Monthly Archives: February 2011

Some SF Films I Approve Of

Dear Film Industry,

I would like more SF films like this please. Lately you’ve been releasing an awful lot of garbage and I’d like you consider these films already made and why they’re good.

A Year of Speculation

About a year ago I started to attend a local speculative fiction writing group called The Speculators. I have no idea of the exact date. It was a Wednesday and I walked there. That’s all I remember.

The presence of The Speculators as a space to work and a peer group has been vital in my development as a writer and often my happiness. I believe that I am a much better writer today than I was a year ago. (From about 6a to 7a+ in sport climbing grades.) To mark the anniversary I’ve written a short list of writing strategies learned in the past year. You can find the full post on the Writing Industries website.

  1. Silence is golden. It is important to be able to work without distraction. Eliminate as many distractions as possible. Having two hours of silence set aside each week just to write with no interruptions gives me the space to work on hard problems. Busy caf├ęs or pubs are also great places to work because the background chatter and ambient noise filter out any meaning from the background noises which can pull you away from the concentration needed to write.

A Year of Speculation

There’s some thoughts between the lines because I’m agnostic on if creative writing can/should be taught. Maybe I’ll write a few paragraphs on that soon.

OpenTTD: Stepping Away

My criteria for a perfect time wasting computer game is quite basic. I want a game that has no ending conditions. A game that as long as the player possesses enough luck and skill can be played forever. What I really like are for games to present me with a pet city/civilisation/organization and let me manage it. On Friday I found that game and it came very close to stealing my life.

The game is OpenTTD. It is an open source remake of the classic PC game Transport Tycoon Deluxe. The premise is straightforward. It’s a capitalism simulation. You are given a random map with a number of unconnected towns and business. You are also given a loan which is also your seed capital. With that loan your job is to build a transport infrastructure with trains, road, shipping and airports at your disposal so you can start moving commodities for other businesses. The ultimate goal, once you’ve paid off your loan, is too maximise your company’s fake bank balance or, as the aficionados would argue, the beauty and pleasure that can be found in developing elaborate networks. Unless you’ve turned on the optional AI opponents or are playing a multi-player game it is all meaningless. Even then OpenTTD has no story to tell you. It’s just an elaborate digital train set.

And this is exactly the sort of thing that’s very dangerous for me to start playing. To even start thinking about playing this game now that I know it exists is risky. Every fake pound of that flows into my company’s coffers is a little psychological boost that says I should play for just five minutes more. I ruined any hope of doing anything useful on Friday and Saturday trying to get to grips with OpenTTD’s complexities. (I’m terrible at raising money. I suspect I lack the patience and natural talent.) I know a bad thing when I see it. I can see an addiction on the horizon. Don’t misunderstand me: this game is good. Too good. If I give any more time to this infernal game I know it’ll consume me. For my own good it’s time to uninstall OpenTTD.

The occasional Xbox game I can manage while still reading and writing. I doubt I can with OpenTTD in my life. What I want is a time waster and not a full blown hobby.

Snow Country

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”

— Opening Paragraph

In Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata we are presented with the story of Shimamura’s escape from Tokyo and his family. He escapes his responsibilities by travelling to a snow covered spa town in the mountains of western Japan. Over the duration of Shimamura’s first visit to the town he has an affair with a local geisha, Komako, who is looking for love and another life. However, Shimamura is also attracted to Yoko, the maid he first saw on the train as he arrived at the town. Shimamura and Komako’s lives and desires are incompatible, and their relationship is destined to fail. From the time that Shimamura returns to the town for a second visit in the autumn they both know this. They still fight it.

The language that Kawabata uses has often been described as haiku like in form. This is an accurate description. What we read here is a series of brief scenes presented in slight but carefully composed images. A style of storytelling which leaves the meaning in the crisp shadows cast by the words given.

Overall this short novel is a fine example of the virtues of brevity. It left me with a feeling the edges of mono no aware. Snow Country is not a book for a reader seeking a neat escape. As the novel closes, Shimamura, Komako and Yoko have been irreversibly changed. How have they changed? We don’t know every detail. We are left only with an ambiguous and open ending. The only knowledge we have is that we have reached the end of the novel’s 121 pages and that we have to close the book even the story is unresolved and closure hasn’t been achieved.

Note: I have employed Western name ordering in this review. The correct order for Yasunari Kawabata’s name is Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata is the family name.

An Accidental Deceleration of Science Fiction’s Death

Damien was asked by John DeNardo at SF Signal this question: What science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror books do read and re-read again? His answer hints at something interesting. Damien has reposted his answer on his blog with a bit of further explanation here. The full answers by all participants can be found here on SF Signal.

Here’s a hint of what Damien wrote:

Neuromancer – William Gibson’s work is engraved in to the deepest parts of my subconscious. This and his short fiction are still books I refer to constantly, because Gibson is as good a structural writer as he is a futurist. What strikes me now about this work are its mythic elements, prototypical Joseph Campbell monomyth through and through. On top of his other achievements, Gibson was perhaps the first writer to signify the collapse of science fiction, and the rise of fantasy as the mode of serious discussion in speculative fiction.

For future reference I find Paolo Bacigalupi’s answer really narrow and quite a bit disturbing considering he’s been declared by Time magazine “a worthy successor to William Gibson.” His answer suggests he isn’t. Science Fiction keeps eating its own tail.

I Spoke Too Soon

I spoke too soon it seems and now my throat feels like I’ve been necking Czech battery acid. Luckily Jasmine tea is delicious and soothes some of my ills.

(The photograph of tea on that page is beautiful.)

Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?

The question “is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?” is one that that Damien G. Walter asked last Wednesday on the Guardian book blog and one that Bram asked on his Facebook page earlier today.

My answer to Bram’s posting of the question are reposted below (sans the additional comments I am replying to) because I want some memory of what I said.

I doubt it. The best written SF often just isn’t as well written as fiction in the literary canon. Sure, some SF is, arguably, already in the canon (Brave New World, 1984, Handmaid’s Tale, Slaughter House 5) but the general interests of speculative fiction readers just doesn’t encourage publishers to indulge the behaviours that produces fiction capable of breaking into the canon. Trilogies, pulp parody and obsessive attachments aren’t conducive to capital A Art.

Furthermore I’d argue that the depth and breadth of conventions of speculative fiction are too engrained in the audience that any authors who will produce canon worthy fiction won’t come solely from the speculative fiction community. See Never Let Me Go and also the works I mentioned above.

I’m writing a quick review of the BBC’s new series Outcasts and I’m tempted to say that its biggest problem is trying to reconcile its two audiences. To be a success in the UK it has to sell to everyone. To be a success in foreign markets it has to sell to SF fans and meet their expectations.

tl;dr I doubt it. The values of the literary canon and most speculative fiction are radically different.

Comments here are made by Bram about the originality of ideas in literary fictions that appear to be science fiction. Notably in the work example of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

I think that attitude of Ishiguro adopting ideas of SF without worrying what’s gone before is part of this divide. In SF it seems ideas work the same way as in contemporary art. Each new idea replaces the ideas that came before it. In literary fiction it is understood that new ideas don’t replace old ideas and are added to the pool existing ideas to be used and reworked in new contexts and with new techniques. If you like, literary fiction is happier with sampling existing material.

Some further comments were also made by others about imagination and how much more it requires to read SF compared to general/literary fiction. I articulate my position on this with the follow opinion:

The argument that people who don’t like SF have no imaginations and can’t suspend their disbelief is arrogant argument of supremacy on behalf of genre. It isn’t a thought crime, yet, to dislike stories because they have aliens etc in. (I don’t like paranormal romance because it has vampires and werewolves in. There’s a stigma I don’t want to get past there….) And certainly with the amount of visual SF in the media, it isn’t as difficult to imagine as anything else for anyone who’s reasonably literate.

Outcasts: Episode One

Outcasts, the BBC’s new Monday night science fiction drama, isn’t bad. I’m surprised. Although not too surprised because the series is produced by the same team behind Hustle and Spooks. The basic scenario is a fairly sound foundation for some good drama. It’s 2040 and a group of humans having been living Carpathia for ten years after leaving behind a doomed Earth. There’s a lot of fronter politicking which makes me wonder if this is taking the look and feel of the New Caprica episodes of Battlestar Galactica and trying to do a Deadwood with it.

I doubt this. Although the elements seem to be in place for a narrative of isolated human strife over the right way to run a civilization this is the BBC and this has the label of science fiction attached to it. There have already been hints towards something spooky and strange is going on in the Carpathian wilderness.

Which is a shame, because although some of the dialogue is a bit ropey in places the actor’s they’ve managed to get are making a decent job of it. The special effects aren’t on par with American SF shows, but surely we all know by now that the size of the budge and the amount of special effects has little baring on the quality of the final product. I like the use of a digitally altered South Africa as a backdrop. The fashion and prop design has a nice familiarity to it as well. It looks like that tomorrow I’d be able to go into John Lewis for my alien planet kit.

At this stage of the series, after one episode, many of its problems can be attributed to being a BBC science fiction drama shown at prime time. This series has to work with two distinct audience. In the UK domestic market, it has to appeal to some notion of the average viewer. In foreign markets, by which I really mean the USA, the audience I imagine is intended to be existing fans of British SF or dramas like Battlestar Galactica. Most of the tedious explanation in dialogue of what is happening can be understood to help the less SF literate average viewer along.

There is one final element of Outcasts which I really appreciated. This show is calm. Each thread of the first episodes story contained elements which in other, more SF, programs would have involved shouting and running around. Yes, in Outcasts it appears a kid can be kidnapped and the president threatened by a mad libertarian, but no one is going to get too vexed by this and the situation will be dealt with by careful, rational adults. Maybe the air in Carpathia is full of mild sedatives.

Will I watch tonight’s episode? Sure, I’ll give it a go. I’m interested to see if this turns into low-fi version of Battlestar Galactica’s best moments (the New Caprica episodes) or into a mess no one can agree to like. I hope this turns out well.

Today’s Music

Today the music required to get me through the day is alternating between stuff that sounds like this:

and this:

Time to make a fresh pot of coffee.

I’d rather be here