Science Fiction Repair Shop: A Better Tomorrow Dept.

"We expect more change than actually happens in the future because we imagine our lives have changed more than they actually have."


Tom Vanderbilt Explains Why We Could Predict Self-Driving Cars, But Not Women in the Workplace

... when I took a subway to a café to write this article and electronically transmit it to a distant editor, I was doing something I could have done in New York City in the 1920s, using that same subway, the Roosevelt Brothers coffee shop, and the telegram, albeit less efficiently. (Whether all that efficiency has helped me personally, or just made me work more for declining wages, is an open question). We expect more change than actually happens in the future because we imagine our lives have changed more than they actually have.

Emphasis mine. Such dilemmas manifested, in my case, in the form of questions about what kind of human behavior to depict in a story about the far future. I decided the best thing I could do, in the case of Flight of the Vajrawas not try to predict too much, but instead to do what any decent SF book does: take what we have now and comment on it by using SF as an interpretive filter.

Vajra was already bordering on obsolete, at least in terms of its technical predictions, by the time it came out. Right in the first sec tion, the main character users a disposable personal drone, and the way I wrote it I implied that this sort of thing was a) common and b) something of an arms race between the people who made such things and the people who try to defend against them. This has already happened, so the future in question already starts to look a little quaint. Ditto the way things like 3D printing or self-assembling materials figure into the story as local color and backdrop. All this stuff just seems hopelessly obvious now, and not very boundary-pushing in terms of asking hard questions about what our lives are going to be like in any number of years. (This isn't why I would want to revise the book, either. Rather, that was more around cleaning up the text itself, on a simple mechanical level.)

But then there are all the things that wouldn't change, most of them rooted in deep-seated parts of human nature. Rather than pin my hopes for the story's success on any one technological prediction, I decided the smarter thing to do would be to make the whole thing revolve around human desire: the impulse to move forward versus the urge to cling to what's familiar. That became the real axis for the story.

I don't think I was completely successful there either, but I hope that element of it has a better chance of meaning something to readers later on down the line than tech gimcrackery already dated by the book's release.


Tags: Flight of the Vajra science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop


Movie Reviews: Predestination

How did this astonishing little miracle of a movie -- easily the best adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's work to film yet -- pass without leaving so much as a ripple?



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Stop reading this. Go to Netflix, your local video kiosk, wherever you can get your hands on a copy of Predestination. Watch it first, because I can guarantee it will be one of the best things you've seen all year, and odds are you might never have run into it if someone else hadn't told you about it. I want to put all this up front, because this movie deserves discussion and thought, and yet it is absolutely impossible to talk about this film without treading into complete spoiler territory. Those are just the facts. Go no further unless you are prepared.

Predestination is nominally science fiction, adapted from the Robert A. Heinlein short story "'All You Zombies — '", but like all the best SF, it doesn't stay stuck inside that container; it batters its way out and leaps towards bigger things. It deals with a man (Ethan Hawke) who appears to be some kind of spy in the employ of a nebulous organization, working behind the scenes to stop a terrorist named "The Fizzle Bomber" from destroying several square blocks of New York City. There's only one curious little detail, one that scoots by quickly enough that you might not catch it: the bombing hasn't happened yet. It's to happen at some point in the future. The spies are time travelers, fixing history when it breaks.

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Tags: Ethan Hawke movies review Robert A. Heinlein science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop Spierig Brothers


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Seriously? Dept.

People are watching SF and reading comics! And taking them seriously! The horror!


Simon Pegg: Adults' obsession with science fiction causing society to become infantilised - People - News - The Independent

"...part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!"

Goodness, imagine that. People consuming works of the imagination, and having the nerve to take them seriously.

I leave myself open to the possibility that Brother Simon was grossly misquoted — note that ellipsis — or that the emphasis on his words was shifted to make it sound like he was condemning something he wasn't. But really, this is about as awful a piece of journalism as it gets. [Addendum: Pegg supplies more context on his own.]

Putting that aside, the idea that SF/fantasy/comics are infantalizing forces is beyond dumb. Why do they get singled out, and not stuff like Pitch Perfect 2 or Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, arguably many orders of magnitude worse in such a vein? Because they come from that well of goodies we have tarred with the brush of being "kid's stuff", and because we reserve a peculiar sort of horror for socially retrograde behaviors that's out of proportion with their actual impact.

If anyone is likely to talk about infantilization around here, come to think of it, it's me, but I don't think comic books/SF/ponies are the culprits here. That they have manifest popularity is a symptom, not always of bad things. I grouse about how the recent wave of popular stuff is not the greatest creative role model, but I know better than to think it's a symptom of total societal decay or something. For that I would sooner look to the loathsome and violent behavior of mobs at sporting events or fraternities, which don't earn a fraction as much of the hand-wringing, pearl-clutching flabbergast as people dressing up as Tony Stark or Black Widow (or, for that matter, Inuyasha). And again, why? And again, because the former is allegedly "normal", and the latter not, and better the devil we know than the devil we don't know.


Tags: fantasy science fiction sociology


Movie Reviews: Under The Skin

Scarlett Johannson does so much with so little, in this minimalist story of questioned self-identity.



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The easy, and wrong, way to talk about Under the Skin is through analogy and metaphor: it’s The (Wo)Man Who Fell To Earth by way of David Lynch, or something like that. I resist this approach, because it reduces any discussion of the movie to outside references, and threatens to do a disservice to what the experience of watching the film is actually like. Talk about something only through the lens of something else and you end up not talking about the thing itself at all. The thing itself works very hard to not be pigeonholed, not merely in the sense of “is it SF or not?” but “what is it, really?”

Even a simple description of what happens in Under the Skin is likely to disappoint. After a sound-and-light show that implies birth or creation or both, we meet two people, sort of. One is a man who rides a motorcycle and rescues what appears to be the dead body of a prostitute from the bank of a river. The other is a woman (Scarlett Johannson), who strips off the dead woman’s clothes and dons them herself. This, the movie implies, is not the only disguise she wears.

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Tags: movies review Scarlett Johannson


Science Fiction Repair Shop: The Nut Job Dept.

SF's sparks of crazy in the '60s and '70s were a market condition, not an innovation.


Earlier my friend Steven Savage and I were reminiscing about the way literary SF in the 60s and 70s had enjoyed a burst of maverick creativity. I felt the reason why written science fiction was such a bowl of gorp* at the time revolved around a few things. Most of them were market conditions.

After stuff like 2001 came and went, it started to become clear to publishers that there were tons of young people with tons of disposable income who wanted to read science fiction, so they started putting out most anything that fit the bill. After Star Wars, the dam really burst, but even before then there was the sense of an unmet need.

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Tags: science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop


Movie Reviews: Lucy

Forget about the ridiculous premise, if you can; Luc Besson's latest gets major props for sheer audacity.



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Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Lucy isn’t science fiction. It’s science foolishness. It relies on one of the most egregious misstatements of scientific fact — that human beings only use ten percent of their brainpower — as the linchpin for a movie so enjoyably bonkers that in the end it doesn’t really matter how dumb its core premise is. This movie is the cinematic incarnation of the old cliché, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” This one breakdances.

The premise is simple; what becomes derived from that premise, not so simple. Lucy (Scarlett Johannson), a woman living and studying in Taiwan, gets tricked by her sleazy boyfriend into delivering a case to some Korean mobster types led by the sinister Mr. Jang (an underused Choi Min-sik, the original Oldboy). The case contains some new, experimental drug soon to be flooding the streets. She's just won the drug-mule lottery, and so a terrified Lucy gets to have a packet of the stuff sewn into her guts. At one point she’s manhandled by one of her minders, and the packet bursts over and begins leaking. The drug turns Lucy into, well, super-Lucy.

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Tags: Luc Besson movies review Scarlett Johannson


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Mudpie Trebuchet Dept.

Breitbart flings mud at SF's power structure, soils own shirt. More at 11.


Call me behind the times, but I'd never actually read anything by Andrew Breitbart until I came across a piece he did — and what a scurrilous, smear-job piece it is; I'm not linking it here — about the political controversies currently roiling the SF world. His position is entirely predictable: those social justice warrior types are driving all the real diversity out of the field and replacing it with thinkalike conformism imposed from the Left on across.

This is one of those areas where I know there are bad actors on both sides, and so the way the two sides have been putatively divided up (SJWs on one side, "conservatives" on the other) is misleading. Don't get me wrong: I kvelled to learn about Vox Day getting a good hiding for his repugnant opinions. But I shouldn't have to side with people whose tactics I find questionable to be considered not in his company.

Breitbart's piece helps this situation not one whit, in big part because it cases everyone on the right side of this particular room as being the true embodiments of diversity — I guess by the mere fact that they're not toeing that coercive lib'ruhl line, or unafraid to speak their minds, or something. This is about as insightful as saying that the greatest example of someone giving their lives in the name of self-determination and free will is a jaywalker who gets creamed by a passing bus.


Tags: science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Canonade Dept.

More literary canon calamities.


CONSUMER NOTE! I wrote this post while feverish, so I'm even crankier than usual.

Also, INJURY WARNING! Do not read this linked piece unless you want to sprain your eyes rolling them.

What We Lose if We Lose the Canon - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

those writers who feel the pressure of precursors and who successfully take poetry or prose in new directions deserve consideration beyond what we normally extend to writers who produce satisfactory work in various genres. Just because there is no objective list of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. I’m not suggesting that one can’t fully enjoy James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card, but I’m not sure one can love them in the way that one loves Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce. One can be a fan of Agatha Christie, but one can’t really be a fan of George Eliot.

It's rare I see someone swing so freely between lucid insight and dunderheaded foot-in-mouth-ism in the same paragraph, possibly even the same sentence. Heinlein and Dick (jury's out on Card, if you ask me) can be described as many things, but alluding that they merely produced nothing more than "satisfactory work in various genres" is to either be honestly ignorant of what kind of work they did and why, or to be studiously, snootily ignorant of it.

Sigh. Just when I thought we'd gotten past this kind of mingy provincialism, it rears its head again, and in the silliest contexts. The whole point of the article was that a canon should be a conversation, one populated by voices that span the spectrum of literary experience. If the whole reason to make such a statement is just to draw a line in the sand and then kick some of said sand in the faces of those unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of it, why bother? SF has a right to be here just as much as anything else does, proving its worth on a case-by-case basis — the same way, oh, all of Herman Meville only became canonized because his defenders fought (albeit posthumously) to have Melville recognized as a literary giant. I would no sooner go without Dick than without Melville — in fact, I might well give up Melville first, since it's Dick that spoke more directly to me in my time.

And as for that parting shot — well, let's just say the author has a very different idea of what a "fan" is than many of the self-professed fans I know do. It takes a lot of nerve — and of a very highly developed kind, I think — to tell people what such things are, aren't, or can and can't be.

Look, I get it, believe me. I've got room on my shelf aplenty for Dostoevsky and Dick, for Shakespeare and Simenon. The canon's just as important to me as it is to anyone making a living professing about it. What's not cool is pretending only certain select elites have the right to engage in a conversation with it, for reasons that have as much to do with the politics of the canon as any merits the works themselves possess. The least we can do is kid ourselves a little less about this!


Tags: canon literature science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop


Science Fiction Repair Shop: You Figure It Out Dept.

On the consequences of not knowing what you really want.


What's wrong with the movies? More than we can see, that's for sure:

The Birdcage «

There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing. ... Optimists usually say lighten up, because, after all, good movies always find a way to get through. But here’s the thing: They don’t. The evidence that good movies survive is the fact that every year brings good movies, which is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today. Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort.

The truly cynical part of me thinks of this as one of the consequences of a culture that doesn't know what it wants, and so will settle for whatever it's given. We don't know what we want, so we leave it to people who are far more ambitious, searching, and driven than we are to provide it for us. Whether or not it's better that way is something I have to leave for another essay, but my point is that there are consequences to not knowing what we really want.

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Tags: creativity Hollywood science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop writing


Science Fiction Repair Shop: They Blinded Me With Science Dept.

On why non-SF writers sometimes disdain SF, continued.


Random thought about the disdain for SF in literary circles, about what it stems from. Far as I can tell, most of it comes from a few different things, most of which go unacknowledged by literary types:

  1. They're scientifically illiterate, or feel inferior when discussing such subjects (and yet never bother to take steps to correct that deficiency, because it gives them a convenient way to manifest indignity), so SF for them feels like having their noses rubbed in their ignorance.
  2. A variant of the above: they are outright contemptuous of science; some on both the Left and the Right have different incarnations of this, each motivated by their individual ideological prejudices.
  3. They simply aren't aware of SF's genuine literary heritage, or they choose to ignore it.
  4. They resent the populist success of SF as compared to their own niche.

Of the four, I think #1 and #2 are the most unsung, and the latter two are the most self-evident. It's easy to assume that people hate on SF because it's "popular" or "lowbrow", and it's not entirely wrong to start from that assumption. Most negative opinions of SF, even to this day, are rooted it in it being written as crowd-pleasing work, or as material aimed at juveniles — even when the SF in question just begins from those points and doesn't necessarily end with them.

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Tags: authors literature science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop writers writing


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