Category Archives: Writing

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar - GargantuaI’m posting this review of Interstellar, belatedly, because I felt I had to see it again before commenting on its greatness as well as its few shortcomings. There was just too much to absorb and appreciate in one viewing. I’ll be careful with my wording to avoid spoilers.

Knowing the basic premise— explorers are searching for a habitable home for humanity to save them from a dying Earth, helped by unknown, advanced “bulk beings” who have opened a wormhole near Saturn for our use—I had initial trepidation that I was in for a Climate Change lecture. That notion was dispelled on the first viewing. Sure there’s a dust-bowl type blight that is wiping out crops and threatening what’s left of mankind; but this is just the impetus—the McGuffin if you will—to provide the urgency that drives the action. Some elements leading up to the climax were a bit too contrived for my taste, but overall it’s a great story with a strong cast, tension, and visuals that won’t let anyone down.  The script is excellent, with the exception of one criticism I’ll go into below.

Unlike so many recent Sci-Fi films, this one consistently makes a case for space exploration and advancement. A particularly powerful and effective scene involves a parent-teacher conference where Cooper has to process the absurdity his daughter’s suspension. Murphy’s transgression? She got into a fight after bringing a non-sanitized textbook to school; one that hadn’t been “corrected” to show that the Apollo landings were an elaborate hoax.

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?

Teacher: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…

Cooper: Useless machines?

Teacher: And if we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.

Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI, and if we had one of those left the doctors would have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain, before she died instead of afterwards, and then she would’ve been the one sitting here, listening to this instead of me, which would’ve been a good thing because she was always the…calmer one.

Wow, not the kind of thoughtful dialog you expect in a film like this, but most welcome and expertly delivered.  It’s something we were keen to include in In The Shadow of Ares, and what is so often missing from the anti-human, Luddite drivel we’ve come to expect.  The humor is also excellent, particularly the interaction between the humans and robotic character TARS.

Where I was a little let down by the dialog was during the climax where Cooper solves the mystery of the bulk beings.  Cooper works out the details in a conversation TARS that is perfectly set up to avoid exposition, yet ends up feeling like just that.  Complicated conclusions end up being stated more than worked out. This important scene, and the accompanying dialog, could have been extended slightly and improved greatly.  I have my fingers crossed that this is addressed in the Director’s Cut.

While Interstellar is brilliant on so many levels, it’s the human element that really surprised me.  Ultimately it’s a story about our relationships and obligations to those we love, particularly our children.  Two scenes in particular, between Cooper and Murphy, are perhaps the most powerful I have ever seen.

“Destiny’s Road”

So much potential, and it’s actually pretty decent, but having done some writing of my own since I last read it (July 1997), it suffers in the re-reading.

Don’t get me wrong, the prose is nice, the worldbuilding is interesting (there’s less of the everywhere-is-California feel to this than many of Niven’s other books…I suspect parts of it are even based on Icelandic terrain), and in bits and pieces and then a big data-dump, he gives a bunch of tantalizing detail linking together and fleshing out the Rammer/Heorot/Smoke Ring universe.

It’s just that it had no soul.

I don’t know how else to put it. Jemmy the protagonist goes from place to place, gets up to crazy adventures, but nothing seems to affect him very deeply. For example (spoiler): his wife of twenty seven years dies as a result of a freak accident, and he just shrugs and moves on…as he has with everything else in his life. The character comes across at times as emotionally shallow verging on sociopathic, which is kinda hard to relate to in a protagonist.

And beyond that, from the moment Jemmy makes his escape from the caravan about 40% of the way into the book, the plot goes off the rails. The entire sequence in the Windfarm is baffling, and all through it I was asking myself What is this? Where did this come from? Who gives a crap about this stuff and these people? Am I still reading the same novel? Then they all escape, and Jemmy escapes from the escapees, and then…it’s twenty-seven years later. What? What was the point of that baffling and Brian-in-the-alien-spaceship-like digression? It suffered from the same problem as Prometheus: there was good material, but it seemed like portions of the story necessary for it to make sense had been cut out. Editing may be to blame here – there were a number of glaring editing mistakes (e.g.: stating that Destiny has no polar caps, then a page and a half later referring to Destiny’s polar caps), so perhaps something essential actually did get cut out.

Not Niven’s best work, unfortunately. But I would happily read more stories set in this universe – we’ve already had two novels and a short story concerning the Avalon colony, and the third colony whose information Jemmy is unable to access presumably becomes the Smoke Ring colony, which has figured in two novels. The “hydraulic empire” that has emerged in Earth’s system by the time of Destiny’s Road is seen in “Rammer” (the short story that became A World Out of Time), but is not a positive future. It seems to me that a second Destiny novel would be in order, perhaps one explaining what happened to the Argo and what becomes of the settlements on the Crab after Jemmy does what he does at the end of the first novel. Or possibly a prequel, covering the events of the arrival of the original settlers, the mutiny, the collapse of Base One, etc. Or maybe something far into the future, when Destiny has fully matured, Earth technology has been fully recovered, the Otterfolk are somehow made ‘portable’…or another ship from Earth arrives, bearing a detachment of Checkers…

Stuck On Mars With Nothing But Disco

A good column on Andy Weir and The MartianStuck on Mars with nothing but disco: Ars talks with The Martian’s Andy Weir.

What I found surprising was that he actually never worked for NASA – I apparently misread other accounts of his background. I was also astonished by just how much detailed work he put in to calculating orbits and ECLSS functions and such. Sure, it’s clear in the writing that he worked out the math, but when he explains just what went into it behind the scenes his efforts sound like a real design project, the nature of work we did during the proposal phase(s) and initial post-ATP period on Orion.

Reading this reminded me that I need to re-read the book and write up the amusing coincidental points of similarity with In the Shadow of Ares. The most obvious one: disaster striking the third mission of the Ares Project. I’m guessing Weir also concluded that the “first landing” sub-genre is a bit overdone and decided like we did to join the fictional program in medias res.

Re-Reading “Tunnel in the Sky”

I’ve only read Tunnel in the Sky once before, probably in the late 1980s when I first discovered Heinlein. I remember having liked it then, but with some vague misgivings. Reading it again, I can better put my finger on what I did and did not like about the book.

What I liked:

  • The premise of the story. It’s almost shocking to realize that there was a time when the idea of high-school students being dropped on an unexplored planet to fend for themselves for two to ten days – no rules, no adult supervision, no possibility of intervention, and with death as a very real possibility – as a school sanctioned activity, could be presented as a realistic scenario. While in the 1950s this might have been stretching the Boy Scout ethos a bit (a point Patterson makes in his bio of Heinlein), today this element would belong less to science fiction than outlandish fantasy: long before Rod Walker had a chance to apply his chronic, paralyzing angst to the decision of whether or not to go through with the test, Patrick Henry High School would have been sued into insolvency by the first pair of grieving parents to find a lawyer capable of circumventing any liability waivers they or their mulched-by-alien-pirhana-dogs offspring may have signed. I imagined how right-thinking busybodies and helicopter parents would react if you proposed something analogous to this today, and got a good chuckle out of it.
  • Elements of the plot and world that seemed to prefigure/inspire later SF and other media (something else Patterson touches on, I discovered after I wrote this post). For example the titular tunnel, which is essentially a Stargate without the water ripple or the kawoosh effect (luckily for Rod, since he would have been disintegrated by it at one point in the book), but with what amounts to an iris in one case, and subject to the same sorts of misalignment problems presented in the Stargate movie and the first few episodes of the SG-1 series. Also from the Stargate franchise, you have the similarity of the marooned ‘duplicate’ crew of Destiny having to start over with nothing on an unfamiliar planet after their gate is disrupted by a large stellar event, quickly coming to grips with the situation and starting a new government, building the tools to make the tools to make the tools, etc., recovering the ability to make iron (albeit bog iron in the case of SG:U, which is more believable as it mirrors iron development in a number of real-world cultures) — of course, since SG:U was subject to the influence of John Scalzi, I suspect it was more of a lazy knockoff of Heinlein than inspired by him. For another example, stasis fields of varying time-distortion effects – while Heinlein’s stasis fields never reach complete time stoppage like Larry Niven’s do, his description of how they were invented bears some similarity to Niven’s account of their invention in the Known Space universe. And of course, there’s the presentation of the dishonest and manipulative news media at the end of the story, in which journalists are shown to be more concerned with titillating images and lurid stories than presenting the truth of what they’re covering.

What I didn’t like about the book:

  • Rod Walker. What an insufferably neurotic and insecure character. I kept expecting him to learn from his experiences and develop new confidence and grow into his role as ‘mayor’ of the group of survivors paralleling his growth into adulthood. But he just…didn’t. His dinner scene with his family after his return is little different from the dinner scene before he left – he managed a community of 70-odd individuals for more than a year, yet he still can’t stand up for himself against a self-absorbed father who is completely detached from reality, relying once again on his older sister to intervene. (Of course, one can read the portrayal of his parents and his home life as the genesis of those neuroses and insecurities – Rod is barely recognized as an autonomous individual by his parents, everyone is expected to walk on eggshells around his codependent and psychologically delicate mother, his father uses her fragility as a weapon to control the others, the parents are so self-absorbed that they planned to use all of their financial resources to go into stasis for twenty years to await a cure for a disease they never mentioned the father had and without even telling their minor child who they are leaving behind penniless and parentless, etc.)
  • The other characters. Nobody really had any depth, and few were even likable. Heinlein seemed unable to decide whether Grant should be a villain or not, presenting him at first as a sweet-talking sociopath, morphing into Napoleon from Animal Farm, before abruptly turning him into a well-meaning but incompetent leader who sacrifices himself for the survival of the others to atone for the consequences of his lack of foresight and bad decisions. The same with Roy, who is at first Grant’s henchman in Animal Farm tyranny and dislikes Rod for being Grant’s rival, then abruptly becomes pals with Rod (all through the downriver expedition, I expected the newly-chummy but intermittently-sullen Roy to metaphorically unmask and literally stab Rod in the back). And as noted above, the parents are horrible people, as is their “family friend” who is tacked on at the end.
  • The unresolved romantic issues between Rod and Caroline. Yes, I know the reasons why they didn’t end up together (racial sentiments in 1955 would have made the book unsellable, or at least seem so to his publisher, even though – if you pay close attention – both characters are actually black), but it’s unsatisfying that their relationship simply…ends. And isn’t resolved even in the epilogue.
  • The numerous abandoned plot, character, technology, or world elements. While it didn’t quite reach Star Trek levels, it was frustrating to have some element built up only to see it dropped abruptly without further development or used in an inconsistent manner. The Deacon was missing parts of three fingers, but later on a character informs us that it was better for Grant to have died from his injuries because unlike on Earth, they lacked readily available replacement/donor limbs. In the first few days, before anyone even knows they’re marooned, one of the students is stalking and killing the others, yet this whole matter is dropped abruptly after Jack explains how she acquired Rod’s knife – wouldn’t someone in that situation at least be a bit put off by the thought that a fellow student who (if Johann and his dog count as the first victims) was murdering the others within the first few hours of the test, for no other reason than to take their gear? If the point was to hit the theme about humans being more dangerous than any alien predators they might encounter, the opportunity was wasted by leaving that thread so poorly resolved. Likewise, why spend so much time on the downriver expedition and the discovery of the beach of bones and the abandoned cliff dwellings without then following up on the significance of those things? Yes, I can connect the dots and guess that the dopey joes stampeded the herds to the salt sea and then ate them on the beach while the animals were trapped and weakened from thirst, but the cliff dwellings and the implications of their existence were completely wasted…we’re teased with the idea of sentient aliens, and then that idea is developed no further and their fate is left unresolved. So many Chekhovian guns are hung on the wall and left unfired at the end of the story that I have to wonder if there isn’t a much, much longer original version from which the published version was haphazardly cut.

Overall, not Heinlein’s best work. But not his worst, either, as it’s still a passably entertaining read (if you don’t read it closely enough to frustrate yourself the way I did). According to Patterson Heinlein wrote the book in one month, and I think it shows in lack of attention to detail. From what Patterson relates of Heinlein’s writing practices, Tunnel in the Sky reads as if he had a bunch of well-developed world-building material on hand and a solidly-developed gimmick, and hastily strung a story around it all to meet a deadline.

Re-Reading “The Giver”

I’ve been re-reading much of my SF collection over the past couple of months, and am currently on Lois Lowry’s The Giver. And I’m even more impressed with it than I was the first time I read it.

What strikes me this time around is her use of language. On the surface, the book is written at an age-appropriate level for the primary target audience (teens). But she uses that age-appropriate language to convey bigger themes and subtle nuances that you would never find in (say) a Nancy Drew mystery. I kept catching myself thinking over some surprisingly sophisticated idea she’d just conveyed, realizing that I had picked it up without consciously noticing it, and then reading back over the preceding paragraphs to see exactly how she’d done it.

You can look at this book as a complement to Heinlein’s juveniles. Heinlein conveyed to a similar audience a number of similar themes (I read both The Giver and the juveniles as pro-liberty, pro-individual – whether or not that is Lowry’s intention or reflective of her philosophical alignment), but did so in a more overt way, one stylistically appropriate to the action/adventure-focused nature of his stories.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I heard it was pretty weak by comparison to the book – which is to be expected, given the themes and the way they play out in the latter. But I highly recommend the book, even to adults – and especially to adults who want to write for the teen or young-adult markets.

Cognitive Dissonance

Sci-Fi’s Hottest New Writer Won’t Tell You the Sex of Her Characters

The book contains a noteworthy social/political message, which is why it merits discussion, and why it is being brought to your attention, and why you should read it.

Until people mock it for being propaganda.

At which point said message is downplayed as a minor element, one you don’t even notice, mere decoration really, with no relevance to the plot, easily ignored in fact — no, no, the storytelling is why you should read it.

I’ll take this as an indication that I ought to skip this one. Along with the fact that it won a Hugo.

 

 

Heinlein Biography – Review

Just finished reading the second volume of William H. Patterson, Jr.’s authorized biography of Heinlein.

I suspect the book would have been better had it been divided into two volumes. Each of the as-published volumes cover roughly forty years of Heinlein’s life, but there was so much to cover in the latter forty that Patterson can’t go into as much detail on some matters as I would have liked to see.

Or indeed that I expected to see, given his subject. He spends far too much space on topics incidental to Heinlein’s writing (his involvement with blood drives in particular), and far too little on the major novels. He mentions them largely in passing – incidental to detailed recountings of conflict with publishers and agents, thorny editing issues, disagreements over royalties, and other business minutiae. What I expected to see was more detail about the origins of each of his books (or at least the major ones) – not merely that he sat down to write, a month later had 150,000 words, had to cut it to 100,000, changed the name to “[published title]”, wrangled with Mrs. Dalgleish again, and it was finally released on such-and-such date. And while we’re presented with a meticulous recitation of the events and experiences of Heinlein’s later life, there’s little effort to explain the significance of those events and experiences to him – for example, we are given a summary of the trips detailed in Tramp Royale, and told that they altered his views on socialism, world government, etc., but the specific influence those experiences had on Heinlein’s writing (influences any observant reader can perceive at some level if they’ve read both his fiction and travelogues) aren’t explored in depth.

Patterson gives us the facts and figures, but little of the magic of the process. What were the inspirations for each major story and book? Who inspired the various characters? What were some surprising changes made to these elements during writing and subsequent editing? There are small tastes of these things, but not enough.

Nor do we learn much of the process’ workings – we learn a few bits and pieces about how Heinlein worked (as a chronic index-card user, I found that part of his process interesting), but without enough detail or examples to see a clear picture of how he employed those bits and pieces.

My biggest hope for the book was that Patterson would reveal whether there was a book in the works to follow To Sail Beyond the Sunset, but he doesn’t (which isn’t necessarily a critique of Patterson). He does suggest that any follow-on book would have been a further tying-together of Heinlein’s other works under the “World as Myth” theme, and as described Heinlein was not able to work again after Sunset was completed, but surely there were notes or cards giving some more detailed indication of what the book would have been about. (My guess has always been that it would have been focused on Ira Johnson.)

Despite these shortcomings, it’s still an interesting read for any Heinlein fan.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2- The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988.

The Evil League of Evil is Given Pious Advice

John C. Wright gives a certain molting vulture the (very genteel) back of his hand.

It’s a pity more people don’t write this way. And it’s funny that you won’t see people on the other side of the argument doing so – too few opportunities for dropping f-bombs, and it’s an unsuitable style for using “Riiight?”, “Seriously?”, “I can’t even”, “Wow, just wow”, and the other mindless catchphrases that make up so much of their attempts at communication.

Review: The Martian

I recently finished The Martian by Andy Weir.   I knew little about it, hadn’t read any reviews, and wasn’t expecting much.  In fact, I was ready to be disappointed. 

When we decided to write In the Shadow of Ares, we intentionally set it on a developed Mars.  For my part, I thought the story of a few astronauts and a dead planet had been done to death, with predictably mediocre results. 

I’ve never been so wrong.  This book is fantastic. 

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when the rest of the Ares III crew have to evacuate for Earth shortly into their mission.  He is thought to be dead, and with no functioning communications and almost no food, his prospects are bleak. What he does have, though, is a mountain of ingenuity and a great sense of humor that give him a fighting chance.

The Martian is highly technical, but so funny and suspenseful that it should be accessible to nearly anyone (the language is genuine—and salty—so it’s not for all). Despite the bulk of the story consisting of the narration of the protagonist, the voice of that character is more than strong enough to carry the story along, and it doesn’t hurt that the pacing and suspense are outstanding.  I did have a few technical and editorial criticisms, but they are too insignificant to describe in detail here.

This is one of the most creative and enjoyable books I have ever read, and I recommend it highly.

Larry Correia and the Hugo Nominations

This is interesting:  An Explanation About the Hugo Awards Controversy

Larry is an awesome writer. No question. But damn – he writes more in a single blog post than I manage to write in a whole day of dedicated writing. Makes me jealous.

The shorter short version of the linked article is that he’s exposed the hypocrisy of the left-leaning SF/F crowd regarding its bias against and exclusionary habits towards those with whom it disagrees. It’s delicious.