Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi’

So bad it’s good: Runespear

With the company of a friend or two, sometimes a terrible movie can be a whole lot more fun than a great movie.  It’s simply a cinematic truth.  How else could Mystery Science Theater 3000 lasted for a decade and developed a massive cult following?  Mystery Science Theater builds the friends right into the experience, of course, but they’re hardly pivotal for the bad movie experience.  In high school, a friend and I had a monthly tradition that included deep dish pizza and the worst direct-to-DVD movie we could find on the shelf (Hint: Lionsgate likely guarantees a winner).

Yes, it's from the authors of The Cybernetic Samurai.So I love watching B-movies: the ham-fisted acting, the amateur camerawork, the cheaper than cheap special effects.   But until recently, I never thought about reading B-…books.  Some things I am powerless to resist, though, and when I came upon Runespear in a used bookstore, I had no choice.  I had to buy it.  The cover was what piqued my interest, at first.  A giant man with an eye patch and a spear, whose torso inexplicably melds into a mountain range?  Tell me that wouldn’t wouldn’t grab your attention.  Considering it indirectly led to me buying the book, it may well be a pretty clever cover — but in my mind it conjured up a long history of cheesy paperback science fiction and fantasy, pumped out in such mass quantities that better representatives of the genres are lost in the noise.  Still, there’s something kind of fascinating about sci-fi and fantasy covers from the 50s and 60s, some winning mixture of camp and cliche and weirdness that makes them fun to look at, even if the books themselves are pretty terrible.

With a general interest in sci-fi covers suddenly triggered by Runespear, I flipped the book over to read the back, but man was I not even slightly prepared for the sheer ridiculous joy wrapped up in its brief plot description.  It’s like the perfect mixture of genre cliches and powerful goofiness — Nazis, Indiana Jones ripoff Rafe Springer, Norse mythology, and…British Professor Melbourne Shrewsbury.  The greatest name of all time?  Quite possibly.  Naturally, I had to buy it.

Reading it, on the other hand, was a different matter.  Could a book that looked so hilariously awful actually be fun to read, or would it simply be dull and painful?  I waited a few weeks before taking the plunge, but the results pleasantly surprised me.  The characters clung to adventure cliches and the writing occasionally dipped into bizarrely overwrought analogies, but for the most part it was descriptive and entertaining.  And every time I found myself criticizing the writing, I realized I probably couldn’t write an entire novel with the same degree of creativity.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.  My brain could also be permanently damaged from watching too many B-movies, but next time I see a mass market paperback with a hideously awful cover, I might have to give it a try.  And if you ever come across Runespear, buy it.  You probably won’t regret it.

Primer

I hope you're not implying that any day is unimportant at Cortex Semi.

For reasons I’m not sure I can fully explain — or even understand – Primer is one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen.  Like the most important works of science fiction, it eschews drama for ideas, or an idea, in this case time travel.  Here is why this is great science fiction:

Compare Primer to Back to the FutureBack to the Future is a fantastic movie; it’s a classic adventure, fun and heartwarming and flashy and entertaining, which dances around the concept of time travel with faux-concern about disrupting the space-time continuum.  Doc Brown’s eyes bug out whenever Marty tries to change the future, but ultimately this issue is dismissed and relegated to something that concerns only these characters.  Recreate the past or your whole family will slowly disappear from a photograph, culminating in the erasure of your birth!  Back to the Future is Marty’s story, and the “right” thing to do in any situation regarding time muckery is to make sure everything turns out well for Marty.  Everyone goes home happy.

In Part II, you’ve got the evil Biff who uses knowledge of the future to get rich, rule the world, blah blah.  He’s a comical villain, his ancestor was a villain, his kids will be villains.  There’s destiny at work, here, and the grand design allows for the underdog McFlys and the mean old Tannens to be at odds forever, which makes for fun call-backs in the world of cinema.  What it doesn’t do is provide any sort of genuine questions of how time travel would affect real people.  And that’s fine — it doesn’t have to.

Primer does.  We see two men — two good men, kind and hard-working and smart — run aground the rocky morality of time travel.  We first see them labor, as scientists, to understand what they have created, and the implications of it.  We see them take great pains to avoid anything dangerous beyond their understanding — to prevent any sort of possible paradox, in case such an event may irrevocably damage their lives and the lives of others.  And when, inevitably, they begin to make meticulous changes to the future, we see the damage done to their own friendship.

Primer is certainly no cheeky adventure in a badass flying car, and even the inevitable destruction of the DeLorean does little to make a real case for the moral implications of time travel.  In Primer, we see the implications of their actions eat at the characters from within, just as the effects of their device eat at them from without.  In the end, the narrative becomes almost impossibly complicated — and it starts out pretty damn hard to follow.  But following the exact series of events isn’t really necessary.  It’s not the point.  Knowing that these men are dealing with forces outside of their own understanding, and seeing how power weighs on them is what makes this great sci-fi.  And, as I mentioned at the beginning, seeing what actions such believable, rational people will inevitably take is seriously unsettling.  Primer weighs heavy on the conscience.

A rational movie about time travel?  Yup, turns out it is possible after all.

Virtual Worldbuilding

Virtual Light

Did you know William Gibson is one of the most skilled authors of the 20th century?  It’s true!  “Sure,” you might say, “he did practically invent the cyberpunk genre.”  Yup, that’s pretty impressive.  He dirtied up technology, marrying the high-tech with the low-brow to create a whole world of fiction populated with cobbled-together Millenium Falcons instead of spit-shined Death Stars.  You might also note his ability to shrewdly predict the future path of technological development, resulting in almost eerie interpretations of the Internet and the dissemination of information decades before their time.  You could even harp on his fantastic sense of style — which at times reads like a sci-fi lucid dream — or how his fast-paced narratives often imply action without even having to show it.

Yeah, those would all be pretty good points.

But there’s another element of his writing, more overlooked, that deserves praise for so effectively bolstering up the stories Gibson has to tell.  I was suddenly struck by the intricacy and imagination of Gibson’s worldbuilding while reading his 1993 novel Virtual Light.  Having only read the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” and the Sprawl trilogy before Virtual Light, its slight departure from the tech-heavy cyberpunk of his earlier works was an interesting change.  Granted, Virtual Light still bears the markings of a cyberpunk dystopia, but lacks hacker heroes like Neuromancer’s Case and vivid depictions of cyberspace.  In all of his books, Gibson harnesses that knack for predicting technology’s path and uses it to build a unique world, unusually believable and more thoroughly thought-out than nearly anything else in sci-fi.

Virtual Light is no exception, only the results of Gibson’s worldbuilding are even more interesting than usual because he applies them to contemporary society.  The novel hits much closer to home, even if its near-future setting isn’t so far removed from his earlier works.  He creates a world where California has been ravaged by earthquakes and split into NoCal and SoCal (amusingly playing off the already-existing cultural differences between the two), while Japan has been similarly decimated by an Earthquake nicknamed Godzilla.  A cool setting, but hardly as amazing as the character J.D. Shapely who lurks in the shadows just outside Light’s corona.  Shapely is not a protagonist, an antagonist, a tag-along; he’s simply a memory.  But he was a man whose unique biology led to a cure for AIDS.  In 1993, AIDS was a hot-button issue, and Gibson took it upon himself to address the issue within the realm of science-fiction, creating a Martin Luther King-esque martyr for a cause that concerns every living person on the globe.

Gibson is obviously interested in exploring real social issues, extrapolating them into a future scenario and scrutinizing how they would eventually impact us all.  Shapely becomes a cult figure, worshiped by the poor, celebrated by the rich.  He weaves history, fake documentaries, and character observations of Shapely references throughout Virtual Light, none of which directly relate to the plot in the slightest.  They create such a real, powerful vision of the world that Virtual Light’s fictional society derives enormous complexity from such a tangential story element.

Like Shapely, another oft-referenced, never-seen character, Reverend Wayne Fallon, addresses a real social issue.  Fallon is an ironic extrapolation of the modern Joel Osteen, a character whose followers have advanced from worshiping on television to worshiping television.  It’s an amusing cyberpunk blend of religion and technology, but also a bit frightening; when people start looking for God in their television, you know the outside world is really going to suffer.

The scary thing is, Reverend Fallon’s flock aren’t all that unbelievable.  They hang out in the background as fuel for dystopian thought, while the majority of Virtual Light’s plot plays out in chase scenes and cop drama.  Interestingly, its conclusion steers much closer to the intriguing worldbuilding information Gibson packs into the novel, focusing more on class issues and social strife surrounding the future of San Francisco.  Reading the book days after leaving the city, I loved picking up on Gibson’s geographic references to real places, but ended up coming away with a new respect for his work thanks to the socially conscious blend of present-day class issues, future social problems and a dab of zesty science-fiction dystopia in a fictional 2005 that, even in 2010, edges a little too uncomfortably close to reality.