Alistair1918

Alistair1918 came up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, a found-footage movie with a science fiction (specifically time travel) theme.

The story concerns a social work student making a video on homelessness for her master’s program, who encounters a strange man who claims to be a British WWI soldier. At first she and the friends helping her film dismiss the guy’s claims (quite understandably) as the delusions of a mentally ill man. But there is something about them that compels them to dig further and to help him out. Ultimately they come to the conclusion that he actually did travel through time, and set about finding a way to help him get back to 1918.

An interesting SF premise. And the writer (and lead actor) Guy Bartwhistle actually does a somewhat decent job with it. But…there were a few problems that I saw with the genre elements and the storytelling:

  • Alistair is a compelling character mainly because of Birtwhistle’s portrayal, but as written simply wasn’t believable as an Englishman transported from 1918 France to 2018 Los Angeles. He was entirely too matter-of-fact about a situation that would have been bizarre bordering on incomprehensible to someone actually in that situation. He doesn’t marvel about plastics or aluminum or television or assorted technologies that we take for granted with which a man from 1918 would have been completely unfamiliar. Even modern versions of technology like telephones and cars and Google Maps he accepts and uses without wonder or confusion – indeed, from the very beginning he’s completely at home with the film crew pointing modern digital cameras and microphone booms at him, with an anachronistic understanding of what they’re doing and how it might help him. One could on the other hand focus too much on the fish-out-of-water aspect of the character’s situation, but that element needed more explanation than simply stating that he’d been 2018 for 30 days already to account for his easy acceptance of the strange new world around him. I don’t recall him even once responding with wonder to any of the infinite number of things that to him should be marvels verging on magic.
  • Likewise, his manners and views were jarringly anachronistic. A randomly-selected middle-class Englishman from that time ought to have been openly religious, especially one freshly plucked from the front line of the Second Battle of the Marne. His telephone etiquette would have been more formal than was shown (think of how different it was before cellphones, when one actually answered the phone with a greeting rather than a grunt). When one character (inevitably, because Hollywood) casually reveals that she is a lesbian, he has no reaction to that revelation at all, nor to the fact of that same character (platonically) sharing a bed with another character who is pining for her. Nor to the fact of that same character inviting him to sleep on her couch. For an ordinary middle-class Englishman of that period, such things should have seemed inappropriate, but Alistair accepts them without comment (apart from not wanting to impose) exactly as a contemporary man or woman would be expected to respond. It’s not that he’s biting his tongue, or cautiously withholding judgment of these future-people and their unfamiliar ways – it’s that he doesn’t appear to notice them at all.
  • The science fiction element of the wormhole is handled poorly (and, this being a low-budget flick, the special effects involved are terrible). I liked the concept of naturally-occurring wormholes moving around unseen and waiting for the right conditions to be opened, but the technobabble tried too hard to explain things and ended up cringe-inducing. A better appreciation for the genre conventions would have kept the exposition to a minimum and left more to the imagination. It would have made things a little more believable had the scientist in question already been aware of the wormhole that brought Alistair to 2018 through sensor data or the like, and that this natural occurrence serendipitously confirmed and corrected elements of her theory, allowing her to finally understand the phenomenon well enough to manipulate it.
  • I did not like the first attempt to manipulate the wormhole phenomenon. If it was going to fail, it should have failed utterly with no visible effects at all, making the scientist look just as delusional as Alistair appeared to be. Like Alistair with modern technology and mores, the modern characters accept this holographic blob appearing above a swimming pool far too readily. There is no wonder or apprehension at this unfamiliar apparition before them. Far better for us and them to see nothing, Alistair makes his leap based on blind faith in what she thinks she is seeing based on instruments alone, and the whole thing fails as shown and they’re all disillusioned. Then later, when they try again and it actually works, then you give the characters and audience some sort of visual indication as confirmation that this time she got it right. And because this is a low-budget film using the found-footage gimmick, that visual indication can occur partially or wholly off-screen, with the characters backing away in awe and caution from the wormhole that’s just materialized before them, the steadycam whirling around as they flee and only getting a fleeting, overexposed shot of the phenomenon itself and Alistair disappearing/having already disappeared into it.
  • The French scientist was a missed opportunity for some brilliant writing. She should have been an older woman, perhaps in her early sixties, whose grandfather (vs. great grandfather) fought in WWI, told her his stories personally, and introduced her to his war buddies. She would then have had a personal connection to men with direct personal experience of the war, allowing her to more believably recognize Alistair’s shell-shock and other subtle tells. Being from the area where Alistair fought should have been milked for clues that he was telling the truth (at least about having been there) – she could have served as an unexpected confirmation of details of his story that he couldn’t possibly have fabricated.
  • Related to this, one detail that I didn’t see exploited correctly was the distinctive cut on Alistair’s wrist. This injury was presented as a Chekov’s Gun early on in the film, a clue prominently set up for later use, but never (that I noticed) delivered on later in the story. Imagine the scientist, at first doubting Alistair’s story of time travel, but gradually growing suspicious over the subtle, uncanny details that remind her of her grandfather and his friends. She comes to recall a hazy memory of an elderly Englishman, visiting her grandfather when she was small…a man with a distinctive scar on his wrist, who told her one day she would meet a man with an incredible tale and help him return home. (I should note here that we do something similar to this in Ghosts of Tharsis, inspired by my tripping over a ladder and not by this movie.) This would also have been a more effective way to twist the plot, with the moderns seeing him up to that point as a fascinating lunatic whose deep and detailed delusions have as-yet-unrevealed mundane explanations (he’s a history buff/reenactor, for example), and after that point accepting that he was telling them the truth all along. As presented, though, the ambiguity of whether Alistair’s predicament was real or delusion was drawn out well past where the story called for it to be decisively resolved.

It’s not the greatest movie, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking despite its many flaws. At worst, it’s another entry in the long list of genre movies whose script I wish I had been asked to review before filming started. So much potential right there, already in the mix, just not realized.

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Mars

In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.

  • “True Crime” (working title)
    • Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
    • The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
      • The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
      • The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
      • The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
      • The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
      • The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
      • A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
    • This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
  • “Pipeline”
    • Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
    • There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
    • The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
    • Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
    • I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
    • This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
  • “Marineris”
    • This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
    • The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
    • The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
    • This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
    • This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
  • “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
    • Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
    • This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
    • For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Exploding the Myths of Explosive Decompression

Contrary to science fiction tropes, it takes more than a drop from one atmosphere to vacuum to do it. But it’s happened: Byford Dolphin Diving Bell Accident

Came across this while looking for information on the effects of the more likely 1-to-0 atmospheres depressurization for a scene in Ghosts of Tharsis. (Not really a spoiler, since you won’t see it coming.) It’s both horrifying and fascinating at the same time, and coincidentally led me to an account of the Piper Alpha disaster, which also has some bearing on events in the book.

Life Imitates Art #9845761: Splat

NASA Mars orbiter examines dramatic new crater.

Impressive. Now, imagine a few dozen of these happening. At the same time. I just drafted that scene last weekend…

I find it a bit surprising that this sort of thing (to various magnitudes) happens about 200 times per year. Not that it should be all that surprising, considering it probably happens on Earth as well – the rocks just don’t reach the surface thanks to our atmosphere. Surprising because one tends to think of Mars as a completely dead planet, where nothing much happens.

As we continue to explore and eventually settle the place, we’re bound to find out it’s nowhere near as dead as it seems. Something important to keep in mind with regards to writing fiction set on Mars – your characters are likely going to have to outrun a water outburst or dodge a meteoroid every now and then, and who knows what else.

Work Update and New Year’s Resolution

Work continues on the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares, tentatively titled Ghosts of Tharsis. We have the book fully outlined, in detail, with the prologue and a bit of the first act boilerplated. Amber and Ivanka get new friends, Amber gets a little more than she expected from her first off-Mars trip, and in yet another example of life imitating art in the Ares Project universe, electronic/data security (and indiscriminate violations thereof) are a significant element of the plot.

Just before Christmas we finished the first draft of a short story set in the Ares Project universe. The story takes place between the two books, and involves a different character with rather different problems from Amber’s. Oh, and it’s an homage to H.P. Lovecraft…

Given how straightforward it was to write up the short story, I’m making it my goal to turn out at least three more Ares Project short stories this year. We’ve got a long list of ideas for these, including one gimmick that lends itself to an ongoing series of related stories. I’m also making a goal to publish Ghosts of Tharsis by the end of the year, if our work schedules permit it.

Covers

Sarah Hoyt offers some advice on cover design for independent publishing: Of Covers and Sales.

I’ve never been entirely happy with the cover for In the Shadow of Ares, mainly because it’s a landscape with no explicit connection to the events of the novel. This is mainly the result of wanting to get the thing out the door without further procrastination – I was worried that if we looked around for an artist and went through that whole process, it would involve another six months of fiddling and dawdling.

So, I did it myself.

It’s attractive, but the problem is that it tells you nothing about the book itself and perhaps gives the impression that it’s meant as a mainstream rather than young-adult book. When it comes time to publish Ghosts of Tharsis, if not before, we’ll have to redo the cover — there are only so many suitable pictures of Iceland-as-Mars in my photo archive, so if we can get some of our stories and sequels finished, we’ll quickly run out of those options anyway.

But I Don’t Even *Like* Cats: Blake Snyder’s Template

To put it mildly, I was disappointed when I read this article and the associated sidebar: Save the Movie!

Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.

Not just because it explains the poor quality of Hollywood writing of late, nor that it made me feel like a sucker for having paid to see some of these formula-based movies, nor that my vague suspicions about the plots being formulaic to the point of predictability turned out to be have a basis in fact No, it’s that just as we’re finishing up the detailed outline for Ghosts of Tharsis (aka Book 2, aka The Sequel) after a prolonged delay, I discover that our outline follows the sequence of Snyder’s template almost perfectly.

Which is unintentional, I assure you. It’s been through so many changes (including a recent retooling of one of the villains, with significant consequences for the plot) that it could only have gotten this similarity by coincidence. Yes, admittedly, we follow Syd Field’s three-act storytelling structure, but as the article says Field’s approach is more general while Snyder’s is essentially a paint-by-numbers approach.

I suspect that despite being overused or too zealously followed, Snyder’s template isn’t simply a contrived or otherwise arbitrary way to tell a story, in the sense that it’s just one of many possibilities but one which Snyder picked and systematized. More likely, his structure reflects one particularly effective way of telling stories, one which maintains tension and interest by springing surprises and emotional ups and downs on the reader, and which has evolved and refined into a pattern over time.

The problem is not that there’s this pattern for storytelling, it’s that it appears to be taken as the only such recipe and is adhered to so diligently that every movie seems to be the same story distinguishable only by differences in the setting, character, and marquee names. Slavish adherence to a formula (down to actual page numbers) limits the opportunity to include real creativity, and as the article notes, can actually drive plot elements and character behaviors that make no sense.

Really, I’m not too put out by the resemblance of our outline to this template. It’s entirely coincidental, for one thing, and it follows only the general sequence and not the portioning out of page counts. Plus, we blatantly violate the Finale and Final Image sections so as to set up the third book, so there’s that…

Grasshopper Flight Test

Watching this, I had to wonder what it would have been like had NASA done something like this with a Saturn V first stage back in the day…

What I find especially interesting and useful about SpaceX’s Grashopper effort is the applicability to Mars landers and (later on) surface-orbit shuttles – which is probably the long-term point of the exercise, given Elon Musk’s interests. If you picture this vehicle spread out at the base a bit more into a conical shape, you’ve got the Ares Project ERVs. Scale them up a little bit more from there, and you’ve got the MDA’s surface-orbit shuttles.  Add an Orbiter-sized payload bay, and you’ve got the new cargo shuttles which will make their appearance early in Ghosts of Tharsis.

Of course, the obvious problem this technology poses for In the Shadow of Ares is that this testbed is actually a better pilot than Daniel Martinez. Granted, he had no alternative under the circumstances but to deactivate the autopilot and land Odysseus himself (and succeeded), but his accuracy was somewhat less impressive than what’s shown here.