Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Word About Genre: Soft Sci-Fi

If you have watched a few episodes of Bones, you know that Dr. Temperance Brennan dislikes, abhors and has little appreciation for the soft sciences, to put it mildly. These sciences are psychology, sociology, politics, are the focus of soft science fiction. The plots of soft sci-fi focus on character development or societal problems than on scientific elements. The first Star Trek is one of my favorite examples. The setting, modes of transport, presence of aliens, etc squarely place Star Trek in the sci-fi genre. But the plots revolve around the captain and the crew of the starship Enterprise, their loves, their losses, their conflicts.

Don't get distracted by the term "soft" as these books can be harsh and cruel indeed. For example, The Road by Cormac McCarthy could easily fit into this genre because the story focuses on the thoughts and feelings of the father with practically no detail explaining why the earth was destroyed and its food stocks decimated. However, the story is horrifying and down-right disturbing (so much so that I cannot force myself to finish it).

Included within this genre are the space opera (think Star Wars, especially episodes I-III) and science fantasy (Startling Stories, Weird Tales and other collections of pulp shorts). I might return to these later but suffice to say that soft science fiction and her sub-genres are the reason why science fiction and fantasy sit side by side in book stores.

Finally, soft science fiction is not necessarily bad science or vice versa, although some would have you believe that. Think of the hard-soft binary as a line. On the left side you have hard science based on modern, real hard sciences. On the left side you have soft sciences focusing on human relationships and problems. All science fiction exists between these two poles. If you go all one way you either end up with a scientific treatise lacking in plot or in a romance novel.*

*Please note, the romance I am describing is a literary form which engages the fantastic and the supernatural. Shakespeare's The Tempest is a romantic play which certainly lacks any modern notions of romance between the supposed lovers.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

District 9

It would be difficult to evaluate this film without referring to apartheid in South Africa. The parallels between the alien "prawns" and the black South Africans are blatant. The location of District 9 where the prawns were kept was very recently a neighborhood from which its inhabitants were evicted. Humans become increasingly inhumane, revealing our darkest traits. Wilkus, the human protagonist, cares little about the rights of the prawns, not even their right to life. When he serves eviction notices, he does not care if the aliens can understand or comply if they do understand.

The aliens lack of hostility but are treated brutally. The are imprisoned, denied the right to work, to move. They are even denied the right to procreation with their egg/pods aborted when discovered. The humans claim that the prawns do not care about their offspring, despite evidence of the opposite in Christopher's care for his son.

The humans are drawn by their weapons technology, which only the alien species can use. Only those who wish to exploit the aliens will interact with them. Their only desire is to use the technology for destruction. There is little to no concern about the prawn's welfare.

Wilkus is poisoned when he tampers with vial of liquid which two aliens had been filling. This poison begins to mutate his DNA. As he transforms into a prawn, he discovers the humanity in both the aliens and himself. The prawns instinctivly flock to rescue him when he is in danger. At the end, he is identifiable only by his one blue eye.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Word About Genre: Hard Sci-Fi

While science-fiction has much in common with pornography (just look for a book by Kilgore Trout and see where you find yourself), the hard vs soft distinction in science fiction is about the gratuitous display of scientific accuracy. Hard science-fiction sticks to the hard sciences: physics, biology, astronomy. While the fictional world of hard science fiction does not necessarily correlate to our world, the author portrays these elements in scientific and technical detail.

Isaac Assimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who were part of the Big 3 in sci-fi, are two of the earliest authors in the hard sci-fi genre. They also exemplify some of the difficulties with extrapolation and hypothesizing future inventions, which can make their works feel quite dated.

If you know the how and the why of phenomena, you've probably got yourself some hard sci-fi. If things are a little magical and unexplained, focusing mostly on the mental and social aspects, then it leans toward the soft side of the scale. There is some gray area in the middle. Sometimes, what is dressed as hard, scientific fact is just plain our silly magic. If someone explains in great detail how a ship moves at or faster than the speed of light, you've got a strange ambiguity on your hands. Modern science states than any object with mass travelling at such a speed would do so at infinite energy expenditure and enlarging to infinite mass. Or the object would go back in time. Which would really upset everything. So while someone may use or even explain "warp speed", it just isn't real. But somethings have to be different or unreal if the book is science fiction, right? Or else you just end up with fiction.

The genre has suffered since the 50's and, with it, Disneyland's Home of Tomorrow. The expectations of hover cars and robotic nannies featured in Jetsons are a long way off if anyone ever gets around to them. Computer hacking, genetic splicing and cloning, and biological warfare are the subjects of modern hard sci-fi.

I am not passing judgment on whether one end of the spectrum is better than the other. Hard science fiction can be fascinating because the hypothetical has a chance of becoming the real. I also find that hard science fiction writers take their readers a little more seriously, anticipating our rigorous and analytical questions and probing in ways that the early Star Trek and Star Wars actors and writers could never imagine. But hard science fiction can also be tedious and overly pedagogical. The trick is to find a balance between the science and the fiction, not forsaking one for the other.

Classic Examples:
Inconstant Moon
The Mars Trilogy
Rainbows End

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Avatar was terrible. How can anyone have spent so much time and money on a movie without even trying to write a script for it. It was just Disney's Pocahontas with blue cat furries, artwork stolen from Roger Dean (art designer for Yes), and the Dunbar from Dances with Wolves. I didn't even get to enjoy the 3-D since, despite buying tickets days in advance online and waiting a very long time in a very long line, we still ended up sitting way off to one side of the screen. The angle was so nauseous that my mother left about a quarter through the movie.

If you were to read the "artists'" description of the themes and influences, you might think this movie was pretty deep. But I don't go for five and dime morality. But don't let their make-believe integrity fool you. According to Cameron, the whole love story wouldn't work out unless the blue chick was sexy as all get out.

This isn't even sci-fi. It's just a cheap knock off without the Disney song. Oh, and with a lot of magic since Marine Moron was explaining everything. James Cameron, you fail.

I know that none of my observations will sound original because almost everyone has noticed the similarities between the hijacked works of others and this travesty. But in my defense, these are my observations. I noticed the similarity to Roger Dean immediately in the dragon things and the mountains. I have a whole collection of what might be considered Roger Dean trading cards, a complete deck of them plus some spares. Other people have pointed out that the story is a lot like Fern Gully but I can't remember that movie from my childhood.

I really hope I do not have to endure any more of this Avatar stuff but I fear that Cameron will see his financial success as artistic success and make a sequel.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Word About Genre

Science-fiction is a genre in itself but it consists of several sub-genres, many of which can be furthered divided. To save myself the difficulty of frequently writing out "sub-genre" and "sub-sub-genre", I am going to shift science-fiction into its own category in which further divisions can be drawn.

I intend these posts to be a basic primer to terms I might throw around carelessly. Each genre will have it's own label. Any entry on a work of science-fiction that falls into a particular genre will also bear that label. This way, you can search "genre" for all of my entries on the various genres and subs as well as the name of each genre for both the description and posts that fit within the genre. Most science fiction has multiple themes and a single work may fall into more than one genre. I will, however, attempt to classify works by their most salient genre.

As I add genres, I will try to label all the appropriate works. I will also, eventually, include a list of works under each genre description. I will probably only add titles of the works most appropriate to that genre as a heuristic of the genre rather than attempting to create an exhaustive list.

Alternative Reality/Parallel Universe

*This post has been back-dated to place it at the head of the "Word about Genre" posts. I have also edited some of these posts in recognition that I might some day have an audience who does not suffer from my chronic condition in which I hear every thing that I think.*