Gorgeous, Intense, and Creepy: A Review of Prometheus

So, let’s talk about Prometheus (and then I’ll get back to my insane fan-girl raving about Sherlock, I promise).

For those who are unfamiliar with the background of Prometheus, it is a science fiction film produced and directed by Ridley Scott (director of Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, to name just a few) and is considered a prequel of sorts to the original Alien movie.  Prometheus (which is also the name of the spaceship the cast lives on) takes place in the year 2093 (Alien takes place in the year 2122), and follows a group of scientists who believe that aliens called Engineers seeded life on Earth, and who are in search of those aliens in deep space, on a moon called LV-223.  Of course, as anyone familiar with the Alien movies would expect, things do not go according to plan, as the scientists find nothing but death on the moon (and boy, it’s going to be hard to talk about this movie without giving too much away…).

Okay, so let’s start by talking about the direction and cinematography in this movie, because it was BRILLIANT.  The opening sequence is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in ages and ages.  The camera pans through images of wild, almost-but-not-quite barren landscape: rocks, mountains, snow, waterfalls, etc.  It’s like something out of the Planet Earth nature documentaries, in astounding high definition, with a powerful score building up around you.  And then it focuses in on what is clearly an alien – mostly human in shape but with musculature that no human could possibly have, and a slightly different shape in the nose and forehead.  The alien drinks something, and then starts to dissolve, his DNA literally breaking apart – one would assume, to seed the earth.  The image of the alien dissolving is pretty cringe-worthy, but so well-shot and so fascinating and creepy.  It was the perfect way to open the movie, that’s for sure.

Throughout the rest of the film, the cinematography is equally wonderful.  Ridley Scott, the screen-writers, the set designer, and the cinematographer all took tremendous care with the visuals of the story.  The visuals are highly important in this movie.  The attention to detail, the atmospheric nature, the grand scale and immensity of everything, not to mention how CREEPY a lot of it is.  And the camera captures all of it so beautifully.  Seriously, if nothing else, go see it for the visual interest – it’s like a moving piece of art.

Then there are the actors.  The casting for this movie was so well done.  Swedish actress, Noomi Rapace plays Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, an archeologist, who along with her partner/boyfriend Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green), are the scientists pretty much in charge of the mission on the Prometheus. Noomi Rapace is really making a name for herself.  She played Lisbeth Salander in the original film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and she was in the second Sherlock Holmes movie (and she only learned to speak English in time to film Sherlock Holmes!), and she is a very very good actress.  She does such an amazing job in this movie, with a character who is incredibly smart, more than a little naïve, sympathetic, and tough.

Then there’s Charlize Theron.  My GOD, she looks GOOD in this movie.  It’s just not fair.  And, as usual, she is phenomenal as the cold, calculating, self-serving corporate leader of the Prometheus mission, Meredith Vickers. This character walks that fine line between being emotionless and self-serving to the point of being almost-but-not-quite evil.  She’s CREEPY, and she’s not even really a bad guy.  Just kind of a bitch.  And Charlize Theron plays it so well.

Last, but certainly not least among the main characters, there is Michael Fassbender as David, the android (like Ash, from the original Alien movie, though in Prometheus, everyone already knows he’s an android).  This character was absolutely fascinating, a total enigma.  And Michael Fassbender was EXCELLENT.  Seriously excellent.  David is an odd character – childlike in ways, sometimes sympathetic, but also with this weird underlying… I don’t know, jealousy? bitterness? arrogance?, because of the way the humans treat him.

No one pays much attention to him or is even mildly polite to him except for Shaw – and, of course, we should all know by now that is a BAD idea to mistreat a robot who is WAY stronger and smarter than any human.  You get this weird sense that David wants people to acknowledge how smart he is, and feels superior to humans because of his strength and intelligence, but also wants to be human at the same time.  He does some pretty despicable things in this movie (I’m trying very hard not to give away too much!), but you can’t quite hate him and you can’t really blame him, because the humans do NOT treat him well.  And Michael Fassbender plays him with this kind of blankness, this vacancy in his face and movements, and yet with very subtle touches of expression, of tone, or movement, that hint at something lying just beneath the surface, as if David can feel more than he or anyone else imagines – despite the fact that androids purportedly have no emotions.  Michael Fassbender’s light touch is just so well done, so balanced and subtle.  It’s definitely impressive.

All of the other actors, including Idris Elba as the captain of the ship, do not get nearly as much screen time and are not nearly as important to the plot, but they still do a good job.  They give the whole film a sense of realism and immediacy, a sense of real people in real crisis situations, that would not be believable with a less talented cast.  All without overtaking the film, being too melodramatic, or stealing the scenes from the important characters (and Idris Elba’s interactions with Charlize Theron are pretty fun too).

As for the plot itself…  It’s complex and it keeps you guessing, keeps you on your toes, without every getting so convoluted that it risks bogging itself down – at least not to me, others might disagree (after all, where I found Inception totally lucid, though complex, some people complained that it made no sense whatsoever – of course, I worry about people like that, but that’s beside the point).  There is a LOT going on in this film.  The first half-hour or so is a little slow-moving.  It’s not a BAD thing to me, it’s not slow as in boring, more as in atmospheric. It’s like a slow crescendo at the beginning of symphony.  Just because the music isn’t fast or frenetic doesn’t mean it’s not full of power and interest.  And you know your patience will be well worth it anyway.  So, yes, the opening is slow in pace, but it WORKS, at least for me.  And then, once it picks up, OH BOY does it pick up.  The last forty minutes or so?  CRAZY INTENSE.

All of this is helped along quite liberally by a very well-written, beautiful, and intense score by Marc Streitenfeld.  The music fits the movie so well: atmospheric, creepy, with slow build-ups and intense explosions of power and sound.  I already mentioned how the score bolsters the opening sequence.  The whole movie is like that.  I’m definitely going to have buy the soundtrack later.  There are few things I love more than a really good movie score.

Last, but certainly not least, is the long list of connections to the original Alien movie.  Now, there is not a 1 for 1 correlation between things in this movie and things in Alien.  It doesn’t quite work like that.  But if you’re a fan of Alien and pay attention, it is a TON of fun to catch all the little references.  I had to have my brother’s help with that.  I love the first and second Alien movies, but I have trouble remembering as many of the little details as my brother does.  Still, here are justa couple things to keep in mind.

First, Prometheus takes place on the moon LV-223, whereas Alien takes place on the moon LV-426 – so the ships the Prometheus finds and all the details in this movie do NOT correlate with actual scenes from Alien.  The alien ship that the Nostromo finds in Alien is a DIFFERENT SHIP than the one that the crew of the Prometheus find.  However, it is the same KIND of ship.  And the Space Jockey from Alien?  Yeah, some kind of alien as the main aliens in Prometheus.

Second, because Prometheus focuses on the Engineers, the humanoid-looking aliens who seeded the Earth (and who are the same kind of alien as the Space Jockey) you are NOT going to see the traditional black-skinned long-faced alien or the face-huggers and chest-bursters from Alien.  However, because it is a prequel, it is easy to guess that the plot of Prometheus leads INTO the aliens from the Alien movies (and oh my god, I’m getting sick of typing the word “alien”).

For a more in-depth look into the connections between the movies, check out this explanation Screenrant: “Prometheus – Alien Connection Explained.”

I could probably go on and on if I really wanted to, but I think this covers all the big stuff, except for the ending.  Without giving too much away, I will say that the ending is a bit cliff-hangery and you are left with WAY more questions than you had the beginning of the film, but I think this is intentional.  My brother and I have been debating how many of the holes and questions are intentional for the purposes of leading into a sequel and how many are accidental due to holes in the writing itself.  The only way to find out, of course, is to wait for a sequel, which we’re both PRETTY sure is in the offing.

The main thing you should get out of all of this is: if you haven’t seen Prometheus yet, YOU NEED TO.  GO NOW.  It is absolutely phenomenal.  The intensity, the attention to detail, the beautiful cinematography, the excellent cast, the fun references to Alien… it all equals a movie that is WELL worth the money and the time.  In fact, I recommend seeing it more than once.  I’m hoping to go again soon and see how many small details I may have missed the first time.

Seriously, just go see it.  You can thank me later.

Also, you should check out Andrew Kincaid’s rundown of the biology behind the film over on his blog.

AND, here’s the trailer again, too, just to cover all my bases:

My Two-Cents on World-Building

Free-For-All Friday: My Two-Cents on World-Building

Hello everyone! It’s Nov 4th, which means all us NaNoWriMo nuts are now knee-deep into the writing frenzy.  Some people are already pulling ahead with word counts in the 10-15,000 range.  I, however, spent Tuesday (the first day of NaNo) frantically trying to grade papers and finish homework, that I am already behind.  By last night, to stay on pace, I should have had 5,000 words, but I went to bed having written only 4,000 (and that, just barely).  Still, I have hopes that I will be able to catch up a little over the weekend.  We shall see…

Speaking of NaNo though, I wanted to share a little of my world-building with you because I think world-building is one of the most important and most enjoyable aspects of writing fiction especially in fantasy and certain areas of science fiction when you are quite literally creating entire new worlds for your characters to inhabit.

I am not by any means an expert on world-building, of course.  If you want expert advice, I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s How to Write to Science Fiction and Fantasy and World-Building by Stephen Gillet.  But, of course, I have plenty of opinions on the matter.  Detailed, thoughtful world-building can make the difference between a fantasy novel that is mildly interesting and/or cliché, and one that is unique, immersive, and exciting.  That is not to say that my worlds ARE all that unique, immersive, or exciting yet, but I’m working on it.

I could go on about physical world-building: continents, climates, and so forth, but for now, I’m just talking about creating a society/culture.  To that end, there are some very important elements that should be involved.  Some of these are obvious: government, cultural norms (are your people militaristic, artistic, pacifist, do they love to dance, are they vegetarians, etc), physical characteristics (if they differ from humans), and sometimes religion.  These are obviously important.  But there are others that are sometimes forgotten such as: economic systems, interactions with other societies, architecture (this one’s huge, folks!), and gender roles (even more huge, folks!).

Admittedly, this is all just my own two cents, so take it for what it’s worth.  Which probably isn’t much.  *shrug*

Just to give you an idea of how I go about world-building, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve come up with for my NaNoWriMo story.  I haven’t yet put it into any kind of systematic format.  I usually just write down everything I can think of about the society and worry about systematizing and filling in details later.  And keep in mind that this is still pretty early in the development stage, but in any case, might be interesting.  So, here is what I have on the Bheidien, which are the “mermaid” people in my twisted weird retelling of The Little Mermaid.

The Bheidien (which translates as “People of the Sea”):

The Bheidien are a race of people who, several millennia ago, chose to leave land and adapt themselves to living in the ocean.  They are part humanoid and part fish in appearance, with a variety of different styles and colors of tail, fin, and scale.  They are not actually related to fish at all; their ancestors merely used magic to mimicked fish as the adapted to the sea and evolved.

The royal family have traditional passed on a number of physical traits that follow two general family lines: one side have a more delicate feathered and colorful tail and fin (like a male Siamese fighting fish), and one side tends like look somewhat shark-like in shape and color.

All Bheidien have human heads, necks, shoulders, and arms, with scales beginning somewhere around the chest or torso and getting gradually thicker further down the tail.  They have two pairs of eyelids — one a normal “human” pair, and the other a clear pair that close in water and open in air.  They also have gill-slashes on either side of the neck for breathing, and feathered, fin-like extensions at the tips of their ears.

They can speak in water by use of long, thick vocal cords that are adapted to water, but because of the changes of sound in water, their language is slow, filled with high and low pitches, clicks, etc, and musical in quality — but still with actual words, and a vocabulary and grammar that is closely related to the parent language of the Cuval.

No, they can’t speak with fish.  (Just because humans live on land with animals doesn’t mean they can necessarily talk with them, right?)  Yes, they do sometimes eat fish. (Just because humans live on land with animals doesn’t mean they don’t eat them sometimes, right?)

The Bheidien have a fairly simple culture that relies heavily on tradition.  There are three separate kingdoms that do not have much contact with each other (being rather spread out in a very large ocean), but they are all fairly similar in basic structure: a city-state kingdom, with a magical “wall” that protects the kingdom from storms, hard currents, and more aggressive creatures like sharks; ruled by a monarchy, with a small but powerful nobility (of approximately 4 or 5 families depending on the kingdom); and a citizenry that is not much involved in politics or power, but is stable.

The Bheidien are powerful magical practitioners, though their kind of magic is somewhat different from the Cuval, and relies almost entirely on the spoken word and song.  They treasure singing.  They love beauty in all things.  They create intricate and beautiful architecture, using coral, other materials, and magic, without having to worry as much as humans do about structural integrity or weight (because of the constant presence of water).  They do not wear clothes, but love jewelry and decoration of all kinds.

The internal economic system is not based on money but on trade.  Goods are provided to the palace and royal family by way of taxes.  The small nobility class earns most of its goods in exchange for providing land and security to the citizenry.  The citizenry does most of the work of hunting (fishing?) and gathering other foodstuff, crafting and trading in other goods, and doing physical labor activities.  The Bheidien kingdoms occasionally trade with each other, and once or twice a year meet to trade with the Cuval (who come out in boats, or find piers, etc).

Revealing the existence of the Bheidien to humans is the worst crime one can commit.  However, the Bheidien still believe that all life of any kind should be respected, so despite their fear of humans, he does not in any way, shape, or form, condone the harm or killing of humans.  While Bheidien society allows for an eldest daughter to take the throne or inherit wealth, many other aspects of Bheidien culture are still patriarchal, so that all the younger daughters have little personal or political power.  Some can claim positions of power by becoming advisors and councillors, but most are only “useful” to the family and the kingdom if they can be married off well.  Men (yes, the Bheidien have a different word, but I’m not going to go into details about the language here, so consider this as “translated”), so: men are still mainly responsibility for the safety of the city, as well as most physical labor and leadership positions.  Women are still considered mainly home-makers, though many are also artists, architects, singers, and magical practitioners, etc.

So, what kinds of world-building do you enjoy doing?  What are the most important elements for you?  Who do you look to for advice/modeling on how it should be done?

Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

Science/Fantasy Monday: Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

USS Titan going at warp speed, from startrek-ships.com

Faster-than-light travel.  Imagine it.  To go anywhere in the galaxy, maybe the universe, in no time at all.  Think Star Trek and warp drive.  It wouldn’t be instantaneous, but it would be incredibly, mind-numbingly fast.

A little over three weeks ago, on 22 Sept 2011, a group of CERN scientists working with the “Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus” (OPERA) announced that they believed they had succeeded in making neutrinos (an electrically neutral elementary subatomic particle with extremely tiny but not-quite-zero mass, that is able to pass through ordinary mass almost unaffected) travel faster than the speed of light — a barrier speed of 186,282 miles per hour, which, according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, cannot be surpassed.  Here is the first article I caught wind of about the announcement, from The Telegraph: “Speed of light ‘broken’ at CERN, scientists claim.”

And, here is the actual paper written by the OPERA scientists on the experiment: “Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam.”

Of course, nothing like this can ever be taken at face value.  There are a million things that could lead to a misreading, miscalculation, or flat-out falsehood (the number of scientists who have made fraudulent claims in the last few years has been staggering).  Immediately, an whole army’s worth of scientists were called in to check, re-check, and triple-check all the experimental parameters, equipment, and results — a process that is still ongoing.

lateral view of OPERA, from http://operaweb.lngs.infn.it/

Still, almost immediately an slew of scientists had climbed out of the woodwork to offer their explanations for why this discovery could not possibly be real.  On 26 Sept 2011, Scientific American released an article in which they had asked for reactions from a number of fairly-well-regarded scientists, most of whom voiced varying levels of doubt and skepticism: “Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? Physics Luminaries Voice Doubts.”  Some of these scientists said they were withholding judgement until further tests and checks could be performed.  But some were embarrassed that the scientists involved had made any announcement at all — as far as some are concerned, it is simply impossible.  Period.

To that end, Wired Online released an article on 14 Oct 2011, discussing a number of the more down-to-earth and boring explanations scientists have come up with to explain away the apparently faster-than-light travel of these neutrinos: “Physicists Offer Mundane Explanations for Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos.”

In the October issue of ScienceNews, and on the ScienceNews website, an article written by Devin Powell offers a brief and balanced summary of the event and the current reactions, discussing what was done to prepare for the original experiment and some of what is being done to try to recreate the experiment: “Neutrinos Seen to Fly Faster than the Speed of Light.”  A few of the quotes in this article show the interesting struggle between exciting optimism and strong skepticism.  Theoretical scientists Matthew Mewes and Lee Smolin are voice some of the thoughts all scientists (and some of us laypersons).  Mewes: “This may mean that there’s much more going on in particle physics than we thought possible.  We could be seeing signs of exotic theories like string theories.”  Smolin: “This is a serious experiment, and these are serious people.  But at this point nobody sober would be willing to say that this is right.”

Obviously, even if the results prove to be correct — and of course, there’s nothing at this point saying that they WILL, but let’s assume for a moment that they are — somehow getting a few neutrinos to travel faster than the speed of light is a LONG way off from faster-than-light travel for humans.  But still… just think of the implications!  Think of the possibilities!  It’s difficult not to get at least a little excited.  Gene Roddenberry’s vision has been proven true before.  You never know, warp drive might be just around the corner (relatively speaking…).

So, what do you think of this news?  A mistake?  A hoax?  Or the real deal?

Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 3

Science/Fantasy Monday: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 3

Here we are at last!  The end of my three-Mondays-long countdown of my personal Top 10 SciFi TV Shows.  For those of you who missed the first two parts, or just need a refresher, you can find them here:

“Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Part 1”

“Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Part 2”

Back?  Good.  Now, let’s get down to business.  I’m sure that most, if not all, of you can probably guess what shows are coming.  The big question now is what order did I put them in?  Which show got #1 and which got pushed down to #2?

Well, wonder no longer!  We have a tie for First Place!  And it goes to Star Trek and Doctor Who!  (Who’s shocked?  Raise your hand.  No one?  Didn’t think so.)

#1: Star Trek (whole universe) and Doctor Who (original and revival)

I love them both.  They are both amazing and brilliant.  They were both so foundational to science fiction television, and scifi of any medium.  I simply could not find any way to say definitively that either was better than the other, so a tie seemed the best solution.

Star Trek:

Star Trek: Original Series

Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry and first aired in 1966 and ran for three seasons before it was canceled due to low ratings.  It wasn’t until it went into syndication that Star Trek: the Original Series (TOS) truly gained the immense popularity that made it the icon it is today.  It was followed by a short-lived Animated Series, and six movies: Star Trek the Motion Picture, The Wrath of Kahn, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier, and The Undiscovered Country.

Star Trek: Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) started in 1987 and last seven seasons, during which time it became, I believe, the most popular of all the series.  Even many of those who grew up with TOS are usually willing to admit that TNG is better.  There is a decent-sized group of people who would argue that the third series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) is actually the best incarnation of the show.  My brother, a few of my friends would count themselves among that group.  I’m sort-of, kind-of there too, though I’m a little more on the fence.  For a more detailed discussion of my reasoning behind that argument please see: “The Age Old Question: Which Star Trek is Better?”

Still, TNG was an absolutely fantastic show.  And even if I like some parts of DS9 better, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starfleet Enterprise NCC-1701-D will always ALWAYS be MY Captain.  He is one of my favorite characters ever.  Data, the android who wants to be human is definitely near the top of my favorite list also (and TNG’s answer to Spock who is also one of my favorite characters).

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

As for DS9… it was much darker than either of the two series that came before it, which is also cited as a mark against it, but which I really enjoyed.  And it had a large overarching plot that really tied the show together and gave it an amount of tension and suspense that TNG only managed on a few occasions (though it was AWESOME when TNG pulled it off, most especially in “Best of Both Worlds,” Pt 1 and 2).  But again, you can get more of rant about DS9 on my previous post, linked above.

During this time, there were four more movies, focusing on the TNG crew: Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and NemesisStar Trek: Generations was emotionally-taxing because we all had to watch Kirk die not once, but twice.  But the best of the bunch has to be Star Trek: First Contact, which featured fantastic special effects, the creepy arch-nemesis of the TNG crew The Borg, a cool plot, and Picard at his absolutely most awesome.

Star Trek: Voyager

After DS9, we had Voyager. This was the first Star Trek show to feature a female captain (there have been plenty of woman captains within the universe of Star Trek, of course).  Voyager has been argued about for a number of reasons.  It is very popular with some fans, and hated by others.  It was, admittedly, a little hit-or-miss sometimes, but the first four seasons, at the very least, were consistently good.  Most of the characters were well-written and complex.  But I think many people didn’t like the heavy focus on romance in a number of episodes, especially in the second half of the series.  This is a complaint I understand, and I would admit that some of the relationship stuff definitely got tiring.  But overall, the show was intelligent, well-acted, exciting, and fun.  And Captain Kathryn Janeway was an absolutely KICK-ASS female character.

Star Trek: Enterprise

Last on the list is Star Trek: Enterprise.  I watched most of the first season, and I have seen a few other episodes here or there.  But this series just could not match up to the Star Trek tradition.  The producers/writers tried to change too much, make it more “theirs” instead of Roddenberry’s, and it just didn’t work (though Capt Archer, played by Scott Bakula, was a pretty good character).

What I think makes Star Trek so important, despite its flaws, the occasional hit-or-miss series, the cheesiness, etc… is that it is able to critique society (like much of scifi) and show us ourselves in all our nastiness, but it is ultimately built on a fundamental hope and optimism.  Star Trek: The Original Series featured the first interracial kiss aired on television.  It attempted to show the world that tolerance and peace and prosperity were possible, despite all the problems we face.  And that optimism seems even more important now than it did in the 60s.

I will add, briefly, that the newest movie was very good.  I approached with trepidation, but it seriously impressed me, and I’m looking forward to the next one.  There are also rumors of a new Star Trek series, which would be AWESOME, because it’s just a tragedy that it’s been so long since we had a new Star Trek adventure to enjoy every week.

Doctor Who:

The First Doctor: William Hartnell

Doctor Who premiered in 1963 and run for 26 consecutive seasons until 1989, making it the longest running science fiction television show of all time and one of the longest running tv shows of any genre (even before its revival).  In 1996 a television movie was released in the hopes of reviving the show for an American audience. This failed.  But in 2005, the show was finally revived by BBC and has now run for 6 more seasons.  This revival is not a reboot, but an actual continuation of the same universe and timeline, which means that seasons 6 of the revival can also be called season 32 of Doctor Who.  And the show is still going strong.

Anyone who knows me (and people who have been following this blog for awhile), knows that I am obsessed with Doctor Who.  I could go on about the show for hours if you let me (I don’t suggest you let me if you plan to do anything else for the next few days).  Thankfully, I have already written three blogs about various aspects of Doctor Who. So, rather than ramble for quite as long as I did for Star Trek above (which I haven’t written about as much before), I will now start by referring you to those previous blog posts:

“The Doctor Is In: A Brief History of Doctor Who, Pt 1”

“The Doctor Is In: A Brief History of Doctor Who, Pt 2”

“They’re Never Really Gone: The Top 3 Doctor Who Villains”

These three posts should give you good handle on some of the major elements of Doctor Who.


It always fascinates me that Doctor Who was originally intended as more a history lesson for children disguised as action-adventure television.  But very very quickly the historical episodes (which are still a ton of fun) gave way to the flashier, more dramatic, more iconic Doctor Who-ish space/alien episodes.  Doctor Who is still the most popular television show in England, and whoever is playing the Doctor at the time, is consistently one of the most popular actors of the time.  Every single person in England knows who the Doctor is, what Dalek is, understands the significance of celery and a really long striped scarf, and realizes that the Master is never really dead.  Now, thanks to the revival’s growing popularity in America (which, I think, was actually spurred on by Torchwood: Children of Earth, surprisingly), almost everyone in America is beginning to know these things too.

Doctor Who is smart, crazy, exciting, hilarious, dramatic, intense, and occasionally depressing, all wrapped up into one insane hour-long program.

10th Doctor with companions: Rose, Martha, Donna, and Sarah-Jane

It has featured some fascinating characters as the Doctor’s companions, such as his granddaughter Susan Foreman, The Brigadier, Sarah-Jane Smith, Ace, Rose Tyler, Jack Harkness, Donna Noble, and most recently Amelia Pond and her husband Rory Williams (who is awesome, by the way).  While the Doctor does sometimes travel with a variety of aliens and even robots (such as the robot dog K-9), he has always had a special affinity for human companions (despite the fact that he often looked down on humans as the First Doctor).  And these human companions are US.  They are our entrance into his world, they are our emissaries into the insane, exciting, dark universe of the Doctor.

John Sims as the Master

What I think makes this show so amazing and enduring is that it can take the strangest characters, the strangest places and plots, and make them emotionally important.  We care about alien races destroying each other.  We care about the Companions who die, or get left behind.  We are terrified (and exhilaratingly fascinated by) the Daleks and the Cybermen and the Master.  But really, it’s all about the Doctor.  He is a genius, a pacifist and warrior at the same time, compassionate and, at times, ruthless, always off for an adventure, with a entourage of humans and aliens and robots, and yet ultimately alone.  He is an alien, of course, and in so many ways he is completely non-human.  And yet, he is very human.  And that’s what makes him so amazing.

To end, here is a quote about the Doctor from episode 9 of Season 3 of the revival, “Family of Blood.”  It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s awesome anyway: “He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

All Eleven Doctors

That concludes my Top 10 SciFi Television Shows list!  Please let me know what you think!  I love to hear from you! See you on Wednesday! (and I’ve got to stop using so many damn exclamation points!)

Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2

Science/Fantasy Monday: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2

Last Monday, I started my personal  SciFi Top 10 list with Part 1, which included numbers 10-7.  This Monday I present Part 2, with numbers 6-3.  And next Monday, I will finish off the list with the first and second places.  If you missed the beginning of the list, I suggest you dash back real quick and skim that.  You can find it here: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 1.

Now, before I get into it, I feel I should warn some people about something.  I am about to incur the wrath of many people, but I’d like a chance to preemptively defend myself.  Battlestar Galactica is NOT on this list.  This is not an intentional insult to any fans.  I simply have NOT seen it, and so can’t legitimately make any claims about it one way or the other (when I say I have it seen it, I mean the new version; I watched the original and enjoyed it as a kid, but still wouldn’t put it in a top 10).  I have heard it is very good, and I believe it.  But folks, I’m in grad school, and I simply have not had the time to watch it.  I’ll get around to it one of these days, at which point I might have to change my Top 10 list.  Until then, however, please do not be insulted, okay?  Okay.

Moving on.  Here is my Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2:

#6: Firefly

Speaking of incurring the wrath of fans… some people are going to pissed that Firefly is not higher up the list.  As I was working on the list, I wrestled with this show; it was both higher and lower on the list at various points.  I finally settled on #6 because it is an fantastic show, and it definitely deserved to be higher than the bottom 3, but I cannot make the argument (as some people have tried) that it is the best scifi ever.  That is not to say, however, that it isn’t completely awesome.  Because it is.

Created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, Firefly takes place in a future where humans have colonized many planets.  The “core” planets are high-tech, wealthy, and governed by the Alliance (a mix of American and Chinese culture), but the out-lying planets are reminiscent of the pioneer culture of the American West.  Before the show starts, there was a war between the Alliance and the rebel “Browncoats,” who tried to halt the Alliance’s power over the outlying planets.  The Browncoats lost.  As the show opens, former Browncoat Mal Reynolds captains the firefly-class spaceship Serenity, with a crew: fellow Browncoat Zoe, Zoe’s husband and the pilot, Wash, engineer Kaylee, gun-hand Jayne, the Companion Inara, the preacher Book, and Simon and River – a brother and sister on the run from the Alliance.  Firefly only lasted 13 episodes, plus an awesome movie.  The mixture of spaghetti western with space opera was a brilliant marriage of styles/themes that led to a fascinating and detailed world construction, and some truly entertaining characters.  The dialogue, as always with Whedon, was sharp, snappy, fast, and often hilarious.  The production values especially the more movie-like camera work were highly impressive. And this little show led to a huge fan following and a reimagining of what could be done with scifi.

#5: The Twilight Zone

I honestly don’t know how any list of the best scifi tv shows could NOT include The Twilight ZoneThe Twilight Zone was created by Rod Serling, one of the most influential people in early television, who had serious love for science fiction and horror, and strongly believed in the power of scifi to reveal social problems and promote social change.  The Twilight Zone, as I assume most people know, was a series of individual, self-contained episodes with scifi, fantasy, and horror themes, which usually ended with a surprising, ironic, or macabre twist.  The original series ran from 1959 to 1964, and spawned two revivals, one from 1985-1989, and one from 2002-2003.

As a sign of how impressive and hard-working Serling was, he wrote a full two-thirds of the 156 episodes of the original series.  As a sign of how impressive and serious the show itself was, the other writers including some of the biggest names in scifi and horror, including Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner, Jr., George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Reginald Rose, Jerry Sohl, and two of the most brilliant prolific scifi writers ever: Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.  These writers often used scifi as a vehicle for social commentary, using plot devices, styles, and implicit argument to get past the censors of the time who often removed any hint of social commentary from mainstream dramas.  Some of the most popular themes were nuclear war, McCarthyism, prejudice, mass hysteria, the dangers of scientific advancement, etc.  The Twilight Zone gave birth to some of the most iconic and most-parodied scenes in scifi tv, including but not limited to the infamous scene of William Shatner spotting a gremlin on the wing of a plane in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  However, I think my all-time favorite episodes, and two of the most famous are: “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” which shows the lengths humans are willing to go to when they think they are in danger (and asks whether the rumored aliens are the residents of Maple Street are the real monsters), and “It’s a Good Life” in which Billy Mumy (Will Robinson on Lost in Space and Lennier on Babylon 5) plays a child who terrorizes a community with his psychic powers.

This show gave necessary space for some of the biggest writers of the time to try new things and make important social critiques.  It was new and original and provocative.  It is simply impossible to over-estimate the importance and influence that The Twilight Zone had on scifi.

#4: X-Files

Yes, the X-Files.  It HAD to make the Top 5, don’t you think?  Everyone (I think) knows the story.  FBI agent Fox Mulder is obsessed with the X-Files, a group of unsolved cases involved unexplained or paranormal phenomena, which are largely ignored by the rest of the FBI.  Mulder believes in aliens and conspiracy theories and a variety of other paranormal events.  His partner, Dana Scully, who is originally sent to monitor Mulder and report back to her superiors on his behavior, is a medical doctor, a scientist, and the quintessential skeptic. Some of the overarching plot-lines of the series include: an enormous conspiracy to cover-up impending alien colonization and experiments to create human-alien hybrids, clones, and super-soldiers (among other things), as well as Mulder’s continuing search to find his sister, whom he believes to have been abducted by aliens as a child.  At the same time, the show also held to the new-monster-every-week format.

This show had some of the fastest, wordiest, most intelligent dialogue of any show ever.  Though some people (my mother included) complained that it was almost nothing BUT talking, it also had intricate plot-lines, some very intense, exciting, action-oriented episodes, and one of the most complex tv mythologies ever thought up (though Fringe is trying to give it a run for its money).  It ran for 9 seasons (the last of which was, admittedly, a bit weak in parts), produced two movies, and created an enormous cult following that comes close to rivaling that of Star Wars and Star Trek.  It made the phrases “I want to believe” and “The truth is out there” and “Trust no on” cultural touchstones, it gave us some of the most recognizable scifi (or drama) characters ever: Mulder, Scully, The Smoking (or Cancer) Man.  It touched a powerful cultural nerve, an obsession with the supernatural, with UFOs, and most especially with government conspiracies.  It became one of the biggest cultural icons of the 90s, and its legacy, I think, will endure for quite a long time.

#3: Babylon 5

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love this show. I could go on for pages and pages about how much I love this show and why.  But this post is getting ridiculously long already, so I’m going to try to keep it short.  Babylon 5 was a scifi series that was created by J. Michael Straczynski and ran for five seasons, from 1993 to 1998 (the pilot episode having aired in 1993, but the first regular season not beginning until a year later).  Babylon 5 focuses on a deep space station called Babylon 5, which is neutral space and used an a hub for alien diplomatic relations with humans and each other, as well center of commerce, culture, and science.  The main characters include the Captain and command crew of the station, as well as several of the more important ambassadors who live on the station.  While many of the episodes follow the general “new adventure every week” format, the vast majority build a heavily connected story arc that deals with the corruption of Earth’s government and an imminent attack from an alien species with enough destructive power to effectively wipe out the entire universe.

J. Michael Straczynski envisioned this series as something vastly different from the only other serious scifi series around: Star Trek.  Whereas Star Trek is eminently optimistic with a fairly “pure” working government, a claim to the near-eradication of sickness and poverty, etc Babylon 5 is very much a reflection of all the problems humans have always had: corruption, oppression, war, prejudice, poverty, addiction, etc.  Straczynski made several promises: the show would have a reasonable budget (and indeed, always managed to go under budget), it would take a serious adult approach to scifi (and would therefore have no children or “cute” robots), and it would have a thoroughly planned well-written and executed overarching plot (that would not leave any loose ends).  To that end, Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes himself, and when he brought in other writers, they were told about the overarching plot-lines so that everything could be tied together effectively (incidentally, Harlan Ellison was a creative consultant on the show and is credited with 2 episodes).

And Straczynski succeeded.  Babylon 5 contains some of the most human, complex, fully-realized characters in television to date including but not limited to Susan Ivanova, Delenn, John Sheridan, and probably the two most complex and dynamic: G’Kar and Londo Mollari.  The plot is intricate, vast, intense, entertaining, and ultimately concluding with all the wrapped up satisfaction of a well-plotted novel.  One friend of mine has argued that Bablyon 5 is the most epic (in terms of scale and the consequences of the conflicts) of any story ever.  I’m not sure I would go that far, but with alien races capable of bringing about total oblivion, and a collaborative force of something like a hundred difference alien species trying to fight them (and looking like ants swarming a tiger), I can certainly see how someone might think so.  I might at least be the most epic scifi around.  Possibly.

So there, Ladies and Gentlemen are numbers 6-3 of my Top 10 Scifi TV Shows Ever.  I’d like to take a second to name a few honorable mentions: V: the Series, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda (both series created by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame, and produced by his wife Majel Baret after his death – both of these series had a lot of potential, but for a variety of reasons just could not be as good as Star Trek).

I’m assuming everyone can guess what first and second place will be, yes?  If not (and even if you can guess), please come back next Monday to see how I wrap things up!  And in the meantime, sound off! What do you think of the list so far?  Which of your favorites am I missing?  (If one of them is Battlestar Galactica, I refer to the explanation at the top, and beg that you don’t get too vitriolic.)

Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 1

Science/Fantasy Monday: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 1

I have been having this conversation with a few of my friends lately: what are the best science fiction television shows of all time?  I’ve been debating with my brother, with several classmates, with my mother, and others.  It is not an easy question to answer.  There are so many fantastic shows to choose from, and there are so many shows that, while not necessarily the BEST ever, have so much nostalgic power, and so initial influence on the growth of science fiction in television, that it’s difficult to ignore them.

So I’ve come up with my own personal list.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at putting things in a hierarchy.  While I’m confidence that all 10 shows I’ve chosen deserve to be in such a list, I am not quite as confident in the particular order that I have settled on.  Still, an order had to be decided on, so this is my somewhat tentative final list.

Today I have shows 10 through 7.  Next Monday I will have shows 6-3, and the following Monday will be numbers 1 and 2. (And please note, that I am keeping this strictly scifi. I will probably do a separate list for fantasy shows later.)  And so, without further ado:

The Top 10 Science Fiction Television Shows, Pt 1

#10: Farscape

This show begins with modern American astronaut John Crichton (played by Ben Browder) accidentally flying into a wormhole during a test flight, being thrown across the universe, and picked up by the crew of the living space-ship Moya.  At about the same time, the crew of Moya find a stranded Peacekeeper named Aeryn Sun (played by Claudia Black) which could be a problem as the crew is currently on the run from the Peacekeepers, a corrupted military/police-esque force.  Having gathered the full cast, the show races through a number of plot arcs with increasing speed and intensity, including being captured by the Peacekeepers, Crichton’s attempt to find a wormhole home, and a frantic arms-race later in the show.

My brother says that this show was very hit-or-miss, but I disagree.  Granted, EVERY show has a few weaker episodes here and there, but this show was very strong for me.  The cast was varied and fascinating, including a warrior falsely accused of killing his wife, a thief/con-artist, and an ex-priestess of a plant-like species, just name a few.  This is the only show I’ve seen that really takes the “living ship” concept (which has been done before as a novelty in such things as an episode of Star Trek, etc) and really made the ship a character, which I really loved.  I also really really LOVE Claudia Black.  She is a brilliant, snarky, gorgeous actress, and I could probably watch her do dishes and be entertained, so that helps.  The costumes, make-up, and set design on this show were also creative and cool, especially considering the show did not always have the biggest budget.  Farscape had some very devoted fans, but it didn’t get as much attention in the big scheme of things as I think it should have.  It was a wonderful, entertaining, and ultimately human show that I definitely believe deserves a place in a top 10 list.

#9: Futurama

If you are surprised by this inclusion (or haven’t seen Futurama) well… you’re just crazy.  Pure and simple.  Futurama, an animated half-hour sitcom by Matt Groening and David Cohen of The Simpsons, takes every scifi tv show, movie, trope, theme, and cliché and turns them on their head.  But what is so important to remember is that you can only do an effective parody of something when you really and truly love it at the same time, and Futurama, through all the hilarious insanity and oh-so-true parodies of scifi clichés, never ever forgets their love (or ours).

Everyone, I think, knows the basic premise of this show: useless, idiotic yet somehow endearing delivery boy Philip Fry falls into a cryostasis chamber on New Year’s Eve of 1999 and wakes up in the year 3000, left to deal with strange technology, aliens, crazy people, and once again being a delivery boy. With the main cast of Fry, Leela, Bender, Zoidberg, Farnsworth, Amy, and Hermes, as well as recurring characters like Zap Brannigan, Kif, Mom, and the Robot Devil, this show just cannot go wrong.  Every character is insane, idiotic, neurotic, and absolutely hilarious.  Every episode lambasts some social event or attitude with shocking audacity, and throws in every ridiculous scifi motif they can find to amazing effect.  It is so difficult to pick a favorite character or episode of this show I think Bender is my favorite, but I really love Fry and Zoidberg as well.  But, I think, for the perfect balance of insanity, character highlights, social and scifi parody, and actual plotline, nothing beats watching the first movie, Futurama: Bender’s Big Score.  It is absolutely BRILLIANT.

#8: Fringe

You’ll notice pretty soon that MOST of the shows on this list are not current shows (Futurama is still running, but I think that’s it and it’s been around for awhile).  As good as some of the current shows are (Eureka, for instance, is fabulous), they aren’t don’t quite have that something that makes them the best, or they just haven’t had the time to prove themselves yet.  But I’m making Fringe the exception because it is just that amazing.  It is not the first show ever to deal with the idea of alternate realities and how a variety of small and big choices change the outcome everything.  But it has done such a fabulous job taking that concept and running with it.

Fringe began with a fairly simple premise of mixing scifi with police procedural: FBI agent Olivia Dunham works for a special Joint Federal Taskforce group called Fringe Division, which investigates crimes and unusual events that deal with “fringe science.”  She is assisted by Dr. Walter Bishop, the quintessential mad scientist, whose inventions are often the foundation for whatever crime has been committed that week, and Dr. Bishop’s son Peter, a highly intelligent and versatile man who has worked on both sides of the law.  By the end of the first season, however, it becomes obvious that viewers have more than a police procedural masquerading as scifi on their hands, as we discover that Peter was actually stolen from an alternate reality by this dimension’s Walter when his version of Peter died as a child.  The Walter Bishop of the alternate reality, dubbed by writers and fans as “Walternate” has thus declared war on this dimension, believing that the two cannot co-exist.  From there, it just gets weird.  With a cast that includes Anna Torv very believably playing tough, intelligent, yet vulnerable Olivia Dunham, the brilliant John Noble as adorably insane Walter Bishop and creepy scheming Walternate, and the ever-attractive Joshua Jackson as wickedly smart and smart-ass Peter Bishop, this show was definitely destined to be good.  The insanely complex, thought-provoking, mind-boggling plot lines and the endlessly fascinating bits of real and imagined science (which are both celebrated and critiqued in turn), make this show an absolute winner.  It’s fast-paced, intense, full of human drama and crazy scifi, and highly intelligent.  In other words, why isn’t everybody watching it?

#7: Stargate: SG-1

Perhaps it is simply because I love this show so much that I’ve decided to put this on the list.  But considering it lasted 10 seasons, launched not one but TWO spin-offs (neither of which were all that good if you ask me, but whatever), and has a enormous fan-base, I can’t be that far off the mark.  Right?  Stargate: SG-1 was based off a 1994 movie Stargate, which starred Kurt Russell as Col. Jack O’Neill and James Spader as Dr. Daniel Jackson, two members of a team of Air Force special forces (except Daniel, who is an archeologist) who travel through a large ancient Egyptian artifact called the stargate to another world, where the people speak an Egyptian dialect and worship a powerful alien creature (called a Goa’uld) as the god Ra.  The tv show picks up a year after the end of the first movie, with Richard Dean Anderson now playing the part of Col. Jack O’Neill (can we all say thank god!) and Michael Shanks as Dr. Daniel Jackson.  They are joined by Christopher Judge playing the Jaffa alien Teal’c, and Amanda Tapping as astrophysicist and Air Force Captain Samantha Carter.

This show, like many scifi shows before it, was a classic “new adventure every week” sort of show, in which the four main characters, as the Stargate team SG1 (the first of several such teams), travel through the Stargate to explore new worlds and meet new alien species (yes, I know that sounds familiar), while simultaneously trying to find allies and new weapons to help them defeat the evil, universe-conquering Goa’uld, who have set their sights on Earth.  Of course, a show that goes on for 10 years is going to have to change bad guys eventually, so we also had the creepy sentient machines called the Replicators, Anubis a Goa’uld who became an even bigger threat by “ascending” to a higher (read: more powerful) plane of existence, and finally the ascended beings who would be gods, the Ori.  I will not deny for a minute that the last three seasons of the show were fairly weak.  The show probably should have ended with the defeat of Anubis, and Richard Dean Anderson’s departure was definitely the death-knell for the show.  But for all that, it was an absolutely fabulous adventure scifi, with a perfect main cast (most especially Anderson and Shanks) and slew of great supporting actors.  They came up with some truly fascinating alien species, despite an occasionally low budget, and I loved the continued theme of how aliens were the basis for many of our world religions.  This show was just flat-out fun, and its staying power proves it should not be ignored.

(Note: I had originally intended to just do this is two segments, 10-6 and then 5-1, but this got very long very quickly, so I decided to cut it off here.  And that will allow me to save numbers 1 and 2 for a big finish all their own in a couple weeks.)

So, what do you think of my list so far?  What’s missing?  What do you hope makes it in the rest of the list?  What do you think will be #1?  Let the debates begin!

And please return next Monday for Numbers 6 through 3!

The Future Is Here Mash-Up

Science/Fantasy Monday: The Future Is Here Mash-Up

Over the last 2 weeks I have gathered up a plethora (heh, I love that word… plethora…) of news articles and blog posts on various science-y topics that I just find too damn cool to keep to myself.  So, for those of you who don’t generally have the time/patience to sift through Wired.com, etc, I offer a fun mash-up of a few of the of the articles/posts that really caught my eye.  I’ve often heard some scifi writers and scientists make comments along the lines of “The Future is already here.”  These articles remind me of this.

This article from Space.com, “Space Junk Threat Will Grow for Astronauts and Satellites”, highlights one of the biggest concerns for scientists and space programs world-wide.  What is interesting to me is that many recent articles on this topic have been making the rounds on Yahoo and various news sites in the last 2 weeks, as if this is a brand new problem.  But the problem has been around for awhile, and was even the subject of a fantastic Japanese manga called Planetes, written in 1999-2004.

“How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck”: This blog featured on Wired.com is about a bit more than a holodeck.  It is a survey of a variety of strange, complicated, awesome discoveries/inventions being worked on at Microsoft’s big “think tank” lab Building 99.  For example, there’s the “Skinput” wrist device that could theoretically control electronic devices by reading muscle movements in your hand.  And there’s The Wedge, a large acrylic prism that could change the way we interface with computer displays.  Just for starters.

This article about the possibility of a “Diamond Planet” that may be a stripped star, from National Geographic, is a little older, but it was such a COOL idea I had to share it for people who might have missed it.  Also, here’s something for the scifi writers out there to think about: assume this planet really is made of diamond, and suppose humans from Earth found a way to reach the planet… how well do you think that’s gonna end, huh?

Another article from National Geographic: “When Aliens Attack” asks what would really happen if aliens made contact with humans in light of the fact that humans seem intent on destroying their own planet.  Would they eat us, enslave us, or exterminate us for the greater good of the galaxy?  It is a strange, amusing little article.  To say the least.

“Attack of the Brain-Controlling Parasites”: I had to include this one because, seriously, who doesn’t LOVE the idea of Zombie Ants?  Really?  It’s the weirdest, creepiest, coolest thing I’d heard about in the last year or so.  And these pictures are awesome. (Also thanks to Wired.com.)

“Sidney Gottlieb proved to the world that there are few things more dangerous than a chemist with a metaphysical streak” — so says io9 post entitled “Every Crazy CIA Plot You’ve Heard of Originated With One Man” which is about CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb, who is apparently the man behind the infamous “poison cigar” scheme to assassinate Fidel Castro.

And finally: the COOLEST damn photo I think I have ever seen.  Saturn.  As seen from the NASA Cassini Orbiter.  It just goes to prove that sometimes real life really CAN be as amazing as science fiction, possibly even better.

If you have any cool science-related articles/posts to share, add them in the comments! I can always use more, and my other readers might just be interested too.

Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Science/Fantasy Monday: Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Few people outside the science/technology community have heard of him, but Ray Kurzweil is one of the kings of invention, and science fiction writers, at the very least, should become intimately familiar with his work.

He has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.

Ray Kurzweil is, first and foremost, an inventor.  He was the principle inventor/developer of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical text recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition, the first computer programs capable of composing music and poetry based on synthesized materials, and the first virtual performing artists (Ramona) to perform in front of a live audience with a live band (just to name a few accomplishments).

He has written six books and a multitude of articles.  He has started several companies.  And he has made several movies/documentaries, including The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future, based on his book of the same title, which is part fiction and part non-fiction; and Transcendent Man, a documentary about Kurzweil made while on his global speaking tour in 2008-2009 (which is curently available for streaming on Netflix).

Kurzweil is a very vocal advocate for futurism and transhumanism.  In his books he has made many forecasts for technological advancements, his arguments derived principally from Moore’s Law, which argues that the rate of innovation in computer technology is increasing not linearly but rather exponentially.  Kurzweil argues that because so much of science and technology depends on computing power, this exponential advancement in computer tech will likewise mean exponential advancement in non-computer sciences, like nanotech, biotech, and materials science.  He calls this concept the “Law of Accelerating Returns.”

Kurzweil is at heart the ultimate optimist.  His predictions include such amazing claims as:

  • Before 2050 medical advances will allow people to radically extend their lifespans while preserving quality of life through use of nanobots.
  • A computer will pass the Turing Test by 2029 (if you don’t know what the Turing Test is, well… then… I just don’t know what can be done for you… Kidding, kidding.  Go read this > Turing Test, and come right back.  I’ll wait.).
  • Sentient artificial intelligences will exhibit moral think and respect humans.
  • The line between human and machine will blur as machines attain human-level intelligence and humans start incorporating more tech into their bodies.

Admittedly, some of these predictions are a bit more far-fetched the others.  The thing is, many of the predictions made in his first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), came true.  As one example, he predicted that a computer would beat the World Chess Champion by 1998, and IBM’s Deep Blue computer did just that in May 1997.  On the other hand, many of his predictions don’t happen at all a fact continually pointed out by his critics (though I think it is unfair to expect him to always get everything right in order to be taken seriously, and if he was always right, I’d be worried about where the hell he actually came from).

Kurzweil’s predictions have given rise to a lot of criticism from within the scientific community and from the media.  Everyone from Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach) to scifi author Bruce Sterling have taken exception to at least some of his ideas.  I myself do not agree with everything he says, or find every prediction all that plausible.  As others have pointed out, and I readily agree, as Kurzweil moves farther away from his focus on technology to biological sciences, his ideas become more far-fetched, more utopian, and a little harder to swallow.

Biologist P.Z. Myer’s blog article about Kurzweil is one example of some of the harsh, but potentially valid criticism that has been laid against Ray Kurzweil in recent years: “Ray Kurzweil Does Not Understand the Brain.”

Ray Kurzweil is one of my heroes.  I love his books, especially The Age of Spiritual Machines and Singularity Is Near, passionately.  But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to his limitations, and that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything he says.  It is important that we think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions, especially where our heroes are concerned.

But agreeing with everything he says is not that point.  Especially not for science fiction writers.

The point is that this man thinks outside the box constantly and exuberantly, never dismissing any idea no matter how many people have already decided it’s impossible. In a world that is morbidly cynical about science and technology and the roles/consequences they will have in the future, Ray Kurzweil is unblinkingly, unapologetically optimistic.  And, at least some of the time, he is right.  His ideas, predictions, philosophies, and attitudes are positively ripe for the picking for future scientists and scifi writers alike.  While his relevancy within the science community may be fading, and his predictions are beginning to go off-mark, I believe he will remain and indispensable source of inspiration for science fiction writers.

Go read his books.  You’ll see what I mean.

Ray Kurzweil Links:

The Apes Will Rise: a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This is the inaugural post of my new themed blog days: Science/Fantasy Monday.  For an explanation of this see my ‘About’ page or “Rearranging the Furniture.”

On Sunday I went to the movies to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes with my brother.  We were both rather excited about it because we both loved the original Planet of the Apes movies, and after the fiasco that was the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, we were more the ready for a good version.  And Rise of the Planet of the Apes delivered.  It more than delivered.

My expectations for the movie, based on the previews and what I’d heard about it, were pretty high.  And yet the movie somehow managed to far exceed those expectations.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot: scientist Will Rodman is attempting to create drug to cure Alzheimer’s (which has claimed his father) and is in the process of testing the drug on apes.  It appears that the drug is successful, repairing damage to one apes brain and increasing her intelligence.  Unfortunately, due to a violent outburst mistakenly attributed to a side-effect of the drug, the test is canceled by Will’s boss and all the apes are put down.  However, the ape whose test had been successful had had a violent outburst because she had just given birth, so Will sneaks the newborn ape out of the lab and to his home in order to save its life.  Only later does he realize that the drug had been passed on the baby, making him extremely intelligent.  His father names the ape Caesar and the two raise him for years as he grows in intelligence.  When Caesar’s existence is discovered, he is taken away by court order to a ape house where the animals are severely mistreated, and the hyper intelligent Caesar begins plotting escape.  From here, things just get crazy.

While Will is obviously an important character, he is more a catalyst for the action than he is anything else.  The real main character of the story is very obviously Caesar, and it is his story of development, discovery, abandonment, and his rise to leadership and liberation that are the emotional core of the movie.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious elements and get it out of the way: the CGI (done by Weta Digital, who else?).  Unlike the original movies and the 2001 remake, which used costumes for the apes, this movie used CGI exclusively (using an abundance of reference to live actors, stunt doubles, and footage of real apes in action.  It was all beautifully done.  The detail was amazing, the movements were realistic, and the interaction between the CGI and the live actors was very well done.  The CGI was amazing, and it would have been much more difficult to enter into the reality of the story without realistic-looking apes.

We’ve got that out of the way now, right?  Yes?  Okay, good.  Let’s talk about Andy Serkis.

You may now him as Smeagol/Gollum from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.  He was also King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake of that movie.  Peter Jackson really loves working with Andy Serkis, but seriously, who doesn’t?  Andy Serkis, in combination with some really spot-on writing, MAKES this movie.  Andy Serkis played Caesar.  In order to make this movie as believable as possible, the director had Andy Serkis act out all the scenes with the full cast when you see Will (played by James Franco) hold Caesar’s hand, it is Andy Serkis that he is physically touching, not empty air.  Serkis wore a suit covered in tracking dots and other things to track his movements, right down to his facial expressions, so that all of this could then be incorporated into the CGI image of Caesar the ape.

But Andy Serkis is not just a place holder from CGI wizardry.  He is a serious actor playing a serious part to perfection.  He researched meticulously in order to get the movements, posture, and attitude just right. And while he doesn’t speak a word throughout his performance, his facial expressions and movement breathed life into what otherwise would have been nothing but a cypher.  This movie does not work unless the audience feels sympathy, affection, and even empathy with Caesar.  We have to feel for him, feel outraged on his behalf, and triumphant with him, or the movie falls apart at the seams.  Andy Serkis (as well as the writing), make this possible.

There have been petitions, on behalf of Andy Serkis, for the Academy Awards to change its rules so that an actor who portrays a character that is then animated through CGI can still be nominated for the Best Actor Award.  After this performance by Andy Serkis, the Academy should be seriously considering it.

While I’m on the topic of actors… James Franco, who played Will, did a surprisingly good job.  Let me say this about James Franco: sometimes he can be a very good actor and sometimes he can be extremely wooden and sometimes he just seems to be high on something.  He has a lot of potential, I think, he just isn’t consistent at all.  So I was a little worried about how he would do in this movie.  Thankfully, he seemed to take this role seriously, and the movie was better for it.

John Lithgow, who played Will’s father, also did a very good job with what could have been a fairly minor role for another actor.  Lithgow’s portrayal of a father with Alzheimer’s is first and foremost an instigator for Will’s actions, but Lithgow gives a touching, sympathetic performance which highlights the pain of victims of all forms of dementia, as well as their families.

Tom Felton (best known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), also makes a fine showing as one of the assholes who works at the ape house that mistreats Caesar and all the other apes.  Tom Felton is extremely adept at playing douche-bag villains.  I nearly cheered when he met his demise.

I should also add that a movie like this needs a smart, detail-oriented director, which they obviously got in Rupert Wyatt.  This is, apparently, only Wyatt’s second time directing a feature-length movie.  It’s amazing that a virtual unknown newbie managed to land this gig at all, and even more impressive that this newbie proved himself more than up to the task.  He’ll definitely be worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

Last, but certainly not least, I come to the writing.  This version was written and produced by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, inspired by the original novel by Pierre Boulle.  And they did an absolutely fantastic job with both the source material and their new take on it.  While based on the premise of the 4th movie in the original Planet of the Apes series: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this movie is vastly different.  Both movies focus quite heavily on animal cruelty but do so in entirely different ways.  The plot presented in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is far more believable a credit to the research and detail that went into the writing.  What is most striking about this movie, however, is that it not an action flick.  It is a serious drama with a bit of action tacked on to the end.  It is almost painful to watch in parts.  This movie is about science: its role, its potential, its consequences, and the dangers of treating it like a “business” whose main (perhaps only) goal is making money.  This is a movie about the ethical treatment of animals. About family and loyalty.  It asks hard questions about what makes something sentient, what makes something worthy of respect.

I honestly cannot stress enough how brilliant and touching this movie was.  It was not only extremely good science fiction, it was astoundingly important social commentary and human drama as well.  Everyone needs to see this movie, whether you liked (or even saw) the originals or not.  Go.  Now.  Then come tell me what you think.  It’s okay, I’ll wait here for you to get back.  You can thank me later.

And if you have seen it already, chime in!  I’d love to hear you what you think!

(Side Note: clicking on each image will take you to the article I took the image from.)

Is He a She? Using Pseudonyms To Hide Gender

image taken from wikipedia

Yesterday I discovered that famed and prolific science fiction author Andre Norton was, in fact, a woman.  I was shocked to the say the least, not because it’s not possible but because I didn’t know this already, so I dashed over to Wikipedia (have I mentioned lately how much I love that site?), where I learned that Andre Norton was born Alice Mary Norton (1912-2005).  After using the Andre Norton pseudonym for some time she had her name legally changed to Andre Alice Norton.  She also wrote under the names Andrew North and Allen Weston.  I already loved Andre Norton who is one of the most prolific scifi writers out there with over 300 published titles including the awesome Astra series but discovering that she was not only a woman but, in fact, the first woman to ever receive the Gandalf Grand Master Award from the World Science Fiction Society in 1977 makes me love her even more.

I just don’t know why I didn’t already know all this!  It’s not like I hadn’t already heard of plenty of other scifi/fantasy authors who were woman writing under male pseudonyms.  And, of course, there are many many more non-scifi/fantasy examples, perhaps the most obvious of which is George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans.

There are a number of examples in the scif/fantasy genres, including Paul Ash: a short story writer who was often published in Analog and Astounding Science Fiction, was nominated once for the Hugo and twice for the Nebula, and whose real name was Pauline Ashwell.

image taken from wikipedia

The most famous example of a female scifi writer who published under a male name is, of course, James Tiptree, Jr, born Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987).  Sheldon has one of the most fascinating careers of any scifi writer I know of.  She began as a graphic artist/painter, who worked as an art critic for the Chicago Sun from 1941-1942.  In 1942 she joined the U.S. Army Air Forces as part of the photointelligence group.  And in 1952 she and her husband were invited to join the CIA, which she did until she resigned in 1955 to return to college.  She earned a doctorate in Experimental Pyschology from George Washington University in 1967.  To make her even more interesting, she also had a complex relationship with her sexual orientation, once stating: “I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and woman who lit me up” (from Nisi Shawl’s “James Tiptree, Jr: The Amazing Lives of Writer Alice B. Sheldon”, published in Seattle Times, qtd in the Wikipedia article).

Sheldon adopted the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr in 1967 (Tiptree came from a marmalade jar and the “Jr” was her husband’s idea), thinking it would be easier to enter the scifi world as a man.  She successfully hid her identity until 1976, at which point several other scifi writers becames embarrassed: Robert Silverberg had written an introduction to Tiptree’s collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise, insisting that Tiptree could not possibly be a woman; and Harlan Ellison stated in an introduction to one of his own anthologies that “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man” (qtd in Wikipedia article).  Sheldon later said she regretted the male pseudonym as taking the easy way into the male-dominated world of publication.

This male domination is, however, precisely the reason so many woman writers have adopted male pseudonyms.  It is a simple fact that when novels first came on the scene (somewhere between 1600-1750 depending on who you talk to), it was the purview of men and men alone.  It was many years before woman writers could gain any true foothold.  And even as women finally gained acceptance in mainstream fiction, men still clearly dominated the scifi/fantasy genres until the 50’s or 60’s.  The only genre in which this male domination does not hold true is the romance genre 98% of all works in the romance genre are written by women.  Of course, there are men writing in the genre but most (not all) take on female personas, just as women took on male personas in scifi.  A couple good examples include Jessica Stirling, who is really Hugh C. Rae, and Tom E. Huff who writes under the names Edwina Marlow, Jennifer Wilde, Katherine St. Claire, and Beatrice Parker.

And then there are those whose names are ambiguous enough to leave it to the reader to decide if the writer is male or female.  Leigh Greenwood’s name is ambiguous enough to be either, and as a romance writer most assume female – but Greenwood is male.  Also, when I first heard of Terry Brooks when I was a kid looking at my mother’s bookcases, I thought he was a woman (but perhaps that was just me).  For women, this ambiguity is usually achieved by using first initials.  C.J. Cherryh (Carolyn Janice Cherry) used her initials to hide her gender and added an ‘h’ to the end of her last name so it would not look so much like a romance author’s name.  And while everyone now knows that J.K. Rowling is a woman, her editor first insisted on her using initials to make that fact a little less obvious.  They never outright lied about her gender, but they knew that most people generally first assume a writer is male unless the name is explicitly female.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to use a pseudonym besides hiding your gender.  Some use pseudonyms when they write in a variety of different genres and don’t want readers getting mixed up.  Other use them to keep their writing life separate from other professions, or to simply maintain their privacy.

So, have you ever used or considered using a pseudonym?  How about a pseudonym of the opposite gender?  Or one that is ambiguous enough to be either male or female?  Why or why not?