Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar the silent movie

I can think of one thing that would save Avatar (written and directed by James Cameron) and make it a much better movie-going experience. See it with the sound off. No subtitles, please. This avoids the story, which is somewhere between lame and insulting, and the soundtrack, which runs from weak to annoying. All that would be left is the visuals, which are gorgeous and immersive. The last hour of shoot ’em up and explosions can be skipped, too.

There are two moments that approach honest emotion in the entire 2 hour, 40 minute movie: 1. When the main character, the paralyzed Jake Sully, first has his consciousness inserted into an alien avatar and he is able to walk and run. 2. After Jake and Pocahontas -- I mean the native Chieftain’s daughter Neytiri -- bond to flying creatures, very much like the dragonriders of Pern, they recount their flight, waving their hands through the air in an imitation of flight. All the rest is a boring retread of other stories and it is dead on arrival.

The story riffs on the following movies:
Disney’s Pocahontas -- check
Costner’s Dances with Wolves -- check
Every single movie where a white male shows an “inferior culture” how to fight and he is better at pretty much everything (from Tarzan onward, there are hundreds of these movies) -- check
This last trope was the subject of a panel discussion at Wiscon 31, called “What These People Need is a Honky.”

I doubt Cameron reads much science fiction, but if he did he might have come across a similar story by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Word for World is Forest,” first published in novella form in 1972. Cameron is only 37 years behind in his source material, which is how far behind Hollywood science fiction movies typically are.

The production designer for Avatar argues that since the natives, the Na’vi, are blue aliens and not a specific Earthbound oppressed group (such as, say, Africans or Native Americans), the movie can’t possibly be racist.
“Think of the imagery of the Johnny Weissmuller movies of Tarzan and the portrayal of Africans, which any of us watch today and we go, ‘Oh, that's a little cringe-making.’ . . . By Jim (Cameron) picking a state of existence that does not exist and then all of the jumps of science — like combining human DNA with an alien DNA and projecting a character's consciousness into the new being — all of that creates a ‘there’ where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. ”
Actually, no. By making the natives non-specific they stand for ALL oppressed and exploited groups. The Na’vi are Tarzan’s Africans, Dances with Wolves’ Native Americans, and every other racist portrayal of an “inferior people” all at once.

Cameron is able to mount huge, visually stunning productions (Avatar, Titanic, The Abyss), unfortunately each film is hobbled by painfully bad storytelling. The characterizations are weak and plot developments are obvious far in advance. Who wrote these wretched, broken screenplays? Oh, that would be James Cameron.

Edited to add:
I don't mean to suggest that Ursula K. LeGuin's novella "The Word for World is Forest" is infected with the same sort of racism. Far from it. Her story is better in every way than the Avatar story.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi

This story is worth the price of the anthology. The wonderful contradiction of “Pump Six” is that it is both apocalyptic and optimistic at the same time.

Travis Alvarez works at a sewage treatment facility in New York City over a hundred years in the future. He and his wife have been trying to have a child for a while without success. They are hoping for a normal baby. “We’ve just got to stay optimistic,” says Alvarez. Normal birthrates are down. More trogs (de-evolved humans) are born every year. At work Pump Six, a sewage treatment pump, isn’t working correctly and Alvarez is the only one who is able to puzzle through the arcane manual.

Details about life in New York gradually accumulate: the skyscrapers are shedding their skins in a constant concrete rain, no cars are on the road, and most water isn’t safe to drink. Everywhere the trogs, the children of men, are found copulating in the alleyways and parks, beckoning Alvarez to join the fun. The future is going to shit, quite literally if the pumps fail.

Alvarez is a can-do character, ready and willing to solve problems, a character typical of optimistic 1940s and ’50s science fiction, which Bacigalupi seeks to subvert. As the enormity of the situation becomes clear both to Alvarez and the reader the story closes. The mix of emotions that the story ends with: optimism, sadness, sympathy, or pity, will depend to a large part on the individual reader.

“Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi originally appeared in the collection Pump Six and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2008)
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Friday, December 18, 2009

Memory Dog by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Must we become a dog in order to offer unconditional love? Can we only receive unconditional love if we get it from a dog? Those are just some of the issues that “Memory Dog” raises. It’s an overstuffed story, with memory drugs, an unraveled marriage, political and social unrest, and “smacks,” a high impact variety of blog post that floats about looking for receptive people.

Unable to cope with guilt from the death of a child and the end of his marriage, a scientist at the forefront of new memory research transfers a mixture of his own edited memories and those of the family dog into a dog that is then released near his former wife’s home. The memory-enhanced dog forms an attachment with his ex-wife.

An unabashedly sentimental cocktail of regret, loss, love, and fractured memories, the story works despite being overcomplicated.

Is there a subgenre of science fiction stories about dogs? Some leap to mind:
“People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi. (Dead dog.)
“Sergeant Chip” by Bradley Denton. (Military dog.)
“A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison. (Answering the old dating joke: Girlfriend asks boyfriend, which do you prefer, me or your dog? Woof!)
I’m sure I’ve overlooked many science fiction dog stories. Please add those that you remember in the comments.

"Memory Dog" by Kathleen Ann Goonan, originally published in Asimov’s, April/May 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orange by Neil Gaiman

This one is slick and amusing. The conceit is that the story is composed completely of answers to questions the reader doesn’t get to see. As the first lines say: “Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire. EYES ONLY.”

The funniest bits arrive early:
“7. Several times a day.
“8. No.”

The wildly speculative places that those answers take the reader are worth a chuckle. The actual story, alas, is familiar and prosaic, despite its unusual format. Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl, it’s the story of a nutty scientist mother with a laboratory in the garage and the irritating younger sister, Nerys, who is transformed by one of the mother’s experimental dyes into a glowing orange “Immanence” floating above the ground and demanding to be worshipped. When things begin to get out of hand, aliens arrive in a spaceship and intervene, taking the transformed Nerys away and promising not to harm her.

The clever format doesn’t actually work. Since the written questionnaire is presumably prepared in advance, the questions could not flow from the previous answers as the narrative requires. They do, thus undercutting the premise.

"Orange" by Neil Gaiman, originally published in The Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan (Viking, 2008).
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman

The claustrophobically confined life aboard living submarine craft and cramped space in underwater habitats is redoubled by the constrictive responsibility of being the sole caregiver for an “aged,” an unproductive senior with dementia. Osaji cares for her grandmother, which precludes many preferred assignments and marriage.

Care for seniors, not a common topic in science fiction, is sensitively handled. The indirect speech and passive-aggressive behavior within overcrowded living spaces is well considered. (For example, a request to return to the ship: “Will she be coming in soon?” The reply: “She will be pleased to.”) The author tips her hand a bit by providing Japanese names for most characters, except a loud American-sounding gaijin named Scrappin’ Jack Halliday.

Due to an undersea volcanic eruption, Osaji, her grandmother, and Jack are cast adrift far from known waters on a water-covered planet. The story turns toward planetary romance as they discover unknown flora and fauna, and glimpse an abandoned underwater city. The story has a leisurely pace and resolves well on several levels.

Still, practicalities kept coming to mind: How would pressure not be an issue, diving at various depths? Would a biological submarine (the “ark” of the title), based on autopoiesis, be as maintenance free as the story suggests? Would they actually rely on currents and not include a propulsion system? Would a society capable of space travel not have sophisticated imagery of the entire planet’s undersea floor?

It’s an interesting choice as both the lead-off story and the longest story in the anthology, and a mostly satisfying one.

"Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman, originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Year’s Best SF 14: Introduction

Editors David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer provide a brief summary of the year 2008 in science fiction. Most of the economic news is predictably grim. Much of the information about print magazines and online magazines is now out of date.

Interestingly, the only novel and single-author collection mentioned in the entire introduction is emphasized here: “High points Daryl Gregory’s first novel, Pandemonium, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s first collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, possibly the two most important first books in our field in 2008.” Gregory’s book is moving up the “to be read” pile and readers of this blog have already seen mention of Bacigalupi.

Overall, Hartwell and Cramer say, 2008 was a fine year for short fiction, pointing to the magazines and original anthologies. They single out The Starry Rift, Eclipse 2, Fast Forward 2, and Clockwork Phoenix, published in the United States. They also cite original anthologies from Australia and Canada, Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again and Claude Lalumière’s Tesseracts 12 respectively.

They present their editorial philosophy, which has appeared in some form in each volume: “This book is full of science fiction -- every story in this book is clearly that and not something else. We try in each volume of this series to represent the varieties of tones and voices and attitudes that keep the genre vigorous and responsive to the changing realities out of which it emerges, in science and daily life.”

Link: Year's Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Year's Best SF 14

I’ll be writing briefly about each story in Year’s Best SF 14 edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2009). Items on the table of contents below will be updated with links to each post.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Peter Watts beaten, arrested at U.S. border

Canadian science fiction writer Peter Watts was stopped, beaten and arrested by U.S. border guards on Tuesday, December 8.

According to Watts’ friend, sf writer David Nickle (via Boing Boing):
“He (Watts) was stopped at the border crossing at Port Huron, Michigan by U.S. border police for a search of his rental vehicle. When Peter got out of the car and questioned the nature of the search, the gang of border guards subjected him to a beating, restrained him and pepper sprayed him. At the end of it, local police laid a felony charge of assault against a federal officer against Peter. On Wednesday, he posted bond and walked across the border to Canada in shirtsleeves (he was released by Port Huron officials with his car and possessions locked in impound, into a winter storm that evening). He's home safe. For now. But he has to go back to Michigan to face the charge brought against him. The charge is spurious. But it's also very serious. It could mean two years in prison in the United States, and a ban on travel in that country for the rest of Peter's life.”
There’s more on the story at Boing Boing and Peter Watts’ own account at his website.

For a little context, Peter Watts has a graduate degree in marine mammal biology and has written several highly regarded science fiction novels. Blindsight (Tor, 2006) was short listed for the Hugo Award for best novel. Donations to the legal defense fund can be made via Paypal to

Peter Watts' second post about the incident at his website
The Times-Herald (Port Huron, Michigan) article on the incident Friday, December 11
The Times-Herald (Port Huron, Michigan) article on the incident Saturday, December 12

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Windup Girl on the Rewind

“... (D)espite the slightly creaky plot, The Windup Girl is irresistibly readable for long stretches. What it does best, I think, is the frantic excitement of uncertainty.”
-- Niall Harrison (full review)

“Well written and impressive as it is--and this is still a work by one of the major voices working in the genre, if not a major work in its own right--The Windup Girl is undone by the ambiguity at its heart.”
-- Abigail Nussbaum (full review)

SF Strangelove’s review of  The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Time magazine named The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi as one of the top 10 fiction books of 2009.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Box

The Box (directed by Richard Kelly, distributed by Warner Bros., 2009)

Think of The Box as a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. It has the same preoccupation with moral dilemmas and with powerful outside agencies manipulating the fate of mere mortals. It successfully delivers the same spooky chills. Its central characters are cut from the same cardboard, standing in for everyman and everywoman.

In 1976, an ordinary couple, Norma and Arthur (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), are presented with a box with a button on top. If they press the button someone they don’t know will die and they will receive a million dollars. Offering the box is the horribly disfigured Mr. Steward (Frank Langella). After Mr. Steward departs the couple discusses the proposition. Arthur opens the box. There is nothing inside. Eventually, on impulse, Norma presses the button. Elsewhere in town we learn a woman has been killed. Norma’s decision leads to an even more troubling moral dilemma at the climax of the movie.

Near the end of the movie another couple is given the box. The wife impulsively pushes the button, establishing that there are a string of three women who have pushed the button, succumbing to temptation. Each couple is expelled, like Adam and Eve, from their safe, ordinary lives.

Mr. Steward, injured in a lightning strike, is the enigmatic representative for “those who control the lightning.” The character is played with a wonderful otherworldly seriousness by Langella. Steward exhibits posthuman, near magical abilities. Twice the film references Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The film seems to view this as an excuse not to make any effort to explain the advanced technology on display.

An example of this technology is the three columns of liquid from which Arthur must choose. He makes the correct choice and he is transported several feet above the bed he shares with Norma, where she is at that moment resting. She must dodge quickly out of the way as Arthur and many gallons of water arrive nearly on top of her, in an odd rebirth.

While there are numerous loose ends, the story is involving and thought provoking. Still, as one imagines Richard Kelly is tired of hearing, it’s not up to the level of Kelly’s first feature, Donnie Darko (2001). Donnie Darko was especially adroit at quickly presenting several complex and sympathetic characters. We rarely get close to the characters in The Box, and when the opportunity arises they don’t fully engage our sympathy. The result is an abstract puzzle and the audience is left to fit some of the pieces.

The movie is based on the Richard Matheson short story, “Button, Button” (1970), and was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode which aired during a revival of the television series in 1986.