My ongoing discussions on the ways science fiction (and fantasy) can be improved -- how "mainstream" literature and fiction can improve it; how SF&F can return the favor as well; and occasional forays into how individual works of SF&F could be improved.
Also in this category will be some writer's resources:
Terry Gilliam's paranoid time-travel labyrinth is less an SF film than a story of the fear of madness, but no less powerful for it
I enjoy movies that are designed like puzzles, although most of the time the fun evaporates once the puzzle's solved. 12 Monkeys is like one of those puzzles that actually doesn't have a solution — it's there mostly to see how long you bother to try and solve it. Like Predestination, it uses a time-travel paradox as a central plot element, if only to first give hope to both its characters and the audience, and then to cruelly yank it away. But the sheer anarchic vigor of the whole thing, courtesy director Terry Gilliam, kept me interested all the way through. Yes, even when I suspected the movie had a false bottom, with nothing underneath.
12 Monkeys opens in the year 2035, some forty years after a virus killed most of the human race and left the survivors to fend for themselves in grotty underground warrens. Cole (Bruce Willis) lives in one of these dungeons as a prisoner, where he's sent out to the surface in a hazmat suit to collect specimens. He's been chosen by the scientists who run the place to go back in time and try to find more information about the virus. If he's good, he might get a reduction in his sentence, assuming the trip doesn't kill him outright.
Science fiction and fantasy are like any other fictional mode: they're only as good as the presumptions brought to them.
Science fiction and fantasy are like any other fictional mode: they're only as good as the presumptions brought to them. If you presume too much, or presume the wrong things, they don't work as interrogations of all the things we unthinkingly live with (or die from). Here are some recent examples from my own notes:
On the presence of inarticulate, inexpressive prose -- "Engfish" -- in SF&F.
Writing professor Ken Macrorie once coined the wonderful term "Engfish" to refer to the dead, artificial prose that writing students cobble together to make their teachers shut up and go away:
College students were once third-graders and occasionally wrote [with childlike disinhibition]. Where did they lose that skill? Why? They spent too many hours in school mastering Engfish and reading cues from teacher and textbook that suggested it is the official language of the school. In it the student cannot express truths that count for him. He learns a language that prevents him from working toward truths, and then he tells lies.
I suspect many of the same things happen in other circles, too. Novice fantasy and SF authors, because they have no voice yet, try instead to pre-emptively please their audience by feeding it some version of what they believe it wants. Or, worse, some version of what they think an "author" gives. They end up sounding like Garth Marenghi. The bigger problem is how many established authors also write like this.
On cheating in a work of fantasy or SF.
Fantasy fiction is a funny thing. If you don't explain enough, someone will get mad at you for being obtuse. If you explain too much, someone will get mad at you for, as they say, cutting open the drum to see what makes it go bang. It's not a question of pleasing everyone, since that is impossible; it's about what kind of audience you want.
Most fantasy stories never confront the idea that magic would have the social impact of the atomic bomb.
A great quote from Wiliam Gibson:
I've never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don't watch them; I watch how people behave around them. That's becoming more difficult to do because everything is "around them".
That reminds me of another quote by Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio: "We do not use technology so much as we live technology." Even relatively less developed societies than ours live to some degree in a technological envelope, if only as a way of staving off absolute privation.
What always struck me about the use of magic in a fantasy setting is how there is almost no discussion of the idea that the introduction of such a thing would have the social impact of the invention of the atomic bomb.
"When everyone in the community reads the same books, you can an inward-looking, intellectually impoverished community that can only contemplate its own navel."
"How to progress" [in programming]
1. Read books other people aren't reading
The computer programming community tends to follow fads in which everyone reads the same books at the same time. For example, books on extreme programming or design patterns. I think this is unfortunate. If you read books that other people are not reading, then you will know different things from the things they know, and when they come to you with a problem they can't solved, you might be able to solve it with your different equipment.
When everyone in the community reads the same books, you can an inward-looking, intellectually impoverished community that can only contemplate its own navel. When we read all different books, we all have more to learn from each other.
Of the many things I think can make a better creator of SF&F, this I rank at the top as well. Most everyone I know who wants to write SF&F reads a lot of SF&F, maybe some other kinds of fiction (if they're lucky), and not much if any nonfiction. The end result as I see it, is a lot of folks writing more or less the same kinds of things, because they feed off each other's works, and almost no one is pushing the input envelope.
On using Zen Buddhist notions of time in writing SF&F.
One of the single weirdest things about Zen Buddhism is its idea of time. Past and future are speculation of different sorts, and the only thing we can say really exists is action in the present moment. Doubly weird if you call yourself an SF author, because a big part of SF is making guesses about what the future could be like and writing interesting stories about those guesses. Is there a contradiction here, then? I don't think so.