Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dear Charlie:

Okay, so since I'm still diggin' on Pacific Rim, I've been combing YouTube for special features. Yeah, my DVD is devoid of extras. I don't even have a commentary. I need to go see if they have a collector's edition with all the extras or something.

Anyway, so in my YouTube ramblings (which are oddly like clicking Wikipedia footnotes - there's always one more and one more and one more), I stumbled across an interview where the cast members were asked which movie robot was their favorite. My mind immediately jumped through the hoop.

Iron Giant! No, wait. That's probably because he's voiced by Vin Diesel. So... the T-1000. Yeah. Shapeshifting death-dealer extraordinaire. From the future.

No, wait....

After a few such iterations, I finally hit upon HAL 9000... only to remember that HAL wasn't actually a robot. HAL was an artificial intelligence. Not quite the same. Hmmm.....

And then it hit me. GERTY. GERTY is my current favorite robot (no offense to the jaegers in Pacific Rim, but while they're robots, they're piloted by humans).

Has anyone seen the movie Moon? It was a pretty small release that made a modest profit, so I wouldn't be surprised if not. However, if you like science fiction -- hard sci fi, not the more audience-friendly action-y sci fi that does better in theaters -- I can't imagine that you wouldn't like Moon. I saw it a couple of years ago and, clearly, still think about it.

M-O-O-N, that spells science fiction. Sorry. I had to.

See, there's always been a difference between hard sci fi and "regular" sci fi. Hard sci fi is... well, hard. Classic science fiction novels, for example, tend to not be rollicking tales of spaceships in laser battles or brawling acid-blooded aliens or awesome jetpacks and hoverbikes. Those elements are sometimes present, but they aren't the heart of the story.

No, hard science fiction is more about the science than the fiction. About the world-building. About atmosphere and suspense. About the day-to-day minutiae of space travel, or mapping and curing a new alien virus, or establishing a colony on a hostile planet. And under all of that, hard sci fi is about the contrast between human understanding and the cold, harsh reality of a universe that doesn't care if humanity thrives or dies. Hard sci fi is Lovecraftian existential horror at its most science-y.

It's slow-paced and dense and detail-packed. It usually requires patience, deep thought, attention, and even dedication to read or watch. It makes you work for it.

Actually, perhaps the best contrast I can think of off the top of my head that most people will be able to relate to is Alien versus Aliens.

Ridley Scott's Alien is, in its barest components, a haunted house story, but in space and with science. If you've watched it (shame on you if you haven't), you know it's pretty slow-moving until it finally builds to a crescendo. Even that first shot of the seemingly empty ship is designed to establish that this isn't some place on Earth where we'll be jumping around from place to place. This is a spaceship and we're going to be here a while, so take a good, long look. This is a functional marvel of science that people inhabit and use as their home, but right now, it's machinery and wiring and layers of shielding between the fragile, squishy humans inside and the cold, abhorrent vacuum of space outside.

Nothing actually happens in that long shot. When the cryosleep beds open, there's still nothing. And even when John Hurt finally wakes up, it's not people jumping from their easeful slumber to take on a new day. It's Average Joes and Janes yawning, slowly taking off the monitoring leads stuck on them, groggily dragging themselves out of their little cocoons. Hell, they don't even know why they've been awakened until everyone's had a shower and some coffee.

Instant gratification audiences would probably not approve. Nothing has blown up yet.

There are action sequences, of course, and iconic ones, at that. The chestburster scene has already gone down in history as one of the most shocking and graphic images to ever grace the silver screen. But for the most part, that movie is hard sci fi, where the events convey the time they would actually take if the story was really happening because it's more focused on the story and atmosphere and world-building and attention to detail than anything else.

See, space travel isn't fast. Even at fictional warp speeds, space travel isn't fast. It takes months or years to get where you're going, which is usually conveniently encapsulated down into cryosleep or some other form of stasis. And when you finally get where you're going, things still don't happen fast.

Like in Alien, the drop ship they take to investigate the mystery beacon doesn't just touch down and boom, they're on walk-about. No, it slowly enters the atmosphere, methodically adjusts its vector, carefully switches from artificial gravity to the planet's natural pull, ploddingly lowers, lowers... looooowwwweeerrrrrrrs..... and then sets down. Badly, of course, which causes a brief flurry of action that further delays them going out and investigating.

Now, contrast all of that with James Cameron's sequel, Aliens. It's still sci fi, but it is pure action candy. It's about grabbing the audience's attention. In addition to the fact that he nearly started an international incident over tea breaks, Cameron shifted the focus of the series from the day-to-day realities of space travel marred by unforeseen complications to what these badass space Marines will do next, how many aliens they can mow down, and how long we can keep an entire installation at the brink of nuclear meltdown.

Admittedly, all of that is pretty awesome. It's just not hardcore science fiction. Aliens is essentially an action movie that just happens to take place in space.

Even the androids in each movie point up the differences between the two genres. Ash in Alien is emotionless, dispassionate, and fully a company machine. He does not question Weyland-Yutani's command to rescind all other priorities in favor of bringing back an alien. Crew expendable. His cold, hard, unstoppable methodology is the epitome of how harsh pure logic devoid of human sentiment is.

But Bishop in Aliens is the opposite. While still an emotionless machine, his programming is based more along Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics - that an android cannot harm and cannot allow harm to a human. However, where Asimov's Laws proved that, even at our best, humanity's intentions will fall victim to the cold logic of science (the end point of all of that "protection" supposedly guaranteed by the laws was that technology would have to fully enslave humanity to "protect" us from our own folly), Bishop kind of disregards all of that and embraces humanity, trying to be more human.

I always think of the near-expression on his face when Ripley compliments him for not leaving them to die. That's not a thing that would ever have happened with Ash. Ash used his near-expressions to express faux sympathy as he basically tells the crew they will all die horribly.

Sorry, I've gone a bit off-track (and gotten long-winded). I'll have to pull a Ron White and say I told you all of that to tell you this:

Moon isn't an action movie. It isn't big-budget. It takes time to develop. It's hard science fiction, and that's not for everyone. You have to actually pay attention and be patient to fully enjoy it.

In a lot of ways, it's a brave movie. Straight-up sci fi is a hard sell these days, be it in novel or film form. Only a small portion of any given audience is willing to sit that long waiting for something to happen. Stories aren't allowed a lot of build-up.

This one, though, doesn't care about any of that and takes you on the slower, more cerebral ride it wants you to take. On the surface, it's a small story about a lonely man doing a three-year solo stretch at a mining outpost on the moon. Of course, that's a thin layer of icing over a rich, delectable cake of pure awesome. No, this isn't a fast-paced thriller of a rollercoaster ride, but it does what that kind of movie usually can't. It asks the audience to think, to question. It asks the audience what humanity truly is, but doesn't proceed to force-feed us its own answer.

And, of course, it has my favorite movie robot, GERTY. GERTY is the station's AI -- rather like HAL, but with the inclusion of a tracking robotic arm to help the resident miner, Sam, go about his daily business. If you're watching this flick, you're clearly a sci fi fan, so your mind will immediately do what mine did and think, "Uh-oh, GERTY's gonna go HAL any minute now".

But GERTY's mission is to help Sam, and I can't tell you how relieved and pleased I was that it did exactly that. There's a pivotal moment -- so hard to explain all of this without spoilers, and I definitely want everyone to watch spoiler-free! -- where Sam needs information he cannot access, and you think GERTY will, at the very least, prevent him from getting it. Then that robotic arm with its little smiley face icon creeps into frame and does its job. It helps Sam.

It doesn't factor in what the mining company would want. It doesn't factor in emotion or logic. It doesn't drag humanity down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole of existential angst about programming versus insight, man versus machine, humanity versus existence. It just does its job.

GERTY is my favorite robot. It defies expectation without ruining the hard science fiction foundation so lovingly laid for it.


And that may be the longest answer to a simple question that wasn't even asked of me ever. I blame Guillermo del Toro. And my bachelor's in English.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dear Charlie:

In looking at my last several posts, it seems I've been all-football, all-the-time. Sorry about that. I just get so excited!

But with my Chiefs out of the running, I'm left with rooting against the Chargers (who are out, ha! suck it, Bolts!) and against the Broncos (sorry, Manning, but I don't like the Donkeys, either), being ambivalent toward the Patriots (again? seriously?), and maybe sort of rooting for the Niners a little more than the Seahawks. I'm just watching for the sheer joy of football, now. Darn it.

But since football season is waning for an agonizingly long time (oh, August, you're so far away!), I guess I should get back to the writing front, where things have been going surprisingly well. I love being in The Zone. It's been a while, and I missed it.

I started a couple of weeks back, working on one of those "meh, I may finish it someday" projects that I haul out every now and then. If I finish it someday, great. If not, that's okay, too. I like it, and it's fun, and it usually lets me get a few words, even in a really low-ebb writing clutch.

And damn if it didn't work.

Because I put it aside to write on another project, and in less than two weeks, I'm up almost 30,000 words. Unfortunately, it's another new project instead of one that needs finishing already, and it's not one I'm sure will ever make it as a "real" novel, so it may never see the light of day even if I do finish it, and 30K is usually where I start to lose momentum (probably because that's usually where that big first act winds down and the grueling second act begins).

So, I'm trying not to be too excited about it, but still. I love being in The Zone. All you want to do is write all the time. You impatiently grind through the work day, desperately grabbing for whatever extra work you can find to stuff into the hours in hopes of making them go faster so you can go home and write write write already. And then, when you get home, you settle in and maybe it's a little tough to get started, but once the words start coming... suddenly, you glance up and it's one in the morning.

Ahem. Like it was when I looked up a bit ago and realized it was long past time to take a bath and go to bed. Yikes. I'll be zonked tomorrow, but man. So worth it for now.

Just... ya know... don't ask me tomorrow. Heh.