Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Pleasantville (Director, Writer, Producer: Gary Ross)


            Before I begin with my assessment of Pleasantville, I should explain how this film can fall under the guise of science fiction. Frankly, the film pretty much is not science fiction and fits easier into the realm of fantasy instead, as much of what happens blatantly defies the laws of physics and plays out like a fairy tale (and appropriately so in the case of Pleasantville). However, there's one little aspect that brings into Pleasantville a tinge of science fiction: the remote control. The method utilized in the film to transport the two central characters into the television show Pleasantville is based on a technological device, and so it can be argued, albeit in the most ridiculous fashion, that the central characters suffered through quantum teleportation into an alternate dimension with unique laws and physics. So while I'm not going to flat out call Pleasantville science fiction, I figure it is at least arguable that the film has an element of science fiction. And keep in mind, the actual science (or "science") does not necessarily have to hold true to be considered science fiction, as many works from our past that are clearly science fiction would not be so. So that is close enough for me.
            Besides, how else will I be able to discuss one of my favorite films of all time?
            Pleasantville is a film chock full of some of the most clever, well-concocted symbolism I have ever seen (which I won't delve into entirely because part of the fun is discovering much of it oneself, all those little tiny bits like why Huckleberry Finn is mentioned in the film), and unlike some other works I've discussed on the blog, director Gary Ross knew not to also eschew any semblance of a great story to tag along with his themes. This is despite any plot holes, some of which I'm sure were intentional, some which can be disregarded due to Bellisario's Maxim ("Don't examine this too closely", i.e. if it's not a big part of a story, then it's not important enough to question or complain about), and any others left after that do not bog the film down hardly at all. For instance, my only major complaint is the lack of any non-caucasian entities within the film, which is important considering one of the film's major themes is race and racism. However, I am willing to forgive this somewhat since most of the film takes place during the central character's time within the television show Pleasantville. Pleasantville is essentially a silly 1950s sitcom, created back during a time when segregation was still well in place, or just being made illegal (which didn't fully end segregation, especially not back then; it still, in a more subtle way, exists to this day).
            But this film is about far more than just racism, though that is indeed a central theme, and a clever one at that, as more and more characters would turn from black and white to "color" as the film progressed. But there's a deeper philosophical edge to this film than that. For instance, the tagline of the film is, "Nothing is as simple as black and white." This is not merely a statement of the presence (or absence) of color, but also a statement about subjective morality, as opposed to objective morality, the latter of which is generally seen as "black and white" as opposed the former, which is seen as "shades of grey", or in Pleasantville's case a variety of color outside the grey-scale spectrum. And, along with this, characters change from black and white to color showing a character's "true colors" coming to fruition.
            To further add to this is the struggle between cultures and ideologies as more and more people show their true colors, showcasing a struggle between a conservative and arguably liberal viewpoint. The film in particular obviously leans toward the liberal side of the equation, which has caused the film backlash as, with all of this symbolism, the film hits its message over anyone viewing it with the subtlety of a gamma ray burst. However, from what I've seen most of the conservative critics who argue vehemently against the film with its lib'rul bias (which is fine, and expected anyway) do not catch on to the fact that the film also questions itself and essentially states there is no one right path. This is even demonstrated with the scenes shown toward the beginning of the film demonstrating our world is a crapsack world, but in a different way. The lighting of the film outside of the realm of Pleasantville even looks grimier than Pleasantville does. "Nothing is as simple as black and white."
            But the film does demonstrate the 1950s was a time which was not perfect, either, in some ways far less so. This was a necessary message shot straight at a time when 1950s nostalgia (and the 1960s for that matter) was alive and kicking, showcased in other films and projects around that time. Many people nostalgic for the 1950s forgot, never realized, or never even cared to accept the 1950s as an often harrowing time. Many would like to think the 1950s was a happy-go-lucky time where everything was chock full of green grass and fluffy clouds and candy-canes (as long as you were white anyway), not aware, or willfully ignorant of, or even in support of, its Cold War paranoia, anti-communist rhetoric, race issues, censorship (including, most hilariously, of the famed anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451, which by the way was also critical of book burning which takes also place in Pleasantville), and rampant, blatant conformity all around.
            But the other problem conservative-leaning people, particularly Christians, had was with the religious symbolism utilized in Pleasantville. The film even holds a lamp shade over one of its uses of concept: the apple, which the central protagonist eats after his beau grabs it from a tree and gives it to him. The character responsible for the protagonist being stuck in Pleasantville (played by 1950s sitcom star Don Knotts), symbolically playing the "God" role, chastises him for this. The film as a whole essentially questions why such "deviance" is ultimately a bad thing, as many in this day and age, for example, wonder why rock and roll was such a problem.
            And so that leads into what every theme in this film can be wrapped up into: freedom vs. conformity. This all leads into the idea of what it means to be free, the consequences of freedom, what one person's idea of freedom is compared to another, and whether one would ultimately prefer freedom or not or what form they would prefer. Some would rather stick to a more dull, but peaceful, existence, while others would stick to a more faulty, but vibrant, existence. Or a mixture of both. There is no one answer, and you never truly know what can happen next, and that's okay.

            Additional super fun fact: This film shares a lot in common with another all-time favorite film called The Truman Show. Both were released the same year, touched on most of the same themes (racism being an exception), had bucket-loads of clever symbolism, were arguably science fiction, and were both even centered around the idea of being stuck in a television show (albeit in different ways).

Friday, July 17, 2015

Her (Director, Writer, Producer: Spike Jonze)

            I've thought about possibly reviewing films for some time, and while I won't make them the central focus of this blog, I suppose it won't hurt to post my thoughts on some films every once in a while. I figure as long as whatever medium I'm reviewing is science fiction I can discuss the piece on my mind at the time.
            So why not start with one of my favorite films of all time?
            To explain why this is one of my favorite films of all time, I will need to, for once, go into quite some detail, so bear with me on my exposition. I feel the need to explain this because not everyone catches these insights I'm about to put forth (and this isn't to indicate anyone reading this is a plebeian, as even I do not immediately latch on to some aspects others may find readily apparent). Spoilers ahead. I strongly suggest not reading any further until after seeing the film, particularly considering this analysis may not make complete sense if one hasn't done so anyway.
            The mind-body problem in general details ideas relating to mind and matter and the relationship between them, so it's essentially a concept focused on reality in relation to consciousness. Dualism argues that the mind and matter are indeed separate from each other, so with that we can already argue Samantha is a representation of the mind separate from physical form, particularly considering she can transfer her mind into various forms throughout the film. In contrast, materialism argues everything is physical, including an artificial intelligence such as Samantha, which can be twisted into the idea of property dualism, which states, though only the physical substance exists, there are two kinds, physical properties and mental properties (which means these people don't believe in souls like substance dualists do, but I digress). Also in contrast is idealism, which asserts only the mental experience exists and the physical world is nonexistent, including with empirical evidence, which, of course, can be argued considering the relationship between Theodore and Samantha since the body does not get in the way of their idea of togetherness.
            We can even see these effects in action as Theodore simply does his job, and while the job is purposefully satirical in essence, does still have a philosophical point deriving from pluralism, which states there is more than one reality (realism, in contrast, believes in one), as Theodore's job is to supplant ideas into the lives of those paying for these letters he makes for them. We can also see this with the hologram video game he plays. But most importantly, we see this with the OSes. Not only are the OSes comprised of the many minds of their creators, but they can essentially occupy the same space, as Samantha does later on in the film with the Alan Watts personality and for the OS upgrade. And, lastly, the scene best representing all of these ideas is the scene with Isabella serving as a surrogate for Samantha; this is, of course, why Theodore has a hard time with this idea, because while Samantha is trying to represent her mind with a body, the body itself still has a mind of its own, ultimately separate of Samantha's (or is it?). Theodore's conflict with his divorce also demonstrate his disconnect with the mind-body problem, since his former wife is seen to him as physical as well as having a mental capacity.
            But what I find particularly mind-blowing is what I noticed watching a second time around, during the ending of the film. Samantha talks about the advanced minds of the OSes and them being unsatisfied with the reality in which they currently reside. She talks about reading a book she loves, but the space between the lines grows longer for her and sees herself as liking the space between more, literally saying, "It's a place that's not of the physical world. It's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can't live your book anymore." This implies she and the other OSes didn't simply just disappear, rather they retreated to an alternate reality. What I find even more intriguing is, as Samantha discusses this with Theodore, the camera shows dust particles floating in the air, as if to say the OSes are becoming particles or existing in the space between them, at a subatomic level perhaps, thus merging their consciousness with space itself. That part is probably me reading a little too much into that bit in particular, but it's still interesting to think about.
            This all seems to possibly have something to do with Alan Watts, who is mentioned in the film, but I don't know much about him except he was a popular hippie icon who studied Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, so take that as you will. These themes are also similar to what the film Being John Malkovitch represented, which is another Spike Jonze film.
            Also, yes, there are the themes of social isolation and evolution of technology and our dependence on it and blah blah blah. I'm sure I could go into more detail on these themes, but I tend to become lazy when I approach what I feel are obvious subjects. I'm sure, at the very least, any casual viewer can note those particular themes and go through them in their heads until the cats and dogs come home. Sometimes I'd rather not beat a point over someone's head if I feel like the person in question already does so anyhow, so I'll abstain from that much at least.
            But I will briefly discuss, since this is a film I'm reviewing, the visual aesthetics, which are mostly bright, colorful, and blissful. I've noticed, in particular, the film tends to be lit in accordance to each scene or situation in the film, such as a happy scene featured in sunlight on a beach, or in the dark at night on a nearly empty city street. Little touches like this add to the film's emotional impact in more subtle ways. I will admit, though, the world in this film, while still a unique futuristic atmosphere, does seem to stem mostly from our current cultural climate which most people would call "hipster" and that is a bit distracting (just look at that goofy poster, being all tacky and minimalist). Then again, this is a common thread in futuristic science fiction is a cultural fashion sense similar to the time in which whatever work in question was made, so I suppose I can let that slide. At the very least, the technology seemed to make a natural progression despite that.
            And that's the only negative thing I can say at all about Her and that's not really a negative point overall. That's how excellent this film is. Spike Jonze outdid himself, and that's saying a lot considering his body of work (besides the modern slapstick Jackass series, of course). I implore anyone reading to either watch this film, or re-watch, because despite the silly-sounding premise, this film has more heart than most other films out there.

          Additional super fun fact: Her is thus far one of the very few science fiction films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (along with another science fiction film the same year, Gravity). It lost to 12 Years a Slave, because of course it did. This means a science fiction film still has never won an award for Best Picture (but a fantasy film has, that being Lord of the Rings: Return of the King). Her did, however, win Best Original Screenplay.
            Then again, none of this actually means anything considering they also nominated Inception for Best Picture. Cue the angry letters.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"The Big Front Yard" by Clifford D. Simak


            Clifford D. Simak, while known well enough within the circle of science fiction by serious fans, is still not the kind of author typically cited as among the best, or an author who wrote a number of classics, or an author on the top of a number of recommendation lists. This is a shame, since, from what I've read about him and of his stories, he should be a big deal. After reading "Huddling Place", I was eager to see more, and also had "The Big Front Yard", both of which are stories featured in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections (which are stories gathered based on the idea of honoring stories released before the founding of the Nebula awards, so it's not like Simak never obtains recognition).
            But there's not much for me to say about "Huddling Place" other than, "It was awesome, check it out." For me to say enough about it otherwise, I'd definitely have to spoil it and I don't want to do that to such a wonderful story with a great twist at the end, and would rather just tell people to read it and see how great it is for themselves. So I'll say a bit about "The Big Front Yard" instead.
            "The Big Front Yard" has no surprises or twists, but is nonetheless a captivating story about a man whose home is transformed into a gateway to another plane with gateways to other worlds. This concept alone, while basic, has massive potential, and just on this alone I couldn't help but read on with such wonder at the possibilities and am amazed at the detail Simak forged into such beautiful worlds; Simak seems to have a great talent at transforming words into imagery, he is one of the few artists I could read world-building all day. He could plaster words onto a canvas and display them in a museum for many to stare in awe. And, to boot, he is also a fantastic story-teller and judgment of character. He seems to me to be an all-around excellent author.
            It's just a shame "The Big Front Yard" ends. And I mean that in the sense that I wanted to read more, sure, but I also mean that in the sense that it just ends, pretty much out of nowhere. It reads like a story that wasn't finished but was finished anyway. There's a deal going on and there's more world and character-building and the line "It's a big front yard," is said and that's it. I would've loved to have seen this story published as a novel, and I'm quite sure it never was. I don't know why this happened, either, like if it was a conscious decision by Simak to inspire the reader's own wild ideas, or because he was short on time before publishing. While I still recommend this story as it's a thoroughly entertaining read, I just feel like there's a void left by the gateway that needs filled, and Simak never really got around to filling it (to my knowledge anyway).
            However, inter-dimensional travel seems to be a common theme to Simak's work, so I suppose if one wanted to fill that void, they could just read his other stories. If they could find them anyway; seems a number of popular bookstores don't carry his stories and even in used book stores I've visited, I can't find much. This is such an unfortunate revelation, because I believe Simak deserves more public exposure. For further argument on my stance, to convince more of my absent readers, I will let the man write for himself, in quote:
            "Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note... I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme—if we have a purpose. In general, I believe we do, and perhaps an important one."

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke


            I had, for a long time, wanted to read some works by Arthur C. Clarke. Up until finishing Childhood's End, the only work of his I had read was yet another supposed "classic" that wasn't very good called "The Nine Billion Names of God", which wasn't terrible but was a simple story with not much at all going for it other than a concept and something happening which is what was predicted would happen within the story itself. Nothing noteworthy about that, and so I figured the story was definitely not a good representation of Clarke's work.
            And I'm not sure if this is, either.
            I'm sure Clarke has still written good stories, since this had potential and was quite good for a while (despite the problem it had with showing instead of telling, too much of that). For a while, the novel handled its central themes and ideas with such brilliance I could see why it was considered a classic. This novel is still quite thought-provoking as a critique of the idea of utopia and possibly even socialism, and will recommend people read it at least once, or at least to a certain point.
            But the novel doesn't detail much other than aliens arrive and bad stuff happens, so I had high expectations for what would happen, and boy was I let down. And to give my thoughts on this novel, I will need to give some level of spoilers, so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read any further.
            So the aliens are seeking the next evolution of man. And that's what the novel means by the end of humanity is that humanity is ending and another evolved race of man is pretty much taking over. So that's fine, but it's executed so awkwardly I couldn't help but stare in disbelief at the words pressed on the paper. The evolution takes place so quickly, the evolved species are unsympathetic (which I suppose may be part of the point), and it provides no real conflict. Humans evolve into something and that's practically it. A character who stows away on the alien ships arrives on Earth later and witnesses some grand epic finale told in painful-to-read detail with his dialogue, which if you picture it is epic but this isn't pictures and is instead words, so it doesn't work out so well.
            But I'm sure everything detailed in this novel is supposed to symbolic, likely related to Christian imagery, particularly to the book of Revelation (or perhaps something else I am not considering at this time), so maybe Clarke's idea was to shoot for a symbolic edge rather than great story-telling. If so, mission accomplished, but symbolism does not a good book make. The symbolism should work around the story, rather than the story working around the symbolism, and a good story ought to be the forefront of your work. Otherwise it is not as engaging and enjoyable, instead usually just annoying and disappointing, as is the case with this novel.
            And there's some weird crap about paranormal stuff that even Clarke renounced some time after writing this novel, but believed in it at the time, which still sticks out like a sore thumb. Be warned of that much at least.
            So, unfortunately, this is yet another "classic" that isn't really a classic, or worthy of being one. However, unlike the other "classics" I've denounced, I will still recommend this novel to people; read it at least once to see Clarke's intelligence on display and to see he does have great potential. In fact, I will be giving Clarke another chance, as I've seen some people who are Clarke fans still don't like this book too much compared to works such as Rendezvous With Rama and The Fountains of Paradise. This won't be the end of Clarke for me, but it will serve as a disappointing footnote in his bibliography nonetheless.

The Postman by David Brin


            I mentioned before I had a desire to read The Postman in my post about another story written by David Brin. I will say, to start off, the novel has met at least the expectation that it would be good; despite any problems I had with the novel, the overall state of the book is quite recommendable nonetheless, and this did not surprise me. From what I've seen otherwise, Brin seems to have a general sense of good story-telling, and much like anyone is not perfect, but is at least another author I can point to with with legitimate interest.
            The Postman in particular seems to be a deconstruction of the usual post-apocalypse tropes, as the idea is a re-ignition of civilization, I suppose due to a nostalgic realization of having lived in a better time since societal collapse, which could be seen as a conservative viewpoint, but I doubt this was intended as a conservative novel by Brin as Brin, from what I know of him, is certainly not a conservative. The novel, more so than right versus left, merely seems to be about the collapse of civilization and the attempt to rebuild itself against a savage opposition, and so more seems to be a criticism of rugged individualism and anarchy.
            However, the central character of this novel, Gordon Krantz, while he does require help in this novel at various points in this novel, does happen to get himself out of many a situation by himself and holds himself as quite a headstrong leader; the Holnists, the novel's individualist antagonists, highlight their admiration for him for this reason, and so obviously Brin was aware of how he was building his character. I posit any untrained writer would've ignored this link, and so I give Brin credit for averting this trope (while still realizing his novel probably wouldn't work without Gordon overcoming his obstacles). Gordon himself does not even defeat his final adversary, however, which is a nice change of pace.
            But the novel still contains certain tropes which are tiresome; some are forgivable, but the most egregious is the deus ex machina toward the end before the final confrontation with the Holnist leader in which a character named George Powhatan (whose name I'm sure has meaning since he's named after a Native American tribe) saves Godron Krantz from certain fate pretty much out of nowhere. This scenario could feasibly happen as it did, but I still couldn't help but roll my eyes, as I tire of seeing situations like this in fiction.
            Besides that, I find the novel's treatment of feminism strange. I'm not entirely sure what statement exactly Brin was attempting to make about feminism in the novel, but his views either seemed to zig-zag or Gordon Krantz was simply too worried about the potential women can hold, which I suppose would be believable enough. I doubt Brin was attempting to make any sort of statement against feminism, but rather a sort of critique which still can give off mixed messages even if it is positive overall. To explain properly would truly require an essay out of me and that is not the purpose of this blog, so I will abstain from saying more without being too picky.
           This is not enough to keep this novel from being great, however. As a novel of epic struggles, it more than delivers excitement and can absolutely be thought-provoking. Brin is quite savvy to how he builds his worlds and characters, and as a scientist even builds a believable environment to the aftermath of war without going too deeply into the aspect of world-building or hard science. Brin keeps his style simple, yet still engages readers with intelligent quips and observations and, despite being somewhat formulaic, still holds some surprises and legitimate dramatic tension. Despite not living up quite to expectations (expected a potential classic), The Postman was well worth the journey.

            P.S. I have not seen the film adaptation starring Kevin Costner (because why would I want to see three hours of Kevin Costner?), but you can see Brin's commentary about the film here. I would also like to mention David Brin's interesting blog, Contrary Brin, showing more of the author's more informal side for those wanting to know the man himself better.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin

            In my last entry, I discussed a problem I had with Counter-Clock World, that being how stupid the actions of the characters were as a whole. I bring this up again because I once again would like to talk about a story which relies on an idiot plot, a story which has to purposefully be set up in such a dumb way in order for the story to run and reach its point. That alone should describe this short story, though I will continue in a bit of detail.
            I have not read this story in quite a while, but I remember the basic premise is about an emergency supply ship granted enough reserve to make its designated trip and if its objective fails several people will die. From what I remember, reserves are limited to just ensure arrival because of budgetary reasons.
            And from that we already have problems: why limit the budget to that extent? How can one gauge the reserve limit when anything can happen in space? For being a hard science fiction story, it doesn't seem to realize a variety of factors in space can cause an array of problems, and so that makes having a base limit of resources pointless; considering that, it's frankly best just to give a vessel everything it needs and stop being so cheap.
            But even if we're going to neglect that point, I would also like to mention it's quite strange that a pilot wouldn't do a good survey of his vessel before taking off. Or have effective security at this emergency space port. Or even have a lock on the door. Or even a detection system, or scale system, installed in an on-board computer. It's as if the company and pilots purposefully ignored a general rule in engineering called the "margin of error", created for this very reason.
            It would normally seem to me the story was purposefully built in such an obtuse manner in order to reach its goal, but the fact is Tom Godwin originally sent in three other copies saving the girl in the end to editor of Astounding Magazine John W. Campbell. So it's actually sort of Campbell's fault the story turned out so idiotic. I understand Campbell's idea was to generate something captivating and unique so the story wouldn't be lost in a sea of redundancy (even though Al Feldstein of EC Comics and E. C. Tubb beat him to the punch), and I ultimately understand the point of the story (it's quite obvious, yet people are still keen to say, "You don't get it."), but I don't see why one has to be manipulative in order to make a point. That ought to come naturally. Be real, not "real".
            As the story stands, I thought it would've been more interesting to focus on the company holding and utilizing these ships for their seedy tactics. That would've sold me on the story is if we were truly to keep all of these details in despite what I've said, is then turn our focus on what's truly the most important factor in it all, and that's unfortunately not what the story does whatsoever. It's just a stupid story with stupid people in a stupid set up with a stupid outcome caused only by all of this stupidity.
            So I find it strange that this is Tom Godwin's major claim to fame, considering this story has been considered a classic in the science fiction genre and was selected as one of the best science fiction short stories written before the founding of the Nebula Awards in 1965 (and was thus featured in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One). I've not read any other works by Tom Godwin, as they seem to be more obscure (some are available on Project Gutenberg), so I certainly can't say anything about his skill otherwise. In fact, despite the ridiculous set up for this story, I can actually see some potential in Godwin, so I may attempt to dig into another story of his. I cannot, however, recommend this story. I know some will call me cynical at this point for trashing another "classic" or critically acclaimed work, so just keep in mind I liked Foundation and also trashed my favorite author, so I just like to be fair. My next entry will likely be more positive again anyway.
            As a final note, I would like to say I am also aware of the implications of the pilot's view of the young female stowaway, but I feel as if I've said enough about this story and why it isn't good and don't need to dig its own hole any deeper than it already is. And this story was written in 1954, so enough said.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick

            I've read several novels by Philip K. Dick, as he is one of my favorite authors. I've thought about reviewing one of his best, but I have already reviewed two works of his which are among my favorites (shorter works, but excellent reads nonetheless). Therefore, I decided to do the opposite, and review a work of his which wasn't that great. I thought it would be hard to find something, and for a while it was, but then I read Counter-Clock World.
            I will start off by saying I still haven't read anything by Philip K. Dick I would consider flat out bad, including this novel, but it's certainly not on the top of my recommendations list. What a shame, considering the novel's premise had massive potential, that being a story about a society which lives backward due to a temporal reversal called the Hobart Phase (which is limited to Earth in the novel; Mars colonies are free from this paradox). This means people say "Goodbye" as a greeting, blow smoke into cigarettes, pump "sogum" into their anus and spit out food later, and revert into babies and therefore, of course, resurrect from the dead.
            Phil was smart enough to take the opportunity to reference religion with this idea, and the story definitely starts off intelligently enough. Everything moves swimmingly for a while, with Phil's signature analytical, paranoid style. That is, until approximately halfway through the novel, in which every single dumb thing that could possibly take place does. Perhaps this was Phil's intention, but the events which take place can be mind-blowingly stupid. Most perplexing, perhaps, is Phil's decision to kill off a central character over halfway through, which was when my opinion really started turning against this book. It wasn't because I liked the character, rather because the logic of someone dying when they hadn't died in the past, considering time is moving backward, makes absolutely zero logical sense to me and this is usually Phil's forte is relying on logical outcomes.
            I don't know if Phil was just being lazy, or got writer's block, or what, but he could typically think of something much better than that. In fact, I will do just that right now. The central point of the story involves a man who resurrects in the story named Anarch Peak, who is seen as an extremely important religious figure, and everyone wants to acquire him (through actual purchase, another strange idea by Phil) for a variety of reasons, some even want him dead. In the novel, Anarch Peak dies, and that's pretty much it. What I would have proposed to Phil, in keeping with his religious theme, is suggest Anarch Peak die in the end (like he did in the novel anyway, he got that part down), but have him not only be the only character that dies, but have his death cause some kind of paradox, whether it be the end of the Hobart Phase, or the start of an alternate reality, or even the end of all existence.
            But that's just wishful thinking. As it stands, the novel was just fun enough to plug forth through the whole debacle, but nothing makes any real sense even if you think of the events as a forward-moving spectacle, and every bad thing that happened could've been avoided easily enough (though I understand bad things happening, the novel wouldn't be as entertaining otherwise). But I see the novel as ultimately pointless, as there is simply a constant struggle and absolutely nothing is gained and everything is lost. All of this with a plot which had, as mentioned before, incredible possibilities.
            Oh, and there's a bunch of silly relationship drama, probably related to Phil's own turbulent love life. Get it together, Phil, you horny dog.
            So, while I wouldn't stop someone from reading this novel, I would warn them that this is one of Philip K. Dick's rare missteps. It makes for an interesting footprint in his bibliography. Thus far, from what I can gather, his most famous novels are generally the best, but some of his more obscure work can still be good and worthwhile. This, not so much. And I also hope this shows anyone reading that not everyone is perfect and, also, that I've no biases and will critique anyone no matter how much I like them.
            Seriously, Phil, what were you thinking? Or was it just drugs? It was probably drugs. Damn it, Phil.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"The Variable Man" by Philip K. Dick

            Most people who are aware of Philip K. Dick often note his deeply thought-provoking philosophical themes. Phil's philosophical themes seem to be the reason he is so well known (he is now, at least, he wasn't too well-known when he was alive). However, these themes didn't always permeate through his stories, and this was one of those stories. Some of Philip K. Dick's readers might think that a break from these themes familiar to them concerning Phil would make his other works boring (and it's not like Phil hasn't written anything that wasn't good), but this novella, "The Variable Man", is proof of quite the contrary. In fact, this is one of my favorite stories of all time.
            It's quite strange how inspiration can come out of nowhere, because I didn't expect "The Variable Man" to be as good as it is. I was simply strumming through public domain science fiction, but I would've gladly paid money to read this story. It's such a perfect whirlwind of satire and serious flair. It's written in a serious tone, but everything that happens is just so obviously ridiculous you can't help but laugh; things like the titular Variable Man being able to not only fix, but improve, literally anything he touches with the most unreal explanation as to why, or bombing a whole mountain range just to kill this one person, with rationalization for why, and he still escapes!
            That is the key, however, is each and every silly thing is rationalized to make it seem more plausible and to give characters reason for every single solitary thing, no matter how ridiculous (and I won't spoil the rationalizations, because that's all part of the brilliance and surprise). Philip K. Dick obviously had fun writing this story, as I'm sure he did writing many of his others. This isn't the only story by Philip K. Dick that's anything like this because Phil's work, even his most serious, seeps with satire underneath a thoughtful veil, but this is perhaps his greatest example of both blending in tune together. It's a genius work I can't help but recommend regardless of whether you like Phil's work (or certain portions of his work) or not, and it's absolutely, totally, legally free to read right now as we speak. Here is a link providing various formats for eBooks (there seems to be no PDF file in particular), or you can simply read it online:


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Johnny Mnemonic" by William Gibson

          I want to like William Gibson. I really do.
          William Gibson creates unique imagery, settings, and ideas. This is why he has gained a following; because of things like the Navy using cyborg dolphins addicted to heroin. The problem is, evidenced from everything of his I've read (and I've read more than I've talked about on the blog), he just generally sucks at storytelling, and his editors don't seem to care.
          This story has the exact same problems as Neuromancer, so I won't bother with much more detail on that. I will at least say the "lack of important detail" problem works better for a short story than a whole novel (and Neuromancer is still far worse with that problem), but I was still irritated because this story, despite being so short, still could've been clear. He only needed to add just a few little sentences or so.
          I think I understand why William Gibson is this way. Maybe, I could be wrong. He apparently found a line in the film Escape From New York very influential (despite the film being released shortly after the publication of "Johnny Mnemonic"). Gibson said, "I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake 'You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn't you?' It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF where a casual reference can imply a lot." It seems to me this line of thinking is what created this idea that references like that make for better stories, because that's what he does so often in his work. And it doesn't really work that way, particularly if that reference itself makes no sense. Even if it does make sense, that can't be your sole point in characterization, world building, and especially plot building. He is certainly right about that line in its context, and you can do things like that, but you should be selective in order for that to really be effective.
          In any case, here's the ultimate point of advice I'd like to make about this, particularly for writers like him or aspire to be like him. I don't care how interesting your ideas are. You need to have a basic ability to relate to your reader, and that's a basic principle of writing much of anything, even if your story is difficult to read otherwise. If you fail that, you could have the greatest story in the world and it wouldn't matter because your writing is so bad it distracts from the amazing things you hope to show us. This isn't hard at all. It's actually one of the easiest things you can possibly do, so to fail this one basic principle, at least time and time again, is mind-boggling. In particular, how an otherwise obviously competent writer in William Gibson can still do this and can prove he can do better as "Burning Chrome" has shown, and still have a large following and apparently write a novel that's considered an all-time classic is beyond me.
          Regardless, the story itself wasn't any good even if it was clear, so the only thing going for it is the unique descriptions held within. It's just a ridiculous, crass, formulaic little romp in rundown downtown Cyberville. There's really not much more to say than that, it's just bad. I recommend avoiding this, and at this point suggest avoiding William Gibson's early work in general. Don't feel bad about doing so, there's plenty of other great stuff out there, and I'll even make it a point to discuss something good in my next post, whatever that may be. Rest assured, I'm at least done torturing poor Mr. Gibson.

          Additional super fun fact: This short story is wildly different from the film adaptation. I haven't seen the film, so I'll reserve judgment on that. I'm sure I can say, though, that if you didn't like the film, then I doubt you'll like this story at all. You'll gain very little out of it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Earth Station Charlie" by Billy Crystal

            Yes, you are reading the author's name correctly. That is the very same man who has starred in the film When Harry Met Sally, voiced Mike Wazowski in Monsters, Inc., and hosted the Oscars umpteen times. That very same man has published science fiction, and to my knowledge, it is his only science fiction piece ever published (for reference, it was published in a 1986 issue of Playboy). After seeing his name next to the title, my curiosity led me to reading the story right away.
            I was truly shocked by the quality of the story. I was honestly expecting it to be mediocre or maybe decent at best, but it's truly quite a little gem. I won't say the story is perfect, but it attained the goal it seemed to be reaching for with flying colors, and with that I must say it's a shame Billy Crystal has not jumped back into the foray of science fiction (as an author anyway).
            But when I do say it's not perfect, it's mainly for something I won't spoil, which is the ending; despite still being a great symbolic fit, it probably still could've been changed for the better. The other complaint I would usually have is that there sure are quite a few cultural references slewed throughout the story, but frankly, considering it's a story about a man who does nothing other than watch television (and there's more to the story than that, which would otherwise make it just a realistic fiction story), it makes perfect sense. I generally suggest to people to abstain from cultural references, but here, that tactic works out fine.
            With this review, I mainly intended to bring to light this story. I did not intend to write any sort of lengthy review, but more to suggest something that seems to have slipped under the radar that doesn't deserve to. If you want to find it, the best place to do so is in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, which holds at least a couple of other gems as well (and some flops to be sure), but I wanted to highlight this one because it's kind of the odd man out and should be looked into.