber manifest in other circles — viz., the anti-vaccine movement, which varies from Don't Tell Me How To Practice Science to I Know What I Know And That's That in the spectrum of its arrogance. None of those things are unique to it, either, which makes it all the more depressing to see them manifest in yet another part of our lives.

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Tags: dharma science


Leeboy Dept.

Spike Lee, remaking "Oldboy": I'm excited, and nervous.


A friend of mine sent me a link to the lobby placard for Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy. Talk about your mixed feelings!

Oldboy was, and is, easily one of my favorite films of the last decade, and I try not to throw around accolades of that magnitude if I can help it. But Lee is also one of the few American filmmakers who takes real risks with his material (25th Hour, Clockers, Do the Right Thing), to the point where even when I don't like the way his films come out (She Hate Me, Summer of Sam) I like the fact he isn't taking the easy way with them.

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Tags: Hollywood Korea movies Oldboy remakes Spike Lee


Science Fiction Repair Shop: That Shakespearean Rag Dept.

On being the embodiment of your moment in time.


A quote from Zen Action, Zen Person:

When I asked a Japanese friend why Shakespeare is so popular even among the Japanese (who know his work mostly through translation), he replied that Shakespeare is universal because he is so perfectly Elizabethan. [Emphasis mine.]

I've talked before — here, here, and here, at the very least — about how every work of creation is a product of its moment in time and space. So are the creators themselves, and the audiences that experience both those creations and those creators.

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Tags: fantasy history science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop writing


Movie Reviews: Gate of Hell

One of the best films of 2013 appears to have been made in 1954, and has now been lovingly restored for the ages.



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Few things in the movies excite and enthrall me more than a lost masterpiece, found once again. Last year a nearly-complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, believed lost to history forever, was located (it was hidden inside the wall of a movie theater, no less!) and restored. For film buffs, it was akin to unearthing the Ark of the Covenant. Gate of Hell might not come trailing the same level of name recognition or film-history pedigree, but having it restored to its original beauty and then some is no less exciting to me. This was not the first Japanese movie I saw, but it lodged so profoundly in my memory — not just for its blazing visuals, but its emotionally turbulent story — that it might as well have been.

As with Ugetsu, another film I saw early on in my self-education in Japanese cinema, I watched Gate of Hell courtesy of a VHS copy rented from the mom-‘n’-pop video store around the corner from my apartment. And as with Ugetsu, both the telecine and the print were in such lamentable shape that I wondered if that was because nothing better existed. I wasn’t far from wrong: Gate of Hell had been photographed via a single-strip Kodak process, Eastmancolor, that faded badly over time. Fortunately the studio, Daiei, had prepared a three-strip separation master — separate black-and-white negatives for each color channel — that preserved well. This process was later used by many others, e.g., MGM for their Metrocolor system (2001: a space odyssey), and when combined with digital technology, one could easily produce a remaster that outstripped the original. It also helped when the film being restored was something that had more than imagery in its favor.

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Tags: Criterion Japan Kazuo Hasegawa Machiko Kyo movies review samurai Technicolor Teinosuke Kinugasa


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Two Worlds And In Between Dept.

On using SF as an examination of the clashes of spiritual opposites.


Class Notes: “struggle without telos” | The Mockingbird Sings

I have often been told by believers that they cannot imagine a motive for any of these things [to strive for excellence, create beauty, foster love, diligently build (rebuild) the ideal of civilization] without the certainty of God and eternal life. Yet, for me, this very lack of certainty is why these things are of vital importance.

I found a dichotomy of equal difficulty being recapitulated as I wrote Flight of the VajraIn that story there are two major factions of humanity: the Highend, who have embraced the transcendental possibilities of technological progress to varying degrees; and the Old Way, who feel the only real transcendence is something that comes from within, and cannot be proxied or prosthesized. You could become immortal by backing up and serially restoring your intelligence across multiple bodies, but why bother if you were doing that for the sake of living a life that was fundamentally empty and uncreative to begin with? (One insight I had is that those who can do something like that eventually choose more and more to do nothing but that, and soon everything except protecting one's own skin becomes secondary and eventually falls off the map altogether.)

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Tags: atheism belief Flight of the Vajra philosophy religion science Science Fiction Repair Shop writing


Movie Reviews: Source Code

A little SF masterpiece that proves a small scale doesn't have to mean small ambitions.



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Source Code begins with a great hook for a story, and wisely remembers that a hook is only that: a way in, not the story itself. It opens with a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) on a train headed into Chicago, with no idea how he arrived there. A woman (Michelle Monaghan) he does not know is talking to him in a familiar way, and calling him by a name he’s never heard before. He knows his name is Colter Stevens, U.S. Army — so why is the face in the mirror and the name on his driver’s license all wrong? And then the train explodes from a bomb hidden in it somewhere, and Colter is thrown back into his “real” body, strapped into a seat in a kind of armored pod.

It’s a military project, we learn. The eight minutes Colter spent on the train in the body of another man is a sort of a simulation — a kind of peek into an alternate dimension, one constructed from the remnants of the mind of the man Colter is being projected into. The woman, Christina, is the would-be girlfriend of the dead man. The “source code”, as they call this pocket universe, has been created so that Colter might go into it — as many times as required — and find out who set the bomb. There’s only one problem: Colter has no idea how he got into this situation in the first place, and doesn’t believe for a second that the people giving him orders through the little TV screen over his chair have any legitimacy.

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Tags: Doug Jones science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop


Perfect Forever Dept.

What makes a work great isn't an objective truth.


[This post was originally written as a comment in another forum. It appears here with some rewriting and expansion.]

I think one of the reasons we want to think what makes a movie (or book, or anything) good or bad is universal — something unchanging and fixed, apart from any one of us — is because it would be enormously convenient to do so.

If that were true, then we would not need to debate anything ever; we would just need to figure out what those universals are and then we could all quit arguing.

There's three problems with this, though.

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Tags: aesthetics Blade Runner books Game of Thrones Hard-Boiled movies


Science Fiction Repair Shop: No Difference, Except The Feet Are A Little Bit Off The Ground Dept.

Please suspend your disbelief. It'll do us both a world of good.


The Bricoleur: truth in fiction

The health of the imagination, according to [Will] Self, depends on suspension of disbelief; the higher the level of suspension required the more vigorous the workout to the muscle and therefore those things requiring the most suspension are the most important activities to the health of the imagination.

A fun conversation — or argument, depending on the tenor of everyone involved — can be had by spurring a conversation about both the original King Kong and the Peter Jackson remake. Specifically, the visual effects. There are some who defend the original because the effects weren't forensically realistic; they forced us to suspend our disbelief just enough to lift our feet off the ground, so to speak.

Isn't a perfectly "realistic" version of something that could never exist to begin with something of a contradiction in terms?

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Tags: dharma fiction imagination movies Science Fiction Repair Shop suspension of disbelief writing Zen


It Might Play In Peoria, But Then We'd Have To Actually Try To Sell It There Dept.

On the word "unmarketable".


We — meaning friends of mine, the folks at Fan to Pro and other places — have been talking a great deal about originality lately, with me circling back to Dale Peck's insight of how people value the idea of the original more than the original thing itself. Was Jackson Pollock being an original when he stood over his canvases dripping paint onto them, or when someone else came into the room and saw what he'd done and felt, if only in the most distant and proxied way, a hint of the discovery he had just felt?

What makes something original — a cultural shorthand for "good" — is also what can make it difficult, intransigent, or forbidding. The most damning label for something original is unmarketable, which has turned out to be a more important issue than I originally imagined, and not something you can brush aside as mere vulgar capitalism.

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Tags: creativity originality


Out Of The Vaults And Into Our Hard Drives Dept.

Why I still love me some physical media, even when downloads are that much more convenient.


The other day I found Tackhead's incredible Tackhead Tape Time album up on eMusic. I say get it now, because one of the disadvantages of download services is that you have no idea if, or when, any one product will remain there. (This happened to me with an Akos Rozmann album I was looking for: here today, deleted tomorrow.)

The day before that I found — and this made my mind really melt —  Timothy Carey's maverick underground/indie project The World's Greatest Sinner on, of all places, iTunes. Amazon also has their own entry for it, but it hasn't gone live as of this writing. This was a movie I expected to be forever condemned to the tape-and-file-trading circuit, but we got lucky: Carey's estate and heirs have restored the film and are the ones responsible for recirculating it.

This sort of thing has long been the exception, not the rule. For decades, most such tape-trader material languished in a vault somewhere because nobody knew what to do with it. With the advent of the DVD era, much of it started to get dusted off and reissued; now, with downloads and streaming being the next big way to get one's fix, it becomes even less costly to get this stuff out to people legitimately. The downside, of course, is that you no longer have something physical.

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Tags: Akos Rozmann bootlegs copyright distribution media music Tackhead Timothy Carey


Every Butt A Billboard Dept.

On the hazards of being someone else's product via social networking.


Picture this. It's 1956, and the two most common ways to get a message to someone not in the same room as you is to either pick up a phone or write a letter.

Now imagine someone saying, "Hey, we could finance a whole alternate postal system by selling advertising on envelopes and letterhead!".

I suspect the only reason such a thing didn't happen was because a) most people at the time were perfectly comfortable with paying a few cents for a postage stamp and b) no one was ornery enough to actually try implementing this idea. (If such a thing did happen and I somehow missed it, I'd love to know about it. I can't imagine it having made much of a dent.)

But is this not, in effect, what we have done with the Internet? Two of the most common ways to talk to someone else on the 'Net, Facebook and Twitter, are nothing more than thinly-disgused advertising systems. Worse, no one seems to care.

Even worse, if you do pay them money to use the system, they're not charging you for the convenience of getting rid of ads — rather, they charge you for the privilege of being advertising. If that's not an indictment of the values of such systems, I don't know what is.

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Tags: advertising Facebook Internet technology Twitter


The Balcony Is Closed Dept.

Goodbye, Roger.


Roger Ebert 1942-2013.

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Tags: gather those rosebuds movies Roger Ebert


Cultural Half-Life Dept.

When we live in a world where nothing we create ever really goes away, what should we create and why?


A comment I made on a post I thought had a lot of insight about the way the Marvel Movieverse has unfolded:

Fear Of A Checklist Planet (Or Universe) | Fan To Pro

... now that we're getting increasingly stuck in a world where nothing ever goes away or is forgotten, it's important that we start thinking about culture in ecological terms. If what we're producing is going to be condemned to never completely go away, we need to make it something that will be beneficial to all concerned, and not simply turn into an inert substance — or, worse, a pollutant.

I am tempted to let that speak for itself, but I'll elaborate a bit more.

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Tags: creativity creators culture


Discipline, Please! Dept.

The sheer impulse to write can't by itself be used to avoid self-criticism.


One of the odd things about having conversations with other creators is how you can talk about the same phenomena in such radically dissimilar ways. Put two authors in a room, get them talking about how they do their work, and after an hour's chitchat it's hard to see what their processes have in common aside from the fact that at the end of it you have a pile o' words.

Take one fellow I knew — I'll call him Doug — who I had to give credit to for having tremendous creative ambition. Doug wanted to write, and he wrote — so much so that I wanted to tell him to slow down and look at what he'd done and think about it for a little bit. He never did. While he had the fire to produce such things, he never also developed the discipline to go back over what he'd done and learn from its mistakes — or, for that matter, its successes. (To this day I'm not sure if he ever wrote more than one draft of anything, which is indictment enough of his work habits.)

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Tags: creativity writers writing


Science Fiction Repair Shop: A New (Old) Hope Dept.

On rewriting Lucas from his own notes: a nifty idea.


Now here's something that grabbed me despite myself: George Lucas's original Star Wars treatment is to be adapted into a comic by Dark Horse.

Fans may well remember how the original treatments, written in longhand, went through multiple revisions. Each succeeding one switched, shuffled, and re-organized elements from earlier versions, from other parts of Lucas's private mythology for Star Wars, and from other parts of his spheres of influences — a little Kurosawa here, a little Buck Rogers there. They make for fascinating reading, if only as a reminder of a time when  the Star Wars mythos as we know it, now so much a part of the cultural air we breathe, was nothing more than a disjointed collection of ideas.

The treatment excerpted in the above article makes one wince for two reasons. One, it's the primordial version of another, far more fleshed-out story we now know; it's a little like reading a "What I Want To Be When I Grow Up" essay from a second-grader. Two, it's pretty shaky as a story — a cement-mixer full of pulp SF action clichés.

But here's the thing: every story, when reduced to a bare outline or a beat sheet, has the potential to come off as complete crap.

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Tags: Dark Horse Comics Flight of the Vajra Star Wars storytelling writing


Hypocrisy Rules, OK? Dept.

Change your mind, early and often.


Badass Interview: Kathleen Hanna And Sini Anderson On SXSW’s THE PUNK SINGER | Badass Digest

[Kathleen Hanna]: I believe in the power of failure, of public failure, I believe in changing your mind and being allowed to change your mind. It’s fine to be a fucking hypocrite. It’s fine to put out a record that everybody hates. ...

{Sini Anderson]: ... I think that what society would like us to believe, and people that make mainstream media and what they call art would like us to believe, is that we have to strive for some perfection. And if we sit around and strive for perfection before we put anything out, guess what? We’re not putting anything out.

Maybe "hypocrisy" is the wrong word here — or perhaps it's the right word, because it is seen as being hypocritical, especially in any politically-charged public space (and what public space  isn't politically charged, especially today?), to change your mind.

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Tags: art creativity creators



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This page is an archive of entries from April 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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