Pravic

A New Grammar for Science Fiction

Science Fiction is no longer a novelty.

We do not want to read Science Fiction because it is set in the future. Science Fiction must offer some deeper, truer view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

 

The Future is Going to Happen to Us

Lots of stuff in my newsfeed today about "the future." First there's this little picker-upper posted in a friend's feed:

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Cute, huh? Aside from the usual skepticism we should use when reading Abraham Lincoln quotes on the Internet, is there anybody so naive as to think we have a say in the future? The future will happen to us. We will have very little input in how it all goes down.

Am I crapping on your optimism?

So sorry. But seriously, where does anybody get the idea that the future is ours to control? Let me ask you, do you feel like you're in possession of "the now"? Of course not. Much more powerful forces have taken control of our present and future - they're even working on changing the past. I'm not sanguine about the whole thing, but this sort of ridiculous optimism is too much. In fact, I think optimism is the newest opium of the masses.

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That doesn't mean we are powerless. But we should be realistic about how much power we have. This is my problem with Project Hieroglyph. No doubt oodles of money are being spent to figure out exactly how awesome the future is gonna be and they're hiring science fiction writers to further the endeavor! Of course, writers are very isolated people,

and while some SF writers have degrees in engineering or whatever, we're simply playing pretend when we imagine that it's their engineering knowledge that makes them good SF writers. The great SF writers aren't focusing on the technology of the future, but instead, studying the forces and powers that will shape the future. The best artists are studying the internal machinations that manifest these powerful forces - you know, like love for money and power.

So when you think about the future remember that you won't be able to change it, or affect it. But you can live in the future in a way that preserves your humanity. - mainly by understanding the immense forces that manifest our human destiny rather than the simple technological tools that operate within it.

Speculative Career Planning for Writers, Part 2

Projects in Future-Historical Irrelevance for Contemporary Writers:

1) Restrict physical copies of your works to specially-commissioned, hand-written copies. Learn trade skills in calligraphy, ancient manuscript techniques, illustration, etc. Sell at prohibitively high prices.

2) Restrict transmission of your work to audio recordings. Use Soundcloud or similar site. Periodically replace files with slightly different versions, or change titles but not content. 

3) Do this but with cassette tape, cd-r or even reel-to-reel. Do each performance live, making textual changes ranging from minor to major. 

4) Publish each story under a different name, making as little effort to connect these names as possible. If asked, admit to one and deny another, and admit to names you have not actually used. These can be names which appear nowhere, or the names of your peers. In the latter case, be prepared to mitigate against allegations of plagiarism. 

5) Write each story as a dialogue between two professors about a speculative scientific concept. Have one view proven by an event at the end of the story which is itself not justified.

Optimism, Agency and the Future of SF

This recent Cracked piece really got our goat - needless to say. Aside from the larger argument consisting of an eye-rolling carbon-copy of the argument we've been seeing all over of late, it also takes aim at Philip K. Dick, particularly with respect to his characters. Most of you know that both editors of this magazine come from - and met through - the odd, insular and incredibly dynamic PKD fan-community; so I won't claim there's no emotion involved in seeing the author so thoroughly undermine Dick, particularly his characters.*

I won't spend much time arguing this absurd contention; I wouldn't want to protest too much. 

What I will say is this: It's possible that sometimes Dick's characters weren't the focus, but there is another abstraction than the speculative scientific concept: that of people broadly. Individual Dick personages may have been a bit flat at times, but he was always writing about people.

Of course, he was very often writing about specific people, often with more artfulness and humanity than most of his peers. Dick's characters were often almost direct translations of people in his life, their limitations reflections of Dick's own limited life experience. One could go on for quite some length about the interaction between, and importance of, the artist on the art. But Dick is fruitful no matter how you cut him, so long as you don't expect him to be anything but a flawed person.  

I didn't want to make too much of the criticism, and yet here we are. The author seems to only recall characters with anachronistic garb; the mention of Indiana Jones serves my larger argument all too well, Jones being a "memorable" character whose stories of imperialism-run-rampant are scarcely watchable now. I hope the SF of our era dates better than these films.

With that apologia completed, I turn to the greater issues at stake in this quite terrible piece. David Brin, with whom I have some affinity and also a significant amount of disagreement, posted the piece on his Facebook page, praising the article for the way it  skewers the absurd modern obsession with gloom, cynicism, anomie, nostalgia and regret that has taken over much of sci fi, robbing it of its fun… but also its utility as a source of important thought experiments about tomorrow.” 

Of course, there is no good single argument against a worldview which considers cynicism absurd; this is a gestalt position, and can't be argued effectively from particulars. But I do take issue with the caricatured way he paints critical SF - as the product of "this dismal omphaloskepsis - this reflex toward silly-drivel dystopias with drooling-simplistic villains...” 

There are ways to write which involve neither cardboard villains nor outdated "thought experiments" lacking literary merit. I see a lot of complaints about "gloom and doom," but outside the YA crap being translated into 2-hour Subway commercials these days,** I don't see much of it in the mags or on the shelves. I'd argue that nostalgia isn't a hallmark of the critically-minded thread in SF at all, but of the golden-age revivalist camp who see SF as nothing more than a source of ideas for engineers. Am I the only one who resents this assertion? Some of us want insight from our lit, not just a novel object.

The increasing influence of Brin and his revivalist camp is based largely on the fervor for nostalgia, and the outcry against critical content, which underpins this piece. Brin, along with Stephenson, Doctorow, and their ilk, assert over and over again, with their immense visibility, that pessimism is taking over and must be curbed. Would that they were correct.  Instead, like many a movement which plays on emotion, the enemy is of straw, at least as she stands in the public forum.  Thus the easy contrasts between futurists and SF writers on display here.

What is most wrong in this contrast is the utility which is assumed to be shared by each camp. It's a problem exacerbated by actual, existing SF writers who see their own work as merely an inspiration for scientists (or, more likely, material engineers). SF writers operate within the paradigm of literature, of fiction, of story-telling. There are those willing to sell this short for a place within the dominant field of material science, as there are always such individuals. But there are also, as always, those who have not lost sight of the fiction aspect of science fiction - those for whom it is not merely an avenue to express scientific ideas.

The genre has long been a haphazard confluence of pessimists, optimists, and everything between. This is part of the beauty and the difficulty of the field. I do not mean to cause unnecessary conflict by hitting these points over and over again; I do mean to keep the value of this genre alive to the best of my ability. The optimists and techno-progressives have their spokespeople. Those who see the aims of all art as partially concerned with the critical seem underrepresented still. 

Let us try to keep hard aims at bay in favor of moderate ones. Criticism isn't about tearing everything apart; it's about checking it for problems before you take it on the highway. If we are to be reduced to mechanics, let us seek at least to save a few lives. Better yet, let us not be reduced; let us be storytellers - conveyors of fact and fancy and doom and redemption. Let us be writers. 

 

 

Dick can be a troubling hero for a feminist, but his progression is inspiring if incomplete. At the urging of Ursula K. Le Guin, and despite his own defensive protestations, Dick seemed to accept some criticism of the women in his books and incorporate it into future characters, particularly Angel Archer. Not that this excuses him - that's an unnecessary act, especially in a culture so keen to excuse such positions and so reticent to critique them. But perhaps we can hold these conflicting views of Dick simultaneously.

** The movies have been OK, despite the white-washing and deep irony of the Subway campaign, mostly because Jennifer Lawrence is just that good. Still, though. 

Speculative Career Planning for Writers, Part 1

Projects in Future-Historical Relevance for Contemporary Writers:

1) Emulate various ancient techniques for tablet- and scroll-making, focusing on those which demonstrate a high degree of resilience. Bury in desert, cave, or other native environment. 

2) Consider translations, particularly Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Bantu languages, and ancient Greek or Latin. Modern American English may not be the easiest thing to grasp, depending on circumstances. 

3) Find ways to sneak paper manuscripts into books at highly-secure locations, such as the Library of Congress, the Vatican, or the Bodleian. 

4) Consider a return to the use of pseudoepigraphic writing. Causing confusion for future readers is a way of imploring interest. Mitigate against fallout in the present, as this will likely be seen simply as forgery.

Five Emotional States Every SF Writer Should Be Familiar With...

io9.com has a post up today, 20 Crucial Terms Every 21st Century Futurist Should Know. It's standard, io9-content, heavy on ideas, light on the emotional consequences of the ideas. Reading the article, I couldn't help but conclude that IO9 simply doesn't get it. I mean do authors, artists, futurists, really need to understand these concepts? I would argue that even if these concepts are understood, you cannot make any good art out of them until you get your head around how these changes will affect, you know, people. So, in the spirit of trying to help out, here is a more important list, of just five emotional states you'll need to understand if you want to make good future fiction.

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1. Overwhelmed by possibilities: 500 channels, six flavors of ketchup, several (shitty) types of emo-core, endless phone, computer, and tablet choices... It can all get a little overwhelming. This is an important emotional state, and will be increasingly common in the future. No longer can your SF character exist smug and comfortable in the future with everything in easy reach. Our characters must now encounter option paralysis (not the album by Dillinger Escape Plan). We have too much to choose from and the result is often stultifying, paralyzing, and numbing. Now having a bunch of choices is a hassle, in the future it will be painful.

2: Deeply and utterly in love with someone, or something: This is a fun one - scary - but fun. In the future, people won't be fundamentally different. In fact, our capacity for love is unchanging; from the earliest days, humanity has been into loving. On the one hand love is biological, part of nature's great script for preservation. On the other hand, love is transcendent, and in a way alleviates some of the existential angst we face. Love pulls us off course. Don't forget to have your characters immobilized by love, traumatized by past love, trampled and smothered by love. I'm coming to realize that pretty much every person is suffering some kind of post-traumatic stress stemming from some prior run in with love.

3: Terrified of your own flawed nature: Sure, the abyss is terrifying. But even scarier is the abyss within yourself. I mean when you really think about it, the stuff you don't know about yourself is nearly endless - and it's important stuff: why you are here, the meaning of life, the surest road to satisfaction. What's really scary is when you can't figure out why you do something. Don't feel like you always have to have answers. You don't need to always know why your character is doing something. There are wonderful, terrifying mysteries in the universe, and within ourselves.

4: Utterly disappointed in technology: In SF it's quite common for technology to solve the problem: a new warp core and the spaceship is good to go. But think about how often technology disappoints you - cars break down, computers crash, guitars go out of tune, CDs skip, refrigerators break and all the food inside spoils. Don't imagine any of this is gonna change. Instead, technology is just going to worm its way deeper and deeper into our lives. Vacation ruined when pacemaker gave out. Marriage changed when personality upgrade expired. Life altered by nano-virus which forced infected to buy gauche art. Technology, like love, runs roughshod over your characters.

5: Strangely ambivalent about your station in life: Too often SF uses sort of cardboard cut-out characters who wear their singular motivation on their sleeve, as it were. Guy who lost his sister, on a quest to find her. Space prince vowing to avenge his father's death. Notice this rarely becomes something cool like Space pilot searches for will to get out of bed. And yet, rising from the womb-like comfort of our mattress to face the unremitting cruelty of the universe and time, well that's a heroic act. Don't be afraid to put your character in between emotional states, in between a kind of push and pull - the push of ambition against the pull of occasional laziness, the push of desire to please parents against the pull of teenage rebellion. We are not ever just one thing. It's like that old guy said, We contain multitudes. Don't be afraid to cram more multitudes in your characters. In fact here's my first fiction writing rule: "Put multitudes in your dudes."

Hannibal and the Transcendence of the Autistic Mind

Hannibal impressed me right away by presenting an autistic character with "pure empathy." I understand autism to be definitionally a matter of unusually high empathy - a spectrum, sure, but above and beyond normative levels of empathy, not below. It's not as contrary or revolutionary a view as one might imagine, though it is somehow still a minority view. Ursula K. Le Guin (this enterprise's namesake) grasped it way back in 1971; her story Vaster than Empires and More Slow features an autistic character understood quite astutely in this way. But it has been forty-some years since then. The minority view is still a minority view. 

In tonight's episode, these traits - autism and an "empathy disorder" - were presented by one character as a contradiction. This irked me initially, until I considered that the context was a trial in which all the things which made Will useful were used against him. This is how autism works in life as well as fiction; how all uniqueness is cynically identified with its opposite in order to undermine it, which in turn serves to reinforce normative supremacy. The very fact that autism is seen- strike that, portrayed - as a lack of empathy is an indictment of normalcy. That a difference in presentation of emotional states should belie a lack of emotion seems itself the conclusion of a mind lacking in empathy.

In one of the episode's final scenes, Will and Alana have a conversation in which she asks what the killer wants. Will replies that the killer wants to know him. Asked what she wants, Alana says she wants to save him. Forgive me for reading too far in, but this seems, at the end of this episode in particular, a perfect summation of the gap in empathic states which runs as a tension throughout the series. While we as an audience might question the decision to play up the similarities between sociopathy and autism (I have a hunch we will eventually be treated to an illuminating discussion as to their differences), Will's gift has always been about his capacity for proximity to any other state or constitution. When he says the killer wants to know him, he is also explaining why he suffered through the traumas of fieldwork - he wanted to know the killer, to find his center in a life of other people by reaching toward the far margins of human nature. 

Normalcy seeks to save, holding normalcy as the highest ideal. It is born of a narcissism which betrays a lack of real insight. It is the force of entropy - uniform if only in death. Alana, good intentions considered, is merely a curious possible transformer, an agent by which Will might become saved - become normal. Of course, Hannibal's agenda will likely prove to be the exact inverse; to groom Will's oddness into actual psychopathy by emphasizing and increasing his alienation from everyone else. Both sides, when profiled (a type of reductionism from which the narrative manages to exact great nuance) are equally pathological in their goals. Normalcy, sociopathy - both are blind, manipulating extremes, set in unreal worldviews which cloud both judgement and perception. 

Hannibal presents autism as the optimal state, at least in virtue of truth. In the world as it stands, it is something else indeed: a dangerous clarity, as that of Cassandra. Will is the agent of an unpopular idealism, the personified torment of sanity in a psychotic culture. Will, after all, is the only truly sane one, even or especially in his capacity for self-doubt. Everyone else is falsely assured. 

While normalcy seeks to assimilate, empathy seeks to know, to understand - not an intellectual knowledge, but a personal one, a gnosis. To known another on its own terms, not through the self but despite it. The price of this knowing is steep; isolation, strangeness, an inability to blend in which is the natural result of clarity. 

Why do autistics withdraw? Because they see people as they are? Perhaps withdrawal is simply the natural reaction to an intimate apprehension of human nature.

On The Veracity of Science Fiction

I've just finished watching Joseph Campbell's video interview with Bill Moyers - 5 times! See I teach 5 English classes and this is required viewing. Around the third time I heard Campbell say this a bell went off:
"One of the wonderful things, I think, about this adventure into space, is that the narrator, the artist, the one thinking up the story, is in a field that is not covered by our own knowledge."

Here's where I differ with so many in the Science Fiction community - I don't care about scientific accuracy, I much prefer emotional accuracy. I want to see a detailed, nuanced depiction of a person; I don't particularly care if the moon in is on the wrong quadrant. I mean think of what we put up with: lasers and flames (WTF?!) in SPACE!! Attack ships on fire?!, RD-D2 even beeps and boops in space! Apparently, in Hollywood's Space, they can hear you scream.

Which brings me to this guy:

Don't get me wrong, he's a nice guy, I like him just fine. I'm sure it's a good show and Lord knows we could use more sciencifying in our culture-thingy. But then I saw these articles and Tyson is all "Your star field is wrong." And I find myself shouting at my computer, "YOU'RE THE ONE WHO'S DOING IT WRONG!" I mean if that's what it takes to make a fictional moment satisfying for you - absolute mimetic accuracy - well then, fuck, I don't know what to tell you. I can't relate.

I get quite enough mimetic accuracy from the piece of tape residue that I can't get off my office floor.

That's not why we turn to fiction. Well, maybe some do, but not me. I could care less. As long as the story is consistent and the characters are human and nuanced, I'm in. You don't have to research the star field. Research your heart, Dr Tyson!

Gravity Was Awesome!


My partner, Nathaniel K Miller has quite forcefully argued that Gravity is terrible film. I find myself in the awkward situation of having enjoyed the movie quite a bit, so while I won’t expend as much effort as Nathaniel, I’d like to defend my position a bit, if I might.

Yes, I agree that Gravity has some fundamental problems. After all it doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel test, and Bullocks’ character is probably what EM Forster would have called “flat.” But none of those flaws explain why I enjoyed this movie so much.

So, how do I defend a movie that clearly suffers from sexist stereotypes while still flexing my PC cred? Well I’d start by suggesting that we live in a sexist culture and so most products of that culture (advertising, narratives, etc etc) will suffer some residual sexism because of the culture that produced them.  We should absolutely do more to combat reductive, sexist stereotypes in our culture. But is it fair that every role played by a woman becomes a metric which measures discrimination?

To the specifics of Nathaniel’s criticism:

“The film's character issues are two-prong: the generalized failure to portray a fully-realized human character, and the particular failure to portray a woman responsibly.”

Funny, I didn’t have any problem relating to Bullocks’ character. I found the death of her daughter to be a powerful part of her backstory, and, as a parent, it hit really close to home. Perhaps the whole “death of a kid” thing is cliche, perhaps it’s more powerful once you have a kid of your own, regardless I thought it worked.

“However painful losing a child might be, the assumption that it would override every element of identity - how is that not problematic?”

Well that may be problematic, as it renders Bullocks as a mother first and foremost. But, again, as a parent, this part of the story rang true. In fact losing a child is precisely the kind of life-changing event that forever alters your being (or so I have to imagine). In fact, this is where I thought the movie worked: the character’s emotional state is made literal. She is without direction, drifting in a black void. To me this was a convincing depiction of loss. Was it reductive? Probably a little, but it didn’t bother me. And in fact I found Bullocks’ overcoming of this lack of motivation rather moving.

“"If it had been a man, that never would have been his 'thing.'" And even if it were, it would certainly not be rolled out as the totality of his person.”

Oh no? Go back and watch “Wargames” my friend. There are lots of male characters defined by the loss of a son or daughter.

But the second problem is with Bullocks’ character’s incompetence:

“In Bullock's character, Cuarón gives us a bumbling, incompetent woman who is utterly unprepared for even those events which occur even before any disaster.”

While this characterization is problematic, it’s also necessary. Since we sympathize with Bullocks’ character she must take an attitude towards space work that we can relate to. If she were to be an expert at all space-related stuff then we wouldn’t be able to feel a connection to her. We haven’t been to space and so we need a novice we can relate to on the screen. Too much expertise and suddenly we’re no longer connected to the action because we don’t know how to sympathize.

So maybe the main character shouldn’t be a woman. But that doesn’t work either. Women are underrepresented as heroes in modern movie making and a woman who triumphs over natural forces is even rares (Helen Hunt in “Twister” comes to mind). So, yes, Bullocks’ character is flat and reductive. But if that’s your criticism, it doesn’t just apply to “Gravity” but to every Hollywood blockbuster with flat characters and predictable action.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this movie and felt like it encapsulated the unbelievable potential Science Fiction has for literalizing the figurative. Here Bullocks’ directionless drift following the loss of her daughter is given literal dimensions as we see her floating in the inky blackness of space. I found it moving and intense. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t also see the flaws Nathaniel has so clearly enunciated, but that I forgave the movie its flaws because I enjoyed it so much.

Gravity Was Terrible (Part Two)

Part Two: It Might Just Float Away

Now, for the more general issues with character. It doesn't start out terrible at all. A look at the early successes is in order, both for balance and to put the later failure into perspective.
The subtle hints at history early on were very effective; Bullock's character's admission of her daughter's death was unsentimental, serving as much to throw Clooney's smug therapist routine back at him. In that moment, she seems truly rounded - not tough or cold, but enduring, fully human. It's a fluke, an exception, and that is a shame.

The most powerful scene in the whole film for me took place when Bullock finally managed to reach the first airlock. After removing her suit in a palpable panic, she allows herself a moment of relieved indulgence before settling into a shell-shocked fetal position. The imagery is overt - no one could miss the subtext of the womb (and few could miss the nod to Kubrick, even in a film which is fully aware of the inevitable comparisons, and which may even be something of a response to 2001). Bullock shines here, clearly a competent actor (I didn't know this about her, most of her other fare being prima facie not in my wheelhouse). We feel with her here because she allows us to, rather than forcing or begging. That's why acting matters - it allows depth and story even without words. Here, where she is given a moment to be simply, fully human, she pulls us in and we are there, and it works. Her panic, her relief, its fading - this works not because we know she had a daughter who died, but because she is human and we are human and that's all it takes, that's all you really need for empathy to kick in.

If only someone had pointed this out and said "See? You don't have to try so hard; you don't have to be so damn specific." Cuarón treats character-writing just like plot - as a causal chain, a series of pieces of data the audience stacks up, at the top of which there is supposed to be a payoff - in this case empathy, preferably in the form of tears. Real character is more like a chord than a melody - a collection of resonances which interact, each note informing how the others are construed, overtones and ratios holding the meaning of the thing. "I had a daughter," the airlock scene - these accomplish this. Nothing else does. If this was the template the film used through to the end, it might have succeeded. Unfortunately, before the eye-rollingly trite, patently obvious ending - Redemption! Rebirth! Triumph!  - We must endure all manner of painful groveling in an attempt to compel our investment.

My expectations for nuanced, human stories in Hollywood are fairly low, despite recent successes like Moon, Prometheus or Antiviral, so it takes a special kind of speciousness to be notable in this area. Alas, Gravity wins this criticism. But poor character development is one thing in a story where character is implicitly illusory, a mere utility to carry the viewer through an experience. It's one thing in a film which has any sense of what it hopes to accomplish at all. Combined with a muddled structure, an inability to make either one film or two separate films, instead making half of two films and forcing them into the same reel, poor character development is inexcusable.

Gravity is just that, though - two films smashed unceremoniously, bewilderingly, together. The first half a space disaster film, hard SF to the core, and fairly successfully so; the second an obvious and overcooked story about a woman who tries to come to terms with - fuck, it's too boring to even rehash.

The first part is successful because it deals with the impersonal so well, showing the harsh immediacy of the environment and the fragility of both our bodies and our most advanced artifacts. Hard SF of this variety may not be my favorite thing, but I can certainly enjoy it, especially if it's educational. We could argue about the wherefore of this info-gobbling experience, but I would have walked out of the theater satisfied (if harried) had Gravity been the film it pretended to be for its first act. Such a film would still fail as art, as storytelling. But at least it would be focused, within its bounds.

But that's not how things happen. Instead, without warning, the movie shifts from taut disaster-porn to overwrought tearjerker without warning or justification.

So what are we left with? A fractured film, uncertain of its identity, goals, or outlook. Half hard-SF film replete with numerous scientific inaccuracies; half overwrought, oversimple festival of feels, designed to elicit tears and filled with increasingly triumphant music, telling us without subtlety what to feel and when and how much. A seriously problematic portrayal of a female character, which it is no stretch to call sexist. Yes, the physical world of the film is compelling, creates powerful anxiety with great skill. But, unsatisfied with this mechanical success, it insists on trying to be more - and fails. Worst of all, it is a film which gives us just enough truly artful moments - subtle feats of filmmaking in which all the technical acts, the directorial, and particularly the dramatic, come into alignment - to be truly disappointing for trampling them in its mad rush to catharsis.

A final note: I've heard some talk of the film being a metaphor for depression. I won't honor such an idea with attention except to say that, if this were the case, it would turn a mere failure into an abject one, so seriously does it miss the mark in this regard. Furthermore, I’d very seriously hope the director would avoid such a tactic; given his awful misrepresentation of autism, Cuarón would do well not lend that ungraceful touch to a depiction of depression.

TL;DR - confused structure, shallow/cliche character, cheap, Speilbergian emotion-pumping, and copious sexism. Pros: Bullock is great when she's allowed to be, space junk is super scary.

Gravity Was Terrible (Part One)

You've probably noticed how timely we are around here.

In keeping with that tradition, I present to you my review of Gravity, a week after the Oscars.

Tomorrow, part two, and after that, shorter reviews. I promise.

***

Gravity was Terrible

Part One: Weak as Women’s Magic

 "Hard SF" isn't my thing. For me, fiction is about people (and maybe other living things too - I'm going to use people here, with apologies to moss, spiders and Vulcans). Narrative is the special domain of living things, and I see no point in forcing factual explication into the narrative structure. That said, writing about people is hard, just as writing about technical concepts is hard. Both require specialized knowledge, perhaps some aptitude underpinning mere experience. You have to get people, even if - especially if - you're working with reductions, archetypes, pure forms. You can't, for instance, have a woman's subconscious speak to her in the form of a man and not justify it somehow. You have to know how people might actually react in a particular circumstance, or be able to speculate believably. You should know that nobody has one and only one piece of baggage, only one relationship, only one loss which sits at the center of their being, overriding all other thought and emotion in the face of death. Or, if you disagree, you should be able to show why, to separate that experience out as peculiar - not present it as normal, particularly when it runs aground of so many stereotypes and underestimations of a group to which that character belongs.

And yet, this film does all of those things.

It also fails structurally, in terms of identity and vision, essentially being two very different movies with two sets of priorities. It fails, at least moderately, from a scientific perspective as well, though that doesn't really bother me much. I admit to scowling dubiously at various things while watching, but that's a function of pedantry, a sort of bullet-counting that doesn't represent my real concerns. Real scientists have tackled these issues elsewhere (everywhere elsewhere, it seems), so I won't worry over them. But the long and short of it is that Gravity was terrible.

The film's character issues are two-prong: the generalized failure to portray a fully-realized human character, and the particular failure to portray a woman responsibly. I'm going to approach the latter first, because it's more important. Though people are real, characters arguably are not, and failing to write them well doesn't do any damage to people as a whole. Women are real, though, and every shitty portrayal is a setback when there is still such an imbalance in the portrayals we see.

In Bullock's character, Cuarón gives us a bumbling, incompetent woman who is utterly unprepared for even those events which occur even before any disaster. The only relationship she even hints at, the only loss, is that of a child. It is so central one might almost forget that, were she real, she would probably have parents, a friend perhaps, maybe a romance or two. But no, she gets one relationship, and guess what? It's maternal. Imagine that.

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This woman is a doctor, a scientist who has done work notable enough to get her into space. That's identity-level stuff, stuff that is almost always central to the experience of an individual. It's a lifetime of work, of interest and aptitude and dedication. However painful losing a child might be, the assumption that it would override every element of identity - how is that not problematic? The woman I watched the film with said it well - "If it had been a man, that never would have been his 'thing.'" And even if it were, it would certainly not be rolled out as the totality of his person. 

Let's consider just such a counterexample: Duncan Jones' fantastic space-tragedy Moon. Rockwell's character, Sam, misses his family (a robust family, comparatively, containing a wife and daughter) - but also struggles foremost with personal issues. His conflict with his co-clone is about precisely that - the magnification, using the tools of genre, of that internal conflict. In a film where only one actor appears on camera (the others merely voice or, at most, a fuzzy image on a tiny screen), Moon manages no less than six separate relationships. Six.

Even in Cuarón's own Children of Men, which does feature a father whose loss of a child is a considerable part of his downward spiral, it is only a part. We see his loss come from elsewhere, too - from the world around him, from the loss of his wife, from the death of his friend. 

There's been the expected and unfortunate apologism, mostly boiling down to "sure there are problems, but it's still a win!" The mindset for such folks seems to be that a little feminism is better than none at all. Let's be clear - half of a feminist message is a sexist message. In fact, there's no such thing as half a feminist message. Cuarón may mean well, may be trying to do good; this is, as it has always been, immaterial. The film fails in its portrayal of women. It shows us, in a culture where we see so little else, a weak, incompetent woman whose very redemption must be delivered to her in the form of a man.

That is what happened there, by the way - it wasn't magic or something supernatural. No, what happened was worse by a mile: some element of her psyche manifested itself to save her, and that element was George Clooney. With all those long years behind her, no other image was forthcoming, least of all an image of herself. In the constellation of her qualities - maternity-defined, wrecked by emotion, incompetent, ready-to-die - only one part raised a hand in protest. Only one part objected to her death. Only one part was strong, resourceful, recollected technical data and was clear headed enough to make use of it, and that part was a man.

Fuck. That. Shit.

If there's a non-sexist reason for all the "women problems" here, it is invisible, and if it's invisible in the film, it doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned. Cuarón may have ideas, reviewers may have interpretations, but those are external. At best this makes the film an artistic failure, at worst it is a cheap way to avoid making art consistent with your ideas, or at least making it well. In a medium with so many tools to communicate ideas to the audience, there's no excuse for not making something clear if it matters to you. What is clear here is that it didn't matter to Cuarón. That's what the absence of justification means.

 

 


 

Secret Sight

I came across this image today, of Helen Keller meeting Charlie Chaplin. 

The short version of my response is that this might be the best photograph ever captured.

The slightly longer version:

There's so much to see here. Chaplin's face is so expressive, and at a glance, Keller's is so expressionless. A lifetime of feedback from mirrors, audiences, etc. has made his face a living canvas; it's a world-class expressive face, but it's definitely subject to the particular privileges of not just fame, but also of sight. She can sense his expressiveness, but not express it - or maybe she's just not as compelled to. She also lacks a lifetime of expectations to smile, look the way you feel, etc. One wonders how this might have impacted her life as a woman as well, knowing how heavily those expectations have been known to weigh in that regard.

Chaplin's posture looks "intentional," while hers seems more awkward but also somehow more "natural." The dichotomy of the natural is on display here; for what is truly natural but the total disregard for how a thing is perceived? None of this rehearsedness makes Chaplin seem false, at least to me; he seems sweet, empathetic and, really, absolutely wonderful, and his discomfort is both endearing and humanizing.

But so is her resoluteness, and the way she seems to have access to some kind of directness the rest of us have lost. I can't understand blindness, and won't claim to. As a person with some "disabilities," though, I do understand something about the way that differences, and the knowledge of them, changes one's approach to life and human interactions. I can empathize, if only emotionally.

So, why is an old photo relevant on a SF blog? 

Because the worlds we can only imagine are sometimes so brilliant they deserve special attention.

And sometimes, the world as it is outshines every conception. That deserves to be celebrated too. 

 

keller.jpg

Clever Machines

At the risk of making much of a small thing, or appearing to be bullies, I’d like to share some of my own responses to the piece by Cory Doctorow which David wrote about recently on this blog. I largely agree with my co-editor, though I don’t think Doctorow is suggesting “political correctness,” which is a term usually deployed to trivialize requests for civility. What Doctorow wants are technological solutions to ethical problems, not considerations of those problems and the ways they impact people.   

Doctorow finally seems to be realizing that inheriting Heinlein's throne might come with some unfortunate baggage, so I'm not surprised he's playing at putting some distance there (not that anyone need to tell us that Farnham's Freehold was awful - that's patently obvious). But he's still oblivious to the way his own political obsessions are often the result of exactly this sort of limited thinking. He critiques Cold Equations for only looking at the circumstances, but only after he's made certain we know where his real interest lie - in technology. For all his ethical qualms, it's not ethical responses he wants to see, but engineering solutions - clever machines that make ethical questions redundant. 

Good SF isn't about the technology, nor the circumstance, nor the most interesting implications of the two. It's about the least interesting implications, the least flashy, the ones you'd miss due to your privilege. The sexual revolution sounds important now, given a title and hindsight; to many at the time, it was nothing - just some kids fucking in cars while the "real" stuff happened. Doctorow still thinks he knows what the real stuff is. And he still manages to ignore the real stuff that isn't immediately visible from his social context. 

What a modern telling of Cold Equations could do is highlight the way in which both characters, even in the face of their mortal dilemma, are better off than the people who build the ships. Those poor suckers' lives were guaranteed to be short and terrible. That's the balance of social responsibility and foresight good SF might give us.

Contriving self-serving contexts to support a story is a failure of craft; I'm with him there. But the increasingly dull notion that technology can save us from ethical quandaries is a much deeper failure indeed.

 

 

The Death of the Enigmatic Author

The Death of the Enigmatic Author by David Gill

 

The enigmatic author died with his life in chaos.

 

The author was known for stories that everybody thought were “crazy.”

 

Spouses and heirs positioned themselves to claim their stake.

 

The author’s papers were moved.

 

The author’s papers were moved again.

 

In the author’s papers a set of binders was discovered.

 

When scholars finally found these binders (which were in a box with old cans of snuff and Ovaltine containers) they were astounded.
 


Each binder was dedicated to one of the author’s celebrated works, and, when read, revealed that each of these great works of surrealism grew weirder by accretion, like the rings of tree.

 

In these binders a simple story began, and then gradually and with each retelling, the weirdness grew: unexplained breakdowns in reality, people who turned out to be androids or aliens, or androids who had been programmed to believe they were aliens, or people who suffered from debilitating delusions that they were, in fact, androids or aliens.

 

As word of the binders spread, interest in the author’s work increased.

 

The scholars kept studying, tracking the versions, measuring the increase in eldritch with each retelling. A pattern was found in which the weirdness increased at a rate that matched, almost perfectly, the Fibonacci sequence. Many academic awards were bestowed on the head of the team of scholars who made the discovery.

 

Fame and fortune followed.


And then gradually and inexplicably the head of the team of scholars began to change, scratching at the metal under his skin. And the question he could not answer, which he asked himself again and again, was how the story could go on if the enigmatic author was dead.

Special Call for Submissions!

It's a regular spring clean around here! We've updated out submissions guidelines - we're now accepting queries for non-fiction works, as well as illustrations, in addition to the usual short fiction. 

Moreover, we're hard at work on issue 5 and we have had a slow drop-off in submissions of late. So this is us inviting you to send us your stuff! And those of you who have submitted and haven't heard back - we haven't forgotten you, we're just making up our minds. 

In case you didn't catch it in the last round of updates to our guidelines, we'd also like to reiterate that we are actively seeking work from women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, the neurodiverse, and other groups underrepresented in SF and fiction generally. Though it's always been a priority for us, we feel it's especially important that our support and interest is expressed now, in light of all the recent nonsense in various parts of the SF community. 

So send away! We're looking forward to reading your best story...

A Few Changes...

We have a new website! It's amazing and totally futuristic and designed by a secret phantom wizard who wishes to remain nameless (it's actually not me this time).

Unfortunately, we also have a new address and some issues with redirecting from the old one, so until we get that smoothed out, tell your friends and refer back to this FB page for the updated link.

Aside from being generally beautiful, we are also sporting automated digital purchasing, finally. Check it out!

You Devil, You: Prometheus in Three Assessments (Part Three)

Assessment Three: Xenomorphology and The Horror of Change

Nathaniel K. Miller

Amidst its many messages, one gift Prometheus gives us is the origin of the Xenomorph. On the surface, this may only interest fans of the franchise, but I believe it gives us something much more than cosmetic. It turns a clever and well-conceived movie monster into an Oedipal icon of spiritual, psychological and metaphysical horror.    

One of the tragic truths embodied in the Xenomorph, and in the schisms which define all the interspecies, parent-child relationships in the films, is that while we always survive, we never survive. The deal the universe makes in exchange for the endurance of the species (or something even more fundamental) is the annihilation of the individual. But worse yet, lest there be equity, it seems to promise that our offspring will be incomprehensible horrors to us. If we could see that which we most identify with ourselves in them, perhaps we could accept that annihilation, but we are forever blind, unable to extend our empathy - androids, in the Dickian parlance.

Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe we are doomed in seeking our own individual immortality to look past the variety offered to us in our offspring, to resent its glaring incompleteness. After all, when death stands gaping before us, everything is alien, and that deal looks rotten indeed. Those who survive do so at our expense; without them, the deal is off.

Weyland stands before the Engineer, the father who abandoned him, and has his son David ask for more life. Here he echoes the demand of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, who is like David in construction perhaps but without the active parenting the latter receives. David, of course, is Weyland's immortality, but even as he dies,Weyland cannot see this amazing creature as a worthy successor. "There is nothing," if we are committed to the preservation of the self in its precise form; but if we can look beyond it, there is David.

There is also the Xenomorph. If we accept David, we have to accept the monster as well. David might stretch our empathic system, but for most of us, the Xenomorph shows it to be foundationally broken. That's the point.

The Xenomorph is always changing. It is a confusion of human sexes, social roles - it is the horror of the other, which is really the horror of the self, and now we know that it is born equally of our forebears and ourselves. This is the deep, tragic truth of the Alien mythos: the universe is stranger than you can imagine, harsher - and yet more intimate. It knows your name. It isn't some void where you shrink into insignificance - you are an author of the horror, a parent and a child of your own cyclical fate. And throughout that dark samsara, the monster which is the icon of inescapable damnation is also an icon of mutagenesis, of change itself. It is the distance between parent and child, between you and the closest person to you.

The horror of the Alien universe is not entropy, but plasticity, adaptation; there's nothing you can become which it cannot match in shadows.

You Devil, You: Prometheus in Three Assessments (Part Two)

Today we feature the second of three short pieces on Ridley Scott's Prometheus.
***
Assessment Two: Myth, Maker and "Creation"
Nathaniel K. Miller

There are resonances in Prometheus beyond the Oedipal, of course. The deft layering of meanings and references Scott employs is the real influence of Kubrick here, moreso than the specific shades of 2001 - though those exist, too, particularly in Weyland's framing and in David's uneasy assimilation. The religious imagery, especially surrounding Christianity and Jesus, is much more controversial than it's been recognized to be, and in the absolute opposite direction.
It's not in the film, so I hesitate to include it, but Scott did mention the idea that Jesus was an Engineer sent to pacify humanity. That would cast Christianity in the light of a mere control mechanism - something which many believe true of religion even without alien interlopers. That's an important bit of apocrypha, and it tells us something about the messages and themes at work here.
Just before we see Shaw play out her own horrific variation on the virgin birth, David tells her he has to take her necklace (and by implication her faith) because it may be contaminated. That's powerful stuff, and far from the wholesale endorsement of religion some seem to see in the film.

But there's religion and there's religiousness, and Scott is sharp enough to know the difference - unlike so Many of the reactionary viewers who rushed, idiotically, to accuse the film of some kind of formal endorsement of religion. Some even suggested Scott was attempting to give us a believable creationist situation in Prometheus. One might think, if this were the case and it were an endorsement, it would be a slightly friendlier, marginally more desirable universe - one, perhaps, in which something other than abject horror is reflected in the very means by which life exists.
Scott understands that the human capacity for religious belief is part of something much more complex, interesting and deserving of reckoning in the arts than a simple question of logic or even truth. But I think he's also given us a film in which basically all the consequences follow from that drive. While Shaw's faith is not anything so crude as a character flaw, and she is much more complicated (and, at least from a Gnostic perspective, in the end less enlightened) than a mere stand-in for Eve, it is her vision, her desire to "meet her maker," which drives the story. I don't believe she's being punished for her faith - at least, if she is, it is the arbitrary punishment of the void, a mere casualty of causality and not a reflection of some kind of cosmic justice, which doesn't seem to exist here at all. However, she does suffer in the prison of her own making - in her blindness to the unity which could be the lot of all creatures if only they could see it as possible.

Let's consider, for a moment, Shaw's self-administered abortion. Are we to believe that she intuited the nature of the thing in her womb? This is a character plagued as much by the absence of her potential offspring as by the absence of her theoretical creators. And yet, in the face of this "miracle," she doesn't hesitate to excise the thing from her body in the most extreme way. The scientist who wears the cross around her neck doesn't pause to see the ramifications. This is not accidental - Shaw, like the rest, can't square her fantasies and myths with the reality of the universe. But once more the horror here is of self-delusion; she still sees the story of her savior as part of a different universe, one in which miracles cannot be mistaken for parasites.
Of course, she's right - she writhes away from the thing she extracts, the white worm, the trilobite. A thing made for darkness. What does this say about her faith? To her, of course, it says nothing – that’s part of the overall theme here, of blindness and self-delusion. What about to us?

In the end, pursued by the Engineer, she eventually closes the circle, throwing the rejected god to the rejected child. She screams at the Engineer to die, a final act of Oedipal rage as she sees the abomination fulfill its role as savior. The progeny eats the progenitor - Ouroboros.


But this is not a universe where parsimony reigns, where balance is encoded in the life-cycle; this is an Alien movie, and the tidy circle, the taut belly of the snake, bursts open, and something even more horrible emerges.



It seems that Scott's relationship with this more heavy-handed human history is anything but laudatory. He wants to show us that such a universe isn't nearly as comforting an idea as we've been taught to think. Oh, for the peaceful dissatisfaction of a purely natural world! In the face of these terrors, one thinks of Darwin as a kind of Santa Claus - a giver of gifts, unburdened with gravity or agency.
But that's the flip-side of this rhetorical world. Scott is also telling us that we cannot understand the universe with science alone - because it is a universe with human beings in it, and human beings are irrational, emotional, self-destructive and self-deluded. That's not an indictment of science, but of human nature.

Despite all that hopelessness, Scott isn't committed enough to the dystopian aspect that he completely disavows those qualities in human beings. It's also a film in praise of faith, persistence, curiosity. That isn't a plot hole, and if it's a contradiction, it's an honest one.