Thursday, May 28, 2009

Summer 2009: SF Edition

As I wrote about in my crime fiction blog, there are certain things I just enjoy doing during the weeks and days between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Summer is a state of mind and the most nostalgic for me outside of Christmas. I’ve made a short list of non-SF things I want to do this summer over at my crime fiction blog. Here are the SF-related goals.

Books: Lou Anders and others gave me a great list of SF books to read in order to ‘catch up’ in the genre. That list is still valid but I won’t get anywhere near to finishing the entire list. The books are just too darn long. I have read Old Man’s War and I’m reading The Lies of Locke Lamora right now. The other books on my SF reading list are these: The Tar-Ayiam Krang by Alan Dean Foster; Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell; Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber; Steampunk edited by the Vandermeers; The New Weird also edited by the Vandermeers.

Comics: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; various Batman titles (the omnibus volumes from the 60s; The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul; Tales of the Demon; Batman and Son); the Brian Azzerello Superman story For Tomorrow; the Dark Horse Indiana Jones volumes; and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. What I’m looking forward to is re-reading the Star War comics from Marvel starting at Issue #7, the first one after Star Wars. I’ll probably read a few and blog about them.

Movies: Other than the SF/F blockbusters, I really like old SF movies during the summer months. After I finish reading John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, I’ll be re-watching The Thing from Outer Space. I also have It Came from Outer Space somewhere on tape. Others will pop us as I go along.

TV: Firefly. I’ve started watching the episodes and I’ve written about the first episode. Watch for additional blogs, perhaps one a week, as my wife and I get our Nathan Fillion fix with the crew of Serenity.

Writing: my next novel is my steampunk novel. Thus, my only SF-related writing goal is the same one I wrote about on my crime fiction blog: finish half the book by Labor Day. An extended goal is to write and submit a SF/F short story. I’m putting it out there for the record.

So, what about y’all? Do y’all plan on doing things just during the summer months? If so, what are your goals this summer?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

When you get right down to it, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a time machine. It’s the first book in a long, long time that filled me with the sense of wonder I felt back when I was in elementary school reading science fiction for the first time.

Even before I started reading SF again, I knew who John Scalzi was. He was the blogger whose column a friend of mine suggested I read. So I did. He was the guy who wrote That Book, the one that just about everyone around says I should read. Finally, I did, and only one question comes to mind: what the heck took so long?

Old Man’s War, crisply written and gripping with actual human emotion, is now one of the books on The List I tell just about everyone I know to read.*

Like few things in the literary world, I appreciate opening lines. I know that we writers are supposed to have killer opening lines to make the agent, first, the editor, second, and, finally, the reader, continue reading through the first paragraph, the first page, and the first chapter. I admit that this focus on openings lends itself to missing a book like, say, Megan Abbott’s Die a Little (my review), that has a slow burn to a satisfying conclusion. Old Man’s War has an opening that, while it doesn’t grab you by the suit jacket, throw your against a wall, and demand you read further, nevertheless makes you curious and want to know more.
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.
If you’re like me, you did a double-take. How in the heck can a seventy-five year old man join the army? Scalzi’s first person POV narrator, John Perry, is your guide and, through his eyes, we experience a second life.

It’s not giving anything away, I think, to reveal that Perry and all the old farts receive new bodies. I mean, how else are they going to fight all the aliens out in our galaxy. What gives Old Man’s War its humor is the transition from old human to young newer human. And I think you can figure out what the new/young do as soon as they get their new bodies. Just like the old codgers in the movie “Cocoon,” these new recruits hump each other like rabbits.

Things get down to business after the new recruits to the Colonial Defense Force arrive at basic training. As a writer well versed in pop culture, Scalzi knows that we’ve all seen this type of thing before in countless movies and books. Inexperienced recruits arrive at basic training with a hard-ass drill sergeant who torments and reshapes the young men into fighting men only later to relent and tell them they’ve made him proud. Thing is, Scalzi’s drill sergeant has *also* seen those movies and proceeds to blow away all the stereotypes of a drill sergeant...while being just what you’d expect. It’s during these chapters where Old Man’s War comes the closest to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, one of the seminal SF books out there. Wisely, I think, Scalzi doesn’t stay too long here and moves us into the broader war.

Act III of the book is John Perry and his fellow troopers fighting various aliens on various planets. It seems humanity was born in an out-of-the-way part of the Milky Way and there are only so many hospitable planets in the galaxy to colonize. Those same planets, for various reasons, are also being colonized by other alien races. It’s the job of the Colonial Defense Force to secure a place for humans to establish a beachhead colony or take out any indigenous or invading force. This section is full of good war prose and action and John and his team get into some hair-raising situations.

What got me in Act III was, of all things, the introduction of a new mystery. The first mystery was how do old people fight wars. Perry solved that mystery early. It’s in Act III, when Perry is down bad, where a new mystery emerges. I thought to myself “Why is Scalzi introducing a brand-new mystery this far into the book?” A quick scan of my ebook version revealed that, in fact, he had planted the clues earlier on and I’d just missed them. It was a brilliant thing to do and his explanation of who and what the ghost brigades are brought the story even more to a human level. Of course, had I actually remembered that the sequel to Old Man’s War was titled The Ghost Brigades, I’d have been less surprised. Let’s chalk one up to forgetfulness.

For all of the whiz-bang gadgetry of this story, it’s the human element that drives the novel and gives it life. We care about Perry and he makes a sympathetic character. Early on, when the new recruits are talking about what they miss about Earth--the only caveat of joining the CDF is that you can never return to Earth--Perry says that he misses being married. The others laugh until they realize Perry’s being serious. Throughout the story, you learn about Perry’s first life and, just like the rest of us, his marriage wasn’t perfect. But he appreciated his life with his wife and that knowledge fuels his drive to fight for Earth.

Moreover, Scalzi grounds the novel in realism with real things we all recognize. The story takes place in some future that is never dated. But Perry talks about cars, computers, movies, music...things we know and love. This is the kind of SF I can really get behind, SF that projects itself forward from our current time and to imagine what life might really be like here, on Earth, decades in the future.

A word about the audiobook: I listened to this story as read by William Dufris. Like few voice actors doing audiobooks, Dufris brings his characters to life. With it being a first person POV, you get the sense that Dufris himself *is* John Perry. He drags out certain phrases and gives others a certain intonation that, frankly, makes the words being spoken funnier than on the page. Dufris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite audiobook readers.

Like SF from the golden age of Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, Old Man’s War transports you to a future that is at once dire, fascinating, and hopeful. In the end, however, it’s an optimistic future. Yes, we humans still have to struggle to maintain our race in the galaxy. Yes, it takes the blood of the young to defend the homeworld. But that’s what we humans have been doing from the beginning. We fight for what we believe in. We lay down our lives for our brethren. It’s a fundamental truth about our race, a truth that John Scalzi shows us in his fantastic book.

Thus, Old Man’s War is a time machine in that it can take us readers back to our younger days with its glorious sense of wonder. But the book is also a time capsule. If some future alien race wanted to know about humanity, who we are and why we do the things we do, Old Man’s War could be one of the books the alien could read to understand what it’s like to be human.

*Other books on The List include The Dawn Patrol, Mystic River, The Shadow of the Wind, Ender’s Game, Hyperion, and Money Shot, among others.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Alternate history: SF, Fantasy, or Something else?

Over at, Jo Walton asks this question and a lively discussion has ensued.

For most of its time on earth--at least, this version of earth--Alt History has been considered science fiction. Now, folks are thinking it ought to be given it's own genre title, "Alternate History" under the broader genre term of "Speculative Fiction." I'm inclined to agree with this sentiment. I like the term speculative fiction because it encompasses a broad range of genres and tropes: SF, fantasy, horror, alt history, etc.

Honestly, I think this kind of discussion started as a result of Michael Chabon's wonderful alt-history book The Yiddish Policeman's Union. He's not a SF writer, he's a literary writer with SFnal leanings. The mainstream public read the book and probably didn't think of it as SF. Yet, it won a slew of SF awards. So it much be science fiction, right? Well, not so fast. It was also nominated for an Edgar, the awards given for best mystery stories. It *is* a mystery, after all, but it's set in an alternate universe. So what is it really?

It's more than one thing. That, to me, is most important. It's just a book that amalgamates many tropes into one single thing: an enjoyable novel.

What does this all mean about genres and tropes and labels? Don't know. But I will make this point: with my viewing and reading of Charles Dickens this spring, an obvious thing emerged. Your typical Dickens story had the tropes of many different genres in the same book. Since there weren't genres labels yet, Dickens' stories were just that: stories. Genres are labels that are good to have for marketers and readers, to be sure. If I want a cozy mytery with cats, I know where to go.

But what about just good stories, regardless of label or genre? Who really cares on what branch alt-history finds itself on the giant tree of fiction? If it's a good story, it's a good story. If the story involves witches or serial killers or soldiers or astronauts or four women living in NYC, read the story (or not) because you want to. Fiction is supposed to be fun. And alt-history is really fun, no matter what genre it is.

How about you? What do you think of alt-history? Where should it fall?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame by Ben Bova

It's funny the things you find resting on your bookshelves, barely noticing them. Last night, I rediscovered an old two volume set entitled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2 (1973), edited by Ben Bova. I searched online for the table of contents and found a Wikipedia entry. Turns out this volume collects twenty-two great novellas published before 1961, the year the Nebula Awards began. Volume 1 brings together great short stories also from the pre-Nebula Era.

Here is the Table of Contents for Volume 2 - The Novellas:

Volume Two A
Poul Anderson, "Call me Joe" 1957
John W. Campbell, "Who Goes There?" 1938
Lester del Rey, "Nerves" 1942
Robert A. Heinlein, "Universe" 1941
Cyril M. Kornbluth, "The Marching Morons" 1951
Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, "Vintage Season" 1946
Eric Frank Russell, "...And Then There Were None" 1951
Cordwainer Smith, "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" 1962
Theodore Sturgeon, "Baby is Three" 1952
H.G. Wells, "The Time Machine" 1895
Jack Williamson, "With Folded Hands" 1947

Volume Two B
Isaac Asimov, "The Martian Way" 1952
James Blish, "Earthman Come Home" 1953
Algis Budrys, "Rogue Moon" 1960
Theodore Cogswell, "The Spectre General" 1952
E.M. Forster, "The Machine Stops" 1909
Frederik Pohl, "The Midas Plague" 1954
James H. Schmitz, "The Witches of Karres" 1949
T. L. Sherred, "E for Effort" 1947
Wilmar H. Shiras, "In Hiding" 1948
Clifford D. Simak, "The Big Front Yard" 1958
Jack Vance, "The Moon Moth" 1961

I'll admit that I've read exactly one of these stories, the oldest, H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. I know most of the names, however. Any SF reader should know most if not all these names. The one that stands out is E. M. Forster. Who knew that the A Passage to India guy wrote SF? Another observation about this collection is the dates. You have exactly three stories (Wells', Forster's, and Campbell's) written prior to the 1940s. If you include the two stories published in in 1941 (Heinlein) and 1942 (del Rey), that makes five stories published prior to World War II. The other seventeen all were published after the war and, more importantly (I think; haven't read these stories yet) after the Atomic Age had begun. That says a lot about how we humans probably viewed the world post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

But you can't discount the lack of material in the first half of the twentieth-century. No story from the 1910s, nothing from the 1920s, and only one story from the 1930s. I know SF was being published during those decades (Burroughs, at least) but, perhaps, Bova and the other folks who compiled these novellas didn't think those offerings worthy of a collection.

This presumption only makes me more curious about the types of stories selected. I'm curious to know how SF is defined within these 22 stories. I'll let you know what I find out. I'm thinking about reading the stories chronologically just to see how the definition of SF progressed.

Anybody read any of these novellas? Have any favorites?

Friday, May 8, 2009

New Star Trek Film - Mini Review

Got back a few hours ago from seeing the new Star Trek film. If I have to use only one word to describe this film, it would be "awesome!" Easily the best film I've seen since The Dark Knight last year and probably the most fun I've had with a film like this ("Death at a Funeral" is very funny but very different) since Iron Man.

I laughed more than I thought I would. There were more loving nods back to TOS that I expected. And, with all due respect to the original actors whom I have come to love lo these forty years, I basically forgot them as I watched the new cast do their thing. Karl Urban does a great Deforest Kelley but makes McCoy his own. Sulu's just as dashing as before. Chekhov actually shows that he belongs on the Enterprise. Ditto for Uhura whose skill and expertise help the ship. Pine as Kirk is fantastic and different than Shatner's which is good. I'd hate to see a parody. And Quinto as Spock is brilliant. I don't watch Heroes so I don't have to get Skylar out of my head. Quinto does so good and you can physically see the emotions broiling just under his skin.

The action sequences are phenominal. Sometimes, yes, the action's too close up to get a true understanding of what's going on but that's the nature of modern action filmmaking. The space sequences with the starships are fantastic and believably 3D with ships rising and falling and soaring through space.

And dangit if I didn't get a bit misty during the U.S.S. Kelvin sequence. That's me: a softy. But that made the actions of the characters that much more human and it gets to some of the essence of why Star Trek is so good. It's not the starships, the aliens, or the fights. It's the people.

I'll probably say more later when I've gathered my thoughts. But, in short, this is a great film, and probably The Film of the Year. It should appeal to Trekkies like me and non-Trekkies as well.

Thanks, J. J. Abrams. You Did Great!

Pulp Fantasy: Does it exist?

I just finished reading the highly entertaining new book, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity (my review here). It's a classic adventure tale complete with cliffhangers galore and many feats of daring action. I haven't had that much fun with a book in a long time.

So, I started thinking about pulp adventure stories. You got the hard-boiled detective, you got the SF story where the dashing star captain rescues the damsel from the clutches of the vile, eight-legged monster. You have the horror version of pulp adventure with folks like H. P. Lovecraft. What about fantasy pulp adventures? I may be showing my ignorance here but are there books and authors who write fantasy stories in the vein of old-school pulp adventure?

The one person that comes to mind is Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator, but, since I've never read any of his stuff, I can't say.

There are some modern fantasy authors, like Joe Abercrombie, whose works get tagged with "noir fantasy," blending, I imagine, the tropes of fantasy with the nihilistic themes of noir fiction.

Fantasy is a genre I always have associated with Brave Deeds, Noble Acts, and other things you have to use initial caps to designate. Hero must prevail or the World Will End.

I guess what I'm asking is this: are the light (lite?) fantasy tales? Are there stories and books that make you chuckle one moment, as the hero and the heroine trade witty banter, yet hold your breath the next, as the hero must slay a Shakespeare-quoting dragon the next?

That, Dear Friends, is My Quest.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

World Building: Naming

Following on my post about geography, here's one about naming.

How the heck do you set up a linguistic pattern that makes sense but is, somehow, other?

I've been reviewing some of the names in the books I have in my TBR pile and the answers seem varied. The SF writers have it easier since most of the stories we read involve humans and we humans are unlikely to give our children weird names (Apple notwithstanding). John Scalzi's hero in Old Man's War is named John. Pretty basic but, to me, it helps me relate with him.

In fantasy, however, naming things seems to go part and parcel with world building. Tolkien did it to great extent, going so far as to create his own language. I'm not going there (I don't think). You have structures to name, tools to name, geography to name, creatures to name, and people to name. When it comes to the people, I think you have to have a name for your hero that 'looks normal.' Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself has three protagonists: Logan, Glokta, and Luthar. Not too weird. Since I'm only a few pages into the story, I can actually tell the type of character these three are merely by the types of names Abercrombie chose. My guess is that Logan will be the fun one, Glotka will be the one who's darker than we expect, and Luthar is just a few letters away from Lucifer so I dont' trust him already. Tom Lloyd's The Stormcaller's hero is Isak. Again, not too weird. It ambivalent and allows Lloyd to paint a picture of Isak with his own brush.

When it comes to monsters, I think the weirder the name, the easier it is to evoke evil or otherness. Cthulu anyone? I remember some of the early Alan Dean Foster Humanx-Commonwealth novels of the 70s having a bunch of vowel-depleted names. Perhaps that was his way of making the aliens more alien but it was difficult to get the world in my brain. And I didn't like them, which was probably the reason he chose those names.

So, how do you writers decide what to name things? Do you choose names as the first indicator of the type of character?

Readers, does a convoluted naming structure help you with a book or does it get in the way?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Book Review: Star Wars Novelization by George Lucas/Alan Dean Foster

(Another SF-related re-post from my crime blog. Here's the original entry and the lively discussion it generated.)

If you watched "Star Wars" back in 1977, Jabba the Hutt didn't exist, there wasn't an Emperor, and Red Three (Biggs Darklighter) was just some guy with a mustache who seemed to know who Luke from sometime before our heroes boarded X-wings and attacked the Death Star. That's the way of movies: subtleties can be missed. If you were one of those newly born (hatched?) Star Wars geeks who devoured everything you could get your hands on, you knew the truth. And there was no better fount of wisdom than the novelization of the first movie.

There wasn't any of this "Episode IV" business. As far as we were concerned, this was the real Episode I. "Star Wars" opened up an entire galaxy of potential stories and adventures, aliens beyond our wildest dreams, and rouges and heroes we wanted to be. And for all the books about the concept art or the models being built, George Lucas's novelization was the Bible. Everything was in there...including the scenes that didn't make the movie. And, to be honest, these scenes give the story arcs of Han and Luke much more resonance than just what we saw on the big screen.

Take Han Solo for example. In the book, the Jabba the Hut scene is present and accounted for. And, no, I didn't misspell "Hut." In the original novel, there was only one "T," not the usual double consonants in typical 70s SF (including that of ghost writer Alan Dean Foster). Except here, Jabba is humanoid. A fat, slothy humanoid but a biped nonetheless. He's surrounded the Millennium Falcon with him and his goons and Han and Chewie show up. They work out a deal: Han takes his new charters to their destination and, in return, Jabba gets an extra twenty percent. If you've seen the footage Lucas inserted in the 1997 special edition (SE), you'll know that Han talked Jabba down to fifteen percent. I can't remember if there were sub-titles for Jabba's dialogue in the SE but what you get in the book is Jabba threatening Han: "If you disappoint me again, if you trample my generosity in your mocking laughter, I'll put a price on your head so large you won't be able to go near a civilized system for the rest of your life, because on every one your name and face will be known to men who'll gladly cut your guts out for one-tenth of what I'll promise them." Wonder what Boba Fett's cut was?

In little snippets like this quote from Jabba, you get that sense of wonder that only good SF can deliver. In this novelization, Lucas wrote a prologue. It's only a two-pager but it gives a brief history of the Republic and her protectors, the Jedi Knights. You could almost call it a query letter for the prequels. Here is the first mention of Senator Palpatine , a man who became President of the Republic, then declared himself Emperor. Soon thereafter, in another difference from the three prequels, Palpatine becomes a recluse, ruled by "the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed." These soon-to-be tyrants exterminated the Jedi Knights "through treachery and deception" and set about controlling the galaxy. Lucas could have just written this prologue and be done with it. What he did that helped the sense of wonder was to attribute this text to the Journal of the Whills. That little subtlety also helped to make this novelization something special. It made it historical.

But it was Biggs Darklighter and his relationship to Luke that most moved Luke at the beginning of the story and the end and gave the novelization an added emotional impact lost in the movie. Many Star Wars fans were chagrined when Lucas did not reinsert these scenes in the special editions. I still don't know why. They speak so well to Luke's character.

From the ground, Luke sees the space battle above Tatoonie. Excited, he rushes to Anchorhead, the small town where his friends gather. While he's trying to get the gang outside, two things happen. One, they call Luke "Wormie" and, basically, deride him and his flights of fancy. Lucas gives the reader a clear sense that Luke is alone and has more acquaintances than real friends. Two, their old friend Biggs is back in town. Biggs and Luke were best friends until Biggs applied and was accepted to the Imperial Academy. The gang take a look and see nothing. They drift away.

A few scenes later, Biggs and Luke are swapping war stories when Biggs tells Luke the real reason he returned to their homeworld. He and some fellow students plan to join the Rebellion. Biggs can't tell his parents but he wants someone to know the truth if he never returns. Their exchange, back and forth, Luke incredulous that his happy-go-lucky friend has turned all serious, Biggs exasperated that Luke had to withdraw his application to the Academy, illustrate the isolation Luke feels without his friend's constant presence and his longing to go where the action is. Without this scene, Biggs' death during the Battle of Yavin is without meaning. Biggs becomes just another red shirt, to borrow a Star Trek phrase.

One can choose to believe or not Lucas' claim that he had it all in his head from the get-go. Me? I tend to think he thought of Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker as two different people and changed as the movies and stories wore on. One clue in the novelization was right before the final battle sequence when we do see Biggs and Luke reunited. An older pilot, Blue Leader (Blue Leader in the book; Red Leader in the movie) approaches Biggs and Luke. "One of them he recognized. 'Aren't you Luke Skywalker ?'" Don't know about you but when I re-read that, I thought "Whoa! Did Luke's reputation precede him?" Apparently so. Take a read at this statement from Blue Leader. "I met your father once when I was just a boy, Luke. He was a great pilot. You'll do all right out there. If you've got half your father's skill, you'll do a damn sight better than all right." Again, I stress that little nuances like these lines bring so much more depth to the story than the two hour movie. There's history here, another sense that you're in the middle of something that's already started and will continue after you've stopped reading.

Back in the day, there was one other source for these scenes: the comic book adaptation. They illustrated the novelization, not the movie. Thus, we did get to "see" the deleted scenes with Biggs, see Jabba in a weird orange spacesuit and bizarre visage, and the rest of the deleted and extended scenes. The novelization, however, was where the imagination soared. It was the "first step into a larger world." You could smell the "hive of scum and villany," you could feel the heat and sand of Tatoonie on your face, and you could, like Luke Skywalker, gaze at the setting of the dual suns and just dream....

A guy has recreated the critical Biggs scenes and put them up on YouTube. Here they are. The music's a bit loud but it's all there.

The original Jabba scene, with a human actor reading Jabba's lines is here .

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Mercury Men: an Episodic Web Serial

With a hat tip to Lou Anders, in his Pyr blog today, he linked to The Mercury Men, an episodic web serial. Hearkening back to the thrilling days of yesteryear, these guys have made a trailer for their new endeavor and its spectacular. The vibe they give off is pure storytelling and pure fun. Go check it out now!

Be sure to read the blog where Christopher Preksta, the creator, discusses his influences. His riff on Star Wars is something I have embraced and written about in more than one place, most recently on my review of the original Star Wars novelization over at my crime blog (to be republished here at SF Safari tomorrow).

I just finished reading Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity and will review it tomorrow at my crime blog. The Hunt books are written in this episodic, thrilling style, a form of storytelling I predict will have a resurgence once e-reading really takes off (it's already started). And with folks like Preksta making quality work like The Mercury Men, we're going to enter a whole new age of storytelling. It's an exciting time to be alive.

Two Sentence Tuesday: SF Edition

I'm currently reading John Scalzi's excellent novel Old Man's War. The book begins with one of the best opening lines in recent memory. Since I'm listening to the audiobook, I didn't realize it was actually three sentences but, if you format the text differently, it could have been two.
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.
Anyone who doesn't want to read more, well, I don't know what to say.

As for some SF-related sentence of my own, my current WIP is this fantasy/steampunk/SF thing I described in the first post of SF Safari. I may end up changing things around but here's a couple of sentences to tease you with:
He didn't know how and he didn't know why but, somehow, in the fifteen years he's been marooned in this strange, foreign city, Captain Gregg Landingham discovered that the buildings were alive and they spoke to him. Now, they were telling him that someone he knew was being murdered.
Over on my crime blog, I posted some pulp-related sentences. Head on over there and let me know what you think.

For more Two Sentence Tuesday fun, head on over to Women of Mystery.

Monday, May 4, 2009

World Building: Geography

As you can read in the first post of this blog, I'm developing a new story. It's somewhere in the range of steampunk, fantasy, SF, or a combination of all three. Still working through it all. Unlike writing crime fiction here on Earth, I have discovered the obvious: in my fictional world, I'm responsible for creating everything.

When the first inkling of the idea for this story came to me, I considered the magical world to be an alternate Earth. Thus, basic geography was set, more or less. If a person was in Florida when he did whatever he did to fall into the magical world, the 'magical' Florida would be roughly the same. Except there may be sea creatures no human from our world had ever laid eyes on.

Now, to some people, that's probably a cop-out and, to be honest, I kind of agree. But, seeing as how this is my first trip across to the fantastical side of things, I'm giving myself a break. I've already started rearranging the geography of my magical world to suit my needs.

For those readers out there, do you prefer an entirely new magical/fantasy land in your readings, a new place that you can explore and discover new things?

I can't help but wonder if the answer to that question is largely yes. Moreover, I can't help but wonder if that is the reason so many fantasy novels are doorstoppers. I'll admit that there is nothing like becoming completely engrossed in a world of fiction. It's like nothing else. But does world building--and the inclusion of every single detail an author has created--necessary in a book?

Take the Harry Potter books for example (currently, until I read more fantasy book, still my prime example for things I'll be discussing): The first two-three books were pretty short. Rowling gave the reader (and Harry) just enough information to keep him moving. As the saga progressed, the books got thicker as more and more of the wizarding world was laid bare. Rowling probably had all the details of the Potter wizarding world in her head when she started but didn't think book #1 needed all that detail. She let the story of Harry suck in us readers and then give us more and more details. I found out that, once I cared for Harry and his friends, I wanted to know more and more details. But, by that time, I was already preoccupied with the story and the characters.

That is the tact I'm striving for with this new work. Am I alone with thoughts such as these?

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Firefly" Review: Episode 1 - "Serenity"

(This is part one of my episode-by-episode review of the TV series “Firefly”. Check back each Friday for a new episode review.)

Unlike literary science fiction and fantasy, I have continued to watch most of the SF/F shows and movies that land in my general vicinity. One that slipped by is “Firefly.” Ever since it went off the air, I had heard how good it was. I knew about the movie sequel, “Serenity” (2005) of course but vowed to watch it only after I watched the series. My local library has the DVD collection and I checked it out once…and never watched an episode. What got me off the fence was the new TV show “Castle,” Nathan Fillion’s new vehicle. He’s such a charmer in that show that I finally decided to go back and watch “Firefly.” The cool thing is: my wife’s watching Firefly with me.

As a fun way for me to chronicle my Firefly journey and for you Firefly veterans to relive the experience of seeing it for the first time, I thought I’d blog about each episode. Request to all who have seen the entire series: don’t spoil it for me or anyone else out there reading this blog who hasn’t seen the show. I’m only as far as episode 2 right now. Thanks. Oh, and for those of you who want to watch Firefly, all episodes are available at Hulu.

Episode 1, “Serenity,” is 90 minutes long. According to the source of All Things True—Wikipedia—the FOX network didn’t like this pilot episode and made creator Joss Whedon write a second pilot. That show became episode 2 but that’s for another blog post.

“Serenity” The Episode starts at the closing days of a civil war. Nathan Fillion’s Malcolm Reynolds, Gina Torres’s Zoe Washburne, and others from their army squadron are fighting for their lives. Malcolm keeps his troops calm with the promise of reinforcements, reinforcements that never arrive. Their side surrenders and Malcolm’s soldiers are left out in the cold. The last image we see is of Malcolm’s face as he watches the enemy ships descend and destroy that for which he had fought.

Cut to six years later and Malcolm’s leading a small band of pirates eking out an existence on the outer fringes of known space. They all live and fly in a Firefly-class spaceship called “Serenity.” To earn money, they take jobs, usually from ne’er do wells and other criminal elements along the frontier. The good news is that Serenity and her crew largely stays away from Alliance-controlled space. The bad news is that everyone’s usually out for their own interests and double-crossings can be common.

Throughout the first episode, all the major characters are introduced. Malcolm is the enigmatic captain, part Han Solo rouge, part Picard in his privacy, and he’s not without some sort of Ahab-like crusade (having seen episode 2, is that he’s out to stick it to the Alliance any chance he can get). Fillion is a gem of an actor. In his lighter moments, Malcolm is the fun big brother who plays practical jokes on newcomers. In his darker moments, Malcolm is a cauldron of seething hatred born by betrayal. In between, he’s just an honorable businessman whose job just happens to be thieving. Oh, and he’s a crack shot.

The rest of the crew is the kind of mix you’d expect in an ensemble show. The second officer, Zoe, a veteran of the lost civil war with Malcolm, goes wherever her captain leads, including gunfights. She’s married to the ship’s pilot, “Wash,” who is always nervous when his wife gets into harm’s way. Adam Baldwin’s Jayne Cobb is your quintessential hired gun, a person you can count on in a skirmish but only until he has a better offer. Inara is a Companion, basically a classy call-girl. Evidently in this future century, these folks are legal and licensed. The choice of “Scotty” for Firefly is a unique one. Kaylee is a young woman who seems to jury-rig the ship to do what she needs it to do. Her ebullience throughout the episode makes her a fun counterpart to your usual engineer type. There’s a priest on board and he looks an awful lot like that guy from “Barney Miller.” Seriously, though, having this Shepherd on board to contrast with the captain’s obvious lack (or loss) of faith will be intriguing to watch. Lastly, we have a brother-and-sister team which you know will last past the first episode considering they are on the DVD menu page. Simon is a doctor and he’s brilliant but his sister, River, seems to be even more brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that Alliance doctors had been conducting various tests on her before Simon absconded with her. Now, they are on the run on board a ship full of criminals.

Let the fun begin…

As a writer, I’m always told “show don’t tell.” Malcolm is clearly the central focus of the show and, yet, his thoughts are always kept from us. Certain crew members talk about the captain and, with the introduction of the three new members of the crew—Shepherd, Simon, and River—writer Whedon has a vehicle to tell us viewers little tidbits about Malcolm and his past. Since Malcolm never gives you a soliloquy about his thought, you have to take his actions as gospel.

The second half of the show involves Malcolm and his team delivering some stolen goods to an outer planet. As a viewer, you think it’s gold or something. Turns out to be something different. There’s a gun fight, of course—this is a space western after all—and what Malcolm does and doesn’t do reveals a lot. More than a few times during this pilot episode we see Malcolm in a quiet moment, along with his thoughts. We wonder what he’s thinking about and we’re given clues as to what his thought. I’m looking forward to learning more as the series progresses.

Towards the end of the episode, there's a bit of dialogue that stands out as one of the best takeaway lines from the first episode. Malcolm's talking with Simon the doctor. Simon has just rattled off all the balls Malcolm has to keep juggling just to survive and out of Alliance hands. It's an impressive and sobering list.
Malcolm: We're still flying.
Simon: That's not much.
Malcolm: It's enough
One science fictional aspect of the show I like so far is the Alliance ship. The craft looks like a city floating in space, all ‘skyscrapers’ and such. What I like about it—and why I liked the Borg ship in Star Trek—is that it doesn’t look like your typical spaceship. Almost all ships we see in TV and the movies looks like it could sail on water. Even the ship Serenity does. But this Alliance vessel doesn’t…because it doesn’t have to. It was built in the vacuum of space to be sailed (a term people use in this show but one, I suspect, would have gone by the wayside in a true 26th century world) in the vacuum of space. It doesn’t need to be ‘aerodynamically’ streamlined. And it isn’t.

At this stage of my viewing, I’ll admit that the western-themed story line seems a bit contrived at first. That’s not to say I don’t like it. I do. It just seems rather interesting that folks in the 26th century look and act a lot like folks in the 19th. Having said that, however, I’d like to commend Joss Whedon for an SF trope that I happen to agree with: no matter what century in which a human lives, said human will move, talk, and act pretty much like we do now. It’s human nature, after all, to act human. Humans have been doing the same things over and over again for centuries. Technology changes only the scale.

Come back next Friday and read my review of Episode 2, “The Train Job.”

Links: seems to be a good source for all things Firefly related (and it's where I got the picture at the top of this page). I'll be checking there often.

The Firefly and Serendity Database is also a good place to visit and get lost in.

Friday's Forgotten Books

Over at my crime blog, I'm participating in Friday's Forgotten Books, the brainchild of author Patti Abbott. Many of these books aren't SF/F but they're still fun to discover. Recently, I've written about the first Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars book, A Princess of Mars. These past two weeks, I've written about old Star Trek books. Today's entry is Peter David's Imzadi, one of the best Star Trek: The Next Generation books.

Head on over and have a read.