Sci-Fi


Science fiction can be generally divided into two camps: soft and hard. (There are good Wikipedia articles on both, and this post isn’t really about the concepts, but I’ll still give short summaries. Specifically, these summaries will indicate my own thoughts on the subject and the angle from which I am approaching this topic.)

Soft sci-fi deals more with the “fiction” aspect, relegating science to a distant second, third or whatever place. The science here is probably not going to be as thoroughly researched, if at all, and similarly will not be explained, except with an off-hand phrase tossed in at the last moment.

Had sci-fi deals with, or has a special focus, on the science behind the story. The science is either pivotal to the plot or is thoroughly researched and is (or, at least attempting to be) accurate.

I am more a fan of hard sci-fi. I like my science to be consistent and logical. Nothing ruins a story quite like bad science, as Hollywood has been kind enough to demonstrate. That’s not to say that I don’t read or enjoy soft sci-fi. “Replay” is certainly soft, in the sense that no explanation at all is given for the underlying phenomenon. The same goes for S.M. Stirling’s “Conquistador” and “Island in the Sea of Time”. (Nevermind the fact that I didn’t really care for those books, which was unrelated to them being soft sci-fi, but was rather caused by them being identical, long and boring books.) “Jumper” and its related books are also particularly soft (especially “Reflex”, which begins with the absurd assumption that “jumping” is contagious!), yet I love them dearly.

Still, I prefer something more grounded in science, and usually something possible. Yes, I realize there’s a bit of a contradiction in claiming an affinity for possible science-fiction, but that’s what I have. Let me explain.

Consider Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”. The spaceship imagined in the novel is entirely possible, if not with our current state of technology then with some technology. Similarly, “2001: A Space Odyssey” presents space travel and the AI constructs (HAL and the Monolith) that are entirely possible. (In both novels Clarke took leaps in the conclusion, with inertia-less travel of “Rama” and the StarChild of “2001”, but these are minor instances and are still possible, albeit with technology we have not yet discovered. And, of course, we have not yet shown that any of this is impossible…)

Similarly, Stross’ “Accelerando” series of short stories is deeply rooted in current or around-the-corner science. Which is what draws me to (as well as terrifies me about) the series. And, just like Clarke, Stross takes a small leap in imagining a galactic router in orbit around a brown dwarf. And, once again, we have not shown that this is something that is impossible.

Niven’s Known Space works are also someting that I would consider “possible”, though he does take more leaps, such as with teleportation technology (not FTL, since it does operate at the speed of light), the near-indestructible General Products hulls (described as a single molecule bounded with energy fields) and the scrith material that makes up Ringworld (umm, sufficiently advanced technology?). All of these I can accept since (a) the technology presented is self-consistent, (b) is not a deus ex machina and (c) the technology may be possible.

So, after that huge lead-in, what do I want to say? Simply this: I can’t plot soft sci-fi. Here I am, sitting around with oodles of time on my hands, attempting to think of a short story to write, and I can’t seem to come up with anything that’s not based on real (or around-the-corner) technology. Gah! It’s frustrating! Every idea I come up with, every what-if scenario, I dismiss it immediately if I can see no way for it to be possible. And that’s really not the spirit of writing sci-fi, now is it? One shouldn’t keep coming up with ways to foil a story, to put holes in their own concepts, to consistently, time after time find ways that something just won’t work. The spirit of sci-fi is one of possibility. The eternal question of what-if is invariably answered (by actual authors, not by this hack) with a resounding “hell yeah”. The concepts are pushed upon the reader with an authoritative voice, one that almost resounds from the heavens, as if spoken by Zeus himself, and firmly convinces the reader that what they have just glimpsed is not a fantasy but a reality.

Oh well, c’est la vie. Back to “Cryptonomicon”.

Currently listening to The Seed (2.0) by The Roots.

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Same as last year, the days/weeks leading up to the NaNoWriMo event are once again entirely devoid of blog posts. That’s because any spare time I may have had in the the two or three weeks leading up November were mainly taken up by plotting. Same as last year, I’m working on a sci-fi story. This time, though, it’s based on a short story I wrote during the summer. It’s the same underlying concept/problem, but completely different set of characters (one of whom is named after a friend’s newborn kid) and a different resolution.

As opposed to last year, when I spent a lot of time on the concept behind the story and no time at all on actually plotting out the flow, this year I’ve jotted down the summaries of all the scenes, ahead of time. So now all I have to do is allot the required number of days per scene (about 2.5) and the story feels like it’s writing itself. It’s a much less stressful and more enjoyable NaNo experience than last year’s. And hey, I’m already at 10,000 words. I missed a day last week due to excessive alcohol intake (Trivia Tuesday, you understand) but aside from that I’ve been writing regularly, every day, about 1.6 thousand words, the required amount for me to coast through November and have 50 thousand words by December.

Speaking of alcohol intake, I’m considering not having less booze than normal, as I’ve found that writing while intoxicated just doesn’t cut it for me. At that point, I’d rather be listening to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or playing GTA: IV. Not exactly a good writing atmosphere.

And speaking of music (yes, this post is taking on a very tangential motif, but what the hell do I care?!), I’ve recently discovered Led Zeppelin and I gotta say: shit, I’ve been missing out! “Ramble On” is one of the best songs I have ever heard. Period. (Have you noticed that it starts out kinda like The Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature”? It’s weird, but I constantly think I’m going to hear “no sugar tonight” just as the song breaks into obvious Led Zeppelin.)

Sadly, I don’t expect to be writing much here until way after NaNo is over. This post itself is being written in between lunch and watching “Back to the Future: Part 2”. After that, probably going to head out to a coffee shop to get the day’s allotment of sci-fi written up.

Flickr

Found this amazing Flickr user, Deborah Chen, through a random search: was looking for “bionic bunny”, stumbled on some of her photos. Great photos, excellent composition, interesting colors, beautiful models (photographer herself included, of course). Just about the only gripe I have with her work (aside from wishing I could do something similar) is that sometimes the 1970’s-coloring is overdone. Here’s an example of where I think it’s appropriate, Argonaut, and here’s one where I think the photo was fine without the effect, Castro.

PostSecret for 9/13/2009

stay_smallerI wish I was there for my cat.

mousepoop_smallerAlright! Good for you!

Get Fuzzy

The brilliance that is Get Fuzzy is sometimes hard to describe to the non-believers. Below is a comic that shouldn’t need much explanation. Sunday edition comics are large, so click for the full image.

295013.full_part

Random thought

There is no such thing as “life”. If we’re looking for anything in this universe, it should be beauty. Possibly more on this topic later.

Fin

Well, anyway, enough internet for this morning, laundry’s done, I can finally go get some dim sum and read.

Currently listening to: Gomez, “Bring It On: 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition”.

Currently reading: “The Dreaming Void”, by Peter F. Hamilton

Just came back from watching “District 9”. First off, that was the closest I’ve ever gotten to vomiting without having eaten something bad. The theater was packed, even though we got there twenty minutes before the start of the movie, so the first half hour I had to look up at the screen from the third row. I got incredible motion-sickness going there. So had to move to one of the back rows, which thankfully had an empty seat. After that, the movie actually got enjoyable.

The film itself is quite good, both in terms of visual presentation, the drama, the action (quite a lot of action, actually) and the tiny bits of comedy. The two things I didn’t care for were the over-use of hand-held cameras (duh!) and the very weak scientific backing.

See, the premises of the film is that this alien mothership hangs over Johannesburg and then 1.5 million aliens (after two decades) are living in slums in District 9. There’s unrest and the aliens (called “prawns” in the movie for their appearance) are eventually segregated from the humans. The movie picks up at the point when the entire prawn population of the slums is being evicted to a different area.

Now, that whole scenario that I described may sound perfectly attractive to an English major looking for analogies and Apartheid references, but to someone more scientifically minded (or simply raised on sci-fi) this whole idea sounds like bullshit. Aliens land on earth and all we can do is round them up in a shanty-town? The place is run by corporate security forces and exploited by Nigerian scammers (seriously). Not a single scientist or researcher in sight. As if that’s not enough, there are entirely too many scientific mistakes in the movie. For one thing, what’s up with the aliens being human-sized, human-shaped, capable of breathing our air and eating our food? We learn their language, but no one tries to communicate with them, figure out why the aliens are here and how we can help them? The idea of weapons that work for aliens but not for us is glossed over completely. And they seemed to almost forget the fact that a ship-load of aliens seems entirely too willing to forget about their space-ship and settle in the life of luxury here on earth.

But hey, if you overlook some of these fallacies, the movie is great. Just don’t sit too close to the screen.

Just finished “Year’s Best SF9”, an anthology of sci-fi short stories. I think this is my second non-Niven short story collection, and I’ve gotta say: “meh”. Some of the stories there are really outstanding, while others… Not to sound too full of myself, but I think I could write better. (And I’m trying, too.)

The best story of the bunch was Rick Moody’s “The Albertine Notes”. It is a wonderful mind-fuck, not unlike some of Philip K. Dick’s work. I kept expecting the story to end at a dozen different points, all with that classic “well, that’s all, the world is still fucked, and now the hero is screwed as well, ain’t life grand?” conclusion, but the ending just kept moving further away. Give it a go, though be prepared to not understand some of the story. That’s the point, really.

Here’s a quick listing of the stories and my impressions, along with a simple school-style rating:

  • Amnesty – Didn’t like it, the whole story happened during a job interview. C.
  • Birth Days – Not bad. The delivery was OK, most of the “plot” was non-essential and the final conclusion didn’t seem to be really based on science. B+.
  • The Waters of Meribah – Eh. “Science” (according to tree-hugging hippies) taken to an extreme, combined with a strange property of the universe (something like that mystic quantum BS) that results in a monster. C+.
  • Ej-Es – Much non-sense and an attempt at tugging on some emotional strings. Not a bad delivery, but not much else to say about it. B-.
  • Four Short Novels – Good stuff, even if the final moral of the story is sappy. A-.
  • Rogue Farm – Interesting story, though a bit more more exposition would have helped. Which is of course true of most of Stross’ work, so this is nothin unexpected. A-.
  • The Violet’s Embryo’s – The story, like a typical mind-fuck, starts off incomprehensibly and goes from there. It’s actually quite good, but the beginning just bugged the hell out of me. All these strange names and concepts being introduced in every sentence, and none of them explained. Argh. A-.
  • Coyote at the End of History – A classical Native American story mixed with sci-fi. I’m not such a great fan of mythology, and Native American mythology is no exception, so this story didn’t do much for me. B.
  • In Fading Suns and Dying Moons – Cute story and an ironic ending, so classic sci-fi short story. A.
  • Castaway – Strange and unmemorable. B-.
  • The Hydrogen Wall – Great concept, not bad execution. The only beef I have with the story is that two plot points are so damn similar to a short story I wrote a few weeks ago. It’s a strange coincidence that’s in no way related to the actual story, but still weird. A-.
  • The Day We Went Through the Transition – An imaginative take on the concept of Time Cops. One of the better stories of the set. A.
  • Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers – Too short, but really enchanting. A.
  • Night of Time – Spends a lot of time on the inconsequential while merely skimming over the main point, that of an ancient intelligence. Still, a wonderful gem. A-.
  • A Night on the Barbary Coast – Immense potential, great setting, curious characters, horrible resolution. B+.
  • Annuity Clinic – Quite an emotional story, though lacking in pretty much all other aspects. B.
  • The Madwoman of Shuttlefield – Leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Has no real point or conclusion. B-.
  • Bread and Bombs – Might have had a curious point, if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of a kid. B.
  • The Great Game – Eww. Utter crap. An anti-war story that idolizes war. All the characters are (or become) pro-war. C-.
  • The Albertine Notes – Like I said before, a great mind-fuck. A+.

There. No one failed. Good times.

First off, this post started as an idea/resolution. I wanted to write between three and five thousand words, partly to see if I could and partly to keep writing. So I was contemplating what to write about. And the idea that appealed most to me was one that I couldn’t really make into a sci-fi story. Which is what I wanted to do. But the idea I had was too complex, would have required too much explanation for a short story. So, I decided to write three to five thousand words of non-fi. Here’s hoping I can pull it off.

Rest of the post is after the jump.

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