Monday, August 24, 2015

Down Eros, Up Mars!

When Sad Puppies (later joined by Rabid Puppies) hijacked the Hugo Awards and declared war on the organic nomination process of the world's most prestigious literary award for the science fiction and fantasy genres, did they really expect to be welcomed and accepted and for the rest of us to not fight back? Who knows.

But the results are in and the Puppies have lost. (Results) The only categories where their selections were not below No Award were in the Dramatic Presentation categories. Those were also the only categories where they didn't put forward some of their own. The only Puppy winner was Guardians of the Galaxy, and let's face it, that was a damn good movie.

So, those of us who champion diversity and quality have pronounced the puppies defeated this year. But wait, when you read what they have to say, they won. How is that? Well, they are deluded. They put forward a slate of candidates and the voters said no. Both sides got out the vote and when it was all tabulated, they lost. Yet they claim victory because of the use of No Award, yet that is the very mechanism of their defeat. This sounds so familiar. It is like the Confederacy or Nazi Germany where the stragglers and misfits of the losing side cling to the dream of a rematch and eventual victory.

The Puppies will be back, that is for certain, but I seriously doubt that they will have this level of success again. They claimed that World Con did not represent fans and they fans came out to vote and the fans said that yes, World Con does represent them. The slates lost, organic nominations won.

But we who worked for this victory must not relax. We cannot prepare our own slates for next year or it means the Puppies have won. We must encourage readers to get out and put forward their favorites in the nomination process and then participate in the voting. Their voices must be heard. The only way to defeat the Puppies and save the Hugos is to spread the word and get people to participate.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Look At Space: 1999

Star Trek took us to the brink of interplanetary travel, going off the air just months before the July 20, 1969 moon landing. Star Wars would not premier for 8 years. During this time American only had one real heir to the SF throne, Space: 1999. It is definitely a heir to Star Trek, even sharing the same executive producer that Star Trek had in its third season, Fred Freiberger. Another tie to Star Trek was that both Leonard Nimoy and Martin Landau both worked on Mission: Impossible.

Space: 1999 lasted for two season, each with a different feel and some cast changes. The first season is far more cerebral, with very metaphysical stories. The second season is more action oriented with a lot more violence. Most of the cast remained the same, but several characters left to be replaced with new ones, most notably the science officer. In season one we have an older, reliable and cautious man. In the second, we have a bright, intelligent, shape changing, alien woman.

The stories are very good for the most part, but it is hard to compare this series with the great science fiction series like the Star Trek franchise, Babylon 5, Firefly, etc. It is definitely a product of its time. Nothing wrong with that. There was a lot of good entertainment in those years and Space: 1999 is among them.

I won't do a rundown of every episode. That is best left for my favorites. I enjoyed watching Space: 1999, but it did not become a favorite. It is good, but not quite up to my standards. I found it a bit lacking in several areas, mainly the types of stories they told. While at the same time the acting was stellar and the special effects were outstanding. While the character of the stories changed from the first season to the second, there is a uniquely Space: 1999 character to all the stories. I'd it is this character that is unique that doesn't really appeal to me. Just not my type of series. But has I been an SF fan when this series was on, I would certainly have watched it and enjoyed it. A very worthy fill in between Star Trek and Star Wars.

Being a fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Star Wars, it was a lot of fun to watch this series. It was filmed in England for broadcast in the US. It was intended to be a British SF show, but the two principle characters were cast with American actors (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain). It had a nice mix of American and British influences and is definitely the jewel in the American TV SF crown of those days. This mixture ended up creating interesting parallels with Star Trek and Star Wars. You can see how Star Trek influence Space: 1999 and you can see how Space: 1999 influenced Star Wars. Oh, not in the sense of story or setting, but in the design aesthetic. The Moonbase Alpha sets feel like they could be a redress of some rebel outpost set. They all feel connected, like part of the same family. In many ways they are.

And the actors just add to that. I didn't take note of any major Star Trek guest star, but the number of people who appeared in Space: 1999 and either Star Wars or Doctor Who (or both) is amazing. Brian Blessed is a case in point. He appeared first in Space: 1999, then later in Doctor Who, and finally in Star Wars Episode 1. Red leader and gold leader both appeared toward the end of the second season.

I mark Space: 1999 as a pivotal classic of 70's science fiction. It filled in a gap, advanced ideas and technology, and is enjoyable and entertaining. A definite must watch if you haven't seen it. Even if you don't find it to be one of your favorites, it is good and a valuable use of your time.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Interstellar Is Just That

It is not often that a movie can really impress me. Interstellar is such a movie. I love behind the scenes stuff so I usually watch all the special features. Being a writer, I get lots of insights into the creative process. While Interstellar as a movie is probably the best SF film I have seen in a long time, after watching the special features it has to be one of the most incredible movies every made.

With a legacy of quality effects that goes back to Kubrick's 2001, it is easy to get jaded about the nature of the special effects and the science behind the story. Interstellar just raised that bar to a brand new level. Most movies have noticeable special effects and holes in their science. Interstellar was flawless. Mainly because of how many effects they achieved in camera. It's science is impeccable. It should be with a gravitational scientists on the crew. They went to such lengths that they actually made some interesting discoveries about how light bends and how objects would look.

Not only are the effects and science great, but the story is great as well, with just enough that goes beyond the pure science in to scientific speculation that this is the epitome of what science fiction should be. At the heart of it, it is a father daughter story set in space and abounding with science. But you don't need to be a scientist for the story to make sense.

This film most certainly deserves the Hugo award this year. It is what the Hugo is all about. It is, unfortunately, on the Sad Puppies list. I'm quite sure it would have been nominated anyway. In other areas it has received many awards, beating out the other Hugo Nominees. And it is really quite funny that the puppies would nominate this film. They are so against stories with a message and if you don't get the messages in this film you have to be brain dead. As against the puppy slates as I am, I am forced to concede that this is indeed the best SF film of the year and I must put it first when I vote. I just have to. From the emotional, enjoyment, box office response, and industry award perspectives this film comes out on top among those nominated. If you believe in the spirit of the Hugos, you won't let the source of a good nominee that deserves to win cloud your judgement. Of course, not all will agree that this is the best offering, but from my perspective, I have no choice.

The effort that went in to making this an outstanding production is amazing. The music scored before and during production, the front projected backgrounds that the actors saw out of the windows, the full size props used as effects models, the painstaking attention to the science behind wormholes and black holes and the amazing rendering of those objects faithful to the science, not to mention the serious warning that if we ruin our planet it would take a miracle (the wormhole in this case) for use to survive. And underneath it all, a story about one man sacrificing his family to save humanity and the ripples that causes. Amazing story telling and an amazing production resulting in the best SF movie I have seen. Better than 2001, better than Star Wars, better than Star Trek. Absolutely amazing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Has Star Trek gotten too Star Trekky?

According to Simon Pegg, who is penning (of is it co-penning) the next Star Trek feature film, at the moment titled Star Trek Beyond, he has had to make it less Star Trekky. What does this mean? Is this a good or bad thing. My take is that it is a good thing and here is why.

We have had Star Trek for over 50 years now (the final shots of The Cage, the shots of the Enterprise, were filmed early in 1965). But it is not a unified body of work. There are some distinct versions of Star Trek. It, of course, started with Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek. Gene was a dreamer and crafted this utopian future where the crew of a ship would travel around and get into adventures. His dream is fully realized in The Cage, starring Jeffry Hunter as Christopher Pike. He had a chance to give us his pure dream a couple of other times, but let's keep this chronological for now.

Well, NBC like his concept but they wanted some changes. Gene made them. Some might argue that this diluted Gene pure idea, but I would argue that the success and popularity of Star Trek is directly linked to the changes NBC requested. They wanted more action, more relateable drama. What we got was the original Star Trek series starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, plus an animated series, and a series of 6 feature films. This is Star Trek, but is it really Star Trekky? I would say no. Read on.

Gene's second shot at Star Trek was Phase II (not to be confused with the fan production of the same name). Phase II had scripts, sets, costumes, test shots, a model of the Enterprise, and new cast members. Phase II turned into the first movie. The sole script used was In Thy Image, reworked into a "welcome back" movie. It is again that very cerebral story that we had in The Cage. It isn't looked to favorably on by most Star Trek fans. The second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a return to the action packed style of story from the original series. And why? Nicholas Meyer sat down and watched the original series. The following 4 films followed that pattern.

Then Gene had his third and final chance to give us his vision and Star Trek: The Next Generation was born. This is Gene's vision. The pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, is the third installment of Gene's undistilled vision. Except that this time, what followed was something completely different. Star Trek: The Next Generation was unique. A magic feat of casting led to a group of people who were as close when the cameras were off as their characters were when the cameras were on. But Gene was fading. His name was carried on the episodes as executive producer, but as the series progressed, Rick Berman took on more of the production duties and the stories that were produced became more his vision than Gene's. Star Trek: The Next Generation became a second unique produce of the Star Trek franchise. It was followed, before it even ended, by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And as soon as Star Trek: The Next Generation wrapped and moved on to feature films, Star Trek: Voyager joined the franchise. All three of these had strong 7 year runs. They were followed by Enterprise, which had a truncated 4 year run.

But what has happened? Why has Star Trek been out of production for so long. After more than 15 years in constant production, there is no Star Trek. Why? Now we come to the issue. As it went on, Star Trek took on a quality that I grew to dislike. I'm a big fan of the original series and The Next Generation, but the others failed to grab me. It became formulaic and seemed distant, not only from the Star Trek that started it all, but even from Gene's vision. That unique mix of what Gene wanted and what NBC wanted was lost. It took on a pattern that I feel exemplifies the label of Star Trekky. It is what is expected, what fans think they want, what the franchise is perceived as. But that is NOT Star Trek. It is what we got, however twisted, in the latest two feature films. Roberto Orci is an avowed Star Trek fan. It is clear from what he gave us, along with Abrams wild ideas, is the type of story that Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise gave us. But when you paste those ideas onto the original 1960's characters, it really shows the flaws that have crept into the franchise.

What is sad is that the best episodes of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise are the ones that harken back to the original series. Trials and Tribble-ations and In a Mirror, Darkly bring back that action of the original series. So what has happened to Star Trek? Well, it has become its own worst enemy. It has become a franchise with an expected format. NBC's changes to Gene's vision have become the enemy. But what we have is NOT Gene's vision, it is other people's interpretation of it. Too much emphasis is placed on doing what Gene wanted. Why? He had three chances to give us his vision. It is great, but it is not what garnered all the fans. And more importantly, it is not what the studio wants in a film. Why did Star Trek Into Darkness not bring in the money? Well, sucky writing, to start with, but it had action and effects, and the original characters. But the biggest thing was it was hampered and derailed by that ghost of the franchise. Orci constrained how the story was told.

Now take a look at Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II and Star Trek Continues. What are they giving us that Abrams and Orci didn't? They have returned to that original format. Essentially it is Gene's universe with NBC's storytelling. That gold combination isn't that hard to return to. NBC wanted the same thing that Paramout wants. They want something that is highly successful that reaches the widest possible audience. Gene's vision was in the sort of future we are going to have. It isn't really Star Trek if you leave that out (and frankly Abrams and Orci seemed to miss that part). But it also isn't really Star Trek, not Kirk's Star Trek, if you abandon that goal that NBC forced Gene to adopt. The magic happened from the mix of Gene's creativity and vision and NBC's experience of what worked and desire for commercial success. That was repeated in 1982 with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (6th highest grossing movie that year), in 1986 with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (5th highest grossing movie that year), and even to some extent in 2009 with Star Trek (7th highest grossing movie that year). If Paramount is to have a success with the new Star Trek, they have to do a different direction than Star Trek Into Darkness. They need that mix of Gene's vision and the action adventure that NBC originally asked for. You can't do that just by having a big action movie and steal some scene from the most popular Star Trek film. You have to understand that Gene's vision reflects the culture of the Federation and that you can then have a huge action adventure story that can carry those ideas.

So in my estimation, Simon Pegg saying the new film with be less Star Trekky is a good thing. He is a Star Trek fan himself and he knows how to make awesome films, so with that combination, I'm hoping he will be able to produce something more worthy of the legacy of Star Trek and at the same time less franchisey.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Weary of Insults by the Stupid and Ignorant

When I get into political discussions, I get called a liberal and socialist. When I get into similar discussion on science fiction and fantasy I get called a SJW (social justice warrior). I get that these people are trying to insult me and usually act accordingly, but what I rarely talk about is how accurate these terms, when applied with their correct meanings, are.

I have been a science fiction and fantasy reader since.... well I can't really remember. At first I read both, not really having a preference, but gradually I dove into science fiction. I think the wide variety of quality media had a lot to do with it. The fantasy options in movies and TV left a lot to be desired back in the 80's. I started out with Star Wars, then Doctor Who, and then (even though my mother had been trying since I was born) Star Trek. When I found Star Trek I become a huge fan. I watched the original series religiously on weekdays and Battlestar Galactica on weekends.

And I read. Asimov, Heinlein, Norton, the Star Trek Pocket Books series, and a host of others. I always had a book with me or was scribbling my own story attempts in notebooks. I am a great fan of behind the scenes stories and I have absorbed the influences, inspirations, and goals of Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas.

What that all culminates in is me. I am a product of what I read, of my family background, of where I grew up. And as a result, my politics are viciously moderate. I do not put up with either extreme conservatives or extreme liberals very well. I don't tolerate bullies or liars or people who twist things around to suit their telling of the story.

So where does that leave me today? I am a firm believer in equality for all. A lot of my beliefs were tempered by Star Trek. Anyone who actually paid attention to what Gene was doing will know that he didn't hold with the racist and misogynistic attitudes of the 1960's. While it is hard to see it to day, he cast the most ethnically diverse and gender equal cast of the decade. He poured his idealism into the Vulcans and their ideal of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations). Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss and the first same sex kiss on television. It starred a mixed species character. Gene wanted it to feature a woman as second in command, but that went to far for 60's sensibilities.

From the written word I got more of the same. Equality, diversity, justice, doing what is right, fighting those who don't want things to change. I seriously don't believe that science fiction can exist without the so called 'SJW's because so much of the genre has focused on that for so long. Heinlein's first novel from 1939, For Us, The Living, touches on all this. Asimov challenged us to find the robot, Andrew Martin, human in Bicentennial Man. Time after time, story after story, this is what I have read. This idea by one group that SJW's are a new thing and have "taken over" the genre and are redirecting it from its roots is asinine. This so called SJW movement IS the genre of science fiction. It always has been. The people who use SJW or the more ridiculous GHH are the ones trying to change the genre to suit their political beliefs.

I have this nice chart that shows the voting habits of our US government and it clearly shows how far our government has descended into madness. The right has gotten more and more radical over the last 40 years to the point where even trying to discuss things with those of that bent is an exercise in frustration. This movement that accuses science fiction of being taken over by SJW's seems to stem from the same right-wing insanity. Yes, the stories have gotten more daring, with more homosexual and transgender characters, with more equality for all, but isn't that what we have been building towards? Isn't that what Gene Roddenberry saw in our future? Is that not what Star Trek portrayed? Is that not what the writers were striving for in the constraints of their time?

So I fail to see the danger in what these people fear because it is what the genre has been striving for since its inception. And who cares if a year or two sees more women winning awards than men? We've had it the other way for far too long and it is about time the majority gender gets its due? So if anyone cares to call me an SJW for these viewpoints, or a liberal, or socialist, I see no point in taking it as the insult they mean. It is time to own up that even as a moderate, I have causes to fight and equality of all is a big one.

On one final note, this post/rant was inspired by a blog post by David Mack ( that finds him dealing with this issue with someone who has no clue what a social justice warrior Gene Roddenberry was.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Redshirts - A Very Funny and Thought Provoking Novel

With all the conflagration surrounding this year's Hugo Awards, the winner of 2 years ago, Redshirts by John Scalzi, has come up as a title that may not have deserved the award. After reading it, I have to say that it did deserve the award.

An award winning science fiction novel should do a number of things. Namely tell a good story, but the really good ones make you think as well. Redshirts is very clearly inspired by Star Trek and the many one-off characters who died in the course of those 79 episodes (most of them sporting red uniform tunics). But it takes that idea to several new levels. One, it is about a copy cat show that isn't even supposed to be very good. Second, the characters come to know they are in a show and then set about changing things.

The romp through the fictional world was fun and filled with things that made me laugh out loud. It was one of the most fun books I've read in years. It was obvious from the outset (with even the title warning you) that needless death was at hand, but the way it was handled was superb. Scalzi has crafted an epic tale that will stand the test of time. You don't need to be a fan of the original Star Trek, but it helps.

So Redshirts now takes its place with the many other Hugo Award winners and it fits right in. The nature of the story, the excellently detailed universe, the philosophical ideas covered, all lead to an excellent novel that is worth the read and deserved the Awards it was honored with.

Monday, May 25, 2015

That Special Component That Makes A Classic Epic

Epic films are nothing new. In many ways, most science fiction films try to be epic. Most of them fail and I have stumped upon the single element that leads to that failure or success.

Fans of Star Wars almost universally agree that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the saga. There is a reason for that. I used to consider the first film (titled simple Star Wars or A New Hope depending on your level of purism) the best and in many ways it is, but it was really eclipsed by its sequel in virtually every way save the ending. Empire is the middle chapter, yet it holds its own. The secret lies in the choice of director. Irvin Kershner was known for his personal, intimate style. He didn't tell epics, he told stories of people and that is what Empire is.

If you take a look at the Star Trek films, you find much the same thing. Why were the second and fourth movies the best? They told very personal stories. The second even manged to do so without having the two main opponents on the same set. A brilliant piece of story telling. The fourth film does it by making it about this small crew going home to face the music for what they have done and finding a way to save the planet in the process. These films are about the people. Plus they tell a pretty great story.

When the creators of a film realize this little secret, they hit gold. William Wyler did this for MGM in 1959 with Ben-Hur. He was the director of very intimate, personal movies. Yet here he was making the largest and biggest budget epic to date. That was the success of the film. That is why so many films fail. They fail to realize that a good story is first and foremost about the people that inhabit it. When the creators of a film realize this, the film succeed because all their choices are focused into telling the best story they can and if the background is epic, the picture is epic.

This holds true for the written word as well. All stories are about the characters and their journey. A well crafted tell can tell anything on top of that and can do so with many characters at the same time. Movies usually need to pare that down a bit and focus on just a few, but a few rare movies can capture that even with a large cast. But no matter the scale, the film needs to be intimate. You need to get close to the characters. You need to feel their journey. When you watch Han and Leia fall in love, you believe it. When Leia reveals her feelings, there is no doubt because the stage has been set. Han responding with "I know" just tops it all off.

Love, is of course, not the only intimate tale to tell, but it is a very common on. Stories fail when they fail to make the story intimate and personal. In Battlestar Galactica (1978), you care about the people. You quickly get invested in their journeys. In Galactica 1980, the characters have great adventures, but you don't get to know them at all. There are no moments when the characters reveal themselves.

Generations have followed Frodo to Mordor because Tolkien invested his tale with intimate moments where the characters come alive. Yes, the story is of great adventure and he was a great world builder, but the success comes down to the reader caring about Frodo and the story being so much about him and his companions more than the War of the Ring.

Same for the original Star Wars trilogy. We care about Luke, Han, Leia, and the others, because the movies are intimate. Here they are toppling the great Galactic Empire of Palpatine, and they story is not just about the battles they fight, it is about their friendship, their relationships, the other events in their lives, as much as the battles.

So great story telling, no matter the medium, is that intimate connection to the characters that bring them, not just to life, but close. Like you know them personally.