Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Product Placement

Posted in Science Fiction, Things You Should See with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

Warning:  the following clip is emotionally intense, probably not suitable for people of a sensitive nature, and in context absolutely hilarious.

Don’t watch this around children, or at work, just to be safe.

Theodore Sturgeon

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read with tags , , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

I am fortunate.  A quick browse through a local used bookstore yielded not only a hardback copy of Godbody but a collection of short stories by the same author, Theodore Sturgeon.

Although once widely known and generally acknowledged as a master of science fiction, Sturgeon is relatively obscure today; remarkably so, for a man who was once the most anthologized English author living.  Finding his works in libraries is slowly becoming difficult, except in the ones whose stocks are full of old editions.

My first exposure was when I came across his short work “The Golden Helix” in just such an anthology.  My eye was caught by the editor’s introductory blurb in which it was noted that the story was written before the structure of DNA had been discovered, and furthermore, suggested that the choice of the double helix was slightly spooky in that context.  Curious, I paid especial attention, and found that the story more than repaid the interest invested.

On doing a little research, I found that Sturgeon was not only responsible for, among other things, the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek, the “Live long and prosper” salutation, and the characteristic Vulcan hand symbol (although its form came from Leonard Nimoy).  I tried to find more of his writings but found them to be fairly scarce, even decades ago – the situation has worsened considerably, it seems.

Like Robert Heinlein, Sturgeon seems to have contributed considerably to what I can vaguely refer to as ‘hippie culture’.  Given the times in which he was writing, and the mores of public discourse involved, many of the concepts in his stories were remarkably ideoclastic and radical.  Many of them seem quite same now, although parts would still shock many if they took the time to think about them.

I think I may write reviews of some of his writings in the near future.

Cultural Norms

Posted in Politics and Society, Science Fiction, Weirdness with tags on November, 2013 by melendwyr

I’ve recently finished watching the sixth season of Doctor Who, which I highly recommend if you’re into that sort of thing.  (Watch the fifth season first.)

Alas, I tend to focus on subtext.  There are of course all the superficial ways in which a British science fiction / fantasy program will differ from an American one.  But then there’re the subtle ways, and the cultural differences are fascinating.

It’s supposed to be a “family show”, to the point where child characters are repeatedly reassured about their paramount importance to everyone, gunshot wounds aren’t visible, and there’s no blood even when people are neck-bitten by space vampires.  (Well, they’re not actually vampires, they’re something so awful that they prefer ‘vampire’ as a cover, but whatever.)  The companion program for the episode even has one of the special effects people talking about how important it is to limit the visible blood so that the censors won’t have a problem.

Yet it’s chock full of terrifying creatures and concepts.  And the vastly more sophisticated special effects in the regenerated show don’t help – children famously hid behind the sofa at first sight of the previous series’ villains, which were hilariously cheap props.  The new monsters are profoundly disturbing.

I’ve heard it said that Europeans and Americans chose opposing trade-offs between sex and violence:  we’re neurotically repressive / indulgent about sex and wildly indulgent in violence, they’re the other way around.  Maybe there’s something to that.  But there are surprising number of references to sexuality, from Rory causing a mishap with the TARDIS because he’s helping to adjust its hardware when his wife walks across the glass floor/ceiling wearing a short skirt, to the Thin and Fat Gay Anglican Marines.

That last brings up one of the weirdest points from an American perspective:  attitudes towards religion.  The primary villains of this season have hired the Anglicans as backup (it seems Christianity has developed in some interesting ways three thousand years in the future).  An episode monster is an obsolete god that has been put into a travelling space prison by the civilization that no longer needs it, and it feeds on the faith of selected victims.  There’s a religious order called the Headless Monks who believe the head is the source of doubt and the heart of faith, so they supposedly follow their hearts.  Well, they have to, because they’re decapitated and turned into undead killing machines.

This sort of thing isn’t new to SF.  What’s interesting to me is that these points aren’t being presented as an argument or a proposition.  It seems to be expected that the audience will see them as a sort of default.  And default or not, material which can be even remotely construted as a criticism of religion isn’t considered child-appropriate for basic family fare.  That is seemingly is in Great Britain to this degree is remarkable to me.

Omnitopia Dawn

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read with tags , , , , , on January, 2013 by melendwyr

Fans of the beautiful and mysterious Myst computer games series will probably know that an online multiplayer version called Myst Online: Uru Live was attempted and, tragically, closed after some time.  What fewer people realize is that MOUL continues to exist and is actually the first open-source multiplayer online adventure game.  The games’ creators made it possible for players with enough knowledge of the scripting language used in the game to write their own rooms and worlds, adding them to the exploratory space available to everyone.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past decade, you’ve probably also heard of World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment’s quite successful MMORPG.  I hardly need to write anything about it, it’s so well known – but if you’re not familiar, although many parts of gameplay have arisen from interactions within the player base, and more based on feedback, the world is very much a creation of its developers.

What if things had gone differently, and Myst Online had not only survived in its original incarnation, but also allowed its players to design it?  What if it created its own culture a la WoW, and been as far-reaching into our own general culture?

That’s more or less what’s happened in the near-future Omnitopia Dawn by Diane Duane.  Fifty million people connecting to a sensory-immersion world that’s expanded not merely by the game’s nominal developers but by players selected for ethical probity and love of the game.  A world of worlds created to fit niches and fill needs that the original creator didn’t anticipate… as long as it’s legal and safe.  People from all over the world interact in real-time in ways and in forms of their choosing.  Actual history reenacted, possible histories explored, implausible and impractical fantasy worlds generated and a thousand different sorts of games delighted in.  It’s a dream given form.

And there are forces gathering who would like nothing more than to destroy it all.

Duane takes her trademark theological speculation – in which the Powers responsible for creating and maintaining the world delegate some of their own power and authority to created beings – and makes the metaphor literal.  Omnitopia is a self-modifying system made ever richer by those who participate in it.  Yes, there are links all the way back to Tolkien’s ideas about subcreation.  The game is one person’s subcreation that invites others to continue to elaborate and develop it, within a reality that Duane has suggested is just such a system.  MMORPGs used to explore the nature of the concept of the divine and how we should approach our own responsibility in participation within reality itself, touching upon ethics, morality, and the nature of evil.

If nothing else, it’s a fascinating exercise in how to present an old-fashioned idea in modern terms.  I can’t help but think that Tolkien would approve.

The Hellstrom Hoax

Posted in Science Fiction with tags , , , on September, 2012 by melendwyr

I recently came across an old hardcover copy of Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive – not his best work, but interesting in its own rights.  Especially since it served as the primary inspiration for the character of Sheng-ji Yang, and his faction the Human Hive, in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, which is one of the best strategy games ever.  Many of the in-game quotations from Yang are slightly rewritten quotes from HH.

Out of curiosity, I thought I would see what else this book had inspired or was derived from, so I set out to do some research.  Less than ten seconds in, Wikipedia had informed me of Herbert’s inspiration:  a 1971 documentary using revolutionary microscopic and telescopic cameras called “The Hellstrom Chronicle”.  Narrated by a fictitious entomologist by the name of Dr. Nils Hellstrom, this prize-winning movie suggests that insects will eventually dominate humanity due to their ability to adapt and our excessive individualism.

It seems Herbert was so taken with this tongue-in-cheek documentary that he not only appropriated the concept but the character.  The most significant perspective in HH is a Dr. Nils Hellstrom, whose film production company has created several films about insects with narration espousing their evolutionary superiority – projects that help fund a centuries-old experiment in patterning a human society after hive structures.

I found this all rather droll.

For Your Post-Apocalyptic Library Science Needs

Posted in Fantasy, Reviews, Science Fiction with tags , , on March, 2012 by melendwyr

Hillbilly space vandals.  Human-looking aliens with headbands that functioned as PDAs.   Dialog almost worthy of the Eye of Argon.  Hooded Space Wizards who speak in rhyme and place unwise librarians in stasis for a hundred years.  Earth abandoned to a decay that remarkably resembles Mississippi in 1985.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may have been forced to watch Tomes and Talismans as a child.  As probably the most well-known product of Mississippi Educational Television, Tomes instructed the young in details of library use, effective reading strategies, and how proper use of the Dewey Decimal System can save the planet.  For these noble goals, countless children trapped in the holding pens referred to as ‘schools’ were induced to watch this program in the hopes that they would suddenly perceive libraries as AWESOME!  Alas, it probably had no effect except to deepen their contempt of reading and further ostracize those kids who publicly enjoyed it.

One irony of the program was that despite being set in a distant future, the technologies it taught were mostly obsolete and largely replaced by computer archive systems less than a decade later.  Another is that, despite the ridiculousness of its plot, most people never got to find out how it ended – seemingly the adults forced to supervise the indoctrination of the young were unable to put up with having to watch the series themselves.   Fortunately, various individuals uploaded the series to YouTube!

For your edification and viewing pleasure, I link you to:  Tomes and Talismans:  Episode One:  Tomes Entombed

(cue eerie music)

Zero History

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read with tags on April, 2011 by melendwyr

I’ve read many of the works of William Gibson, and although I experienced them only in retrospective (being too young at the time most of them were composed to participate in the local Zeitgeist) I believe I accurately detected the point at which he decided his vision of a possible future was less interesting than the way time actually unfolded, and decided to leave the genre which he was partially responsible for giving birth to behind.

As such, I appreciated his efforts to give his Cyberpunk stories a meaningful end, which he did by bringing his world to an end, and hinting at the nature of the world that followed it. Well and good.

I read the books he wrote after this watershed moment in which his literary direction and his previous genre diverged. But frankly I did not feel I understood them, although I could recount the events described and the new world’s premises. His themes eluded me.

After reading his latest work, Zero History, I’ve finally grasped some of them. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I now believe I recognize the significance of some of his motifs. Some thoughts:

“Wealth is a tool of freedom, but the pursuit of wealth is the path to slavery.”

Modern pseudo-Gnostics want to understand how the world functions, and the best way for them to do that is observe when some part of it fails to function and begins to self-destruct.

Does this book accomplish the same purpose as All Tomorrow’s Parties did for the Bridge trilogy?

Nascent godlings are difficult to be around.

There may always be a Taoist master in there somewhere; it’s hard to be sure.