Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Subgenres in Gravity

Recently I ran across a review of the excellent movie Gravity in which the reviewer announced that the movie was not actually science fiction. In his own words:
Gravity features no aliens, no interstellar space travel, no time travel, and it doesn’t take place in the future. In fact, given that it involves a space shuttle as its method of travel into space, it would seem to be set in a past. (http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/opinions/gravity-is-not-sci-fi.php)
Another similar review goes like this:
Gravity is not a science fiction film. […]There is no great speculation about future technologies. No aliens arrive to inconvenience Ms Bullock. Yes, it takes place in space. But so did Apollo 13. Was that science fiction? (http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/screenwriter/2013/10/09/gravity-is-not-a-science-fiction-film/)
My first impulse is to nitpick the rationale that each critic bases their decision on, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader even though I find it particularly galling that for some reason both writers seem to believe that science fiction can only exist if there are aliens involved (Gattaca? The Truman Show?). Instead, I’d like to introduce a subgenre of science fiction to these critics.

Gravity uses today’s science and technology as the core to its plot, which may be what is throwing off these reviewers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction. Science fiction can generally be divided into two general spheres, “hard science fiction” and “soft”. Allen Steele describes hard science fiction as “the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone”; science fiction that doesn’t have this foundation is generally termed “soft”. Unfortunately, 99% of science fiction film is soft, with barely a glance at the fundaments of physics as they strive for better and greater special effects and costumes and make-up. As a result, in the popular imagination, science fiction is identified by those elements—big-ass spaceships firing on things, weird aliens, impressive technology with lots of lights. But in the history of written science fiction, hard stories are a healthy minority with a long rich history, and writing it requires something of a specialist’s touch. Writing hard science fiction requires two difficult skills—an understanding of scientific principles and their applications in reality and the ability to communicate those principles and applications in an entertaining way (Arthur C. Clarke is considered one of the masters of hard science fiction). Unfortunately, neither attribute is very applicable to cinema, where the audience generally has a short attention span and wants to be wowed rather than lectured to. Part of the power of Gravity is that it succeeds despite the potential pitfalls of its choice of genre.

Gravity also taps into a smaller subgenre of science fiction storytelling that is not often used in cinema, that of the “problem story”. In a problem story, the protagonist or protagonists are faced with some sort of crisis in exotic circumstances that can only come from the science fiction genre—an astronaut crashes into the lunar surface and has to figure out a way to communicate with his base, for example. The roots of this kind of story are clearly related to science fiction’s own roots in the adventure story: similar stories have been written in the western and action genres where cowboys run out of water crossing a desert or an expedition member gets cut off from his party in the deep Amazon. It could be argued that because other genres have similar kinds of stories, perhaps the problem story belongs in its own classification outside of genre silos. That isn’t an unreasonable idea, but the individual stories differ by the problems that are being solved, which in turn are based almost solely on the setting of the story. And if we presume that the setting is a good bit of what determines the genre, then we have to take genre into account. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone faces the problem she faces exactly because she is travelling in space. And in turn, those problems are directly related to established science.

One of the most widely beloved science fiction short stories of the pulp era is Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, a problem story of the first rank (I have actually found it online at http://www.spacewesterns.com/articles/105/).  In the story, Godwin establishes a very precise set of circumstances: a colony is suffering from a deadly plague and a messenger ship races to it with the cure. The ship itself is stripped to the bare essentials in order to maximize its speed, and every bit of weight has been calculated to ensure that only the exact amount of fuel needed to land on the planet is onboard. The cold equation is that acceleration is dependent on mass, one that we have yet to figure out how to work around. But after the situation has been laid out to the reader, Godwin throws a wrench into the works—the pilot discovers a stowaway, a young girl who thought it would be a simple way to visit her brother on the planet, unaware of the crisis the ship and its pilot are trying to avert. With the girl’s extra weight, the pilot is faced with either a doomed attempt to land or perpetual orbits around the planet, never able to get down safely. What will the protagonist do—how will he deal with the hard science of physics and its remorseless effects on his mission? The solution is what sets “The Cold Equations” above most of its peers. At the time of its release, in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1954, I don’t think anyone solved the problem nearly the way that Godwin chose to.


No, Gravity doesn’t have aliens or time travel. What it does have, however, is a solid foundation in the traditions of science fiction. And as I watched Gravity, the knowledge that a much-beloved area of science fiction that doesn’t get much attention was getting a spotlight made it that much more enjoyable.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Writer’s Dilemma: Superman Syndrome and Almost Human

Mrs. Speculator and I have been enjoying the new Fox series, Almost Human. On the one hand, there is the really strong chemistry between the lead actors, Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. In addition, the writers have given some fairly serious thought to potential future technologies and their use (and abuse in the case of the criminals our heroes pursue every week). They have even managed some little things, like carrying minor plot points over into consecutive episodes, rather than make each episode act like a silo with only the macro story arc (the “mythology” in X-Files terms) connecting them. In fact, if there’s much of a weakness right now, it’s in Almost Human’s lack of a mythology. But the series is just starting out—it has to be given time to establish its rhythms and characters. Even massively mythology-driven shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had to take a while to introduce and frame the characters and standardize their interactions. Mrs. Speculator and I generally give new shows that we are interested in three episodes to sell us. In most cases, when we have that third-episode discussion, rarely do we talk about the over-riding story arc at that point. (In fact, here’s a corollary—if a series is pounding on its mythology that early in its run, it often will not make it past the first season, if it in fact makes it that far.) Unfortunately, Almost Human seems to have written itself into an unfortunate plot loop with its latest episode, “Blood Brothers”, and I’m curious to see if they did it on purpose to delight the viewers or if they are aware of what they did.

You may be familiar with the popular phrase that has been long associated with Superman: “Faster than a bullet, stronger than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…”. If you’re not familiar with the history of Superman, you may not be aware that this was originally a description of the upper limits of his powers. Superman could jump real high or real far, but flight was not one of his abilities. He could race a bullet and catch it in mid-flight, but he couldn’t travel at the speed of sound. So how did he get to the power levels he has in the popular imagination now? Think about it from a writer’s point of view: what kind of story can I tell about Superman that doesn’t seem exactly like every other Superman story? When Superman started out, he fought thugs and government corruption. But eventually, the readers are going to want something more, so the writers introduce villains that challenge Superman. What if Superman had to fight a villain who could also jump over buildings? There are two ways to overcome this—the hard way, which involves imaginative story-telling and creative use of the power set, or the easy way, by increasing Superman’s powers. Generally, the easy way wins out, so Superman strains a bit and then discovers that instead of being able to jump, say, a quarter mile, he can now jump a mile. And then a little while later, it’s five miles, then 20, and it grows and grows until eventually someone comes up with the idea of flight. During the late 50s and early 60s, the writers of the various Superman stories played with this idea by giving him ridiculous powers, like Super-ventriloquism. I’d like to believe that the writers were mocking themselves as they did this, and the stories are often a great deal of fun. But it may well be that this period was just a long detour down the easy path.

It’s this kind of power creep that I refer to as “Superman syndrome”, because eventually the problem circles back on itself—now that Superman can fly through space near the speed of light and can withstand having mountains dropped on his head, what kind of villain poses a challenge to him? The writer either has to keep amping up Superman’s powers or really buckle down and tell the story in a different kind of way or perhaps tell a different kind of story. It’s at this crux that the really good writing shines through, as the writers begin to move off into different kinds of story-telling. Alan Moore’s great “For the Man Who Has Everything” is a sly wink at the Superman syndrome—how do you challenge the man who has all those powers? Moore’s solution was ingenious, and the story-telling was well-conceived and implemented.

The point of all this? The writers of Almost Human, and especially the 9 December episode, “Blood Brothers” put themselves into a Superman syndrome loop, less than ten episodes into their first season. And, again, I’m curious to see if they attempt to resolve it. I want to believe that they have plans to address it—because again, that’s an impetus for really strong writing. But I’m also dubious.

==SPOILERS FOLLOW==

The show introduced a minor character who acted somewhat as a plot advancement tool in the episode. Maya Vaughn (Megan Ferguson) is a witness to a murder and is scheduled to appear in a trial. She also has had an operation that increases her use of her brain’s capacity, but it has had an interesting side effect—she can talk to dead people when she touches an object that they have touched. (You could do some really interesting story things with this—what happens when she goes to the store and grabs a shopping cart?) The other witness to the murder is herself murdered, and Maya touches her scarf and begins communing with her. The android, Dorian (Michael Ealy) appears to believe that she now possesses what is usually termed a supernatural power, while the human, John Kennex (Karl Urban) does not believe her (that’s heavy-handed irony…). But by the end of the episode, and because of a few other interactions with her that have no real bearing on solving the murder case(s), we are made to believe that Maya really can talk to the dead.

So what’s the problem?

Given that the show is really a police procedural set in the future and that the show’s stars are a police detective and his android assistant, the writers have now made it possible for the police to get substantial help for every murder they investigate and every crime in which someone is killed. The police have been handed a tool, and since part of the premise of the show is that the police are falling behind in the technology race with organized criminals, they should use it at every opportunity. If there’s ever an episode where they spend the whole time trying to figure out a murder without consulting Maya, then the writing is questionable.
While the introduction of Maya closes off some obvious storytelling paths, it also opens up some really cool ones. Consulting an actual medium is not exactly the kind of logical progression of evidence that most courts would allow in a trial, so if Kennex ever does go to Maya to discover the identity of a criminal, part of the plot has to be about coming up with sufficient evidence to convict outside of Maya. Such a plot could lead to some interesting turns and twists. Or what if a connected criminal finds out that Kennex consulted Maya and tries to use that conversation in court to throw out a trial—tainted evidence, hearsay evidence? And Maya’s witnesses are dead—exactly how reliable are they after time spent in whatever happens to people after they die?

So now, in addition to the things I already like about Almost Human, I’m also going to be watching to see what they do with this development. I’ll try to remember to update the blog if anything comes of it.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Great Science Fiction Stories 9 (1947)

The ninth in this anthology series, this volume contains stories that were being written and revised soon after the close of World War II. It’s obvious that the shadow of that war and its ending hangs over the stories, as more than the usual number are concerned with the after-effects of atomic warfare. It’s a stereotype that science fiction is inherently optimistic, and a number of stories show the reality opposing the stereotype.

“Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding) – I admit to not being very fond of Asimov’s famous Robot series. It’s not that I don’t like them; it’s just that I don’t think they are as amazing as is generally held. For me, this story is a great example of their weakness. There is no denying the impact of Asimov’s robotic laws both on fiction and in developing technology, but that doesn’t mean that all the stories that used those laws are necessarily good. While a lot of science fiction uses aliens as the gimmick on which to write other genres of fiction, Asimov instead used robots.

“Little Lost Robot” is, really, a mystery, a tidy little logic problem based on the premise of the robotic laws. The characterization, often a problem with Asimov, is decidedly flat. Asimov actively makes the characters share animosity towards one another for no reason that is apparent in the story itself, while the story implies that they should get along, not just for a common purpose, but because they are smart and thoughtful people. The story ends up being ingenious, but not really “great”. It makes a terrific example of what was good about the writing of that time, but I have a lot of trouble making it signpost of the best science fiction has to offer.

“Tomorrow's Children” Poul Anderson (Astounding) – Given the current interest in post-apocalyptic stories, Anderson’s first story in this anthology series might be interesting to modern readers. I find it interesting that the story comes out of Astounding, whose editor John Campbell believed in human exceptionalism and the ability to rise above any obstacle. Then again, the story does go to an interesting place if only because it is far more realistic than most of the current post-apocalyptic stories. Still, it’s a bit over-long and flat in its delivery, making it a little difficult to read. However, given that it was Anderson’s first published work, it serves as a sign of what was to follow in a long and brilliant career.

“Child's Play” by William Tenn (Astounding) – There seems to be a running motif, usually found in stories by Kuttner and Moore, of toys from the future coming back to wreak havoc on contemporary characters. This is another of those stories by a mostly forgotten writer, William Tenn. The motif allows the story to dance along the edge of whimsy and dread, but they usually end up strongly on the side of dread. This one cuts a little harder, since it involves biogenetics, and the narrator may not be entirely sane as he plays with a child’s science kit from the future. While the ending is telegraphed pretty early on, it is still an evocative piece.

“Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper (Astounding) – Piper is probably best known for his Fuzzy novels, which are enjoying a resurrection among modern readers. “Time and Time Again” is an interesting twist on a time travel story, probably fairly ground-breaking in its day but a little clichéd now. If you could travel back into your own past, how would you change things? Piper chooses to use an altruist as his protagonist, so his interest is in changing rotten history rather than just making his life easier. It’s a departure from the Piper I know and so valuable for that alone. The story also makes an interesting introduction into the possibility of time travel, forming an interesting resonance with the recent move Looper.

“Tiny and the Monster” by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding) – Science fiction of this time is stereotypically known for its alien invasion story, but Sturgeon turns that trope around a bit. The gimmick ends up being a little bit hokey, but Sturgeon’s writing is fun and breezy. Sturgeon shows off his ability to build characters in this story as well, adding straightforward humor to a story that otherwise could be considered twee.

“E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred (Astounding) - This is a fairly well-known piece, reprinted in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It’s an interesting take on time travel, imagining that instead of physically moving backwards in time, the characters can merely see into the past. They decide to use this technology to make movies, and the story becomes an interesting view into mid-century moviemaking with a slow progression to something bigger. The writing is very much like Robert Heinlein’s short stories, with a mildly cynical take on culture and human nature. Its climax comes fast and requires a few re-readings to fully understand, but it’s powerful in its delivery. I’ve thought about this story often recently and was delighted to uncover it again.

“Letter to Ellen” by Chan Davis (Astounding) – One of the characteristics of some of the best short stories from this general time period is the attempt to put a human emotional face on technological changes. Science and invention were blossoming at the end of World War II, and the best science fiction stories attempted to put an emotional element on those advances, weighing if they were perhaps not worth their cost. “Letter to Ellen” is an interesting story about technology that we’ve really only begun to explore to its full potential in the past decade, so there is a predictive element to Davis’s writing. However, he points out a bias that grows because of the use of the technology, a bias that doesn’t feel logical but I’m sure would happen if our science reaches the state described in the novel. Interestingly enough, it’s a similar question raised by the novel Frankenstein, but from a different point of view.

“The Figure” by Edward Grendon (Astounding) – This story is very much like an episode of Twilight Zone: short with a twist ending that leaves the audience dangling to find out what happens next. While it is fun, the twist is unfortunately telegraphed early and often. It may well be that decades of watching Twilight Zone and similarly themed and paced TV shows has made it easy to spot the twists of such things.

“With Folded Hands . . .” by Jack Williamson (Astounding) – This is perhaps the most well-known story in this collection. I’ve also come across it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, so it is fairly well regarded by readers and critics.

I think this story is a nice counterpoint to the Robot stories by Asimov, wherein the three laws of robotics generally force the robots to be relatively docile and benign. But Williamson extrapolates the idea of telling a near-perfect machine to help man to ironic but plausible extremes. Given the near-universal understanding that the greatest threat to man is man itself, it’s fairly amazing that no one attempted to write this story before. In addition, the story has Williamson’s knack for placing a contemporary man of the 40s into a future that is easily recognizable, but different enough to allow there to be space for the story. While a lot of science fiction projects a future where the world is far less complicated, Williamson also recognizes that no matter how automated the world might become, the nature of people is less likely to change quickly.

“The Fires Within” by Arthur C. Clarke (Fantasy) – This is a strong example of Clarke’s own puzzle stories, involving characters trying to solve a mystery. To me, Clarke does this much better than Asimov, especially because his characters are far more believable. Clarke also doesn’t fall back on the clichés as models for what he writes. The framing device for this story is fairly unique, definitely unpredictable, and a delight when fully revealed. The final few paragraphs may seem trite, especially to an audience familiar with the twists and turns of The Twilight Zone, but that ending is merely Clarke’s nifty way of closing out his story, rather than the shocking purpose for the story in the first place. It’s not a weighty story and not Clarke’s best, but it is a good example of what he does when he truly excels (see “The Star” and “Nine Billion Names of God”).

“Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury (Planet Stories) – “Zero Hour” is a great example of Ray Bradbury’s ability to take the mundane and turn it into something terrifying. The story focuses on fairly generic children’s games based on imagination, but as it proceeds, the sense of lurking dread grows and grows. The story begins with the adults laughing on the childish games until coincidences begin piling up. Bradbury pulls off a neat trick, allowing the reader to know exactly what is going on, so the horror comes not from our discovery of the truth but of the slow realization by the adult characters about what is going to happen. I’m reminded of the lengthier “Something Wicked This Way Comes” in the story’s basis on the usually innocent, but the the brevity of “Zero Hour” compacts and condenses the chill.

“Hobbyist” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding) – Eric Frank Russell is a mostly forgotten writer from the 40s and 50s, but whose admirers think he deserves a revival. “Hobbyist” concerns an explorer who ends up far from human culture with no fuel. His lone companion on the planet he finds himself on is a macaw named Laura. Russell spends some time justifying choosing a macaw, but I’ve never been a fan of pet birds, so the explanations ring hollow. But it does give the lead character someone to talk to and to provide a second reaction to the story’s events for the reader.

The planet the explorer finds himself on is lush and lively, but something about it unsettles him. It was pretty clear to me what that something was, but it takes the trained explorer a while to figure it out. And just as he struggles to understand the cause of his concern, the action accelerates and gives the explorer an extremely deus ex machina way home.

Russell’s writing has a fine style and subtle humor, more subtle than the story that follows it, for example. Russell also raises some huge questions, especially in the last few paragraphs, but his handling of those large questions feels a little trite. Nonetheless, the story is engrossing despite the macaw and the “sense of humor” she displays.

“Exit the Professor” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Thrilling Wonder Stories) – It’s astonishing how small a role humor plays in longer fiction. “Exit the Professor” is another of Kuttner and Moore’s outrageously charming stories where the science fiction takes a backseat to making the reader laugh. The story is based on a fairly common premise—a few individuals have taken the next step evolutionary step, but the story imagines them being brought up as, for lack of a better word, rednecks. And when their difference is uncovered by a visiting professor, all sorts of mayhem ensues as they race to keep their secret from the world at large.

“Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding) – Asimov makes the point that atomic destruction certainly seemed to be on everyone’s minds as reflected in the stories of 1947. With the dramatic end of World War II and the revelation of the resources available via atomic power, there was perhaps reason to be fearful. Sturgeon’s story is a powerful piece set after the United States has been devastated by a surprise attack. The narrator stumbles across an important secret and must weigh whether to use it, balancing his instinct against the request of an unexpected companion. The writing is contemplative and compelling, and it’s difficult to not feel for the narrator as he puzzles through his final days in a city dying from fallout.