Welcome to Space!

kirk enemy within

Today officially kicked off a new phase in development of The Next Big Thing I’m working on along with Nick Hurwitch.

That’s right, it’s a new book, titled, Set Phasers to Stunning: The Space Hero’s Guide to Space The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory: How to Get Off Your Podunk Planet and Master the Final Frontier. A spiritual successor to So You Created a Wormhole, we’re looking to do with space travel what we did with time travel — explain it, make fun of it, reference a lot of science fiction that we love, and make fun of that, too.

Continue reading Welcome to Space!

‘Who Goes There?’ A giant freakin’ monster

thing

I watched John Carpenter’s The Thing again yesterday, and I honestly think I could watch that film maybe once a week for the rest of my life.

Of course, I then started to think about what makes it so effective, and what I like so much about it, because I can’t enjoy a horror movie (or any kind of movie) without then analyzing why it works.

So why does The Thing work? Why does it work so brilliantly?

Continue reading ‘Who Goes There?’ A giant freakin’ monster

‘Aliens’ is Ripley’s story, not Hicks’ story

colonial marines 1

In the early part of next year, there will be a game released that is a direct continuation of the storyline of Aliens. This pleases me to no end.

But I have lots of reservations, and the most recent was one based on the fact that Gearbox, the developer behind the game (titled Aliens: Colonial Marines), recently announced that it would be adding playable female characters to the game for its cooperative and multiplayer modes. What worries me about the situation is that it took a lot of griping and even an online petition signed by about 4,000 people to get Gearbox to decide to make playable female characters available in the game.

The entire Alien franchise is a story about women. Every film sees a fundamental reversal of gender roles. The primary characters are almost always women, and when they’re not, they’re supporting characters. Even the very nature of the alien, with its roots in actions of rape and violence, is geared toward a woman’s perspective. Alien is about women.

Continue reading ‘Aliens’ is Ripley’s story, not Hicks’ story

Missing the moon’s first visitor

armstrong on the moon

I was born 16 years after humans first walked on the moon.

It was years before I actually started to understand what the event meant. Two men had walked on a shore so distant, it floats in the sky. They ventured into the Sea of Tranquility and found it alien. They left boot prints upon another world.

The adventures of fictional characters into the reaches of space are among the things that inspired me throughout my life. The exploration of unknown worlds is something with which I’ve always been fascinated, and stories such as those drove me to start telling stories of my own, and the stories of others.

Continue reading Missing the moon’s first visitor

5 Time Travel Movies Worth Your Attention

timecrimes 2

I was going to write about the whole Girlfriend Mode thing, but the more I thought about it, the less happy I was with whatever I had to add to the conversation. So here’s a conversation to which I can definitely add something useful to you guys.

Over the course of researching for SO YOU CREATED A WORMHOLE, I watched and read tons of time travel fiction beyond the stuff that I’d known and loved already. Rather than yammer any further, here are five off-the-beaten-path movies that take clever stabs at the time travel idea, and will occasionally blow gray matter out your brainholes.

Continue reading 5 Time Travel Movies Worth Your Attention

Time Travel Guide Genesis: Doing It Wrong

deja vu save her

Part 1 in a series about the development of SO YOU CREATED A WORMHOLE, from idea to proposal to book contract to shelves.

When tracing back the genesis of the project that would eventually become SO YOU CREATED A WORMHOLE: THE TIME TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO TIME TRAVEL, I suppose the very beginning would be my obsession with zombie fiction.

Way back in 2008, co-writer and hetero-lifemate Nick Hurwitch gave me Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide. After reading it, it was striking how true to concept Brooks stayed with the whole thing. I’ve heard the book described as being tongue-in-cheek hilarious, and you can read it that way if you want. You can also read it as being a serious take on the idea of being in the center of a zombie holocaust, given how methodical and logical the book is. It plays both ways.

Soon after I found myself watching the Denzel Washington film Deja Vu*, also at Nick’s suggestion. Being a big fan of time travel, I was excited to get into it, but I found it lacking in some ways. Continue reading Time Travel Guide Genesis: Doing It Wrong

Missing ingredient in ‘Inception’: humanity

inception2

Let me qualify the following statements by saying that there are things I really liked about Inception, and if it had been made by virtually any other person, I would be more forgiving.

But this is something written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and therefore its flaws are all the more glaring. As a story, Inception is all setup and no payoff, all concept and no heart – all science, no humanity.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard all you need to about the film. Inception is about entering dreams in order to steal information from a person’s subconscious. Leonardo DiCaprio and his squad of dream-raiders do this for a living. They’re very good, but it’s highly illegal.

The dreams have a ton of rules (much more than the similar but comparably less complicated[!] world of The Matrix). Get killed in a dream and you wake up. Dream time is faster than real time. You’ll never remember the beginning of a dream, and you need an object to carry around with you so that you can hold it and feel if it is different than the object is in reality, and thusly know if you’re in the dream world or the real world. You can’t change too much in a dream or the dreamer’s subconscious will rise up and attack you. Pain in a dream is as real as anywhere else.

Imagine all this mess as the first half an hour of a film.

Continue reading Missing ingredient in ‘Inception’: humanity

‘Avatar’ neglects a few interesting ethical questions

NOTE: This post contains a few slight SPOILERS about “Avatar.” I’m sure you can guess the plot of the movie based on the trailers, but if you’re scared at all, you may want to refrain.

Is it OK to take over another thing's body if it's comatose whenever you don't? The huge IMAX-projected blue hand twitched as the alien drifted in a giant, fluid-filled incubation tube, and my very first thought was, “So – is it alive?”

Such a question is never addressed in the whole of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” which I finally got around to seeing this week. A quick rundown for those of you who are living in Afghani caves or have been in hypersleep for the last few months:

“Avatar” takes place on a distant planet called Pandora, which has lots of multi-legged animals; huge deposits of some kind of awesome, possibly floating mineral (which will remain nameless due to its incredibly stupid name); and an indigenous population of 10- or 12-foot-tall aliens called the Na’vi.

In order to study, deal with, educate or subvert the Na’vi (the motivation changes with the wind) as well as to easily breathe in the Pandoran atmosphere, human nerds have cooked up half-human, half-alien hybrids called avatars. These avatars function generally as living robots. A human lays down in a machine and, through magical technology, has her consciousness or neural connections or something transmitted to the avatar, effectively becoming it. The connection is not unlike what’s seen in “The Matrix.”

The avatars are genetically aligned with their human “drivers.” The DNA used to make them is specific to the person who uses the avatar. Once linked in to an avatar, it seems the only way to pull a person back out is to hit a special, shiny red button (this is apparently dangerous) or to go to sleep. When an avatar sleeps, the person is automatically kicked back out, and the avatar essentially looks like it is sleeping. It’s completely unresponsive and is more or less dead or comatose until the driver links back in with it.

But it twitches, right? The avatar twitches when you’re not in it, and when you’re in it, it breathes, and it seems to sleep, and it lives, and it can die – we see it happen at one point. It’s not a robot. It’s biological.

So is it alive? And if it’s alive, does that make it okay to just jack into a computer and take it over and use it, and use it up?

My biggest problem with “Avatar” was that while science fiction as a genre routinely seeks out and takes on such ethical quandaries, this film dodges the vast majority of them. Primarily, the movie’s message is environmental – the main character finds himself drawn to the natives’ life of living without technology in harmony with the planet around them, and the bad-guy humans are trying to strip and destroy the Pandoran forests, out of, what else, greed.

Robin Williams' stunning CGI alter-ego in "Avatar." Fine, fair enough. Given the societal climate right now, the stage was set for a “Fern Gully” remake and Cameron’s the right guy to make this movie, as the box office figures are bearing out.

But what about all the other interesting questions “Avatar” could answer?

For instance, the eventual heartless-military-guys-attacking-poor-aliens plot turn leads to several human characters standing with the aliens, but when it all goes to war, there’s a great deal of random soldiers getting just as massacred as the aliens had been.

So it’s war, and I get that, but the question of being a “human race traitor” – and in many ways, that’s what main character Jake Sully becomes – is never really addressed. It’s more thrown around as an epithet. Obviously Jake’s taking the right position in the film (mass murder always being the wrong position). But for the common human on Pandora, it’s the decisions (and propaganda) of a few honchos that leads a lot of people to their deaths.

Greed and murder are apparently the only things 99% of humanity is capable of in Cameron's film. Cameron’s movie never has Jake wrestling with the idea of killing his former comrades. His lot is cast with the Na’vi and everyone else is cannon fodder. But isn’t it as big an issue that to save one people, you’re killing another, most of whom are just misinformed?

Meantime, those unabridged jackasses behind the slash-and-burn blow-up-the-savages game plan have only the faintest glimmer of conscience (Giovanni Ribisi gives us one frown. Thanks, guy.) before they go on a tech-fueled killing spree. Yeah, I know what we’re getting at here thematically, but we couldn’t see a couple corporate/military lackies who might actually be, you know, human? Not everyone is a corrupt jerk who thinks only about money and golf – can we maybe ask the question of ourselves of what values we have as a people? Could the characters of this movie ask that question before they start indiscriminately killing one another?

Where “Avatar” pushes the envelope visually, it plays it safe in story and commentary. For a movie that harps on the value of life, there’s a lot of life that gets almost no value. A scenario such as that of “Pandorahontus” gives us an opportunity to think about these questions and our values. Is it really okay to use virtual reality to ride around in a living robot, even if that robot has no mind of its own?

Thanks for the nightmares

Out of the darkness descends a shadow, unfolding from the somewhere unseen above. It curls down and drops to the gleaming metal floor below, at home in darkness, and only after it is standing at its full height do you realize it’s seven or eight feet tall.

Light glints off its edges, giving you an impression of a sleek, bony frame and sharp, shining edges carved of something jet black. It rises above you, towering like an obelisk.

You start to back away, horrified as black lips slide away from silver teeth that seem to shine with their own light, emerging slowly from the slick black head. And suddenly an entire second set of jaws explode forward like a battering ram, a living bullet, tearing through flesh.

That’s if you’re lucky.

alien Much more likely is the creature, the alien, will ambush you. You’ll never see it coming as its long, thin claws wrap around your face and chest and it rips you off the ground with incredible strength, dragging you off to its hive. There, it will secrete a glue that will bind you, cocoon you, to any hard surface. There, you’ll wait.

You’ll wait for the babies.

The alien might eat you, sure, if it feels like. But what it wants to do is feed you to its hive’s young. Imprisoned in the hive, another sort of alien, which looks like a spider, will attach itself to your face, force a tube down your throat, and lay an egg in your stomach. Where it will grow.

Before long, it’s time for the baby to be born. It’ll use its teeth. And it’ll come through your ribcage.

That’s easily the most horrifying experience I can imagine – becoming the victim of a creature that doesn’t just want to eat you, but to rape you so fully that when you finally give birth to the bastard child, it will kill you; and that you’ll help in the creation of a thing that knows nothing but murder. I’ve been captivated, and held captive, by visions – and fears – of the monster ever since I first saw Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” and even before that, when I read the novelization of writer Dan O’Bannon’s script for the film when I was around 9.

I found the novel, its cover coming loose and pages hanging half-free of the binding, in a used book store in Toronto. “Alien 3” was released just two years before and when that happened, the film series became a part of my consciousness that I’ve never been able to shake. A fan of sci-fi for the entirety of my life, I couldn’t put the book down. It was incredibly frightening – the story of a group of bored working-stiff spacemen on a tugboat dragging an interstellar mine across the galaxy. And then they were attacked by a monster that killed them all in the most vicious way possible.

225px-Dan_O'Bannon O’Bannon died on Dec. 17 at the age of 65. He was a writer and director for films, including “Return of the Living Dead,” a genre-altering zombie movie. (The zombie moaning “braaaaaiiiins” is the child of “Return.”) But O’Bannon’s work on “Alien” is what changed the worlds of science fiction, film and horror for me forever.

There are occasions when I’ll awake with a start and a cold sweat, searching the darkness in my room, convinced that one of those huge creatures is waiting just out of sight. There are few other stories that have had such a profound effect on my psyche. When I was young, I consumed all I could from the “Alien” universe – movies, novels based on the films, comics, video games, even toys.

O’Bannon’s death reminded me of how acutely this one story has affected me. The alien and its awful power and singular purpose still is one of the most original horror conceptions I’ve ever encountered – nothing I’ve seen that’s been created in last 30 years even compares. How many movie monsters have you ever had a nightmare about? Because my list is short (though it is a list, and maybe that makes me weird).

The list of things I can designate as “Made Me Want to Be a Writer” is huge, with more items that I can enumerate or probably even remember. But high on the list (really, really high) is the work of Dan O’Bannon on “Alien.” Really, it boils down to a single idea – but that single idea, that alien creature, holds the place as the scariest thing of which I’ve ever heard. That’s an incredible achievement, in my mind.

The very reason for creating something is to have a serious effect on the lives of others. O’Bannon didn’t do a ton of memorable work – the majority of his movies are some of which I’ve never heard – but just this one idea was so formative to me that the man had a serious influence on my writing in all genres, and in science fiction and horror in particular.

I wake up from bad dreams about O’Bannon’s monsters.

But it’s always a good thing.

‘Pandorum’ muddled with too many bad ideas

pandorum I went into Pandorum, a sci-fi movie set on a huge dark ship potentially filled with horrifying creatures, expecting, well, that. I was hoping for a movie akin to the original Alien. I also was excited to see the likes of Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, 30 Days of Night) and Dennis Quaid (Frequency) manning the film’s bridge, so to speak. Here were two guys, with Foster in particular, who had impressed me with recent projects.

But Pandorum is not Alien. It’s like Alien, but it’s also like Predator. And a little like Resident Evil. But also like Event Horizon. Possibly a little like Sunshine. Oh, and Doom. AND Aliens. And Lost in Space.

You can probably see where this is going.

Since it takes influence (or downright steals) from so many other recent-era sci-fi movies, Pandorum quickly goes from sci-fi horror on a big dark ship (which looked interesting) to character wandering around big dark ship doing unlikely things (which is decidedly not). Many of the movies mentioned above are bad, and a couple are downright awful. The good ones did what Pandorum does, but way better. What’s worse is that as Pandorum is taking these movies’ ideas, it isn’t changing them. At all.

Even the bad ones.

Foster and Quaid wake up on the Elysium, a huge ship we’re told was sent by Earth to the only Earth-like planet ever discovered: Tanis. The big ship, packed with 60,000 people, is essentially an Earth ark, sent out to colonize the planet to save humanity from its own natural-resource-gobbling ways. In other words, if you’ve seen a space movie in the last 30 years, you’ve heard this.

But Foster and Quaid don’t remember anything. We come to realize they’re part of the flight crew, which means they run the ship. The crew is divided into three-man teams that run shifts of two years (the Elysium trip, we’re eventually told, is expected to take 128 years, or some such huge number, to complete), and since they’re team five, the pair figures they’ve been asleep eight years in cryogenic suspension. One aftereffect of cryogenics, it seems, that you wake up and can’t remember your own name. Sounds like an effective means of space travel.

So Foster and Quaid stumble around the ship, trying to figure out what’s going on. No one’s around, the doors are all locked, there are periodic power surges, and they can’t get to the bridge. So Quaid, the commanding officer, sends Foster through some air ducts to go open the door in a huge creepy ship with no one awake, where something is apparently wrong, and where the only assistance the young man’s got is through a radio attached to his collar.

That’s the movie I signed up for.

That’s not what Pandorum becomes. As quickly as Foster gets out of that first room, he comes across other people – first bodies, then a dirty tribal-looking woman who tries to steal his shoes, and then a real tribe of spiky (literally), noseless pale guys who carry blow torches and spears and seem to eat humans. Foster runs.

And runs for the rest of the movie, as more and more impractical things start to happen.

I’m as down with sci-fi as anybody, but Pandorum just asks for too many leaps. Huge empty ship. Years in the future. Trip to a whole new planet. Ship filled with hungry, possibly alien monsters. Oh, and don’t forget: the movie’s namesake, a version of space-madness called Pandorum that suggests early on that large portions of the movie might be a hallucination.

Even this tired device, the man-goes-crazy-in-space-it-was-all-a-dream-maybe-he-murdered-everyone space movie gimmick, is rendered completely unsatisfying by being jumbled together with too many other disparate, crazy elements. There are more, but I won’t mention them to avoid spoilers.

Pandorum even gets confused itself, it seems, abandoning the slow-burn narrative in which NOBODY REMEMBERS WHAT’S GOING ON at the two-thirds point, instead choosing to reveal all the twists in a neat little cave-painting story given by a random character stumbled upon for just such a purpose.

Oh, and the monsters.

They’re fast, twitchy, and apparently insatiable as far as hunger. They’ll just as soon eat a wounded or dead member of their own tribe as a hapless human (of which there seem to be far fewer than monsters), but they never stop coming.

They’re also apparently intelligent and interested in fairness and sport, given that one even chooses to toss a weapon to a human for the sake of a fair fight.

The rest of the time they just go careening around the ship, apparently too fast to allow for steady camera work, leaping impossibly high or descending from overhead compartments to snatch up, lasso, or otherwise stab anyone who is in the area. They aren’t scary. They aren’t menacing. They’re just loud and colorless.

I can’t really fault Foster or Quaid, who do all right with what they’ve got, though why the pair would sign onto a script like this is beyond me. Despite the movie’s trailers, it’s not creepy or intense, but Pandorum definitely wishes it was both those things.

What it ends up being is a convolution of common sci-fi themes and much more common sci-fi ideas, smashed together as inelegantly as possible – much like the massive metal sets this “story” populates. Nothing about either the script or the ship is practical. And little about either makes sense.