Sunday, January 16, 2005

Eternity has residuals

Nice coincidence. The same week The Core shows up on cable, I find out "unobtanium" is in the Wikipedia entry on fictional chemical substances. It includes the word's derivation and specific historical reference, (which is why I used it in the first place). Neat.

I still mourn the poor treatment of that movie. Second week of the war, same week as THREE other movies (thank YOU, Paramount), and in a greater sense, suffering by association with the other shitty, bad science sci-fi movies Hollywood chokes out. But I'll stack it up against the acting and story in any other sci-fi movie, period. Eckhardt freaking out and Hilary Swank BANGING her head against the chair when she has to let someone die and Tucci -- the frikkin TUCC, people -- saying goodbye to Delroy Lindo ... there's some old-school science-hero acting chops going on in there. There are moments in other disaster sci-fi movies where main characters die, and you still don't even know their frikkin' NAMES an hour into the flick. I will be eternally in debt to Jon Amiel and that cast for making that movie what it is.

Taking the writing off-ramp, it is I will admit a character weakness of mine that I still steam when I see some reviewer chuckle over the scientific inaccuracies in the movie, and then support their argument with examples of things which are fantastical, but in fact true. I have made some rather, ah, dubious choices when caught in that fever. If you know what I mean.

Although I'm as big a fan of hard sci-fi as anyone -- Lucifer's Hammer is literally what made me get my degree in physics -- I can't help but wonder about the, well, sourness of tone it's brought to the sci-fi community. Somehow, being able to show your work in excruciating detail is no longer something which sets you apart as a cool book (or movie), or just some facet of your writing style, but now seems to be the minimum entrance requirement to avoid scorn.

Is it some insecurity on our part as science fiction fans that being able to point to the real science somehow justifies our interest as more intellectual than fantasy-based? And therefore somehow more "legitimate"? This defense mechanism isn't entirely unjustified, by the way, thanks to the ghettoization of genres, brought about by a great degree by insecure critics. Nice vicious circle ...

Isn't the science in science fiction supposed to be the jumping off point? Are we losing a whole new generation of dreamers? When I read sci fi as a kid, I didn't want to read about what was possible. I read about THE IMPOSSIBLE, and then dreamed about how to get there. Knowing there may be real-world tools to achieve that impossible is keen, but not inspiring. And to me, regardless of genre, what a good story does is inspire.

There are authors who handle integrating real-world tech into their stories as jumping off points masterfully -- Warren Ellis, of course, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling come to mind. But I'm afraid that so much of the techo-speak in genre books comes across as masturbation, and in my opinion, somehow undercuts what we're supposed to be doing as storytellers. Again, my opinion, and feel free to tell me I'm insane. This isn't even limited to sci-fi. The spy thriller is infected with the same buzz-kill fun-hunting virus.

I adore Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, with its endless discussions of terraforming and tensile strength of space elevator cables. But is it really better sci-fi than Asimov's Foundation trilogy, with its atomic priests? Is a Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, which dedicated an ENTIRE CHAPTER to field-stripping an MP-5, really a better spy novel than Goldfinger?

You know what? Fuck the math. I want my warp drive and laser watch.


Anonymous said...

I was two inches away! TWO INCHES!!

...I love that movie, John.

- Robbo

Anonymous said...

I think that thing about scifi is that people won't mind if something is completely made up if it FEELS real. Or at least likely. The problem is that suspension of disbelief has to be earned, and isn't just granted at the opening credits.

The other thing, though (and this really speaks to the Clancy books), is that people like to feel like they're maybe learning something from this stuff. In this weird world of endless input and information, it's cool to walk away from a Clancy novel and feel like you actually have some new information that you can drop at the water cooler.


Sizemore said...

Hey John,

I think you'll get a kick out of The Biology of B Movie Monsters.

The Fathom archive is full of time destroying stuff like that.

My two cents: I always have and always will love King of the Rocket Men. Try and tell me that it's dumb that he only has UP and DOWN controls and I'll kick you in the balls.

Nobius said...

Great post. Stephen King said it the best in my line, "Story is more important than plot." Or in this case, "Story is more important than the details." And I love hard core sci-fi as well as Star Wars and Star Trek.

Crow T Autobot said...

I didn't see The Core in theaters, but I regret that now. I got burnt out on the whole "disaster" flick thing, so I didn't bother. When you were mentioned as the TF writer, I rented it, and will probably buy it later. What I didn't realize from the trailers was that it felt like a melding of two of my favorite old films as a kid: Fantastic Voyage(1966) and Journey to the Center of the Earth(1959, and all of the other incarnations too).
There are a few things that had me scratching my head, but they didn't keep my from enjoying the story or characters.

I think I would have liked "Unobtainium" more if I'd been in on the joke ahead of time. Without knowing that it's a science in-joke, it sounds like you couldn't think of anything else, and used that as a placeholder until you got a better idea.

Part of me wishes that the center of the earth had a hollow area with dinosaurs. :-)

Fantastic Voyage, now there's a film ripe for remake potential. But nooooo. We get a remake of Tron, a film that still works as is.

Scott said...

Wonderful post John! I couldn't agree more. There are times when I'm in the midst of reading some review, or discussing some sci-fi tidbit with friends or family and I can't help but wonder myself what happened to people dreaming and letting their imaginations run wild. It's as if people have lost all touch with that inner child that used to get all euphoric when they would see a falling star, or gaze at one of the planets in our solar system through a telescope for the first time, or any other number of "first moments". It's almost as if people have allowed what they have learned and experienced over the years to brainwash them instead of enhance and broaden their minds, completely losing touch with that kid inside that just keeps wondering and dreaming about what could be.

The more that happens, the more I fear dreams will cease to exist.

Anyway, thanks for that post. Looking forward down the line to seeing your treatment of Transformers on the big screen! I really enjoyed "The Core", which I just rented and watched over the weekend finally! It was a pleasant surprise and great sci-fi entertainment!


1031 said...

Still haven't seen The Core, I'm sorry to say. I've been meaning to ask my roommate to pick it up for me (she works at a Blockbuster), but I never remember to do so.

All this sci-fi speak has gotten me even more jazzed about the data being sent back from Titan. Have you seen the pictures yet? This is great.

I still remember sitting at my computer pouring through the info as it came from when the rover first landed on Mars. Seeing that landscape, bright and in color, it all felt so immediate.

Having been born in '78, I missed the excitement about the Apollo missions, but I like to think that Mars evoked a similar feeling in me.

That feeling of wonder and excitement has definitely been missing in most sci-fi stories as of late.

Rogers said...


I agree, it does have to "feel" real. I can't remember which writer said it, but there's a lovely little phrase -- "an accretion of detail." But my problem is, and this is from experience of trying to convey this stuff to both audiences and studio execs (who are, by the way, notoriously poorly read), is that most people think they know much more than they actually do. Often I think the writers who live on the edge bring fringe-y shit back, and forget that it's much farther out than most people are familiar with. And, therefore rejected instinctively.

Couple that with what I am convinced is a serious societal issue among genre fans, this need to pick stuff apart to show superiority, and you have legitimate problem in the art form.

As for your second point, yes, I do like to think I learned something. Something. But -- and I read THE HISTORY OF SALT, for crissake -- when I hit my third chapter with little plot and character and more technobabble, that's more than just being entertainingly informative. That's just technoporn.

And congrats on getting your first bit of hate mail, by the way. I had an identical situation last year -- I love how when some guy OUT OF THE BLUE develops a hatred for you, a person he's never met, then takes the time to write down his hatred, and sends this missive off, when you take the three seconds to Google them to see if it's a buddy jerking you around, they get all "OOoooh you weird STALKERY guy!" Do not engage. He is a loser. You are not. Move on.

Anonymous said...

Well i always preferred the sf made by people who know little to nothing about science. Philip k. Dick for chrissakes... I agree with you that it's a kind of frige-societal thing to pick this stuff apart. What you pointed out about clancy is the exact same reason i can't read him. To me, Greg Rucka's books are just Clancy without all the crap cluttering up the story. And while i love Ellis, Sterling, and Stepehenson; i always just accepted the stuff in their books whether or not it was realistic. I honestly think the stories can be done just as well by fudging the damn science and getting on with it.

Anonymous said...

The state of the art is on fire…

I also prefer sci-fi produced by the dilettante but techno-powered stories also have their place. After some initial resistance, I now consider them a natural evolution of the art form. Lets face it; audiences are way more sophisticated than ever. And we all like feeling smart (even if we aren’t). And hey, Science and Technology are fun (except when they’re not).

I’m sure everybody here is familiar with last year’s time travel head-trip, Primer. The brainchild of Sun Dance darling and first-time filmmaker Shane Carruth, Primer is a deft mix of technoporn and O-Henry worthy twists. It’s loaded with heavy (semi plausible) jargon but still vastly entertaining, (if not immediately accessible).

On the other hand, if Grant Morrison is right, Hollywood is the last frontier where BS can still transform into cash…

Take the Hulk for example; the pseudo-science in that film muddled the first act almost completely. What was it they were working on, gamma-flavored nanotechnology? And that related to a 15 foot green giant how? I’ll take Stan Lee’s version any day; gamma bomb straight up, no chaser.

The Governor’s Son

Anonymous said...

Gotta say, the whole nitpicking of the science of various films gets to me as well, on another level besides the lack of dreaming...

Why do people complain when the science is bad but the characters compelling, but so many fewer gripe when the science is great but the characters dull? I can deal with as much unreal science as you want, as long as I give a darn about the characters and their motivation.

It kind of makes you wonder what sort of criticism would be leveled against books and movies that are considered classics, if they had the Internet to deal with.

1031 said...

I'll admit, I nitpick certain films. I think everyone does to a certain extent, but when it comes to some of the more science-heavy stuff, the technoporn, if you will, I usually just let whatever they say slide. No idea if it's plausible or completely made up. As long as it makes sense in the confines of the story, I'm good to go.

And I consider myself relatively well-read, especially amongst the sci-fi genre, but I wouldn't begin to fathom if half the stuff Sterling or Stephenson wrote is real or not. It's real because the story says it is, period.

Speaking of sci-fi and technoporn, Richard Morgan, I've discovered, is very good at entertaining while explaining. Granted, I've only read his first book so far, but, and I think this is true of every story set in the relatively distant future, when you're reading something that takes place five hundred years from now, or however many, technology has, more often than not, greatly surpassed anything that remotely resembles present reality.

When you can download your consciousness onto a little disk at the base of your skull and then, if your body dies, just get downloaded into someone else's body (because they're not using it because they've been uploaded out of their bodies and into cyber prison)...things like that, you just shrug your shoulders, say "ok" and move on.

As long as the writer makes it make sense in his world, then that's all that should really matter.

Rogers said...

I just started reading Morgan's stuff. I love how he shifts genre each novel. I'll toss the links up in the main page when I have some time.

Andy said...

For me, the trick to good science fiction is to take some "out there" idea, which at face value may have little or no credibility in a real world context, and treat that idea in such a way as to lend it credibility. The "lie" has to feel 100% completely and totally realistic, supported by hard scientific facts, so as to trick the average person into accepting it as truth, regardless of how unbelievable the premise might seem.

You Global Warming.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with the sentiments of this post. Sometimes I feel like I'm banging my head against a brick wall when confronted with people who can't suspend their disbelief for a measly two hours.

That sort of ties in with The Core when you hear reactions like "OMG, the ship has no wheels!!! It can't possibly steer!!11!!1!". Truly depressing.

I liked all the charcters in that movie. Even the arrogant Dr. Conrad Zimsky (who by all rights should have been a standard Mr Evil). To make each death an actuall loss is a standard of character writing I hope to see brought over to the upcoming Transformers movie.

Can anyone tell me what a "TUCC" is?

PS: Oh, and I even liked the uber-feminist (not the right description but I think you'll get what I mean). Any writer should compare that strong independent female character to the Kate Brewster horror show (of T3) in order to recieve an education in this area. How the T-100 resisted the urge to punch her lights out is anyones guess. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I forgot to leave my amazing name.


Anonymous said...

Oh man, that was far from my first piece of hate mail! I think Don Murphy has a button on his keyboard just to send me nasty letters.

How is that Salt book? I keep meaning to pick it up, but I never get around to it.


Rogers said...

Somehow, and this is a CHUD thing, Tucci's magnificence demanded a regal title. I think Nick first called him "The Tucc" when were out to lunch one time.

Anonymous said...

i wonder what level of technoporn will be permeating our cybertronian warriors' impeccable dialogue...

anyway, it's not bad to be adaptive, or imitative, but paradoxically, if you've an even amiount of that with imagination, you are severly unbalanced, incapable of happiness. one should let his imagination take the lead... with control of course. one honestly can not learn something new if he doesn't try to improvise at times... which requires an innovative mind. such eunuch accountant-types just need smacked. you'd think being a eunuch would be enough in the first place...

Salt_Shaker... The Relevant One.

Anonymous said...

Are you nuts? The Core was terrible. It was neither scientifically accurate (come on, the earth's magnetic field suddenly going away? How do billions of tons of flowing molten iron "suddenly" stop?) nor was the story worth anything. People dying and saying goodbye? That's your idea of a good story? The completely contrived and ridiculous methods of their deaths rendered them humorous, not touching. I don't remember the names of your characters. I mean, even you call the actors by their real names, not their character names. Nobody remembers Ripley and Hicks as Sigourney and Michael, or Luke and Han as Mark and Harrison. Get over yourself and learn to write. Your movie Earth-Boom was only better than Space-Boom II (The worst of the Boom movies) by default because there was no Affleck in the cast.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the previous anonymous poster: Earth-Boom was not a good movie. I don't mean this as a personal attack, I just found the movie to be weak overall. Now, I'll grant you, some of the problems had nothing to do with your script. For instance, the scene set at The University of Chicago had palm trees in it. There are no palm trees in Chicago. However, I agree that one of my biggest problems with the script was that so much of it was so contrived. However, I did appreciate your (obviously intentional) humourous use of "Unobtainium". And, yeah, the previous poster is right, none of us can remember the names of the characters, which is not a good sign-- especially since he (if he's who I think he is) had a lot less bourbon than I did.

As far as nitpicking the science of a movie goes, here's how I feel. The creators can choose to try to justify the fantastic with scientific explanations, or they can choose to say to the audience "just accept this". However, if you do choose to justify with scientific explanations, they need to be good. This is why I have gotten tired of Star Trek, the technosmack is just too much of a cheat and too much of a crutch. The Fifth Element (which is not my favourite movie) eschews scientific explanation almost entirely. As do Blade Runner and Star Wars (the original). If you're not going to give convincing, logical, coherent and internally consistent explanations, go the route those movies did and say "it just is, now let's have some fun."

jim said...

The problem with The Core wasn't that it lacked a meticulous scientific explanation of everything that was going on, it was that the science that was there was completely retarded.

Now I liked The Core. I really did. But I couldn't bring myself to actually recommend it to anybody, because nobody I know finds completely retarded science inspirational.

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