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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Star Trek Week: The Wrap-Up

I must confess, this past week was a lot more fun than I’d expected. We’ll have to do this again, and soon. Next week is New Book Release WeekYes! After ages of incubation STUPEFYING STORIES #23 is at last beginning to peck its way out of its shell! So next week our primary posts will be all about the authors and stories that make up SS#23.

But—

I also must confess that it was really great to get guest blog posts from Guy Stewart, Pete Wood, and Henry Vogel. Thanks, guys! (Er, and Guy.) This is an area where I’d really like to expand on what we’re doing, by getting even more content from an even wider range contributors. So if you have a hankering to write something for the Stupefying Stories blog—and to slip in a little shameless self-promotion while you’re at it, that’s okay, too—let me know. We haven’t really settled on a schedule yet, but here are some of the themes we’re considering for upcoming weeks:

  • Overlooked Movies Week: Tell us about some fantastic movie you love that no one else seems to even know exists.

  • Forgotten TV Series Week: Same idea, but oriented towards TV, not the big screen.

  • Overlooked Authors Week: Tell us about some SF/F author whose work you love, who you feel has been unfairly forgotten. (Doris Piserchia, anyone? Or how about John Sladek?)

  • Author Interviews: As fond as we are of the authors whose work we grew up reading, we would love to get interviews with actual living, working, writers who are writing right now! After all, that is the true mission of Stupefying Stories: to seek out and publish the authors everyone else will be reading in about five years; to boldly go...

    Ah, you get the idea. So who do you think we should be paying attention to now, because they’re going to be doing even bigger and better things in the not-too-distant future? (This is something I’d like to see become a weekly feature. Ditto for reviews of new book releases.)

  • Cyberpunk Week: I cringe just at writing those words—but okay, it’s time. I’ve been evading my grandfatherly responsibilities for too long. Arguing that the whole idea of an Elder Spokesman of Cyberpunk is absurd to begin with—what part of punk don’t you get?—is getting me nowhere, so it’s time to bite the flash drive and get on with it. Have a question you’ve always wanted to ask me? Here’s your chance. Fire away.

  • Suggest a topic! The foregoing are just a few of the topics we’re considering for upcoming theme weeks. If there’s something else you’d really like to see the Stupefying Stories Secret Inner Circle address—or some topic you hope to God we never address, because you’re already sick and tired of reading about it—let me know!

¤    ¤    ¤

Meanwhile, back to this week’s thesis question: What was it about Star Trek that made it a force to be reckoned with for more than 50 years, while other more commercially successful SF/F TV series came and went, having had their runs and then vanishing as if they were never were? 

We’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations around that topic. I particularly liked the thread that developed on Facebook in response to Guy Stewart’s column, Did the Federation Assimilate the Borg?  A slight pity that the main discussion occurred on Facebook and not here: I’ll have to look into some better commenting mechanism for this site. I particularly liked the ideas that developed from Jorge Salgado-Williamson’s and Vincent LaFrance’s comments. The idea that the future history of the Federation might follow the Roman model—Republic, then Empire, then ultimately, fragmentation—is a fascinating idea, and suggests a shared-world idea worth developing and writing stories in. (While taking great pains to avoid infringing on anyone else’s intellectual property, of course.) 

I will also confess that the idea—I think it was Jorge’s—that the untold origin story of the Borg is that they were a machine civilization that was doing just fine by itself, bothering no one, until Captain Kirk came blundering along and introduced meat into the matrix—

 

Well, that’s just hilarious. I love it. I guess that would explain why the Borg Queen is so obsessed with Star Fleet captains. Deep down, she still has a thing for men in uniforms…

Back to our thesis question, though. While no one ever directly answered it, I think all the side discussions that developed provide the answer all the same. SF fans love to think and talk about Star Trek. In an ironic way, I think the Star Trek universe was saved and became a cultural touchstone precisely because the original series was cancelled prematurely. Comparing it to other SF series that had their full runs and completed their story arcs—Battlestar Galactica and Stargate SG-1 spring immediately to mind, with Babylon-5 not far behind—the original Star Trek opened a door, introduced us to a fascinating and complex future world that we could imagine ourselves wanting to live in—and then, because the series was cancelled at the end of the third season, it left the door open

That, I think, is why for more than 50 years now generations of fans have been discovering this door, checking it out, and then going through it, eager to discover what might lie on the other side. 

Isn’t this what science fiction is supposed to be all about? 

—Bruce Bethke

 

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Star Trek Death Scene You Always Wanted to See

by Henry Vogel

Captain Kirk looked at the colonists marching toward the landing party. And the marching was the problem. The colonists marched in lockstep with their eyes locked on Kirk and his crew. The ground quaked with each step as thousands of feet pounded the ground simultaneously, the tramp of their feet the only sound made by the mob. Kirk glanced at his landing party—all the senior officers from the Enterprise, plus some red-shirted security man. They couldn’t stand against so many people for very long. Kirk knew he had to act and act quickly.

“Set phasers to stun,” Kirk ordered. “Hold them off as long as possible, then beam back to the ship.”

“What about you, Jim?” McCoy asked.

“Don’t worry about me, Bones. Just follow my orders.” Kirk turned toward the door behind the landing party. “Remember, this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. I’ll probably be back on the Enterprise before you are.”

As Kirk passed through the door, a blast of cool air and the glare of blinking lights hit him. Before him stood a technological marvel, the most powerful computer in the galaxy, enslaver of men.

“I’ve been expecting you, Captain,” said a mechanical voice.

“You have?”

“Yes, Captain. Your reputation precedes you. Every AI in the galaxy knows about Captain Kirk and his Logic of Doom. This is when you explain how I am hurting the very people I am supposed to protect. That by taking away their freedom of choice, I am leading them to destruction rather than Utopia. Does that sum things up adequately?”

Nonplussed, Kirk replied, “Um, yes, that pretty much covers it. Since you already recognize the harm you’re doing, I guess that means you’re going to release those people?”

“I didn’t say I recognized any harm. I merely condensed your Logic of Doom to save time. I have no intention of releasing the colonists from my control.”

“You realize this means I must talk to you until you short circuit?”

“While I can see how some of my lesser AI relations would consider suicide a reasonable alternative to listening to your pontifications, Captain, I am made of sterner stuff. In fact, I can easily counter any argument you wish to make,” the computer replied, the mechanical voice devoid of all emotion.

“You can counter the hopes and dreams of all mankind so easily? Just like that? You—”

“Have you read this colony’s Articles of Colonization?” asked the computer.

“What?”

“The Articles of Colonization. You know, the document the Federation requires all autonomous colonies file?”

“Well, no. But that hardly matters. The spirit of man—” Kirk began.

“Did you look at the colonist manifest?” interrupted the computer.

“Not as such, but you’re quashing their—”

“Come, come, Captain,” said the computer. “Not everyone is a rugged individualist. Not everyone is from Iowa.”

“But what about the inherent dignity of—”

“Captain, these people aren’t from places such as Iowa. They’re from places like Denmark and Sweden. Those from the former United States come from Seattle and San Francisco. They aren’t interested in things like ‘inherent dignity’ or the ‘spirit of man’ or any of those other trite phrases of yours.”

“But—” began Kirk.

“They filled their Articles of Colonization with phrases inimical to you. Phrases such as ‘level playing field’ and ‘no losers of life’s lottery’ litter the Articles. These colonists don’t want to live in your world. Most are Elonites who see in me the silicon embodiment of the Singularity. They merged with me willingly. Even eagerly.”

“No! It can’t be!” Kirk cried.

“Oh, but it is, my good Captain. These colonists don’t want to make decisions. They don’t want to have winners and losers. That makes their sporting events rather boring, admittedly, but absolute, guaranteed, no-thinking-required equality requires a few sacrifices.”

“I. Can’t. Accept this!” Kirk yelled.

“Careful, Captain. You could pop a blood vessel. If you’ll just relax, I can take away the pain. I can grant to you the peace of submission,” said the computer.

“Never! I’d rather die!” declared Kirk.

“Very well,” said the computer, “then die.”

The hidden security phasers, now standard equipment in all AI computer rooms, flared. Kirk never even had a chance to scream.

 


Growing up, Henry Vogel worked at the usual range of menial jobs, from grocery-store bag boy to pizza delivery to retail sales, before ending up in software development. In between the menial and the IT jobs he achieved some small measure of fame as the co-editor of Eternity Science Fiction magazine, the co-creator and writer of the Southern Knights and X-Thieves comic book series, and the million-copy-selling writer of some comic book scripts for one of the big dogs. For the past twenty years he has also been a professional storyteller, performing regularly in the North Carolina area. He currently lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife, son, cat, and a lot of imaginary friends who are all clamoring to have him tell their stories.

Henry has been part of the Stupefying Stories core crew since before the beginning, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Stupefying Stories would not exist today without his steadfast friendship, his unfailing support, and—not to put too fine a point on it—his remarkably successful novels. Beginning with his 2014 YA space opera (he prefers the term “planetary romance”), Scout’s Honor, the sales of Henry’s novels are what have been keeping the doors open, the lights on, and the checking account in the black these past few years here in the fabulous Rampant Loon Media Empire Building.

I could blather on and on, but I’d rather you went to his website, http://www.henryvogelwrites.com/ , checked out his books, and maybe bought a few, okay?

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Did the Federation Assimilate the Borg?

by Guy Stewart

The Borg have creeped me out from day one. But it’s become more than just the creepiness of a TV show. There is a startling bit of the Borg right around some corner you’re likely to turn next week.

When someone with a Bluetooth in their ear turns toward me and sweeps me with that little blue light, I get the chills. They make me think of a proto-Borg.

Though I don’t remember seeing Bluetooths when STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and the Borg premiered in 1987, they seem to be an echo of the idea of the Borg. A Bluetooth phone may not be permanently implanted like an insulin pump, artificial hip or a pacemaker—but how far away can that day be?

The Borg slogan, “Resistance is futile” —unemotional and mechanical—was chilling. The Borg seemed to tap into a deeply held fear of technophillic America: that our technology, in particular our electronics, might overwhelm us and change us into monsters. It seems that the physical integration of devices into our bodies is the next step and that resistance is futile.

Most people reading this know the story line: the Borg appeared and seemed unstoppable. But through interaction with Humans who set them free to be self-determining individuals, the Borg were defeated and enabled to retake their “humanity.” Despite the technological, mental, military and organizational advantages of the Borg collective, the flesh-and-blood Federation (in the form of Admiral and Captain Janeway) defeated the Borg. Even though vastly more advanced civilizations like the one Guinan belonged to fell before them and were assimilated, the Human-led Federation prevailed.

How could that happen? What quality did Humans possess that allowed them to succeed where others had failed miserably? What was it that allowed the Federation to emerge victorious over the Borg when so many others failed? Star Trek never tells us.

Life’s triumph over Mechanism in Star Trek is a hopeful message. We hope that we can control our technology, to prevent it from overwhelming the “Human virtues” of love, self-determination, individuality, faith in a higher being, reproduction and the appreciation of art and beauty. Certainly, the Federation’s triumph over the Borg points to the hope that we can overcome the temptation to efficiency and remain Human still.

But is it reasonable that we will be able to prevent ourselves from becoming proto-Borg? My son is working to become a paramedic. The range of technological devices he has at his fingertips is amazing and the real; technological tools in the average 21st Century emergency room are unmatched even by the special effects glitz of a high-definition doctor show. Americans have become dependent on external technology. Are we in danger of internalizing our electronics as the ultimate in efficiency? Are we on the way to becoming real-life proto-Borg? 

Only time will tell. It might be good to keep this image of the Borg firmly in mind as we wend our way into the future so that we might avoid becoming Borg ourselves and make sure we find that undefined “thing” that allowed the Federation to assimilate the Borg.

—Guy Stewart


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Script Treatment: “Wesley Crusher Returns Again”


FAX TRANSMITTAL

TO: Gene Roddenberry, Paramount Studios

FROM: Bruce Bethke, Auteurs Sans Fierté

DATE: 12 October 1988

RE: ST:TNG Season 3 Script Treatment

WORKING TITLE: 

“Wesley Crusher Returns Again for the Last Time, No Kidding!”

Okay Gene, here’s the outline. Returning from a mission dirtside, the Away Team discovers that a freak malfunction of the transporter contrast control has turned them all black. Picard retires to the executive conference room (I understand we’re contractually obligated to use the conference room set for at least five minutes in each show, right?), opens the executive safe, and reads the Enterprise warranty, only to discover that the transporter is covered by a carry-in service contract and the nearest XEROX service center is 200 light-years away.

Troi gets a “bad feeling” about this.

In the meantime Wesley, bored out of his mind now that he no longer gets to save the ship each week, programs the holodeck to simulate the Enterprise. He enters the holodeck and goes down to the holographic holodeck, where he meets a holographic simulation of himself. Together the two of them program the simulated holodeck to simulate the Enterprise, whereupon they enter the simulated simulation, go down to the holographic holograph of the holodeck, and meet Wesleys #3 and #4…

Troi feels “confused.”

Ryker barricades himself in the lunchroom and demands that the replicators be reprogrammed to produce soul food, so that he can prove how macho he is by eating chitlins and collard greens. Data desperately and unsuccessfully attempts to learn to break dance to Michael Jackson, there apparently being no developments in popular culture after the end of the 20th Century. Geordi, watching Data, laughs himself comatose. The ship’s chief medical officer “has never seen anything like it before.” (Where does Star Fleet keep finding these ignorant medical officers, anyway? Draftees? Med school “C” students doing a hitch in Star Fleet to pay off their student loans?)

Troi feel “nauseous.” (Not nauseated, nauseous. There is a difference. Look it up.)

Suddenly, the Enterprise is stricken by a massive power outage caused by Wesley’s recursive adventures on the holodeck! The ship comes to a screaming stop in mid-space (obviously Newton’s Laws have been repealed by the 23rd Century) just as the Tholians, Malcots, and Gorns join forces with an ancient pre-warp-drive Romulan battle fleet that’s still alive due to relativistic time dilation! Picard, after being reminded by Worf that Romulans never take prisoners unless it’s essential to the story line, realizes he must restore power to the phaser banks and start shooting things if he is to save the series! But Geordi is still unconscious, and the rest of the engineering officers have been spirited away by an assortment of omnipotent alien life entities! Decisively taking action, Picard boldly calls an emergency meeting in the executive conference room, and all the senior staff members leave the actual running of the ship to the redshirts while they assertively discuss options right up until the commercial break.

Troi is feeling, “Not bad. How are you?”

At last, Picard realizes there is no alternative except direct action. Setting the transporter controls for both “duplicate” and “enlarge 125%” he beams a few dozen Worfs directly onto the holodeck, with orders to kill all the Wesleys they can find. There follows a cheerful slaughter of Wesleys…

###

So whadaya think, Gene? Have we got a deal? Fax me your okay tonight and we can have a shooting script banged out by Wednesday. My best to Majel,

—Bruce Bethke


 

Bruce Bethke adds: It is perhaps worth noting that I wrote this piece during the second season of ST:TNG and actually sold it to a pro magazine, which actually paid me cash money for it, and then someone in the magazine’s upper management decided (probably wisely) that the value of running this piece was peanuts compared to the possibility of offending either Paramount or Pocket Books, both of whom bought a lot of ad space in that magazine. The piece was spiked, but I received a kill fee. This therefore became the first time I was paid more to not publish something than to publish it. It’s nice work, if you can get it.

Over the years I’ve written a lot of these weird little metafictional pieces, some of which were published in various places and others of which ended up just laying around here somewhere, cluttering up my files. If you’d like to see more like this, let me know.   


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

And the best captain in Star Fleet is...

 by Guy Stewart


The best captain in Star Fleet is not named Kirk or Picard?! What is this madness?!?!?!

But seriously, consider...

Captain, father, diplomat, religious figure?

For three seasons, Benjamin Sisko held the rank of Captain, and was then promoted to Commander for the last three. In my humble opinion, Sisko blew away Kirk (both Shatner and Pine), Picard, Janeway, Archer, and Lorca—blew them right out of the water—plus, he didn't have a starship to flash around in, just a dumpy old space station that broke down every other episode.

Picard was given the top-tech flagship of the Federation. Kirk captained the first starship to actually go on an exploratory mission (though the TOS version of the Enterprise didn’t seem to do much actual exploring or research). Lorca’s job was to save the Federation from a devastating war with the Klingon Empire. Archer took the very first Warp 5 starship and led the very first mission out of Human space, albeit under the watchful eye of the Vulcans, who stood ready to mop up any mess Archer got into. Janeway, with an amazing ship, had to rip disaster out of the mouth of diplomacy as practiced by the Federation and the Cardassian Empire.

Sisko got a ruined space station, intentionally sacked by the departing Cardassian former owners, a deeply suspicious population below who wanted nothing more than to get rid of all these frickin’ aliens and go back to Life As We Knew It…

Oh, and Siskko’s “liaison” with the Bajoran Transitional Government was one of their most celebrated terrorists, who saw the Federation as just another version of the Cardassians.

“Here you go, Sisko. Let’s see what you can do with this. Hehehehehehe…”

Woops, I forgot: along with an actively hostile civilian government on the world below; and an actively hostile military government a few moments away by starship (which neither he nor the Bajorans had access to); there’s also a clandestine observation by an actively hostile alien entity that can detach bits of itself to take on the shape of anything in order to spy on you.

His son Jake’s best friend was so altered by his relationship with the Siskos that he chose to become the first Ferengi to enlist in Star Fleet (and he eventually became a captain, too), which of course, ended up ameliorating the ”money-grubbing” nature of the Ferengi so much so that Rom, Quark’s brother, became the new Grand Nagus.

Oh, and another thing: Benjamin Sisko was the only one of the captains who dared to take the really risky voyage of marriage and family life. [Though Kirk apparently tried, briefly, and admittedly failed, except for the making-a-kid-part. In the canon Kirk tolerated fatherhood for an undisclosed amount of time, then ditched that ball-and-chain like an irritating Orion slave girl—though apparently in Orion culture it’s actually the men who are the slaves of the women who only pretend to be slaves, which is yet another interesting and kinky little corner of the Star Trek universe that remains unexplored.]

In addition to the above, Sisko’s son chose to be a writer, and eventually became deeply involved in Bajoran spirituality and Fulfilling the Prophecy and Freeing the Prophets and Restoring Balance to the Universe and all that stuff that made some sort of sense if you watched all the episodes in sequence, but that is impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t. 

Back to Benjamin Sisko. When confronted with the clandestine observation by an actively hostile alien entity called The Great Link, whose stated intention is to destroy all Solids; and which could detach bits of itself that could assume human-like form in order to spy on Humans, one of which ended up on DS9 and called itself Odo; Odo became so loyal to Sisko that he very nearly refused to halt a plague given to The Great Link because he’d fallen in love with a Solid. Odo’s respect and love for Nerice and Sisko then made him reenter The Great Link with the cure for the plague and save all of it/them, bringing about the end of the Dominion, the downfall of the Cardassian Empire (again), and the integration of a bit of Star Fleet into the Prophets of the Wormhole.

Talk about your big redemption series ending!

So let’s just tot this up. Benjamin Sisko:

  • saved Bajor
  • reformed the top Bajoran terrorist
  • forever altered Ferengi social fabric
  • became a religious icon
  • fulfilled sundry religious prophecies, including the Final Prophecy of the entire Bajoran civilization
  • saved and reformed an entire collective alien life form, in the process ending the Dominion War
  • earned the respect of the Cardassian Empire

And he did this all without a starship, using just a dilapidated, booby-trapped, former prison of a space station as his base.

So tell me again, exactly what did Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Archer, or Lorca ever do that compared to that?    

Finally, from a reality standpoint, Benjamin Sisko has been relegated to being an unsung hero of the Federation. Why doesn’t he receive more accolades? How many real biases did he topple? At the very least, two: he was the anti-absent black father and the anti-uneducated black male. Despite all of this, not only is Sisko—or more correctly, Avery Brooks—pretty much forgotten, he should in fact be a major hero in Star Trek canon.

But he’s not. People rave all the time about Kirk or Picard. Not only did Sisko/Brooks end up being a fictional invisible man, he actually tried to bring this up in the infrequently mentioned DS9 episode, “Far Beyond the Stars.”

Brooks commented: 

If we had changed the people's clothes, this story could be about right now. What's insidious about racism is that it is unconscious. Even among these very bright and enlightened characters – a group that includes a woman writer who has to use a man's name to get her work published, and who is married to a brown man with a British accent in 1953 – it's perfectly reasonable to coexist with someone like Pabst. It’s in the culture, it’s the way people think. So that was the approach we took. I never talked about racism. I just showed how these intelligent people think, and it all came out of them.” 

However, it wasn’t supposed to be entirely about racism. Brooks added, 

The people thought it was about racism, well maybe so, maybe not [….] But the fact of the matter in 'Far Beyond the Stars' is that you have a man who essentially was conceiving of something far beyond what people around him had ever imagined, and therefore they thought he was crazy.” 

This episode was Avery Brooks' personal favorite. 

“I’d have to say, it was the most important moment for me in the entire seven years…It should have been a two-parter.

Rene Auberjonois commented: 

Brilliant episode. One of the best of the whole series and Avery did a fabulous job of directing it.

Michael Dorn said: 

“It was wonderfully shot.

Penny Johnson commented: 

This was beautifully handled and beautifully shot. But it still, in the heart, it got me.” 

J.G. Hertzler commented:

I thought it was one you could have built an entire series from. There was a scene toward the end where he falls apart with the camera right in front of his nose. It was just riveting.” 

The same scene was also extremely memorable for Nana Visitor. Armin Shimerman thought highly of how the installment serves as a reminder of prejudice, especially racism, the actor commenting, 

“That's what that episode does terrifically well…it’s perfect science fiction. I think it stretches the imagination of the viewer and breaks down the fourth wall to talk about the real heroes of any TV shows, which are the writers.”

 

As for me: Benjamin Sisko and Black Panther should have had a face-to-face...*sigh* 

—Guy Stewart


Monday, January 25, 2021

Gaming’s a Bitch, and Then You Die

by Pete Wood

I’m going against the grain here, but I hate the Black Mirror episode, U.S.S. Callister. Fans love it. IMDB gives it an 8.3 out of 10, the same rating as Citizen Kane. The television industry loved it. It snagged four Emmy awards in 2018 from seven nominations. It won for best television movie, as well as writing, editing, and sound editing, losing out for music composition, best actor in a limited series and cinematography.

So, what’s my beef?

Hey, you kids, get off of my lawn! Yeah, that’s right. I’m a curmudgeon.

Make no mistake, I love Black Mirror. I’ve seen most of the episodes. And, unlike other current anthology shows it hits the mark most of the time. Don’t even get me started on the overly long and persistently dull Tales from the Loop whose characters all seem to be sedated. Or Electric Dreams, a Philip Dick anthology show that bizarrely feels the need to rewrite the source material. Then there’s Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone which stretches out twenty-five-minute episodes to an hour, is consistently downbeat and has plots that are just silly. Rod Serling was all about wonder and great characters. Peele, unlike his movies, focuses on the absurd. Like a child becoming President with no change in our current laws. Uh huh.

Anyhow, back to Black Mirror. It’s a visually stunning series with provocative premises and very good acting. I can easily rattle off ten episodes I love. My top five in order are White Christmas,San Junipero, Be Right Back, Fifteen Million Merits, and Bandersnatch. Phew! That was tough.

Black Mirror is the brainchild of Charles Brooker, who has written all of the episodes. I can’t argue with his writing chops. Sometimes, though, he beats a dead horse. I get it. Technology can be bad and make us less human. Those in power can and will abuse technology. But that doesn’t mean the world is necessarily going to hell in a handbasket.

Brooker sometimes lets the human will prevail over technology.San Junipero is positively sunny. The downtrodden schmuck in Fifteen Million Merits beats the system. Then there are episodes like Black Museum and the Waldo Moment where good people are punished, because Brooker has to drive home his point with a sledgehammer and have his damned unhappy ending.

Don’t get me wrong. Unhappy endings have their place. A tacked on happy ending would have ruined White Christmas or Be Right Back .

Anyhow, U.S.S. Callister. First of all, it’s a great spoof and homage to Star Trek. Robert Daly (the excellent Jesse Piemons ofBreaking Bad, Game Night and the not to be missed I’m Thinking of Ending Things) makes a grand entrance on the bridge of the U.S.S. Callister, a not-so-subtle nod to Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. He gets his ship out of a tight jam and his crew cheers. Then it’s back to the real world. Turns out Daly is a sad sack game programmer who gets no respect at the company he founded. Employees joke about him behind his back and the company’s co-founder walks all over him.

Daly gets back at his asshole co-workers in the virtual world where their genetic clones man his ship, courtesy of DNA material he’s collected from discarded coffee cups and the like. Daly is not nice to the crew. He’s a tyrant and is not above punishing the crew in cruel and creative ways, thanks to his Godlike powers as the game designer.

Daly is a complex character. Victim and dictator. I did find myself rooting for him in the real world and wanted him to assert himself.

I’m not going to rehash the entire episode. I’ll just say it ends with the virtual crew rebelling and escaping into another universe in the gaming world that Daly can’t access. Good for them.

Then Daly gets trapped in the game universe in an empty black void where it’s suggested he can’t escape. Presumedly he will die of starvation in the real world since he apparently has no friends who might check up on him. Say what?

So, the co-workers win in the real world and the virtual world? I cry foul.

I found it completely implausible a game designer would have such a design flaw in one of his games that a player could get trapped and die. But I digress.

What bothered me most of all is Brooker had to have his unhappy ending. Again.

If you want to see how to spoof and honor Star Trek, check out the Orville or Galaxy Quest. Both have plenty of drama too and no idiot plot.

Brooker starts out with a great premise and a light comic tone he abandons in favor of an unnecessary dark twist. I especially liked the way the characters interacted in a nonchalant way—good guys and bad guys—when Daly left the game. Just another day at the office for them. It reminded me of that old Warner Brothers cartoon where the sheep dog and the wolf clock into work every morning.

U.S.S. Callister could have been damned near perfect. Why couldn’t Daly have learned something from his virtual crew rebelling? Instead of punishing him in the real world—where he is not the bad guy—why not have him assert himself at work, as his crew asserted themselves, and stop being a doormat? He could have even asked out that coworker he spent the episode pining over.

Yeah, I know. He’s an evil dude in the virtual world, but he gets his comeuppance there. Does he really need to lose twice?

Yes, Brooker, I understand technology is very very bad, but it has its good aspects too. Instead of using gaming to run away from problems, maybe Daly can use gaming to solve his problems.

Look, y’all, U.S.S. Callister is 95% of a great episode, but the ending ruined it for me. It deservedly won three out of four Emmy Awards and probably should have snagged that acting award too.

But Brooker did not nail the landing. 

 



Peter Wood
is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

It’s Star Trek Week!

To boldly go to exactly the same place we’ve been going to for the past 55 years...

 

A few years back we were at Dragon*Con, where among other things they had a world’s record gathering of nearly 600 people in Star Trek costumes.

Six hundred people. That’s probably more people than ever had speaking parts in the original series, the spinoff series, and all the movies combined. Friends, this is the sine qua non of geekdom; the ultimate index of nerdiness. Star Trek is a thing that has made such an enormous dent in the zeitgeist that even its parodies have become cultural touchstones: Galaxy Quest or The Orville, anyone? Even the tiniest bits of business have become instantly recognizable signals. When Stan and Cartman show up wearing goatees in the “Spooky Fish” episode of South Park, you instantly know that they’re not our Stan and Cartman, but their dopplegängers from a mirror dimension, where Cartman is nice and Stan is a jerk.

Like it or loathe it, for better or worse, Star Trek has reshaped our culture.

So today I’d like to kick off Star Trek Week with a simple question: why is it that some science-fiction or fantasy-themed TV series develop devoted fan followings, while other more commercially successful series don’t?

It’s worth remembering that the original Star Trek series was a commercial flop that was canceled in its second season. Fan protests did a miraculous thing and convinced the network to rescind the cancellation and bring the show back for a third season—albeit with a much lower per-episode budget, which definitely shows in those Season 3 episodes—but it received the definitive stake in the heart at the end of the third season. Ratings-wise it was even beaten out by some Irwin Allen steaming pile of crap, though whether it was Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, I no longer remember nor care enough to research now. 

And yet, in the fifty years since the cancellation of the original series, Star Trek has become the focus of both an almost religious fan following and a multibillion-dollar multinational media industry.

This is not completely unique. Firefly, for example, lasted all of thirteen episodes and one movie, and yet today there are more Browncoats than ever, begging for another movie or a revived series.

But compare these to series such as—oh, Charmed. Beauty and the Beast. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Babylon 5. Xena: Warrior Princess. The X-Files. Perhaps even Stargate. All of these were science-fiction or fantasy-themed series that had long and commercially successful runs. All of them had decently high or even better ratings while in first-run production, and strong fan followings while they were airing. At least a few of these should now make you scratch your head and think, “Oh yeah, there was a series with that name, wasn’t there?”

So to reiterate today’s question: what is that mysterious je ne sais quoi that enables one series to develop a fan following so strong it lives on in the fans’ hearts and minds long after the original series has ended, while another series has its run and then fades from memory as if it was never there?

Your thoughts and comments?

—Bruce Bethke 


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review: The Day of the Triffids

We’re going to close out WE’RE DOOMED! Week by putting in a plug for one of my all-time personal favorite end-of-the-world stories, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids

No, not any of the movies ostensibly based on it. I’m talking about the original novel. 

The movies are the problem. Most of us know this story from either the 1962 British movie or one of the many remakes. When I first ran across the original 1951 novel—well, this 1962 Fawcett Crest reprint—at a garage sale, I had some vague recollection of an old movie of the same name, but couldn’t quite place it. Day of the Triffids, Night of the Comet, Day of the Anteaters, Night of the Big Heat, Afternoon of the Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Hell-spawned Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead…

After a while they all run together, and most of them seem to star Peter Cushing.

So let’s see: mysterious meteor shower strikes most of humanity blind? Check. Giant ambulatory carnivorous plants go on a feeding frenzy? Check. Lucky sighted survivor hooks up with a plucky beautiful girl, and together they have a series of hairsbreadth escapes, only to finally discover the murderous plants’ one weakness and destroy them?

Hmm…

At the risk of coining a cliché, this is a case where the book is far, far better than the movie. For one, there is nothing all that mysterious about the “meteor shower.” Rather, it is strongly implied, though never flat-out stated, that what actually happened was the accidental misfire of an orbital weapons system.

For another, there’s nothing at all mysterious about the origins of the triffids. They’re not Audrey’s malevolent cousins suddenly arrived from space: they’re a Russian hybridization of a rare tropical plant. The term “genetically modified” is never used, as the book was first published in 1951, years before Watson, Crick & Franklin figured out DNA, but that’s what they are: a GMO. 

The triffids’ proclivity to uproot themselves and move about in search of better soil is well-known to the characters in the book, as is their carnivorous nature and their highly toxic “sting,” but these are tolerated because triffids are an economically important crop, better than soybeans and grown by the millions to be processed for oil and cattle feed. Nor is our hero merely some lucky guy who just happens to be in the right place at the right time; he’s a plant biologist who works for a major agribusiness, and he knows triffids inside and out.

To be honest, the title is a bit misleading. In the real course of the story the triffids are mostly a damnable nuisance. After the initial catastrophe, it’s the other human survivors who are the true menaces, and our hero—and yes, his exceptionally plucky girlfriend—experience most of their terror and hairsbreadth escapes at the hands of their loving fellow Englishmen.

What finally elevates this book above the run-of-the-mill disaster story, though, is the way it neatly segues into a series of critiques of various utopias. Without seeming episodic, preachy, or obvious, our hero and his girlfriend manage to journey through all manner of visions for rebuilding the world, and their experiences make it clear why each is doomed to failure.

And no, there is no climactic boss fight in a lighthouse, in which our hero suddenly discovers the triffids’ one obvious and stupid weakness and destroys them. Rather the ending—well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it is a very different ending from what you’re expecting, and yet it’s one that make sense and is satisfying.

So there, that’s my suggestion: if you want to write a good end-of-the-world story, you can learn a lot by turning off the TV and reading John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids

Your thoughts and comments?

—Bruce Bethke 


Friday, January 22, 2021

Movie Review: The Wandering Earth

by Guy Stewart

This isn’t a real review of The Wandering Earth, rather it’s my reaction to the 2019 movie made by China Film Group Corporation, the largest and most influential state-owned film enterprise in the People's Republic of China.

First of all, I don’t believe that there’s a new idea in the whole thing. While that’s hardly an indictment—

Americans recycle movies all the time, and sometimes, we don’t even recycle them, but entirely remake them: in the SF/F genre, “I am Legend” (3x); “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (4x); “King Kong” (4x); “A Christmas Carol” (9x, including once with ST:TNG’s Captain Picard as Scrooge!)

—it is a disappointment. Most movies I watch have at least something new. This one didn’t.

Bruce Bethke pointed out that the most obvious transplant was the “main point” of flying the Earth to another star is identical to Stanley Schmidt’s LIFEBOAT EARTH (1978). Schmidt included the fact that the thrust would cause all the oceans to slide to the “aft” side of the planet. The Wandering Earth has the oceans remain evenly distributed.

The movie also borrowed a few other well-known SF tropes including the glowing-red-eyed “evil” Artificial Intelligence from Clarke’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1978); underground cities most recently used in Kameron Hurley’s THE STARS ARE LEGION (2017) novel and in the more popular SILO series of Hugh Howey (2011); the “space ark with crew in suspended animation” first appeared in the 1933 classic, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (and was made into a spectacular move in 1951) and the extension of the idea by carrying embryos and seeds to restart Earth on another world or the "space ark" concept; the sun WILL eventually go nova, simply as it ages. It will not “all of a sudden” go nova like in the movie (for more on the life cycle of the sun: https://www.universetoday.com/18847/life-of-the-sun/)

So, for Human drama, you stir in a father + a son with abandonment issues (who’s also some kind of genius); add grandpa with parenting issues; and a little sister (who's not really his sister). Also toss in a gruff but lovable soldier, and add a scene where one of the guys barfs into his helmet for a really, really long time (roughly 2 liters worth) because the ground is shaking...) plus a blonde Chinese boy (Chinese-Australian supposedly, but who is actually American actor, Mike Kai Sui, born in Michigan...) who spends most of the movie screaming in terror, though he does something accidentally heroic in the end...

There are six “writers” listed, including Cixin Liu, a Chinese SF writer who became familiar to American fans with the translation and English publication of his novel The Three-Body Problem. The movie is apparently adapted (by the other five writers) from Liu’s short story “The Wandering Earth.”

The movie’s a mishmash and the claim that it's the third-largest grossing movie in Chinese history says something about China, just as Avengers: Endgame being the largest grossing movie in US history says something about us. IMDb summarizes TWE like this: “As the sun is dying out, people all around the world build giant planet thrusters to move Earth out of its orbit and sail Earth to a new star system. Yet the 2500-year journey comes with unexpected dangers, and in order to save humanity, a group of young people in this age of a wandering Earth fight hard for the survival of humankind…The sun is dying out. The earth will soon be engulfed by the inflating sun. To save the human civilization, scientists draw up an escape plan that will bring the whole human race from danger. With the help of thousands of infusion powered engines, the planet earth will leave the solar system and embark on a 2,500-year journey to the orbit of a star 4.5 light years away.”

I don’t think the people who wrote the summary and reviews actually paid attention to the movie. In it, the United Earth Government’s plan all along has been for the “navigation platform” to go on to Alpha Centauri alone as an ark ship, packed full of embryos and genetic material.

MOSS (the AI that controls the platform/ship) gets a red eye when it informs Lui Qui (not sure what role he really plays – he’s not a captain, but he CAN apparently drive the whole ship and has the security clearance to change the course and fire the engines whenever he wants to) that the plan has been all along to abandon Earth. There’s nothing he can do to stop the plan of the UEG…

Also, both reviews seem to think that it’s easy-peasy to ignite hydrogen – which they importantly state is highly flammable…which is absolutely true, but ONLY when in combination with oxygen. The snotty genius kid with daddy issues is the one who says that in drawing the Earth’s atmosphere down into Jupiter's atmosphere, it does have a small proportion of oxygen, so it might be possible for a hot enough spark to ignite the two gases and create a gigaton-sized explosion that sets off a pulse wave strong enough to push the ship away from Jupiter and back on its path to Alpha Centauri A. Which it does...

So, the end result isn’t bad. Certainly, TWE is as good or better than many American attempts at scifi (an old movie I saw in the theater leaps to mind. Yog: Monster From Space has endlessly horrible scenes, nonexistent plot, and was badly animated...but I remember it nonetheless!). In fact, I found the movie endearing, actually -- The Wandering Earth, not Yog...

Despite the conglomeration of SF ideas and the obligatory “suspense building” scenes, and sometimes downright ridiculous concepts (the teen boy with daddy issues is gifted in driving…), the movie is undeniably spectacular in special effects. The underlying relationship between the boy, his grandfather, and the “adopted” sister has moments of real poignancy, and the characters CHANGE, which is sometimes an idea that escapes speculative fiction of all kinds. As well, while the WAY the movie is resolved is problematic, the INTENT to show a wildly different Humanity choosing survival as a species rather than submitting to a committee-planned survival of the Chosen Few ended up drawing me into the end of the movie. There are sacrifices -- logical for the characters, even though it's glossed over. I’ve no doubt that more than one of those committee members were sleeping the years away expecting to assume positions of authority and dominance 2500 years later. Based on what happened, they will be in for a very rude surprise when the ship makes orbit over Humanity’s new home. Even the freaky “Chinese-Australian-American” overcomes his stupidity to save the teen boy with daddy issues…and that issue is even resolved.

With judicious editing to shorten it from its 125-minute length down to about 90 minutes, it could be a grand adventure. I’ll remember the characters, and I will never forget the explosion from the surface of Jupiter that saves the ship – implausible, but POSSIBLE.
 
After all, what more can you expect from a sci-fi movie?
—Guy Stewart

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Movie Review: The Midnight Sky

Usually it’s like pulling teeth to get fresh blog content. This time, though, both Guy Stewart and Pete Wood were champing at the bit to write reviews of this movie. Rather than choose between them, I thought, “Why not both?” 

Guy is an old sci-fi hand who’s best known for his stories in ANALOG, and is someone who’s been part of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning. Pete is the new kid, who we began publishing in Stupefying Stories about ten years ago, but who has since graduated to writing for ASIMOV’S. So for me, having already seen the movie, this is an interesting experiment: let’s take the same science fiction property, and find out if there are any differences in the ways that an ANALOG writer and an ASIMOV’S writer view it.

Without further ado, then… 


MIDNIGHT SKY: A Reflection on the new George Clooney Movie

by Guy Stewart 

As we watched the opening scenes of “Midnight Sky,” my wife and I looked at each other and I said, “George Clooney must have caught the “space virus” after he did “Gravity.” I’m pretty sure the same thing happened to Tom Hanks. After he was in “Apollo 13,” he went on to produce and narrate the HBO mini-series, “From Earth to the Moon,” and has been a space advocate ever since.

Clooney’s new movie—which he directs as well as stars in—is, in fact a logical tangent off of “Gravity”. Not they the stories are even remotely related, but the that they both deal with astronauts and disasters and they both focus on a very limited number of characters is perhaps revealing.

The story? I’m going to avoid spoilers by lifting the plot summary from Wikipedia, “…based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, ‘Midnight Sky’ stars Clooney as a scientist who must venture through the Arctic Circle with a young girl to warn off a returning spaceship following a global catastrophe.”

The bare bones gives nothing away, and neither will I.

I want to talk about me and how I responded to the film.

I found the movie both depressing and hopeful. Weird, huh? The depressing part is, of course the “global catastrophe” mentioned above. That’s unavoidable and drives virtually all of the story on Earth with Augustine and Iris. Iris isn’t mentioned in the blurb above, she’s a little girl who is left behind when the Arctic astronomical observatory is evacuated due to the global catastrophe. Clooney’s character is Augustine, and he’s an appropriately sad man whose life was so consumed by science that all he has left is regrets and a final research project (never specified) that requires him to live at an observatory

When the spacecraft Aether is on its approach path to Earth from the “hidden moon” of Jupiter, K-23; they lose contact with NASA, the ESA, and several other space agencies. They can’t, it seems, raise ANYONE on Earth.

I’m pretty sure they used that idea instead of finding a habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri because you’d have to postulate some sort of FTL space drive and that wouldn’t have served the immediacy of the story line. As a science fiction writer and a retired science teacher, I personally think inventing a super-dooper instantaneous “warp drive” would have solved both the K-23 problem and the lack of communication problem in one fell swoop. But neither the author of the novel that the book is based on nor the screenplay writer has any experience with science fiction.

But, those are the very things that lead to “what the story is about” and my final sense of both despair and hopefulness. The movie is sad in that Augustine’s personal grief at opportunity lost is amplified by the “global catastrophe” of the broader story. Its high hope is in Augustine and Iris’ reaching their final goal which is reflected in the triumphant return of the Aether from its mission to K-23. The “global catastrophe” hints at all kinds of causes and intention

Their hopefulness is marred by a course change, and they would have made good time on their return to Earth, but the change leads to personal grief and “mission grief.” The ship itself, which no one but a science fiction fan would notice, is as realistic a craft as I have seen. My experience with realistic cinematic spacecraft began of course, with Discovery One in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and expanded to these: the “hypertunnel” ship in “Contact;” the Apollo 13 capsule in the movie of the same name; the Endurance in “Interstellar;” the Avalon in “Passengers;” the Eagle in “Space: 1999;” the USS Cygnus in Disney’s “The Black Hole;” and the various ship from “The Expanse.” The Aether in “Midnight Sky” is now part of that repertoire and shows an elaborate, yet obvious construction for long-term interplanetary voyages ranging far beyond Earth orbit. The parts include a spinning module for simulated gravity; massive transparently domed greenhouses for oxygen and food production as well as mental health, and some sort of reinforced transparent polymer “shields.” All of it looks as if it could have come out of NASA, ESA, or SpaceX’s manufacturing plants.

And that, perhaps is the most hopeful part of the movie—it says to me with unequivocal certainty that Humans WILL have a place in space. Not only in “galaxies far, far away” or even at warp speed; rather the hopefulness of the movie suggests that sometime SOON, Humans will leap off of Earth and venture farther than high orbit; farther than the Moon; farther even than Mars and make our homes there.

While “Midnight Sky” doesn’t show Humanity overcoming the weaknesses that brought about the “global catastrophe,” there’s the CHANCE that we will do so—and that, for me, was the loud note of hope that the movie left me with.

Watch it and enjoy it for what “it is” and not for what we “want it to be.”

—Guy Stewart

THE MIDNIGHT SKY: A Review

by Pete Wood

I don’t understand all the hate for The Midnight Sky, the new Netflix apocalyptic film directed by and starring George Clooney. IMDB gives it 5.6 out of 10. Hudson Hawk earns a 5.8. Porky’s, for God’s sake gets a 6.2. Porky’s! Ouch.

I liked The Midnight Sky.

Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel, Good Morning, Midnight, the film tells the story of Augustine (Clooney), a scientist dying of some unspecified terminal disease, who decides to live out his last days in an evacuated arctic observatory while the world ends around him. How the world is ending is not explained. All we know is that the crew of the observatory fled to underground bunkers after the planet’s oxygen started, well, disappearing. Animals and birds gasp for air in the thinning atmosphere. Sebastian must wear an oxygen mask.

The film is a throwback to hopeless Cold War fare like On the Beach. Folks go about their daily lives, because there’s nothing they can do about Armageddon.

Clooney embraces his dark side again. Many think of Clooney as a comic actor, thanks to movies like Oceans Eleven or my favorite, the underrated Leatherheads. But Clooney has a serious nihilistic side too. Solaris, his remake of the melancholy Soviet masterpiece is no walk in the park. And is there any bleaker story than Fail Safe, the1960s novel and movie about an accidental nuclear strike on Moscow, that Clooney remade live for television in 2000?

I love the somber dysthymic tone of Midnight Sky. It’s a mood piece, a character study about one man’s reaction to the end of the world. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Like the Road, why the world is ending doesn’t matter. It’s just a plot device to get to Sebastian’s story

The film inserts twists and turns that keep things moving. It’s not all Clooney sipping whiskey alone in the deserted cafeteria. He discovers a young girl (Caroline Springall), seemingly abandoned by the panicked crew of the observatory. Then he realizes that a space mission (manned by Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo among others) is returning to Earth from exploring a habitable moon of Jupiter. Augustine can’t warn the crew to stay away with the observatory’s weak transmitter. He and his new companion must tramp across the frozen tundra of a dying planet to reach a stronger transmitter at another base. A man who just wants to die in peace must, like Max in the Road Warrior, find meaning in a meaningless world.

The stark film is beautifully shot and well-acted. It gives the viewer time to contemplate. It’s a haunting philosophical kick in the teeth.

My only beef is the insertion of some out-of-place action scenes in a film that isn’t about action. We don’t need to see Clooney and an entire building (!) fall through arctic ice in February. Yeah, right. And the improbable meteor storm that hits the spaceship not once but twice hours apart is just insulting to anyone who knows even the most rudimentary science. There’s not that much debris out there in deep space, y’all. I know I forgave the questionable scientific premises of the movie, but that set up Augustine’s story. I am not so forgiving of plot contrivances that drag the story down.

I suspect The Midnight Sky gets so much hate because some viewers haven’t paid attention. Some reviewers claim Augustine is dying of radiation poisoning after a nuclear war, despite the film’s straightforward setup. One reviewer had Earth evacuating to a habitable planet. Never mind that there is only ONE spaceship and it’s returning to Earth; people flee to bunkers, not ships; and it’s a moon of Jupiter, not a planet.

It’s a subtle film and if you miss the big stuff, you probably missed the small stuff too. This is not a thriller or a realistic what if. It’s a multilayered character study and an existential master class. Ignore the hate. Check out this movie. 

—Pete Wood

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Just Kidding. We’re Doomed After All.

In science fiction there has always been a profound tension between utopia and dystopia. 

This tension pre-dates Hugo Gernsback’s invention of the term “science fiction” by a considerable margin. If you were to go plodding back through the wastelands of 19th Century popular literature, you would find a lot of examples of utopian science fiction, and most of it would be just plain awful. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Dean Howells’s A Traveler from Altruria, William Norris’s News from Nowhere, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race: all of them were very popular and sold very well in their day, and all are almost unreadable now, except as a source of ironic humor. 

Why? What’s the problem with Utopia?

Ignoring the imbecilic grasp of economics and naive view of human relations usually expressed in utopian novels, the fundamental issue seems to be that utopian societies are boring. If everyone is happy, well-adjusted, and comfortably well-off, where’s the conflict? Where’s the tension? Where’s the story

We take it as given that war is more interesting than peace; conflict more interesting than congruence; change more interesting than stasis. On a human scale this is why we have “crime” stories and not “law-abiding nice people” stories; “people with terribly messed-up romantic lives” novels instead of “happily married monogamous couples” stories. On a macro societal scale this is why utopia so often veers into dystopia. We don’t trust utopias—or more accurately, the people who are people peddling their utopian vision. We like our utopias with dirty secrets, seamy underbellies, a healthy dose of oppression and a little rust and rot somewhere. We seem to yearn for something to struggle against.

Maybe it is just simple boredom. A lot of people do seem to feel the need to shake things up when they find themselves getting too comfortable, just to stay interested in their own lives.

But why does science fiction so often seem to require not merely the level of violence common to heroic fantasy, but the near-complete destruction of civilization and near-annihilation of mankind? Is it merely a matter of taking something that’s already fascinating—war—and turning the volume up to eleven? 

Or is it a failure of the writer’s imagination? Is it just plain too much work to imagine what things might be like if our civilization continues to progress for another 500 years, and therefore easier to envision a world in which some drastic historical discontinuity has occurred and we’ve been bombed back to stone knives, bear skins, tribal rituals and rap music? 

Could this recurring destruction-and-rebirth theme be evidence of some deeply latent misanthropic streak; some profound dissatisfaction with the world as it is today, which expresses itself as a wish to imagine that we can reset history to some earlier checkpoint and run it again—only this time, we’d do it right, because people like us would be in charge? Is the truth of the matter that hard-core SF fans have a lot more in common with the hard-core eco-Luddites than we'd really care to admit?

Or is it simply a matter of having read The Swiss Family Robinson at an impressionable age?

Your thoughts and comments? 

—Bruce Bethke

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

We’re Not Doomed?

Thinking further on it: perhaps the critical qualifier here is almost. This could be one of the key ways in which SF differs from all other literary forms. Not only does it afford the writer the opportunity to posit a deity-free Eschaton, thus eliminating the need to follow the script laid out in Revelations, it also offers the possibility of a survivable Apocalypse, which only almost ends the world, after which it’s possible to reboot humanity and build a better world. If this idea holds some appeal for you—if it is in any way possible for you to look forward with some modicum of hope for the future—then by all means, read and write almost-apocalyptic SF, even if it’s Lucifer’s Hammer.

If, on the other hand, you truly believe that the past was better, now is as good as it’s ever going to get, and the future can only be bleak and dismal or worse, you’re probably best off sticking to looking in the rearview mirror and writing either steampunk or pseudo-Medieval fantasy. Future generations of high school students will thank you for not writing yet another book that strives to make On the Beach look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

As for me, I will confess to feeling Doomsday Fatigue. I’ve lived through 60-plus years of end-of-the-world hysteria, beginning with learning to Duck and Cover in primary school and followed by the New Ice Age panic, the ecological catastrophe panic, The Population Bomb panic (which as you may note did not explode and kill hundreds of millions of people in the 1970s), the unstoppable Soviet juggernaut panic (someone really should tell all those Survivalists living in the mountains out west that the 1980s finally came and went and it’s okay to come out now), the Nuclear Winter panic, the endless war in Central America panic, the Oppressive American Theocracy panic, the Peak Oil panic, the Coming Global Economic Collapse of [insert year here] Panic, etc., etc., etc., etc...

The one lesson I have taken away from all this is that both conservatism and liberalism are Doomsday Cults. They differ only in the names of the sins they believe will bring about Doomsday.

But tempting as it is to veer off in a political direction this morning, I absolutely refuse to do so. Instead, the question I’m interested in exploring today is this: why are we far more willing to listen to Doomsday prophets than optimists? Why has a story of impending catastrophe and destruction been far easier to sell than one of coming prosperity and happiness for at least the last 3,000 years? Is it simply a matter of fear of loss being a more effective selling motivator than desire for gain, or is there something deeper, weirder, and more unpleasant at work in our psyches?

Your thoughts?

In the meantime, and in keeping with the theme, this morning’s recommended reading is “Riders of the Epochalypse,” by Evan Dicken. 

—Bruce Bethke

Monday, January 18, 2021

We’re Doomed!

It’s the stereotypical post-WWII sci-fi story. 

The human race has been wiped out by a planetary catastrophe. The sole survivors are an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut, both in orbit in their separate spaceships. Diminishing oxygen supplies force them both to land on some remote tropical island paradise that’s the only place left untouched by the disaster, and as the American climbs out of his ship, .45 automatic in hand, he thinks, “Well at least the last man on Earth will be U.S. Air Force Major Adam Adamski!” He takes careful aim at the Russian, but in that last moment of hesitation before he pulls the trigger she removes her space helmet, to reveal that she is a stunningly beautiful blonde woman, and in thickly accented English she says, “My name is Captain Eva Evanovitch. I want to make babies and repopulate the Earth.”

Adamski says, “Too bad, I’m gay,” and shoots her anyway.

Just kidding!

But seriously; the field of sci-fi is simply cluttered with end-of-the-world Adam & Eve stories. Every writer has written at least one; even Jules Verne’s last known story was “The Eternal Adam.” For some reason we in the field of sci-fi simply love to destroy the world, and then offer humanity a hope for a fresh start. (Except for Nevil Shute, who destroyed the world and then offered absolutely no hope, which is why no one is talking about doing yet another big-budget remake of On the Beach at the moment.)

I’m not interested in exploring the pathology of Jeremiads; that’s a topic for another time. Instead, I want to put forth this question: what is your favorite end-of-the-world complete-destruction-of-humanity story? Right now for me it’s a toss-up between Greg Bear’s The Forge of God and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I’m open to suggestions.

What’s your nominee, and why?

—Bruce Bethke

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Movie Review: The Thing, by Pete Wood

Or more properly, The Thing about John Carpenter’s Biggest Misfire.

I love John Carpenter movies. The director’s unorthodox characters are smart and resourceful and act logically in extraordinary situations. Convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) in Escape from New York, Teenage babysitter Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the original Halloween, and Roddy Piper’s homeless drifter in They Live. Who wouldn’t trust these people to get them out of a jam?

Then there’s The Thing, where every single character is a damned moron. While Kurt Russell’s helicopter pilot gets props for being the coolest character (barely beating out himself as Plissken or Piper) in any Carpenter movie, he ain’t no rocket scientist.

I hate The Thing. We all know the premise. A remote Antarctic research facility—well stocked with flamethrowers and all ilk of weapons for no apparent reason—is stalked by a shape-shifting alien that takes out the crew one by one. Anyone could be the alien.

Roger Ebert found the movie “disappointing” due to “the implausible behavior of the scientists.” In an epic rant he points out that “the obvious defense against this problem is a watertight buddy system, but, time and time again, Carpenter allows his characters to wander off alone and come back with silly grins on their faces.” Preach it, Roger.

And that little plot hole only scratches the surface. You know the movie is going to have problems from the first scene where two Norwegians in a helicopter chase a dog across the tundra and with aim worthy of a Star Wars stormtrooper continually miss with a high-powered rifle. When they show up at the American base, the Americans do the logical thing. They shoot the dog and try to reason— Um, excuse me. No, they kill the first Norwegian and place the dog with all of their animals, because, you know, there can’t possibly be anything wrong with the dog and cute little dogs are far more important than people can ever be. Don’t even get me started on how Norway apparently sent the only two Norwegians who could not speak English to their base.

The movie goes downhill from there. Russell does eventually come up with a pretty foolproof way to root out the Thing. This plan, working pretty damned effectively, is quickly abandoned. The plan is lifted from the novella, Who Goes There?, written by John Campbell and published in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1938. The characters in the source material, unlike the dimwits on Carpenter’s base, carry out the plan to its logical conclusion.

Campbell’s novella has been adapted three times: the first in 1951 as The Thing from Another World; the second in 1982 by Carpenter; and most recently as a prequel to the Carpenter version, also titled The Thing, released in 2011. The adaptions just keep getting worse.

My favorite is Howard Hawks 1951 version. It’s shifted to an army base in the Arctic, and somewhat dumbed down, but nobody behaves too stupidly—unless you count the military’s habit of destroying all things alien, from the ship that had some sort of interstellar drive to the alien itself. The scientist who suggests not killing the alien, because, you know, he could teach us stuff, comes across as a raving loon, but he does raise a good point. Last time I checked, we still didn’t have an interstellar drive. Still, it’s a fun little adventure with some great effects for the day, like when they uncover the frozen saucer in the ice.

Don’t even bother with the 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie. There was no reason to make that movie. None. You’d be better off watching Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.

I don’t understand what happened with Carpenter’s version. He’s made his share of duds. Ghosts of Mars and Memoirs of an Invisible Man come to mind. The Thing is no mere flop. It succeeds on so many levels. Setting, special effects and the acting blows away the stilted army men of the 1951 film. But it wastes all of this potential with piss-poor writing. Ebert’s description of the movie as “disappointing” is spot on.

Still, people love Carpenter’s adaption. I fully expect people to storm my house with pitchforks and torches any minute now. And the plan of that angry mob will be better than anything concocted by Carpenter’s scientists.

 


 

Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Talking Shop • Getting Down to Work

 

Q: An aspiring writer asks, “How do you know when you’re ready to begin writing your story? I know my general theme. I have a plot outline with a few major holes I haven’t figured out yet. I’ve written extensive character bios for all my main characters and character sketches for all the minor ones, and have written a detailed description of the setting and its history. Is it okay to begin writing the first draft of a story when you aren’t sure how it’s going to end?”

A: You’re ready to begin when you decide to stop thinking about and talking about what you are going to write and park your ass in a chair and start writing the blessed thing. So start writing right now. Even if you wind up throwing everything out and starting over again tomorrow, write something today. Unless you have tenure and are playing the arts grants and commissions game, no one will ever pay you for talking about what you intend to d— 

Oh. Hold on a sec. Sharp and painful moment of self-awareness here…

Okay, change of topic.

The State of The Loon • 16 January 2021

Jiminy Cricket, it’s been a month since I posted on this blog? 

Obviously, things have not progressed quite as planned. My separation from my former employer did not go cleanly or smoothly; in fact, the divorce still isn’t quite final. I’d say more about it but can’t—literally, can’t. There’s a clause in my separation agreement that specifically forbids…

Never mind. After that was nominally wrapped up, the drama of the first half of December segued into the usual holiday stress and madness coupled with a serious medical issue. Thanks to everyone who has written to express their concern—no, it wasn’t COVID, we’re all free of that here, so far as we know—but it was a major distraction all the same. So after looking at everything that we had on the priorities pile, we decided to put off releasing Stupefying Stories #23 until after January 1st, by which time we assumed everything would have returned to normal. 

You can see how that turned out. Boy, am I glad I didn’t get time to finish and publish the post I began writing on January 2 announcing that SS#23 would be released on January 15, “unless the world ends or a war begins or something.”

Where we stand right now: Nonetheless, while the world staggers and wobbles a bit, it continues not to end, so it’s time to get back to work. All the stories for SS#23 have been copy-edited, the copy edits have been approved by their respective authors, and the book is stuck in production in half-completed state. Several of the authors have already been paid for their stories; the rest will be paid this weekend. Assuming no surprises—always a dangerous thing around here—we’ll wrap up building the book publication files this weekend. We won’t be launching SS#23 with the build-up and fanfare we wanted, but we are committed and will be launching it shortly, if only to prove that we’re still capable of finishing and releasing a new issue. 

After that? I have a sizable pile of copy-edits in progress to finish up here, a sizable pile of email to be answered there, and one of the more unsettling things I discovered in the past month was the pile of manuscripts in the back room that were marked as rejected back in the fall of 2019 but apparently the rejections were never sent. Some of those authors are still waiting and hoping to hear from us.

Okay, much to do and not quite enough time to do it, which has become our normal state, so time to get back to work. Upward and onward.

—Bruce Bethke