Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Avatar

If you want to skip the preamble and get to my review, go find the purple one-line review.

When, years ago, I heard that James Cameron was (finally) making a new movie, I was happy. At the time, all I knew was that the title was Avatar and that it was in some way science-fictionish. This seemed like a good thing to me; I've enjoyed the sci-fi Cameron flicks that I've watched (haven't seen Aliens because I'm a pansy and can't handle remotely scary movies). The Terminator was a good movie that made excellent use of available resources to produce a coherent, innovative flick. It went beyond simple action film because it was an unstoppable force meeting a squishy object. And somehow the squishy won. The Abyss is a movie that I first saw in my early teen years back when laserdiscs were fab.

*returns from reading through most of that LaserDisc article*

Anyway, I loved the story of The Abyss (the long know, the one that makes sense), and was awed by the effort that went into the production of that film.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a spectacular piece of film making which was ambitious in its development of technology, presentation of effects, and continuation of storytelling. One of the few sequels to (according to the informal poll of my conversations with people over the years) exceed the quality and "goodness" of the original. I love this movie.

Okay, that's a lot of rambling about movies that you didn't come here to read about. You want to know what I thought about Avatar. Well, recently I've found myself apathetic in general towards films, especially going to a movie theater to see them. First off: my only theater option has 8 screens. 3 are new, "state of the art" (in quotes because they're really not that great) theaters with nice screens, projectors, sound systems, and stadium seating. The other 5 are old and decrepit and not that great.

The screen with the most seats is #2, one of the old and decrepit ones. That's where new blockbusters show up. Given that my options are to watch new blockbusters there in that setting, drive 90 miles to a respectable theater (it's already 30 to the one I just described), or wait for them to come out on DVD, I tend to go for the DVD option. You see, my parents have a 54" DLP TV, nice surround sound, and a house built in such a way that I can watch National Treasure 2 cranked as loud as I want it while my parents sleep. The next day they asked why I didn't stay and watch a movie. I said, "Umm, I did. Loudly."

Yeah, I like watching DVDs at their house. Some day they'll upgrade to Blu-ray and I'll like it even more.

Anyway, I was dragged (not especially kicking and screaming) to go see Avatar by someone who had already watched it and said it was good. I knew from experience that his taste in movies is less particular than mine, but for the most part I can gauge how well I'll like a movie from his reaction to it. My fears that I'd hate the movie were assuaged by his assurances that it was, in fact, not just an excuse for nine-tenths naked blue CGI aliens to run around a screen for 2 and a half hours showing off the amazing new effects that artists can create. It turns out that the movie was much better than I feared, though not as good as I had hoped.

I'm pleased to report that this was a science fiction movie which . . . as far as I can recall . . . completely failed to annoy me with any of the little crimes sci fi movies are notorious (at least in my little mind) of committing. The technology was believable. The aliens were interesting. The fact that they were blue aliens with weird faces was sufficient to completely avoid the uncanny valley effect. The story was solid (though not especially unpredictable), the characters consistent (and interesting and distinct), and the preachy-ness of the themes explored by the natives was less annoying than I had feared.

In short, I recommend this movie as a solid science fiction action flick with lots of cool visuals, interesting concepts, characters, and plot. The story is not by any means breaking new ground or mind-blowing, but it is solid. The film delivers on its promise not to waste your time.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Some Simple Rules for Science Fiction Authors Looking Not to Annoy Me (Part 1)

There are a number of unwritten rules about science fiction and fantasy which generally require adherence in order to make the story acceptable to an audience. These rules are different between the two seemingly dissimilar genres, but it's consistent application of one set or the other that helps a reader (or watcher) understand the universe he's learning about. For fantasy, nearly anything goes. An author may, at his whim, dictate any rule he so desires and give it no more explanation than "because that's the way it is." Who does this and does it well in the small sampling of his books that I've read? Terry Pratchett. His Discworld series is zany, wacky, inexplicably weird — and it doesn't matter. Whatever he says goes, and that's good enough for the reader. That doesn't mean that a fantasy author is required to invent all sorts of crazy rules; it just means that they're free to.

A word of note: in fiction, the author has absolute say over what happens. It's his universe, his characters, and his rules. What follows is my opinion of how best to structure some of those rules so as not to annoy me. I don't consider myself an author, I don't have the patience to learn to write, and I respect those who try. I also acknowledge that every one of the "rules" I am about to write is a guideline that absolutely may be broken at the author's discretion. But I implore you to please take the time to give a really good reason for it. Don't just do it because it's convenient for the script. If you want to make arbitrary rules of how your universe works then you may want to consider fantasy writing instead of science fiction. There's plenty of fantasy that looks like science fiction (ever hear of this little series of movies, TV shows, books, comic books, and cereals called Star Wars? That's classic fantasy (unexplained arbitrary rules and all) if ever I've seen it.

The problems that I've found with storytelling arise when science fiction authors try to invent arbitrary rules that conflict with common sense, science, experience, etc. For example, the arbitrarily small and finite number of universes in the abysmal Jet Li movie The One. It doesn't make any sense that the multiverse is composed of some finite small (I forget, but I think it was around 25) number of universes. The most rational explanation for multiple universes is that each one is different from the others in at least one small way, but since our universe is so big, it only makes sense that there be a ridiculously large number (infinitely, actually) of immensely tiny things to change. For example, the only difference between our universe and another one out there at this point in time is the direction that a single particle in the upper atmosphere of the earth moved. Now, that difference will chain-reaction into many other differences. That particle will now interact with different particles in the two universes. The differences will branch out as all of those particles are interacting with different particles causing a completely different configuration of atmosphere particles in the different universes. This can cause different weather patterns in the future, meaning that perhaps hundreds or even thousands of years after the initial microscopic change, a macroscopic difference can be observed between the two. Now imagine all of the air particles in the atmosphere and all of the different directions that they can move at any given time. Then imagine how there's a universe spawned for each of the possibilities of each of those particles every instant. Then imagine that at the same time, there's a universe spawned for each pair of possibilities, each triplet, and so on. Then take it a step further and think about every single particle in the entire universe. Every instant. While you were comprehending the meaning of the period at the end of this sentence (something that usually takes a practically immeasurably small amount of time), an uncountably infinite number of so-called "alternate" universes spawned which are visually identical to our own, aside from the uncountably infinite number of ones which spawned that are macroscopically different. This is only considering the universes which spawn off of our own, of course. Remember that each of the universes is spawning its own uncountably infinite number of universes every instant. Is this absolute observed scientific fact? No, but it's the only rational (albeit dramatically simplified) explanation of multiple universes that I've ever read. If you're going to have parallel universes in your story that's fine (this is fiction after all), but don't arbitrarily dictate that there's some finite number of universes out there without giving a really good explanation for it.

More importantly, one should realize that there's absolutely no practical way to, by human means, revert the changes. How is it that you can force all of the air particles in Universe B (the universe that isn't "ours," but is the "alternate" universe in question) to have the exact same configuration (position, orientation, velocity, and energy) as Universe A at corresponding time-points? Any attempt at meddling is sure to only exacerbate the problem leading to more profound and macroscopically observable differences. This shows up in time-travel stories. I want you to consider something: when your characters travel into the past (or send something into the past, or somehow affect the past), they're either going to affect the past or they're not. What they're not going to do is affect the past, then fix it somehow so that nothing's affected. As a trivial example of a story that (in its own way) did this right, I give you the first Back to the Future movie. Marty went back and screwed everything up. Then he tried to fix it, but in the end, the universe that he ended up in was fundamentally different than the one he came from. It turned out that the differences were pleasant for him, so he liked it. The story offers that it was plausible that he be able to fix everything to be exactly the same as the universe he came from, but we know that's impossible because Marty's presence in the past caused, if nothing else, the configuration of the atmosphere to be different. No matter what, the universe he would go to would be different than the one he came from. Another story that dealt with time-travel in a very good way (in this critic's humble opinion) is the Millennium trilogy of Deep Space Nine novels by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. In there, characters from the future affect past events, but they're present in the "first incarnation" of past events. Thus, they don't change the past because they're always elements of the past. Similarly, in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the main characters go into the past and have a conversation with themselves. But this doesn't change the past, it fulfills it because the conversation was first observed from their past selves.

There's more I can write on this topic (I have many many things I can tell you about ways you can avoid annoying me, whether you're a SciFi author or not), but I think this will do for now. Please, take this, digest it, and start to think about some of the stories you've read or watched (or written?) in a more critical light.

This post brought to you by the terrible atrocity that is The One and the annoyance it has generated in me which has persisted for the past seven years or so.