Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Where do you get your ideas?
The answer to this most cliched of interview questions asked of SF authors is, of course, Robert Heinlein. At least for Theodore Sturgeon, it was. In a Guest of Honor speech at a SF convention, Sturgeon recounts an instance of writers block:
I went into a horrible dry spell one time. It was a desperate dry spell and an awful lot depended on me getting writing again. Finally, I wrote to Bob Heinlein. I told him my troubles; that I couldn't write-perhaps it was that I had no ideas in my head that would strike a story. By return airmail-I don't know how he did it-I got back 26 story ideas. Some of them ran for a page and a half; one or two of them were a line or two. I mean, there were story ideas that some writers would give their left ear for. Some of them were merely suggestions; just little hints, things that will spark a writer like, 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'And now Letters of Note has reproduced the entire Heinlein letter in question, complete with all 26 ideas and amusing banter ("To have the incomparable and always scintillating Sturgeon ask for ideas is like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it.") Also, funny how they refer to each other as Bob and Ted. Heh. Anyway, here's some of my favorite story ideas:
a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you.Heinlein notes that this is more John Campbell-ish than Sturgeon-ish, but this idea is actually quite Heinleinian. The letter was written in 1955, but you can see a lot of these sorta proto-libertarian ideas, even this early in his life. Another idea:
The bloke sells dreams, in pills. Euphoria, along with your fantasy, is guaranteed. The pills are not toxic, nor are they harmful the way narcotics are, but they are habit-forming as the euphoria dreams are much better than reality. Can the Pure Foods & Drugs people act?That one is pure Phillip K. Dick (Heinlein and Sturgeon would probably call him Phil). More ideas:
We know very little about multiple personality, despite the many case records. Suppose a hypnoanalyst makes a deep investigation into a schizoid...and comes up with with the fact that it is a separate and non-crazy personality in the body, distinct from the nominal one, and that this new personality is a refugee from (say) 2100 A.D., when conditions are so intolerable that escape into another body and another time (even this period) is to be preferred, even at the expense of living more or less helplessly in another man's body.Reading a letter like this, while appreciating the generosity, I can't help but think that it's not really the ideas that matter. These are all fantastic ideas and Heinlein is brilliant here, but we all have great ideas. Ideas are important, but perhaps not as important as we like to believe. You still have to deliver on that idea, which is harder than it looks and that's also where the likes of Heinlein and Sturgeon made a name for themselves. Conversely, there are folks who manage to take dumb ideas and make them into something profound. It's all in that process that the magic lies. Ideas are easy. Heck, I have my own SFnal idea about multiple personality syndrome. But do I have the stones to do anything about it? Well, it is NaNoWriMo... Only 2 days left, but who knows?
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
The latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga actually focuses on one of the colorful side characters of Bujold's Vor universe: Ivan Vorpatril. Variously referred to as "That idiot Ivan" (or directly addressed as "Ivan, you idiot!") among other variations, Ivan is often played as a foil for Miles (the central character for this 15 book or so series, though Miles takes a minimal role in this particular installment). In early novels, Ivan is generally portrayed as a lazy but handsome womanizer type, completely harmless and lacking in ambition. One wouldn't think that this would make for a particularly compelling or even sympathetic protagonist, but as the series progresses, you get a better feel for the character and his motivations (or rather, the environment which caused such). Indeed, his laziness is carefully constructed, and probably more work than it would be to actually apply himself.
You see, both Miles and Ivan are technically in line for succession to the Emperor's throne. This sounds fine and dandy, but on Barrayar (the planet these stories revolve around), being a serious contender for the throne makes one a target for assassination plots, conspiracy theorists, political muck-raking, and general misery. Miles, by virtue of his mutated appearance (among other qualities that would take way too long to go into here), is mostly exempted from this pressure, to the point where he has a sorta opposite problem. But Ivan is the tall, dark, and handsome type, the perfect vision of a leader. And in terms of succession, he's basically next in line. If he even hinted at applying himself, he'd probably be portrayed as a potential usurper to the throne by political enemies (of both Ivan's family and the Emperor, or whoever thought they could benefit from some additional instability in the ruling class). If this seems paranoid, well, sure, but we've seen such happenings throughout the series (whether that be actual military coups, or political enemies portraying someone as a potential revolutionary). To forestall such political wrangling (not to mention the aforementioned assassination attempts and whatnot), Ivan has carefully cultivated an air of lazy incompetence so that he could never be taken seriously by any political operatives or revolutionaries or what have you.
As the series progresses and Emperor Gregor ascends to the throne and actually manages to stabilize and grow Barrayar, not to mention take a wife and start popping out kids, the pressure on Ivan is released somewhat. As such, we start to see that he's not as dumb as he appears. I particularly enjoyed his role in A Civil Campaign. At the start of Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Ivan is living as a comfortable Bachelor, but a certain restlessness has crept in. Enter a friend and Barrayaran intelligence operative with a strange request to look after an attractive young woman who may be in danger, appealing to Ivan's Barrayaran sense of chivalry.
I actually don't want to get into too much detail about the plot. The first act basically plays out like a spy thriller with a dash of romance, while the second act turns into more of a comedy of errors kinda thing (akin to A Civil Campaign), and the third act morphs into a sorta heist story. The first half of the book is great and funny and I found myself wearing a stupid grin and laughing a lot. Things slow down just a bit in the middle as Bujold maneuvers for the final act, which is also quite good. I'd put this somewhere towards the top of the Vor series in terms of enjoyability, certainly better than the last two installments (which were no slouches, to be sure), though not quite reaching the peaks of my favorite novels.
Again, I don't want to give too much away, but Ivan's romantic interest is Tej Arqua, and while their introduction may have been harried and rushed in convenience, they actually do match together rather well. Tej is from a house of Jackson's Hole, which is the Vor universe's sorta free-for-all capitalist planet, with no real rule of law. Her house has just been attacked and split up, with members of her family hiding in exile... which is when Ivan runs into her. Eventually she begins to get a feel for the man and his planet. In line with the above discussion, Tej has Ivan pegged as "...a middling Vor officer of middling responsibilities and middling rank. Just middling along." To which someone replies that such a sentiment is a "charming understatement," while explaining Ivan's family and potential of succession...
Bujold has mentioned that she intends the book to work as a stand-alone to first-time readers, but so much of what I enjoyed about the book came from the fact that I've read all the previous novels. I'm positive that it would work for new readers, but I don't know that you'd get that stupid grin and engage in laugh-out-loud moments like I was if you don't get the background. That being said, I do appreciate that Bujold tends to make her novels stand-alone stories, rather than relying on cliffhangers and multi-book stories (even if there are character arcs that go across multiple books, each book generally tells a self-contained story). I would still recommend that you start the series with Shards of Honor or The Warrior's Apprentice, but all things considered, this one is pretty darn good.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
I'm rather busy being thankful for things, so for now, just a few linkys to keep things interesting:
Sunday, November 18, 2012
A couple months ago, the Filmspotting SVU podcast discussed what's known as Hyperlink Cinema, those movies that are comprised of multiple, seemingly independent but actually interconnected narratives, and co-host Matt Singer came up with a test: "Would these stories hold up on their own without each other? If we pulled one story out and made it a short film, would that short film be worth watching on its own?" That's an interesting criteria for these movies, as so much of what makes them interesting is not the story itself, but the structure. These movies are screenwriters' dreams, lots of opportunity for playing with time and locations and themes, and devising a way to make it all a big puzzle that unravels itself as the movie plays out. What Singer is getting at with his test is that many of these films sacrifice character or drama in order to make the structure work...
So how does Cloud Atlas, the new film from the Wachowski siblings (is that what we're supposed to call them now?) and Tom Tykwer, hold up against that test? I'd say it doesn't hold up that well, but there's enough going on in this movie that I think it remains worthwhile, and given that the theme of the movie is essentially that everything is connected, it makes sense for the movie to be a slave to its structure. Based on a sprawling, ambitious novel by David Mitchell, the movie tells six different tales, ranging from the distant past to the distant future, with the same actors playing roles in each timeline. There's some notion of reincarnation or distant relationship between each actor/character and each timeline, and each story is connected to each other in some way or another.
Unfortunately, all of the stories are trite and clichéd. Some work better than others, but I get the impression that they're almost parodies of their respective genres. The movie is certainly self-aware enough that it might try for that sort of thing, and not having read the book, I can't say whether or not that was an intention, but in practice, it doesn't quite congeal the way I think they hoped it would. That being said, none of the stories are boring, and the real triumph of this movie is one of editing. The transitions between each story are relatively seamless, with visual motifs used to great effect while still quickly and effectively establishing which story you're in. While I was puzzling out how each story related to the other (which is part of the fun of hyperlink cinema), I was never confused as to what story I was watching or what was going on. The Wachowskis and Tykwer make this look easy, but I'm of the opinion that this sort of thing is much harder than it looks, and I was really surprised at how well done that aspect was.
Of the six stories, the one I liked the most was set in a futuristic Korea, where a clone escapes servitude and becomes a sorta rebel. It had a very 70s science fiction sorta feel to it, complete with shocking Soylent Green style revelations. The ending of this segment left a little something to be desired, and there is some amazingly bad makeup in evidence here, but it was the most interesting of the six segments. I actually enjoyed all the other tales well enough, though again, there's a lot of cliché to wade through, including some really on-the-nose type stuff (especially with the slavery segment).
While I don't think any of these stories, if lifted from the movie and screened separately, would work by itself, each one of them has a hook that could lead to a great story or movie. The general ideas of each story are solid enough, it's just perhaps the act of compression combined with the didacticism of the script that lets the movie down. I'd be really curious to see how well the book actually accomplishes this. I imagine a lot of subtleties of this story would be better suited to the written word than the screen.
For instance, this is a movie with a message, and boy do they really want you to know that. This is one of the more didactic movies I've seen this year, with characters constantly spouting the story's themes in clumsy and awkward dialogue. The notion that everything is connected, that small actions have far-reaching consequences, that inaction is an action, these are all fascinating topics, but the movie clearly doesn't trust the audience to make those connections and frequently lays them out in bald, explicit, literal speeches. This sort of thing tends to work better on the page than it does onscreen, and because I'm sure Mitchell was not constrained by things like length, he could perhaps have spread the themes out so they didn't seem like a sledgehammer hitting your face.
In terms of performances, everything is mostly adequate, though I do think some of the makeup jobs were distracting and unnecessary (others were not nearly as bad, and some were very successful). From a technical perspective, everything works very well. Visually impressive, and for a movie this didactic, I thought a lot of the visual transitions between stories were exceptionally well done. Again, the editing is perfect, and the music is quite effective as well.
I've ultimately come away with a good feeling from this movie, but it's also clearly got some big flaws that hold it back. I'm actually quite impressed with how well the stories were weaved together, and I found the movie entertaining and thought provoking, I just wish that the filmmakers trusted us viewers a little more.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Pop Quiz, Hot Shot: James Bond
So I saw Skyfall a few days ago, and whenever a new Bond movie comes up, it seems that I always reminisce about all the other Bond movies I've seen. After approximately two minutes of exhaustive googling, I've determined that there aren't any quizes or memes or whatever that I can
1) Favorite James Bond actor?
Well, it might seem trite and cliche to say Sean Connery, but there's a reason he's the typical answer to this question. He more or less originated the character as we know him, so it's tough to go with anyone else. However, if Daniel Craig continues his run (he's 2 for 3 at this point, by my reckoning) for a few more good movies, he could give Connery a run for his money. Unlikely, though.
2) Favorite James Bond movie?
Casino Royale is the movie that really hooked me into Bond, and I think it remains my favorite for numerous reasons. In particular, the first third of that movie is utterly perfect and the best action film out of all of the series. The second and third acts drag a little bit and things do get convoluted at times, but it all worked out reasonably well for me. I'd say Goldfinger deserves some recognition as the film that really refined and perfected the Bond formula. Of the other Bond films, I like a lot of them, but many are middling efforts at best, and most don't seem to age very well. That being said, even the bad ones aren't without their charm, which is why the series has been so enduring.
3) Worst James Bond movie?
I'll give this to Never Say Never Again, though Diamonds Are Forever is nipping pretty closely at its heals. The commonality with both these movies is that they were failed attempts to reinstate Connery as Bond. Also, they're nigh incomprehensible stories. The one saving grace for Diamonds are the henchmen, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. Oh sure, they're silly characters and make no real sense, but they stand out in a movie that bad. That's kind of damning with faint praise, to be sure, but that's why I went with Never as the worst.
4) Favorite villain/henchman?
The one/two punch of Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob from Goldfinger is pretty hard to beat.
5) Favorite Bondian double-entendre?
Another obvious win for Goldfinger: Pussy Galore. However, that answer is so blindingly obvious that this should really be the Pussy Galore memorial list. And thus, I think Octopussy merits special mention, not just because it's silly, but because they actually went ahead and named the movie after the double entendre.
6) Favorite Bond girl?
The obvious answer is Honey Ryder, played by Ursula Andress, from Dr. No, but since that's so obvious, I'll go with Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, from Casino Royale.
7) Name an under-appreciated Bond moment.
Moonraker has garnered a rather low reputation among the Bond films, perhaps even rightfully so, but one of my favorite moments in all of the movies is in Moonraker. Bond is hanging out at the estate of the villainous Hugo Drax, and in his villainy, he invites Bond to participate in a pheasant hunt. He even hands Connery a shotgun. But it's a ruse! One of Drax's henchmen has taken up residence in a nearby tree and levels his sniper rifle at Bond's head. Just then, a few pheasants are kicked up. Bond lifts his gun, gives the birds a lead, then pulls the trigger. Drax laughs and says "You missed!" Cut to man in tree falling, cause Bond just shot him. Bond says "Did I?" Annnnd scene! Sheer brilliance. Watch it online here.
To finish this comprehensive survey of James Bond films, I leave you with this parting thought, something I think we all say at some point whenever a new Bond movie is out:
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Book Clubbing It
I've fallen behind on book reviewing, partially because I've been doing other stuff but also because I've been reading at a pretty fast pace this year. According to Goodreads, I'm clocking in at 43 books so far this year, which might be my highest ever total in terms of quantity (though it should be noted that at least a couple are very short, novellas and the like, and even most full novels are in the 300-400 page range). So I'm going to start catching up on reviews in the next few weeks, starting with a trio of books I read for a book club at work. Book clubs represent a funny dynamic, as people tend to flex in and out of the club depending on the chosen book, and it's near impossible to choose a book that everyone will want to read. That being said, I've hit up most of the selected books, and even mentioned a couple of them in previous roundups. Here's some of the more recent picks:
Thursday, November 08, 2012
Belated Link Dump
Time was shorter than expected last night due to unforeseen events at work and yet another Nor'easter. A thousand pardons for not posting. So here are a few things I found interesting on the internets of late:
Sunday, November 04, 2012
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on the Disney/Lucasfilm Deal
In the midst of the Frankenstorm, those of us on the east coast felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out... in joy! We feared that... something wonderful had happened. Alright, so calling this deal "wonderful" is an exaggeration, but on the whole, I think this will be a positive thing for Star Wars nerds everywhere. For the uninitiated, earlier this week, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, a deal encompassing the Star Wars franchise as well as ancillary entities like ILM and Skywalker Sound. In addition, Disney announced that it plans to release Star Wars Episode VII in 2015. No details on the creative aspects of that movie except that George Lucas will remain involved as a "creative consultant".
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in November 2012.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
12 Days of Christmas
2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
2008 Movie Awards
2009 Movie Awards
2010 Movie Awards
2011 Fantastic Fest
2011 Movie Awards
6 Weeks of Halloween
Arts & Letters
Computers & Internet
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival 2008
Philadelphia Film Festival 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival 2010
Science & Technology
Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Movie of the Week
Copyright © 1999 - 2012 by Mark Ciocco.