My novel Timefield, a science fiction time travel romp around genre, comes out on March 31. Ahead of that, there’s a pre-publication giveaway on Goodreads – it’s open now and runs for 3 weeks. The idea, as always, is to try to find those people who would most love to read a story like this. So if time travel stories are your thing, hard science fiction even more, and if Nikola Tesla, Queen Victoria, and railguns in the same book sound like a winner, check it out, or pass it on to whatever friend you just thought of who might dig it. The universe will send you good karma 🙂
There aren’t many authors whose works I automatically purchase without question, but Ted Chiang is one of them. His stories are thread-pulls on natural philosophy, able to shift a paradigm and play it out. It’s the best kind of science fiction. When I read his work, I feel as though I have another track running on my life, one that’s probing at the fabric of how we all think and reason.
If I’m waxing too lyrical, I think it’s granted. I read somewhere that Chiang doesn’t write much, but what he does write is worth reading. I discovered him when I walked into Pulp Fiction bookstore in Brisbane many years back and said I wanted a recommendation for short stories. The staff member that day handed me a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others. Thank you, sir, wherever you are. Stories felt to me an intimate outing into other realities. I bought it, I read it, I’ve recommended it to many.
This second collection, Exhalation, has a more sweeping feel, exploring larger questions but with the same delicate touch. The titular story, echoing with a particular melancholy in its resolution, I found the most poignant, almost uncomfortable in its allegory to entropy. “Omphalos”, which imagines a world in which creation is evidenced in fact, I found the most conceptually interesting. “The Great Silence” contained the most poetic connections. But singling out these does the others a disservice; in nine stories there is time travel, AI, memory augmentation, faith, quantum mechanics, and many other subjects. All are about those things, and also not really about them. What’s perhaps best is how each story is a fiction capable of reorienting attention in a way that adds dimension and beauty to what’s already here. And we could all use a hellava lot of that.
Recommended to science and engineering nerds everywhere. I give Exhalation 5 stars.
I just read the new Jack Reacher book Blue Moon, though naturally the title isn’t necessary, nor does it really relate to the book in any way except for a random line of dialogue. Jack Reacher stories I’ve read before, though not for a while. I stopped for a few reasons. Go look at goodreads and you’ll find the usual criticisms. Formulaic. Unrealistic. And for this one, the murderous vigilante turn of JR himself. Sounds like a good summer read to me, but safe to say Lee Child is not regarded as high art. But this is a craft analysis, not a review, not a critique. These books work for a reason. And as a teacher of mine used to say, if you don’t understand what works, you’ll never get why things do well. Let’s look at one really critical thing about Lee Child’s craft, which is how he does action/fight scenes.
At most writers conferences (even the romance ones) I see a session on the program about writing fight scenes. Sometimes there’s talk about short sentences, which is either good advice (because short sentences create a sense of urgency and rapid change) or bad advice (because so many full stops actually slows down reading and makes it seem slower, not faster). This contradiction is a natural part of what’s known as practitioner’s lore (North), and every writer is familiar with it. Every craft principle has a contradiction, an exception. I wrote paragraphs in my PhD on it. I won’t here.
Lee certainly uses the short sentence rule. Often the short sentence fragment rule.
Abby’s phone rang. She answered. Vantresca. She put him on speaker. She walked with her phone out in front of her, carried flat on her hand.Blue Moon, p. 246
They couldn’t stand on the corner like they were hailing a taxi. Not if exposure was their main concern. Reacher looked all around. Unpromising.Blue Moon, p. 247
The short sentences are p-p-p-pow. It’s a little frenetic, certainly noticeable. But it’s not what I want to pull out of what Child does. It’s what the action/fight scenes actually contain, which is pretty little in terms of actual blow trading. Most of it is thinking: information and processing. Reacher’s observations. Reacher’s rationale about what is happening. His predictions.
They retraced their steps. Two turns. Back to the steel hatch. Abby held her phone close to a hinge. It looked like a quality item. Forged steel. A glassy surface. But no trace of grease or oil. Unpredictable. The hatch had no handle. Not as such. Just two thick hoops for the bolt to lock into. Reacher hooked his finger through one of them. In his mind, he rehearsed what he would do next, either fast or slow. The hatch would be hidden on the inside by some kind of camouflage. Nothing too fancy. Nothing that would have involved visible workers. Nothing …Blue Moon, p. 337
You get the idea. The actual action takes about half the space of the preparation for action in this sequence. And the action itself is often foregone: Reacher will prevail. This goes against a lot of conventional wisdom for how to develop tension in a story. To actually put the protagonist in danger, or at least, the people they care about. That isn’t really what happens in this novel. I don’t remember that happening in a couple of earlier Reachers I read either.
I think that it works because the pleasure of Jack Reacher is in watching him machinate through his tactics like greased code. We are treated to seeing what a clever and skilled man he is (while simultaneously professing to be so very of the people), and so most of the action/fight scenes are deeply rooted in him working it out. It’s the police procedural of action. Seeing him hypothesise creates anticipation, which is perhaps the most critical thing that a story must do. And anticipation can’t just be about not knowing what will happen – it’s far more specific than that. We must have some idea of the likelihood and consequences. And that’s what this does (and not to devalue Lee’s writing here – you need the rest of the story to build the world that contextualises those consequences).
Anyhoo, in this context of lots of thinking, the short rapid fire sentences seem to function in both the apparently mutually exclusive ways: they slow the action enough to have thoughts, while keeping those thoughts compressed. That’s what you call a paradox, kids. But holding paradoxes in our heads is what makes us human. Nicely played, Mr Child.
In the few cases where you do get paragraphs of blow by blow action, they’re pretty boring tbh. Which might be why we don’t get many.
So, learning from the Lee Child school of craft? Action is about anticipation, and that’s far more about what’s doing between the ears than what’s doing with the hands and feet.
This Sunday Circle is an initiative of Peter M Ball (see here for this week’s). I don’t get to it every week, but this is one of those weeks, so here we go.
What am I working on this week?
Last time I posted for the Sunday Circle, I was just about to submit my thesis. That did, indeed, happen the next day. And the day after that, I had a conversation with my publisher that ended our ongoing relationship. This was not exactly the plan, as you can perhaps imagine. And while I think honestly it’s for the best, the timing was bloody awful. I mean, if I was going to plot a shit week for a character, this is probably what I would do. The main problem was that I had planned to take nice little mental break after submitting the PhD, having just managed to complete the biggest project I’ve ever taken on. Instead, I went to the RWA conference (my planned break) in a kind of haze, wondering what way to turn and what to do now. It was not a nice experience. I’ve chosen to view it as the universe giving me a kick up the arse to do something very different, but I no one enjoys a kick up the arse.
Fast forward a couple of months to now. In a week, I’m starting a new job. Teaching is winding up. Amongst that, I am working on a book, just that writing is taking a back seat like it hasn’t in the seven or so years since I became a “professional” (by which I mean actually being paid, if not often job-level paid) novelist. I used to believe really strongly that if I was professional, and reliable, and always delivered to deadline, then it would somehow insulate me from writerly misfortune. I stayed up nights when I should not have. I missed recuperating from the early weeks and months with my son when I should not have, just to ensure I turned in those books. And in the end, those things didn’t protect me at all.
So, when I said last time that I was wiped out, it’s not just the wipe out of putting in the thesis, it’s for the last nearly 5 years of delivering books under immense sleep and personal deprivation. I’m proud of all my books. I’m glad I wrote them. But there is now a necessary time when I’m not making that my first priority. I have books already out on submission, and we’ll see what happens.
So, what I really have to do this week is close out the teaching calendar, and practice actually recuperating. It’s foreign, but I’m good at learning new things.
What’s inspiring me this week?
I’ve been reading Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. A lot of it is quite lovely when reading, but I find I have to put it down often. Otherwise, one of those Lowd billboards I saw last week that said, ‘I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted a paycheck.’ That about sums up things right about now.
What action do I need to take?
Just the bare essentials.
A while back, my writing bud Bek and I did a series of fun movie reviews for the Escape blog, complete with witty meme art and good-natured snark. Here’s all of them in one place, because I’m feeling a bit of nostalgia today. THEY ALL CONTAIN SPOILERS. You have been warned. But fun, loads of fun.
This Sunday Circle is an initiative of Peter M Ball (see here for this week’s). I don’t get to it every week, but this is one of those weeks, so here we go.
What am I working on this week?
Well, the big news is that the THESIS IS DONE*. Which is to say that the document is done … the actual submission is being thwarted by the university sending its submission system down for the ENTIRE WEEKEND. Of course! What other weekend would it be? So, this week, my first order of business (after the family responsibilities) is to actually submit the document, and then do the other eleventy million steps in the process. But otherwise, done.
Other than that, there’s not a heap on this week, for good frickin reason. I’m done. Wiped out. I need to prepare to teach all day Tuesday (after which, wipe-out will be complete) but after that I plan on taking a day to clean the house, before heading to Melbs for the RWA conference. There, I plan to do very little except recharge, eat Poke bowls (which we cannot get in Brisbin**), and make some hat tip moves towards the next project.
*where follows my usual nod to the gods of hubris not to punish me too harshly for such declarations.
**I was somewhat chuffed when listening to the audiodrama of William Gibson’s Alien III to find New Brisbane (pronounced bris-BANE, rather than the local norm bris-bin) mentioned as an actual place. I’m intrigued what set of future calamities/fortunes have elevated dear Brisbane into galactic significance. I mention this here because I didn’t in the blog.
What’s inspiring me this week?
People who manage to take time out of their lives to actually do the things they want to do, rather than just talking about it. Also, the 10% Happier app (an off-shoot of Dan Harris’s 10% Happier which I read a year or two back). The app was recommended to me by Andrea Featherstone, who I met at the EWF in Melbs a few weeks ago. I’m reflecting a lot on how I make decisions, and how I go forward from here, especially now the thesis is done. Where to go next isn’t straightforward in creative writing (and never has been anyway) … it’s not like there’s academic posts just waiting to be filled, and the industry avenues don’t come with anything resembling a reliable income. I’m thinking very seriously (but in a much less panicked way than normal) about what the best move is now.
What action do I need to take?
Be patient. Go through submission when the site comes back up. Take the pause I’ve declared I’m taking this week. And then, do the next thing.
In the last few posts, I’ve made a couple of references to sequels, and how sometimes they are disappointments (which is a very mild and expletive-free way of putting it). Most (all?) sci-fi fans in my circle agree that the Alien franchise lost its way with Alien 3 and that other terrible one that came after, and the one after that. You know, the one with Winona Ryder as an android. And the other one, with Michael Fassbender. As an android.
We argue the relative problems and merits with different degrees of ferocity, but there’s a lingering disappointment of where the story went. Neatly writing off Corporal Hicks and Newt at the start of Alien 3 is the kind of narrative cop-out that fans notice. We know it’s because those actors weren’t on board, or were fired. Or something like that.
But with Alien, the fans have always known that it wasn’t meant to be this way. There was another script. Actually, there were a whole host of other scripts, a revolving door of screenwriters and script doctors, variously fired or quit along the way, such that Alien 3‘s status as a true camel (in the horse-built-by-committee sense) is hardly a surprise. The first of those scripts, the original one, it was written by William Gibson, legendary cyberpunk author and still a writer who I can remember thinking of as ‘king of cadence’. But I digress.
This, being the 40th anniversary year of Alien saw the release of an Audible original audiobook recording of Gibson’s Alien III script. This was originally meant to be the first of two movies, the first where Hicks becomes the protagonist and Ripley takes a bit-part only role, before returning for a more central role in the fourth installment.
And that’s exactly what the script audiodrama feels like. It feels like Alien 2.5, a set of events that take place after the Sulaco violates the space territory of a break-away, communist-style people. It holds a palpable sense that the xenomorph as an organism now released from its Pandora’s box, a status that might be impossible to reverse.
Even though this is a short script (only about 2 hours listening time – and the first 10 mins a recap of Aliens), there are also clear signals as to other forms of spread (other than the egg-embryo seen in the first two films), the xenomorph’s adaptable DNA, its possible history as the end product of someone else’s arms race, and where the fourth movie was supposed to go. There is mention of black goo and various other states of the alien, which I found really surprising … I mean, that’s the confusing-as-batshit stuff in Prometheus, right? The stuff that seemed to come out of nowhere??
I actually wondered then if someone consulted Gibson’s script when they were writing Prometheus. Hell, the unholy mess of that movie would have made a hell of a lot more sense if they’d made Gibson’s script instead of the junk in Alien 3. Gibson’s Alien III manages to dance that line between not having all the answers (it is a new lifeform being researched after all …), but still remaining clear about the possibilities. In other words, not confusing the crap out of the audience.
Overall, reaching the end of it, I’m a bit sad that this isn’t the script that led to the film. It has such nice continuity with Aliens, honouring the characters that came before while expanding the storyworld. It doesn’t willy-nilly kill children, which I never used to think was an important barometer in film, but I do now. It provided such a nice lead to another outing. And yet, it didn’t get made.
In reading about the tortured path of the script development for Alien 3, there’s a palpable sense that the producers were trying to avoid a re-hash of the first two films. The disappointing thing is that those originality elements are there in Gibson’s script (the expanding of the storyverse’s depth, the hints to the alien’s origins, the set-up for a wholly different fourth film) while preserving the stuff that, let’s be honest, has to goddamn happen in an alien film: the alien gets out and runs amok. So it feels like one of those cases where everyone just fell over themselves. The movie equivalent of second-novel syndrome, perhaps. Who knows.
The plus side is, though, that now we at least have this audio performance of the script, and Michael Biehn is Hicks (as he goddamn should be … and he’s Kyle Reese too, let’s not forget) and Lance Henriksen is Bishop. Those facts alone were enough for me to sweep the TBR pile aside and do this first. If you’re a fan of Alien/Aliens, I recommend doing the same. And dear lords, let them reboot it all with Alien 5, and make the concept art into a living breathing film.
So a few days back, I blogged about The Man From Earth, the sleeper cult hit movie that is easily in my top ten favourite films ever. The original was written by Jerome Bixby, quite the legend in sci-fi circles. The sequel, TMFE: Holocene, is not, and it shows.
Now, to be fair, it’s always a tough ask to follow an excellent movie with a sequel. Only a few manage it (e.g. Alien/Aliens, Terminator/T2), and they have a habit of screwing the whole shebang by thinking two hits equals a never-ending franchise (including long-reach mental-arse prequels … I’m looking at you, Prometheus). I personally choose not to recognise the later Aliens, or Terminators (I have been known to get shouty about Prometheus and Terminator Salvation), and many others should have stopped at one (Predator, Speed … I’m divided on The Matrix). They are mostly not worth mentioning, narratively or otherwise. So Holocene always had the odds stacked against.
And to be honest, I’m somewhat still digesting the film. Why? Well, let’s look at it in two parts, where the first is what the film is.
To begin, it’s slow. The opening 30 mins were super draggy. Once we reached the part where the kids are investigating John, that held a bit more interest, though the film reached for some tropes that I found frustrating (especially the let’s break into a house to find something and almost get caught trope). Overall, the main disappointment for me was that the film sidelined the most interesting thing: John Oldman (now Young) himself. The first film draws all its narrative interest from his discussions with other characters. This movie has almost none of that, except in the horror-esque interrogation scene. As weirdhouse as that was, it was the most interesting part of the film for me. And that turn of events in itself was disappointing … it was as if the writers took the most out-there, most extreme idea from the first film and decided to run with it to its unadulterated end. I mean, the whole “he was Jesus” thing was like the narrative pinnacle of the first film, that touch point that had to be cautiously approached lest the whole story descend into too much in-your-face – basically losing that tiny element of doubt. Holocene instead chooses to embrace the in-your-faceness, which after the first film’s strength of all it implied rather than showed, felt heavy-handed. Evidence of that lack of gentle touch was also in the characters … the scantily clad student was one who stood out.
Having said all that, there were things that I did like. The intrigue around John’s apparent aging or changing, and the subtle lines drawn to the state of the Anthropocene perhaps being responsible, was nice. It also gets around that inevitable problem of having a human actor, who definitely ages, playing an immortal! I also liked the subtle capturing of the distress and distancing that immortality creates. Overall though, it was a bit of a disappointment, though a disappointment with an open end, hoping for another film or TV series to come. That ends my Part 1.
Now, having said all that, let’s step back and come at it from Part 2, which is about what the film isn’t. And by that, I mean that it’s all very well to harsh on a creative work for what it is, but a good editor always has fixes to offer, and to be honest, none of the ones I have so far entirely satisfy me.
My initial thought was that a movie that centralised John Oldman (Young) would be superior to one that doesn’t. Perhaps as he attempts to (carefully) investigate his recent changes and apparent aging. Though, that has the disadvantage of needing to perhaps overtly show some things (like tests, perhaps) instead of implying them. My other half also argued that this might make the “humans are responsible for destroying the Earth” theme too heavy-handed, which is fair criticism. I still like this idea, however, along with the opportunity for John to be working with perhaps trusted colleagues from the first film, rather than introducing a whole new cast and contriving the weird antagonism plot with Jenkins, which didn’t feel right to me.
I also recognise that there’s a danger of repeating the first film, if the movie had, say, chosen to have John engage with his students and answer their questions. That would have just been a re-hash with a different group of people, and makes me wonder if the movie chose its direction in part to avoid that that issue.
There’s a myriad other directions that could have been taken. For example, the first film implied that John has had many children. Perhaps a plot that revolved around his clandestinely visiting them (or one in particular) could have worked, and also tied into the aging theme.
Perhaps it’s the range of options that has me pulling back on condemning Holocene completely as a sub-par offering. Being a writer or screenwriter isn’t an easy thing. You choose directions for particular reasons, and sometimes you don’t see the weaknesses in those choices until later. In this case, I do feel the writer/s didn’t appreciate the strengths of the first film, and therefore didn’t try to work with those strengths in a new way. Ultimately, though, I’d like to see more from John Oldman, it’s just I won’t be adding Holocene to my list of favourites. Maybe to the list of teaching tools instead.
A few months back now, I became aware of Apollo 11, a film made from hitherto largely unseen NASA archival footage. At the time, I remember a lot of malarkey, googling around cinemas in Australia trying to find out where it would be playing. An IMAX in Sydney, I seem to remember, and I think I had already missed the dates. So the film’s existence had slipped behind my radar, which had more pressing concerns, bouncing off thesis due dates, momentary diversions into Stan dramas (Younger; The Bold Type) and Netflix rewatching of The Crown … the latter probably to offset the frivolu-fru of the former. In between I’ve been diving into vintage Crichton (for teaching), recommending The Time Ships to my other half, and suffering through some work literary fiction reading (too often stories about carefully observed banality of characters I care very little for … often very well written, but this is not the reason I read fiction. I can find it outside my door).
But, I digress.
About a week ago, the annual marginal benefit of being on the local superplex’s mailing list came through in an email announcing Apollo 11 would appear for a limited run across the anniversary weekend. So today, natch, I fronted up, was summarily reamed with a “special price” (which came with the added detriment of no trailers … one of the reasons I still go to the cinema) and went to see it.
Now, I’ve seen a good deal of footage from the Apollo missions before. I’m also well versed in space movies. The lapsed engineer in me still gets off on Apollo 13, Gravity, and the technical sequences in First Man (while the writer in me gets a little vexed when a thinky biopic goes a little far down its own rabbit hole). So Apollo 11 feels like something that will generate comparisons. And then, there are none. It is genuinely enrapturing, and not in the way I thought.
I mean, yes, the launch footage is fucking incredible. I don’t mind admitting the genuine emotion I get watching those engines fire. I mean, holy hell … the matter screaming out of those things that people designed and built, directing that power to such purpose. It feels so immense, so indescribably ambitious.
And that’s what the film does best … it captures the ambition of Apollo, and of the concert of human effort that made it happen. Of all those thousands of focused man-hours. Control rooms jammed with people. Cathedral workshops crawling with fabricators and technicians. But the other thing about it is that its just … so primitive. I couldn’t watch all those panning shots down rows and rows of ancient computer banks without thinking how stone age technology was then, just 50 years ago. The computer on the LEM stack overflowing as Armstrong and Aldrin made their descent to the surface.
And yet, look what was done. I couldn’t help feeling a keen sense of disappointment at how narrow our ambitions seem to be now, as people of this country, any country. How much capacity we have to work on this kind of problem with starting motivation, and continuing habitual pursuit. Not just in space exploration, but in any endeavour that aims for something beyond the next 4 years.
In any case, if you’re a space buff, I’d recommend catching it while it’s in limited release. It’s worth seeing on the big screen many of the sequences – the launch, the lunar footage, the shots of the control rooms, and the grippingly poetic moments, like the view from a separated stage segment, slowly processing as it falls away from the ship, in a pirouette that eventually brings Earth into view, a blue and white arc. The whole thing is unnarrated, just cleverly assembled 90-ish minutes of footage that follows the mission from beginning to end.
Arguments can always be made about where we should turn our attention and limited resources as a species. But this film isn’t really about that. It’s a demonstration of once fictional dreams brought to life, the embodiment of anti-banality. I was thoroughly captured from start to end.
… and as a point of interest for me (perhaps not to others without experience of oxygen systems) you might notice the dude who follows the astronauts from their prep room to the launch pad. The dude carrying the fire extinguisher. I saw that and thought, look at that, that guy’s there in case one of those three oxygen systems just walking around right now catches fire. The long shadow of Apollo 1. Incidentally, quite useful for my thesis.
I have a slide of characters I use in teaching, a composite of different mugshots from Jar Jar Binks (never fails to generate a groan) to Scarlet O’Hara, Howard Wolowitz to Sarah Connor. There’s a couple of tricky ones in there … Night Owl II is often mistaken for Batman, and the agent from Serenity is often a stumper, but in general in most classes there’s at least someone who knows each face. Except for the one below, a frame taken from the 2007 film The Man From Earth that no one ever seems to have heard of.
Word of this movie came to our house from friends in the UK, and my husband (ever the supplier in new things) bought the DVD. It worked on our old player, and not on the new one, but we have torrent for that now (more about that later). The box has a quote that says, “quietly restores dignity to science fiction of the mind”, and that’s exactly what it is. Set entirely in one man’s living room (with a few scenes outside the house) it’s one of the most deep-dive entwined science fiction history narratives I’ve seen. It pushes all my happy buttons in the concepts, characters and lingering questions. It’s long been in my top 5 favourite movies.
Then a couple of years ago (I say “a couple” and I mean probably more like ten, because of the small human time dilation) we heard Facebook filtered rumours about a sequel. Jerome Bixby, the revered sci-fi creator, had passed away, but director Richard Schenkman was on board. There was a crowd fund. And it was made: The Man From Earth: Holocene
It’s taken until now for me to come back to seeing it. Some of that is just the distribution. You have to know about it to want it. But in this case, the creators actually uploaded it to file-sharing sites, determined that all who wanted to see it would have access. Partly this was recognising that the cult-status and pirating of the first film was a huge part of its success. For us here in Australia, this was good news. Despite having to dust off and have a wrestle with utorrent (and Optus and TPG, who barred access to the file on PirateBay, even though the movie creators had put it there …), I have the movie now. I have duly been back to manfromearth.com to donate to the creators, but I’m now having another revisit about the thinking behind monetising creative products in the digital age … is it only workable for niche/cult products that generate affectionate feelings in us?
I don’t know. And I’m yet to watch Holocene. Opportunity has not yet presented, and to be honest, there’s that little fear of disappointment, like I have for all the Terminators after the second one (and all the Aliens for that matter). But I also find it comforting that good work, work that inspires and satisfies, can be found everywhere, especially off the mainstream road. And that’s why I keep that slide in my teaching classes, because word of mouth is how these things spread. And someone who doesn’t know it yet is going to find something special in John Oldman, too.