On a Bunch of 2009 SF films

I’ve been sorting through random files on my netbook, and just discovered a half-written post on District 9, which I never finished and never posted. (The post sucked, so it’s good I didn’t get around to putting it online, but still…) Having just seen Avatar a few weeks ago, and The Box just a few days ago, and Moon and the Korean vampire flick Thirst a long time ago, I thought I’d put up my opinion on all of them (and a few more that come to mind), as they’re the last few SF films I’ve seen (aside from the Trek reboot, which I think I discussed elsewhere on this blog).

But first of all, I should contextualize this discussion of SF films with my general opinion of SF films. A snippet from the paper (about the Technological Singularity) that I just delivered at a conference in St. Louis last November:

…it is difficult to disagree that since the 1960s, not only has “media SF” (film, TV, and other forms) come to dominate in terms of popular consumption, but it has also transformed the the way the genre operates, so that it has become “less markedly ‘a literature of ideas’ and… increasingly dominated by an imagistic aesthetic” (Roberts, 264).The net result is that fewer people are dependent on genre SF for the kinds of (to use Darko Suvin’s terminology, “cognitively estranging”) experiences that once could be had only in the page of SF books and magazines; those who do choose to indulge tend overwhelmingly (and most publicly) to consume visual media SF. The biggest SF magazines have been experiencing a decline in readership for years now, a fact that has been both widely documented and discussed. Indeed, SF authors have long been imagining a future devoid of SF: the absence of SF novels (and SF fans, and SF authors, and SF movies) within most futuristic SF novels surely hints at (minimally, an unconscious) awareness of this phenomenon. In terms of literary SF, the Singularity may well be a metafictional representation of various anxieties about the oft-foretold death of SF, a simulacrum not of the fate of humanity, but rather of the fate of literary SF being swallowed up by a real present turned so SFnal that nobody needs SF books — or those who write them — anymore.

At this point, the urge to up the ante is almost irresistible, given the exponential-curve, all-extremes-at-once nature of the Singularity itself. Turning back to Vinge, who specifies the opacity of the future as having first struck “hard-SF” authors — those authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, and [Vernor Vinge], among whom scientific plausibility of futuristic extrapolation has always been of prime importance — one further suspicion is unavoidable. The image erupts in one’s mind of these grand elderly gentlemen of hard SF (and yes, most of them are male), authors known to have performed pages and pages of calculations in the course of researching a story, and more often than not have had hard-science backgrounds of one type or another, standing in the middle of a WorldCon somewhere in the mid-80s, in the mid-90s, or even today, surrounded by fans dressed in Klingon and Storm Trooper costumes, decked out in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Superman T-shirts and gleefully quoting lines from Battlestar Galactica, Soylent Green, and The Matrix. For whatever the merits of SF media, more often than not it is, as scientists like Mike Brotherton have amply demonstrated, the product of an entertainment establishment both scientifically and philosophically illiterate.

Yup, I came out and said it: I think media SF is the product of an entertainment establishment that is, more often than not, scientifically and philosophically illiterate. Am I calling your favorite SF movie stupid? Not necessarily. Some films ask interesting questions. Blade Runner says little in a realistic sense about robotics or AI, but it is nonetheless a smarter film than Sunshine, and The Matrix manages passably interesting dramatization of virtuality and virtual experience despite the scientific plausibility being, well, laughable (as Mike Brotherton discusses some of that here) and the philosophy being, well, about the level of your average daily newspaper’s reading level. My point is that Hollywood itself is relativelty dumb, so it’s much harder to bring something intelligent and interesting out of Hollywood.

(One wonders whether the average audience member of a Star Trek film has bothered to think about what a “dilithium crystal” might be? Why is it that fake-sounding technobabble is somehow considered better than real science terminology, given most people can’t tell what is what anyway?)

Which means when I see SF films — Hollywood or otherwise — I usually have pretty low expectations. For the record, I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, loved the first Matrix film despite the scientific idiocy, and don’t see it as hypocritical to still hold the above: that in terms of science, media SF tends to be sadly, embarrassingly illiterate, for no good reason at all. It’s laziness. And this annoys me, and always sends me back to literary SF, which is where the real smart stuff is almost always being done.

Okay, so:

Moon was a film I remember finding somewhat disappointing, though I enjoyed the company with whom I saw it in Austin this past summer. Basically, I wish the West would get over cloning as a cheap horror trope. Cloning isn’t cheap, cannot produce people who are basically the same, and even if it could, aside from shattering a few fondly-held superstitions about the nature of human consciousness (ie. souls) it would have very little effect on the world. Dear Hollywood: check out what Bruce Sterling did with cloning in Distraction, or wrote about it in Tomorrow, Now. Think about the embarrassments, the annoyances, the day-to-day crappiness of being a clone. Or, hell, look at what David Brin did with clones in his Glory Season — problematic as it might be when billed as feminist separatist hard SF, and problematic as the book was for me in general — it does have some coherent things to say about realistic effects of cloning on a society when the technology comes into widespread use.

As for the rest of the story: well, it was better than Sunshine, but I’m concerned about this whole “emo” thing that seems to be taking over a certain branch of cinematic SF (and, for all I know, visual media in general). Scientists who look like rock stars isn’t the only way to go emo, and in Moon there was so much focus on the mood that I have to admit I found myself a little lost at a few points in the movie, and while that may have supposed to have been the point, it was, for me, just distracting.

But basically, I think we need to chill out a little about cloning. Not because monstrosities aren’t possible through the technology, but because they’re not really unique or especially different monstrosities than the kinds we’re already used to in most cases, and because most of them aren’t particularly practicable for a number of reasons.

(Cloning workers isn’t cheaper unless you have some way of literally copying one adult into a bunch of identical adults. That kind of tech, mind you, is potentially interesting, but we don’t know how doable it is.)

Thirst, the Korean vampire film, was a rare treat for me as I almost never get to see Korean movies with subtitles. It was a relatively good vampire flick, doing some things with the trope I don’t think we’d see in a Western vampire movie, like having a priest turn vamp and then have sex with a human girl, whom he has to decide whether to vampirize. Yeah, the whole Catholic-drinking-blood thing is not new, but I am not sure I’ve ever seen a serious film in which a priest turned bloodsucker so prominently.

There were problems with the film, of course — I’m not I’d necessarily agree it’s racist that he got the vamp bug while working as a missionary in Africa, in part because I think the film is secretly, beneath its own skin, about the HIV epidemic in Korea, but also because many places in Africa, like Southeast Asia, have the combined state of development and climate, and enough mysterious wilderness, for new and weird diseases to emerge.

I remember thinking, though, that the priest-vampire, when he went over to the “dark side” and gave up his celibacy and started drinking human blood, that he had kind of only become halfway evil. There’s being careful not to get caught, sure, but… well, perhaps the twistedness is something that would take time to develop. He may have jumped into the pool of depravity headfirst for Korean horror movie standards, but anyone who’s played a campaign of Vampire: The Masquerade (or the later rebranding of that game) is likely to find it was the shallow end of that pool of depravity, where the priest ended up. I can think of more twisted vampiric stuff with half my brain tied behind my back. In any case, I’d love to see some kind of sequel set just three or five years later, where Seoul has a whole underground of vampires running around, all maniacal and, heh, in control. (Then it’d also be allegorical of the political situation in Korea — a vampire-ruled state.)

District 9 is one of those films I had fun watching, but which disappointed me on a few levels. My friend Charles has a pretty long and thoughtful post about it up on his site, to which all I can really say is that, never having visited South Africa, the film didn’t resonate emotionally for me the way it did for him.

So here’s what I thought about District 9: it’s a very clever and quite fun for a somewhat wrongheaded movie, but at least it’s doing something with aliens that we haven’t yet seen in a major SF film. Warts and all, I liked it a whole lot better than Avatar — though more about that later.

Here are the salient points: it’s an alternate history where aliens are subjected to life as refugees, in refugee camps, in Johannesburg after their spaceship arrives hovering over the township. The film is smart in its political allegory, and in some of how it maps out the human reaction to the alien presence: people on the ground, as we see from the start, are horrified by the alien presence, though some make a show of being “humanitarian” towards them. Big businesses do everything they can to profit of them, however possible. And of course, there is a nasty little underworld that surfaces around the “prawns” (as everyone seems to call the aliens) — prawns and gangsters trade weapons for cat-food, and random African gangsters deal in the body parts of prawns which are held to be magical cures for everything from diabetes to AIDS. Nobody wants the prawns around, everyone is horrified by them, and the prawns themselves seemm to dumb to really want better than they have in their squalorous shanty-town, barring only a few exceptions.

The tech the prawns use — um, it doesn’t look like biotech. Most of the guns (apparently including one real one) and other devices of alien origin seem more like, well, plastic or metal toys and gizmos. The functioning of the biotech is, well, unconvincingly magical, to the point where one wishes to remind filmmakers that Arthur C. Clarke didn’t say, “Any sufficiently alien technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For example, how does spaceship biofuel double as an agent of hyper-rapid retroviral bioengineering? Yes, it is ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as what happens when the protagonist becomes half-alien.

Then he hooks up with one of the aliens, and fights to retrieve the rest of the biofuel… so that the alien can fly off for “help.”

Now, I know the movie is set in South Africa. I know the movie is, on some level, an allegory about racism, about Othering, about how we dehumanize others so we can dominate, control, and subjugate them.

But it’s oxymoronic to “dehumanize” that which is not human, like, say, space aliens. It doesn’t make sense. Now, let me be careful here to say what I don’t mean. I’m not saying we should treat any and all nonhumans as lesser to humans. That perception comes from a category error where nonhumans would need to be considered human in order to be considered worthy of humane treatment. (The same category error suggests it’s evil, sexist, or wrong to look at general and fundamental physical differences in the brains of men and women, because sameness is the onlly route to manifest equality.) Should the aliens have rights? Yes. Should there be special rights for all sentient beings? Maybe. Should the aliens be considered human? Obviously not. They aren’t.

And the maudlin sentimentality of the end of the film cloaks a much darker logical conclusion. Think about it: the aliens, when they arrived at Earth, were in a complete state of disarray, for reasons unknown. But, and this is a big but, they were (a) in our cosmic neighborhood, and (b) armed to the… teeth? gills? ah, armed to the antennae! Not with pop guns, but with some pretty serious, frightening weaponry. These critters are built big, strong, and none too gentle, as we see right from their first onscreen interactions with humans.

They’re warriors, they’re on an intergalactic vessel, and they’re here. There are all kinds of human reactions which might make sense in this context: studying the aliens; conducting some kind of treaty with the smartest among them and helping them go the hell away; annihilating them all and covering up the fact they showed up, though it’s cruel, might be sensible depending on how those who come looking might react to a juicy planet of people and critters. (I’m sure humans can be cooked so that they taste just like cat food, after all.)

Sticking them in a concentration camp and toasting their eggs to keep the population down doesn’t seem unbelievable, though it’s not particularly nice. (Neither are the aliens, but that doesn’t make it excusable.)

The problem is, however, that Wikus’ “friendship” with one of the aliens, Christopher Johnson, finally leads to him helping Christopher fly the ship off… home… for help.

Folks, do the math: the aliens were incredibly heavily armed; they’re obviously designed for warfare; they were close enough to Earth to drop in when onboard discipline collapsed. We put ’em in camps and roasted their eggs for a couple of decades, letting thugs butcher some for magical rituals and our besuited thugs use them in weapons and genetics experiments.

When they do come back to help, with more of those battle suits and more of those guns that only they can use, what exactly do you think they’re going to do to humanity? Hmmm? Yes, the logic of the movie, for all its exploration of human evil and human cruelty, explores one last stupid and tragic flaw in Wikus’s problematic white liberal humanism: he has come to think of the aliens as noble savages, and even has gone native among them. This is an old story. But in the old days, the noble savages tended not to have kickass guns and faster-than-light access to potential armies of reinforcements out across the galaxy.

Wikus may be the only native of Earth to survive the return visit.

But despite all that? I liked the film. I liked the graphic cruelty of it, because it forced us to look at exactly the kinds of things we so often leave offscreen. In District 9, we get a full face of man’s inhumanity to prawn and man’s inhumanity to man. If one forces to read the film only allegorically — about racist segregation, dehumanization of people, about the corporatization of military power, about the idea that people of good will can make a difference… well, it’s mostly quite wonderful. There are problems on this level, too, of course: Wikus is realy quite a prick towards the aliens, until he becomes part-alien himself, and the film seems still to hold onto the idea that whatever gets done to free the blacks prawns in South Africa District 9 will have to get done through the heroics of well meaning white liberals humans like Wikus. Where, we may ask, is the Desmond Tutu of the prawns? And why, oh why, is it necessary to metaphorize black South Africans as aliens? Are we that thick-skulled? The fact that SF is only now catching up to the political issues and debates of 1966 — when the real District 6 forced evictions occurred — is sobering and saddening. Still, in a mediascape where SF all too often suggests humanity will somehow uplift itself into a near-utopian tomorrow, somehow, I found it refreshing to see a film that grappled with the fact that humans are, at bottom, a species of mammal with stunning propensity for nastiness.

Well… but for all its problems, the film also has some heart, has something of an uplifting message, indicts a lot of the same forces that need indicting in our world — a big militarycorp honcho and his company’s government partners are prominent antagonists — and I have to say that the film got me emotionally invested. When Wikus and Christopher shot their way into and out of MNU, and fought their way to the ship, I couldn’t help but cheer for them. Underdogs and all that.

2012: this film was absolutely retarded. I find it embarrassing that a society that could produce the technology necessary to create such amazingly vivid images of the world, could also be entertained by such absolutely moronic visions of the world. It’s as if there was an effort made not only to base the thing on retarded science, but also to get every bloody detail wrong. Like, for example: when the hot air from a volcanic eruption bowls you over? You don’t stand up. You’ve been cooked dead in less than a secoond. Game over.

Even more embarrassing is the widespread panic this movie touched off among the masses. All I can say is, 2012 may be a great year to make money off stupid people.Those of you with a month free, why aren’t you writing some shit-worth book on how to survive the coming apocalypse? They’re on all the bestseller stands here in Jakarta! And really: those peoplewho believe the end is going to come are going to blow their savings on much worse anyway, if they don’t buy your book.


There were two films (actually, three) that explored the idea of human minds remote controlling bodies not their own: Surrogates and Citizen Game are the two that are directly comparable, and while both were, I guess, worth the money I paid to see them, for the fun and distraction, I found that Surrogates was a much more compelling look at the psychology and culture of a life by remote control — a life lived under the thrall of interactive autism, body-hating, and isolationism that… wait, are people really like that? Not really. Yes, the film is basically a fairy-tale born from the kind of excessive paranoia and anxieties that older Westerners seem to feel about the Internet and its effect on our culture. Even so, it did do that basic SF thing of taking a trend (however ostensible) and mapping out how it could impact society in the long run, and thereby ended up being more compelling than Citizen Game, which glorified exactly what it castigated, and which, in the end, was really more of an action/investigation film with an SF twist, with a rich and evil mad scientist and all. (Why are the mad scientists never like real-life madmen, such as, say, the unabomber, or people motivated by something other than money and power, like the religious technogenius/fuckup title character in Greg Egan’s “The Moral Virologist”?)

The third film featuring remote-control was James Cameron’s Avatar, which was just as beautiful as it was idiotic and tired. The preview made me expect a Pocahontas-in-Space sort of thing, and, well, that’s what it was. I don’t have much new to contribute to the criticism I’ve seen all over the Net. I’m just going to say that, in aggregate, we get the SF we deserve. Enough people were distracted by the Pretty Pictures and forgot to notice that the plot, characters, and everything else were either so weak or so predictable that the movie was fit only for young children. Hell, I’m pretty much anti-military and I still was wishing the damned commander guy had at least a little motivation beyond, “I’m a military asshole, bomb it all, kill ’em all!” and some implied desire to make up for a long-ago shaming by the Na’vi, or whatever they were called. I spewed more of my hate for the film over at Marvin’s LJ, if you’re interested, though. There was a moment where the pilot character (played by (Check the comments section.) Suffice it to say I found the film, well, bleah.

The Box was a weird little movie, one I wasn’t quite sure what to think of — I actually walked in expecting it to be a horror film, and it was dark, but it was also, undeniably, SF. I’ll probably have to see it again, but for the moment I can say a couple of things: for one, hey, wow, the 70s really are in. I’ve been noticing that for a while, but now it’s so much in full force that films are getting set, not-quite-but-almost-seamlessly, in the 70s. (This makes me nervous, because that means the 80s are next, and the 80s were something of a disaster on all fronts: music, fashion, art: can we skip it and go to, I don’t know, the 40s or the 20s or, hell, the Victorian Era? I promise I’ll get a selection of embroidered waistcoats and wear ’em every day. Hell, I’ll even get a steampunky pocket watch on Etsy or something.)

Finally, my two favorite films from 2009 were the sort of film which, while they’re not really SF, have appealed to almost all of my SF-consuming friends. The first was Up, the first fifteen minutes of which are a kind of Turing Test — if you don’t cry, you’re just not human. I saw it in 3D, and this newfangled 3D stuff is weird, in that normallythe old 3D never worked for me, but this stuff kinda-sorta did. Having one bad eye, I assumed I’d never see 3D, but there it was, in front of me.

The other, and this was good enough I saw it twice in the cinema, was the recent Sherlock Holmes movie directed by Guy Ritchie. Those who prattle on about homoeroticism in the film are, well, if you ask me they’re searching for it,seeing what they want to see. Holmes and Watson are, of course, part of that very curious (not to say “queer!”) culture of their time, of which homosociality was a major part. I don’t know if the distinction between homosexuality and homosociality that exists in my memories is as clear as was traced out in the introduction of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick‘s book Between Men: Literature and Male Homosocial Desire…but I seem to recall some effort distinguishing the two in that introduction. Which, yeah, is probably all I read of the book.

In any case, the Holmes is a joy for a few reasons. One is seeing a Holmes who is basically a mess because of his genius! Yes! Lovely. Holmes as a rough-and-ready street tough, as a dangerously clever trickster, it was a wonderful shift from the boring, Victorian Holmes in that bloody hat always saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” in a way that suggested he’d never so much as gotten a speck of dirt under his fingernails. The casting and performances were excellent, and there is even a little steampunky SFnality there in Holmes’ anticipation of radio, remote control, and wireless communications. Good fun, and while I’m not sure whether this Holmes is closer to, or farther from, Doyle’s original — I will be reading to find out, though — I think he’s a Holmeswell-suited to our era.

A note: many links here  are missing. I’ll try add them later, but this has been languishing long enough.

34 thoughts on “On a Bunch of 2009 SF films

  1. “Pandorum” with Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster was the most “Sci” of all the Sci-Fi films this year while being a horror movie at its core. Plus, it is much more believable to see this outcome occurring in one’s “Trek” through the cosmos than finding class M pleasure planets a warp away in every star system.

    While I loved the Trek reboot for its validating all the previous Trek novels that were considered to be non-canonical (“Enterprise” by Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens being my favorite) before the alternating time lines became canon in that latest film, “Pandorum” seemed to be something that we can actually expect to see happen once we begin humankind’s journey past our solar system—a living hell for those trapped on board and even defenseless against their own minds.

    1. Hmmm. I missed Pandorum mainly because of lack of time… I saw the posters all over, but never caught sight of it showing anywhere when I could have sat down and watched it. That said, the one review I read through was pretty negative, interestingly because the reviewer found the horror element all too dulled by the predictability of the story. Still, the story as it is at least is a step forward from the old “space makes people channel demons” of too many SF movies in the 90s.

      Trek was fun, but I never take it too seriously. Did they base the new film on non-canonical novels or something?

  2. You can catch some sci-fi that is now reality on History Channel’s “That’s Impossible.” Season 1 episodes are: Invisibility Cloaks, Real Terminators, Weather Warfare, Eternal Life, Death Rays and Energy Weapons, and Mind Control.

    1. Hmm. I don’t watch TV — I finally have one, for films, but don’t get any TV stations on it. I guess I could poke around online, though, are those technologies actually real yet? What I mean is, isn’t that just over-the-top promotion of their show? Most of those sound like technologies we’re working on, but which are not out of R&D yet…

  3. I was mostly with you right up until Sherlock Holmes. What you saw was not Sherlock Holmes. I’m even kind of grumpy about it.

    To be fair, I’ve never seen Sherlock Holmes on screen–small or large, so I don’t have that point of comparison. But Holmes on paper is most certainly a messy, opium-addicted genius. Hardly an action hero. I shudder to think what’s ahead of us, since with the success of this film there will be more.

    I finally finished watching Buffy this week and am still trying to work out why, in spite of its weaknesses, I find it compelling enough that I’d watch the whole thing all over again.

    1. Really? Not Holmes? Having not read any Doyle in ages, I was about to take your word for it, but I have a bunch of the collections in my iPod, and checked out the first tale in the first book — “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — and was stunned to find a good many scenes and characters from that very story made an appearance in the film (and how much of it seemed drawn from that first story). Holmes didn’t get into any punchups, mind… some liberties may have been taken. But I rather liked the liberties being in the direction of action hero: all the older Holmes depictions I’ve seen (or at least, as I remember them) have rendered him a basically respectable, upper-class Victorian gentleman, with a bloody stupid hat on and a magnifying glass in hand. (I’ll likely keep on reading more Doyle to see how far the liberties went, and whether I think them fitting.)

      As for Buffy — oh, there’s whole piles of scholarship on that. One Korean fan I know said something like, “When I saw Buffy, with her school built over a Hellmouth, I realized: this is just like Korean high school, so close to hell!” Little did she know high school everywhere can be hellish for so many of us. I think the show is compelling for a number of reasons, including (a) a strong female protagonist for once, (b) the long-term character arcs (Buffy’s being quite amazing, and Willow’s also did some surprising, bizarre things), (c) the show has heart, and (d) they went past the whole vampire thing to include all kinds of other creatures, demons, and villains. Plus the envelope-pushing: that musical episode was just… wow.

  4. I haven’t read Doyle in years, so I may dip my toe back in the water to see what you’re talking about.

    I’m familiar that there is scholarship surrounding Buffy, and I can sort of understand why but not in a way that makes it easy to explain to non-Buffy fans (like my husband). More to the point–why do I, a forty-three-year-old woman, still find it compelling? High school (hellish, healing, and formative all at the same time) is far behind me.

    I can, however, say why I started to watch Buffy–once I realized that demons don’t actually exist, Buffy became much less frightening than it had been before. And I liked the stories. And eventually, Spike.

    I’ve been watching Angel along with Buffy. In season 4, there is an episode which is one of the finest things I’ve ever seen on television.

    And as much as I’m opposed the bringing back of dead characters on Angel, I’m looking forward to season 5. Did I mention Spike?

    1. Kelly,

      Yeah, check the Holmes — the first story in the book I linked has a number of scenes which are in the film. Also, the more I read the book, the more I see a lot of leeway Doyle himself left between the reality of Holmes and how Watson chooses to depict him in the act of “chronicling” his “little problems,” as he refers to the cases he solves. I can very easily see Watson leaving out chunks of Holmes’ life, like his penchant for boxing or propensity for violence when needed.

      I think the appeal of Buffy is that a lot of baggage from youth remains with us throughout our lives. Certainly when I was watching the series (while going through some painful personal stuff, I’ll add) I had dreams that melded stuff from my present (adult) life and traumas from youth, bundled up in the metaphors of the show. It was bizarre, but also completely unsurprising. I recommended the show to someone else going through the same as me, declaring Buffy a good model for the necessity of keeping up the good fight, even when one can no longer see why one should.

      I didn’t watch Angel. Do you think it’s worth it, that I would like it? I saw some episodes of the first season back when it was on TV, but it never struck me as being of the same level as Buffy. Actually, I thought the departure of Angel from the show, and Buffy’s struggle to fill the void left behind, was what made the show really come into its own. What was that, season 4 onward?

      (I’m guessing you mean you oppose the wanton, illogical, continuity-violating resurrection of characters, rather than resurrection per se? Otherwise you’d have big problems with Buffy. Who returns from the grave in Angel?)

  5. “Star Trek” canon was something of a mystery, but the novels, comic books, and animated series were disavowed by the powers that be even though they made a ton of money off them by duping fans like me by using the logo “Star Trek” to get us to part with our hard-earned cash. However, the films and TV shows are considered canon, unless the films decide to change something (usually not for the better as Zefram Cochran was made into a mockery by the film “Star Trek: First Contact” as opposed to the series (“ST:TOS” – Metamorphosis) and books (“Enterprise”).

    However, the latest filmed version of the franchise has come along and said that the infinite number of timelines and parallel universes are “now” canon so all those previous novels and comic books can now be viewed as official lore as we really don’t know which timeline/reality that we are actually viewing (or reading) anymore. Now, everything with a “Star Trek” logo takes place in the official, and extended, “Star Trek” universe.

    Someone does need to update the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek_canon website to now include these changes, though.

    “Star Wars” canon has its own set of problems, but they were able to watch what had happened in the “Star Trek” universe to actually devise a five level system of canon starting at the G-level (George Lucas himself—hard to do in the Star Trek version as Roddenberry has been gone for almost 20 years now).

    As for “Pandorum,” I also read the negative critics’ reviews (critics rarely give sci-fi good reviews), and I wasn’t disappointed that I went with the audience’s reviews instead (B+).

    1. John,

      Thanks for the info on Trek. As I say, I’ve never been much of a Trekkie despite having watched a lot of the original series in rerun as a kid. (Actually, anything extended- and franchised-up enough to need a clear canon, I haven’t been much interested in until last year. And then, it was just Buffy.) Funnily enough, my favorite SF novels are all standalone; I think I got wary about canon after I tried to hard to keep up with the Forgotten Realms campaign setting (for AD&D) back in middle school and lost a few years worth of allowance and paper route money for books that really didn’t expand the setting usefully much at all.

      By the way, the reviews I saw for Pandorum wasn’t mainstream film reviewers: I almost always disagree with those cats. It was SF fans whose comments I read. I don’t even remember whose. Funnily enough, I disagree with them too, a lot — so many have good things to say about Avatar, for example, and I hated that film.

      Actually, oddly enough:

      When mainstream critics hate a genre film, I shrug and look for reviews by people who aren’t stuck up about genre. When the genre-friendly critics hate it, I know I’ll probably hate it too. But when genre critics gush, it’s usually a good sign that I’ll hate a film too. I am much more of a fan of Children of Men or The Prestige — both wonderful, low-key SF films — than any of the big crowd-pleasers I mentioned in this post (aside from Sherlock Holmes and Up.)
      When the buzz in Korea is that a film (genre or otherwise) sucks, I immediately assume it’s brilliant and that I’ll love it. Usually I’m right. When the buzz in Korea is that a film is wonderful of brilliant, I immediately assume it’s going to suck. And, likewise, I’m almost always right. Which isn’t quite an indictment of Korean audiences, I suppose, but Korean tastes seem to marginalize the very films that are considered, abroad, Korea’s most outstanding cinematic achievements.

  6. Why is it that fake-sounding technobabble is somehow considered better than real science terminology, given most people can’t tell what is what anyway?

    Because technobable sounds like it makes things go “Woosh!” and “Zap!” and normal science sounds like people who are smarter than you.

  7. To expand on that a bit:

    You’re dealing with irrationality vs rationality. For most of human history, our perceptions of reality have been based on the monkey-brain irrationality that comes with the species. For example, the belief that invisible sky men are responsible for making the sun rise and cross the sky.

    The irrational is very powerful thing since it’s wrapped up in a lot of our biological impulses. We make, thus we must have been made. We listen to our parents when young and they protect us, thus there must be a big sky daddy doing the same. And so on.

    One of the things science does quite well is rationally show that the universe doesn’t give a shit about you one way or the other. Since so much of human experience is based on the irrational, science is seen as a sort of enemy, and has been for a very long time.

    Thus, the only way to make science-based entertainments acceptable to those who may fear the science that underlies it, is to give irrationality a wrapper of rationality. Taking Star Trek as our example: Yeah there’s nothing story-wise in it that couldn’t be transplanted to 16th century explorers circling the globe. But the wrapper of science around that story is more the point.

    I think we all know how many true scientists were born out of Star Trek science love.

    So I think the tecnobabble is very important way for the rationality of science to get a foot in the mental door of a species that is still very much irrational. Geordie may go on about chronotons, but it’s clear he got there through an underlying scientific method.

    Also, it doesn’t help that most hardcore science writers are dryer than a popcorn fart and that leads to similarly dry SF which appeals to very few.

    1. WG:

      Ha, you’re probably right about the preference to comic book sounds over real science terminology. That said, I think Charles Stross’s novel Saturn’s Children has lots of real-science terminology, and also manages to be a scream — hilariously perverted in its humor, ridiculously imaginative in its scope, and a wild adventure. Nothing like popcorn fart. Is that the problem — we need people who are creditable SF authors doing the scripts? I dunno — as Junsok commented elsewhere, lots of TOS scripts were written by real live SF authors, and they didn’t seem any more scientifically credible.

      Hell, I don’t think Trek should even try to be scientifically credible at base: it needs FTL to work, as a series, so credibility is already out the window. Nobody cares. (It’d be nice to see a series that was scientifically credible, but not all series need to be. It’s just that the non-credibility doesn’t need to be so patently, well, anti-credible, does it? I don’t really get how the (dumb-sounding) technobabble sounds more believable (or comfortable) to some people than real science terminology would. It seems to me more about laziness in the writing; to which end, the post Charlie Stross put up recounting how they would just have TECHNOBABBLE blanks to be filled in later explaining this or that plot-necessary event or technology. I linked it at some point in the last few months, I think…

      Definitely lots of real scientists were born out of Trek love — the narrative probably functions on some level more as a metaphor for the utopian journey of discovery that science arguably is at its core. And my Korean students are usually surprised to discover that one of the main inspirations for the cell phone — their favorite pocket technology — was the communicators on that show.

  8. It took a while for “Angel” to find itself. From the second season on it was really good. At times even better than “Buffy,” especially once they introduced “Pylea” and Amy Acker joined the cast as Fred.

    I think the episode “A Hole in the World” written and directed by Joss Whedon is his best work to date. And what he did with the character of Wesley throughout these two series that culminates is this episode was truly brilliant. I thought I could never care for him as a character until I found myself suffering along with him in this episode.

    The character who was resurrected on “Angel” was Spike. He sort of went out in a blaze of glory at the end of “Buffy.”

    1. Wow, well, I guess I’ll have to track it down, then. Yeah, I remember Spike’s death at the end of Buffy, and wondered if it was he who was resurrected in Angel. He, too, was a kind of cheap, meh character till I saw him truly suffer, and then I liked him a lot.

      (By the way., Buffy took a little time to find itself, too… I think it’s 3rd season when it really gets its feet on solid ground, and then when Angel’s out, it just keeps getting better and better.)

  9. It’s funny you should mention keeping up the good fight–I thought of Buffy last week when someone wondered why skeptics and their ilk should even bother with combating the woo of the world. “Most people don’t even care,” he said. Which is true and frightening and motivating and heartening. There’s a lot of work to be done.

    There are elements of Buffy that tap into my own history, it’s true. And it’s something I’ll continue to ponder through round two of Buffy. I’m seriously considering buying the whole thing for the local library so that I can watch it almost whenever I want.

    I don’t oppose resurrection per se, but it’s so often cheaply and unimaginatively used. In addition to Spike (whose resurrection I haven’t yet seen, as I won’t get to season 5 for a few weeks), there’s Darla and a minor character whose name and demon function I can’t remember. Holtz falls into a similar category, although technically he wasn’t resurrected. Lila too, although she’s just dead (I’m not going to explain that one. :) ). It happens a lot more in Angel, and even though Whedon often handles it well, I wish there was less reliance on it.

    Angel’s worth it, but it’s not on the same level as Buffy. Lower your expectations a bit, and you won’t be disappointed.

    So far I’ve loved Dark Wesley as he’s grown in Angel. I’m anxious to see what develops in season 5.

    My favorite part of Angel so far has been the Jasmine arc in season 4, and it’s one of those episodes that I referenced when I said it’s one of the finest things I’ve ever seen on television. That episode is definitely something out of my personal history. :)

    1. Kelly,

      Ah, yes, keeping up the good fight. I’m afraid I must confess, the temptation of adding a bit to the woo, for the obvious bling, is a bit stronger when one walks through a bookstore and sees all these books about 2012. One wonders why a good writer mightn’t subsidize the good writing with one such text. Heh, if only I had no scruples…

      I hear you on cheap resurrection; like cheap drama, cheap victory, cheap sacrifice, it’s always problematic. I suppose it will irk me more in Angel, while in Buffy it was okay, though it skated the line the second time around. (The third was handled brilliantly, though; being resurrected into suffering and a craptastic life as a Slayer because you were in Heaven after your third death? Brilliance.)

  10. Wow. Long post and longer comments. In the Encyclopedia of SF, Clute and Nicolls mention that more people care about film (and) TV SF than written, (or at least get more attention) and I guess that is true… :)

    I won’t even try to give full comments, but just give some impressions of SF/F I’ve seen and not seen this year I guess…

    [Warning: I don’t expect any real science accuracy from a movie, or really well-thought out social extrapolations. More often or not, you need pages or hours of infodump to do these things right, so I don’t really think too much about plausibility, just entertainment. Also, I have a very easy standard. I just require the movie to be not boring and do at least one thing well. I remember remarking that I thoroughly enjoyed “Independence Day” bacuase it blew things up good…)

    Two of my favorite movies last year were “Star Trek” (but as long as it kept the feel of Trek, this movie was pretty much critic-proof for me) and “Watchmen” (Like David Lyhch’s “Dune” perhaps, not the best or the most accessible movie in the world, but I will argue that it was the best movie that fanboys like myself could have hoped for)

    “District 9”: I loved the way the guns made people go “splat” (a la early Peter Jackson movies – before he became respectable). I thought the SF and social extrapolation was OK enough. I believe (though I hope not) that human race will probably remain asses in the future.

    “Avatar” As with most other people, visually stunning movie with a standard plot. (Loved the floating islands, though) Reminds me of some of early 1970s SF novels, especially with the Gaea plot strand.

    “9” another visually stunning movie with standard plot. While I do have a very cynical view of the human race, I am getting a bit bored with the standard ways of how and why humankind destroys itself…

    “Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”: Another visually stunning movie, with more sympathetic characters than “District 9” or “9” but (I don’t know it was because of death of one of its stars, or whether the problem was inherent in the script to begin with…) the plot or the motivation of the Heath Ledger character could have made a lot more sense.

    Of the movies I have the DVDs for but not yet seen…

    “Moon” why (based on the trailers) does it remind me of Stainslaw Lem’s “Solaris”?

    “Surrogates” I want to like this movie. I like (more or less) mindless SF shoot-em-ups with built-in jokes masquerading as social commentary (e.g. “Running Man”)

    Definitely will see both before the end of break.

    “Angel” I got the complete DVD set a couple of years ago on less than half-price sale from Amazon (along with Buffy). Both are pleasant enough, and I enjoy seeing them when I have it on, but on the other hand, I did not felt an overwhelming need to see it (like I do for Trek – no real emotional investment in it. YMMV). I still haven’t finished seeing the last two seasons yet. But I do think the demon Lorne was a great character with great power, and I waa sorry to hear the actor who played him passed away last year.

    1. Junsok,

      Thanks for your observations on the movies. Long comment added to a long collection of comments, there!

      A lot of the movies you mention, I haven’t yet seen, but I plan on seeing them — especially Dr. Parnassus and The Road, both of which I was bummed out to have missed. (Have you seen the latter? While I agree with those who are annoyed at how nobody seems willing to call McCarthy’s novel SF, when it clearly is, it wasn’t a particularly bad book. Depressing, bleask, nasty, and not so very original, yes, but better-written than a number of more imaginative novels on the subject of post-apocalyptic life.)

      As for Dune, is it heretical of me to prefer the Sci-Fi channel’s miniseries? The shared flaws of both versions aside, I found Lynch’s just a little too… bizarre? Goofy? I dunno. I agree, though: accessibility and quality aren’t always the same thing. In fact, in many cases I find they’re inversely related — not always, but often!

  11. Oh, and “Sherlock Holmes.” Everyone seems bothered that this version of Holmes is more physically oriented. In the stories, it was mentioned that Holmes was a fit man, and the stories implied that Holmes was a pretty good fighter as well (e.g. The Final Problem, and given Holmes sometimes went “undercover” in the world of criminals, he would have to be at least a fair fighter), so I don’t have problems with Holmes being set up as an action hero, as long as he is not made out to be obviously stupid. However, how could they completely ignore “The Sign of the Four?” and how Holmes and Watson first met Mary Morstan?

    1. Junsok,

      You’ve read way more Holmes/Doyle than me, so I’m taking your word for it. I’m about a quarter of the way through the first book, in any case, and loving it. (But I will add that whatever stories describe Holmes as fit, he’s also described as “gaunt” in others — namely in one or two of the first few stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. That said, he’s presented as so much of a chameleon, fitting into this or that situation which Watson never expected — or rather, leads us to think we oughtn’t expect, though of course it’s a perfect fit for Holmes — that I can buy him being a good fighter. I also liked how we occasionally slip into his mind, as it feels like such a lonely place: the loneliness of the long-distance thinker, or something.

      Good film.

  12. I got “The Road” (the book) a couple of years ago, but it has not been very high on my reading priority list – partially because I had my fill of post-apocalypse stories about 15 years ago, when every book I seemed to be reading seemed to be books about the end of the world, and the degeneration of human race. I realized that for most of these books, apocalypse was just a cheap way of returning the setting into a medieval environment while cherrypicking future and present technologies the writer like to retain for storytelling or persnoal purposes. Also, all of them tended to be extremely depressing. I figured if I had to get depressed, then I always had real life to fall back on. Noweadys, I do read books about post-apocalypse, but it better have something more than just the end of the world and how people turn on each other.

    The reason I prefer Lynch’s Dune over Harrisons is precisely because it is goofy and weird. Harrison definitely told the story better, but compared to Lynch’s there weren’t that many memorable scenes. While Lynch’s version made less sense and was incoherent, some of Lynch’s vision was so far out that I think it went beyond what most fans had in their heads, and in many cases improved up on them. Also, while most of the actors were stiff, some of them gave memorable key scenes. (Baron Harokennon, Sting – looking suitably deranged, Mother Superior of the Gene Besserit, and Patrick Stewart shouting “But this is a Harkonnan animal!). Thus, I think the movie was quite successful in going beyond the book for most Dune readers and fans. If you take Lynch’s Dune as being depcitions of scenes from the book rather than being a coherent movie, then I think Lynch’s Dune works very well.

    1. The sad thing about that glut of post-apocalyptic stories is that while they put words like “apocalypse” into the mainstream vocabulary, they also made it much harder to get people to sit up and pay attention about real potential apocalypses. Our imagination has been dulled to the point that… well, Copenhagen?

      I see what you mean about Dune. Perhaps the fact I’ve never read the novel (though, yes, it’s on my shelf) might have something to do with the fact that I like the newer film better — there is a storyline, as meh as it is visually and in terms of scene-setting. (Also, I just tend to find Lynch self-indulgent and not all that fun to watch in general. He’s a horrible storyteller, regardless of whatever merits others may attribute to him. And while he seems to get off being all “post-modern,” he sadly doesn’t seem to grasp that the signature tricks of postmodernity aren’t new in storytelling — and that he doesn’t use them so very well.)

  13. “well, Copenhagen?”

    You said it…”potential.”

    The world has been much hotter before, it has been much colder before, but humankind has always found a way to adapt.

    There was another “potential” one this past year with the swine flu, but it sort of fizzled out and people are getting really tired of all the Chicken Little nonsense of Y2K, SARS, Global Cooling, Bird flu, etc. Global warming may be real, but until Manhattan is the next Atlantis most people are becoming more and more skeptical when so many people on both sides of the coin are making so much money off of it. I mean carbon credits! Talk about science-fiction.

    And an ending like the one in “The Road” is a much bleaker future than a gradual warming of the planet in which big parts of the Earth can now grow more food than ever before (Canada and Russia) while some people may be forced to relocate (who may have to take them in might be a big problem).

    Personally, I see the use of nukes as a much greater threat to mankind due to unstable leaders using them as leverage in the Mideast and on the Korean peninsula or just deciding to go out in style. Another potential for catastrophe is in both China and India as populations continue to grow with a severe shortage of females as mates for all those males being born. Some genius said that gay men should help even it out a bit, but they forgot that there are also lesbian women.

    As for “Angel,” I think you might have the same problem I had with it. I didn’t really care for him on “Buffy,” and the first season of his series was very uneven at best. However, sometime during the second season I was able to separate it from “Buffy” and enjoy it on its own merits. Sort of like when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” came along. It took “DS9″‘s better writing to finally convince me to buy into the new series of series after I’d been spoiled by the original one with Jim, Spock, Bones, and the NCC-1701 with no letter designation.

    1. John,

      Not that I personally am an expert on this, and not to slam your input too aggressively, but…

      As far as I understand it, while it has been hotter and colder in the past, I don’t think it’s gotten hotter or colder as quickly as it is now, nor have the faster shifts been so much less than disastrous. From the little I do know, some very smart people think that there’s a chance of feedback loops, meaning the trend of warming could become autocatalytic after some time. This is some scary shit, in that as soon as we start having the methane locked in the bottom of the oceans unlock, it’s very bad news for us. We can adapt to it getting warmer. We (the big we, meaning everything living in the ecosystems we have now) cannot adapt to a sudden and radical shift in climate, a sudden and massive outgassing of methane, a sudden rise in sea levels.

      The impact of The Year Without a Summer are instructive: its effects were very limited over time — it was only a year without summer, after all — but despite the positives (the invention of the velocipede, the inspiration for the later development of fertilizer) it killed bunches and bunches of people in the short time it was in effect — not just from starvation, but also disease outbreaks that resulted from the climatic effects.

      And if global warming does go into autocatalysis, into feedback loops, then even if Siberia and the Northwest Territories do get warm, they won’t have much time to cash in on their newfound agricultural power. The feedback loops could drive things so far that what’s left of them after the rise in sea levels could simply become deserts in short order.

      As for Chicken Little: well, the media spin is definitely a problem. I think it’s unfair to call global warming (or SARS, or Global Dimming, or Bird Flu) a chicken little story: rather, they’re misreports of the real problems, which are that climate change is incredibly complex and not really very well-understood yet, but at the same time some things worth being alarmed (and careful) about are going on, and that on the other hand we do face the likelihood of some kind of pandemic eventually slamming us hard. (Again — this, at least, we have historical precedents for. Scary ones.) The outbreak of things like SARS and Bird flu are tiny little intimations of what is possible — and how ill-prepared and disorganized we still are for what likely will happen again.

      I fully agree about nukes being insane. I think, though, that between nukes in the hands of a few nut leaders (that including potential presidents of the USA, mind you: Sarah Palin with her finger on the red button was an image that unsettled me during the last American elections), versus dirty and stupid technologies (like gas-burning cars) in the hands of increasing proportions of the Earth, the latter wins the Darwin Award in my books. (Though, yes, I worry about North Korea’s elite deciding to go out with a bang, I don’t think that’s a global-scale worry. It’s local. Carbon, particulate matter, and fuel scarcity are global issues.)

      India’s and China’s populations, again, are regional issues — the former’s beautifully discussed in wider social implications in Ian McDonald’s “An Eligible Boy” in Cyberabad Days, of which book I’m about to post a review.

      (McDonald seems to imply homosexuality might be one frustrated response to the sex imbalance, but doesn’t really offer any solution for the imbalance, per se, only such reactions… and one can understand why! The response I was going to float in a long-abandoned novel was that China, to make up for its carbon-dirty environmental report card, would [permanently] “loan” single male conscripts to the WTO/UN for eco-enforcement duties abroad. A young Chinese unit in some shanty town in East Africa, taking out poachers, and a freaky helicopter ride over a future semi-autonomous Tibet, were all I wrote of that plot thread.)

      Yeah, I wasn’t nuts about Angel on Buffy, as I mentioned, which is why I never checked out Angel. Separating them might be the key for enjoyment. Trek: yeah. TNG was just meh enough to me that I never looked into any of the later incarnations of the franchise. Frankly, I think TV SF would be better served exploring some other future, rather than yet another rehash of Trek. (Then again, I also wish Hollywood would stop making remakes of old SF films, and do something new, up to the standards of today’s best written SF.)

  14. I just finished an awesome scientific thriller that scared the hell out of me especially as introducing man-made plagues (The Spanish Lady to wheat rust and corn smut) to destroy billions of lives and wipe out entire world food supplies isn’t really all that far-fetched. The book is “The First Horseman” by the husband and wife writing team known as John Case. A good portion of the book takes place in North Korean and, sadly, the fictional reaction from South Korea is pretty much spot on when detailing actual incidents in the past.

    Eventually, something catastrophic will happen to the population of the world. There are just too many possibilities to really worry about any “ONE” in particular. After reading this book though, I’m more inclined to think that I have more to fear from an outbreak of the H1 flu version that wreaked havoc over the planet in 1918 than I have to fear from anything else. This book really puts things in perspective concerning biological and chemical weapons.

    1. John, That sounds like an interesting book. Wiping out the world food supply would be a really clever way of wreaking havoc on the species, yes, though I have trouble imagining North Korea getting its shit together enough to wreak such havoc.

      Vernor Vinge seems to argue, in his novel Rainbows End, what you do: something catastrophic will eventually happen and it’ll probably be the thing we didn’t even known enough to worry about. That said, there are enough things we know enough to worry about and do something about, but don’t. I see in that the same brutal mediocrity I see in the street in front of the apartment building I am staying in, in a suburb of Jakarta. No traffic lights, no real rules about how pedestrians get across: the result is that you risk your life at every crossing. People deal, of course. But people die or get injured on this street and others like it, too, somewhat regularly. The city isn’t so poor it cannot afford traffic lights — there’s tons of expensive construction everywhere in the city; the driving populace isn’t so dumb it cannot learn to follow traffic signals; the people running Jakarta aren’t so unimaginative that they cannot find another system if traffic lights, as a foreign solution, are untenable. But persistent barriers remain unmoved — corruption, lack of interest, embedded political interests — and so nothing gets done, and people keep getting injured and killed as a result.

      There are more things than we’d like to admit that also work this way on the global scale, and even in nice, developed countries like Canada and Switzerland (let alone the USA). Pandemic is sensible choice of things to worry about, since our commitment to preparations for that are as sketchy as how we’re handling energy, carbon, and climate change.

  15. Just a series of short comments.

    Global warming – I’ve been somewhat confused about the claims of parties lately. I’ve no problem assuming that the global temperature is rising, and humans are responsible. What I am not sure of is whether a new equilibrium will be achieved at more or less livable temperatures (as John argues) which will entail huge (temporary) adjustment costs; or whether a new equilibrium will lead to a temperature not suitable for humans (including the runaway greenhouse “Venus” effect). I may have to read up about it.

    SF as “dressing” for inherently non-SF story: While I agree that the gold standard for SF should be 100% scientific accuracy, and that the engine of the story (whether it be motiviations of the characters, or the obstacles the character has to overcome) should be scientific in nature, this would probably exclude a lot of what is now accepted as good SF. Once you start abstracting and simplifying, all stories (SF and non-SF) can be boiled down into few essential plots: e.g. “boy meets girl” “boy overcomes obstacle” “boy learns better” or my favorite: “a violent boy kills everyone who isn’t his friend, and has sex with every good looking girl he sees.” So I don’t think we should be all that snobbish about it. (There is a fascinating type of SF story – where actual scientific theory is seen as a metaphor for human feeling. I think Gregory Benford has done a few of these, and my favorite is Connie Willis’ “Schwarzchild Radius.”

    I heard that Buzz Aldrin believes SF (especially media SF such as Trek and Star Wars) has actually hurt science. I think I can understand his point of view. Everyone now expects FTL (if scientists say it’s impossible, it’s because they did not think hard enough! I want to meet and talk with aliens now! now! now!) or new scientifically impossible gadgets that people no longer consider limitations of science and nature. Most people would be terminally bored now with the idea of conversations with aliens which take decades to reply.

    Male-Female problem: At least in the short run, I think the Chinese and Indians will use what I like to call the “Korean solution.” Korea also has a very high male-female ratio. We *import* women. In the poorer rural Korea, nearly half the marriages are reportedly with foreign women (SE Asian and Chinese mostly). I’ll have to check the demographics of SE Asia, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Pakistan to see if this is truly a viable solution, but I wouldn’t discount it. (Also, I understand that China’s male-female ratio may be understated. According to some news reports, in order to bypass the state one-child requirement, when Chinese parents had daughters – especially in rural areas – they just did not report them. Another interesting case where government regulations (without proper examination of economic motivations) did not work.

    End of the world: One of my favorite sophomore BS sessions was when a group of us got together and discussed ways of destroying the world. My entry was that we don’t even need all these nukes, pollution, overpopulation, etc. All we needed was a well-placed and timed EMP in a few strategic financial centers. My argument is that modern civilization is a lot more fragile than we may think.

    1. Junsok,

      Yeah, I think nobody really knows for sure what’s likely to happen with climate, but give what could happen, I think it’s worth entertaining more of an open mind about the worst-case-scenario than about the blue-sky-scenario.

      I’m of two minds about “scientific accuracy” — it can make a story so rigorous and beautiful that it is simply, unarguably art. Some of Greg Egan’s stories work this way. But at the same time, one too rigid about this can find it impossible to set a story more than a week in the future, since they cannot imagine what revolutions may come to scientific knowledge and the potentials of any tech spawned by such a revolution. (Again, Egan’s amazing at projecting future science paradigms.)

      I agree with Buzz Aldrin, but also, it’s hard to do space without either FTL or huge timescales that make traditional biology impossible to work with. Of course, there are lots of solutions if one accepts the latter, but certain hangups in the West prevented us getting there till recently.

      China’s population: yeah, nobody knows what it really is, actually, since the government is (from what I’ve heard) even now still sort of stuck in the whole quotas-trump-reality mindset. You’re right about the solution — importation of women — but one wonders how well that will work for China. India, I think, has a regime and society with probably enough resilience to handle such an influx sensibly; China, I’m not so sure. (And Korea, too, for that matter. I expect a lot of “social problem” discussions to focus on mixed-race children as their social and economic disenfranchisement becomes increasingly apparent in years to come.)

      Ha, EMPs in strategic financial centers; they’ve surely put security for that in place since, right? But it was pretty scary when I saw that Diebold logo on the bank machine that swallowed by credit card, early on during my stay down here. Diebold was the company that it was reported had produced voting machines for the US elections which were easily hackable. I was wondering what kind of ATM card one could use to similarly hack the bank system here and level the economy in a flash. Probably sounds crazy, but so are voting machines this hackable. (Still.)

      I agree: modern civilization (such as it is) is almost certainly much more fragile than we tend to imagine.

  16. “All we needed was a well-placed and timed EMP in a few strategic financial centers. My argument is that modern civilization is a lot more fragile than we may think.”

    I see you finally got around to reading Heinlein’s “Farnham’s Freehold” in which the meek inherit the earth after just such a toppling. Nelson DeMille also wrote about it in his thriller “The Talbot Odyssey” and used the term “stroke” to describe the after-effects of a properly carried out emp strike.

    But John Case’s version is even more scary in “The First Horseman.” An emp strike would be fast. Infection of both the population and/or food supply would take long enough for people to see it coming and erupt into total panic and chaos, especially with the fear-mongering media reporting it 24/7. With an emp, there is no more communication and many of those in rural areas will survive virtually unscathed like the Amish or those in nations not so dependent on technology (like North Korea and many nations in Africa), not so with a virus like a more lethal version of “The Spanish Lady” or a wheat/corn/soy bean killer plague that infects without regard for technology or borders.

    1. John,

      Note, that quote is Junsok’s comment, not mine! (Farnham’s still sitting on my shelf back in Korea.)

      A soybean killer plague would definitely be a horror — a lot of what we think are other beans seem (if Vandana Shiva is to be believed) to have been replaced in many places by soy engineered to look like other beans.

      Still, I think the interconnected nature of finances in different countries could easily cause a long, slow horror to unfold. Or, hell, what of the scariest of doomportraits painted by the Peak Oil people? That’s even scarier, since all agriculture would grind to a stop once the oil ran out, and a massive famine and energy shortage would of course lead to massive disease outbreaks too.

      But thinking of how we might sidestep those hells, that’s hard work. So we keep getting the gloomy picture, and not the optimistic one. Hmm. We need both, but smarter dooms, and smarter workarounds and solutions. We need the latter as desperately in real life as we do in fiction, I’ll add!

  17. I don’t want to give away all the details of “The First Horseman,” but as I type this, North Korea does have agents working in both South Korea and Japan to help messenger funds and technical expertise between the homeland and anyone in the world that they can find to upset the world’s apple cart, and there are many fringe groups around this planet with their own alienated members who would love to see world powers toppled or to usher in the final apocalypse that would gladly help them.

    I used to think an absence of Mideast and Venezuelan oil could cripple the food supplies of most nations, but I know the U.S. and Canada will be able to ride out such a scenario thanks to biofuels in the U.S. and the oilsands in Canada. Ordinary people living in cities will probably have to revert back to bicycles and cable cars/trolleys (with Big Oil killed) of the past and live a much different life than the one they had before though.

    One man fed a billion people by working to enhance certain characteristics of plants to make them drought resistant, disease resistant, stronger through dwarfing, etc. (Norman Ernest Borlaug). So the opposite of a madman trying to introduce new blights or plagues to wipe out crops or that a giant pharmaceutical company might want to introduce illnesses/diseases that only their products can cure isn’t too hard to believe?

  18. re: financial centers EMP : It isn’t just finance that would be wiped out. It’s also things like transportation (which would kill the cities, since very little food will get in) since payments to them would not be made. No credit cards, no electronic transfers, no checking accounts, all your savings shot to electronic oblivion… (except perhaps small local banks who keep all the records in-house and away from major financial centers). Only cash transactions will remain (that is if the government can print them fast enough…)
    I’ve heard (though am not sure) that major financial centers have off-site secret memory storages to try to avoid this scenario. (And this was more or less the plot of Die Hard 4 – getting things back to movies, though not necessarily SF)
    Lesson: keep paper records.

    China: import of women : The problem of cross-culture clash is already happening with the “mixed-blood” Korean children (as if genetically, Korea isn’t “mioxed-blood” already.) My feeling is that given a choice between going without sex, sharing women, or importing foreign women, China, India (or any country for that matter) will import women (which will do much for female equality as well as opening up xenophobic culture). As for proof… Well, we’re guys! Do we actually need proof? :) (BTW, When South Korean and North Korean generals met at Panmunjum a couple of years ago, and this issue came up, the North Korean general berated the South Koreans, and said the Korean blood must be kept pure. So in addition to everything else, the Worker’s Paradise is racist).

    Actually, I think there are some interesting cases we can look at. US and EU needs to import not women, but young people, because of their falling birth rates (and especially in the case of France, taxes to fund their social policies. Korea and Japan is rapidly approaching that stage). The reason this news does not get much attention is that there’s no shortage of people wanting to get into these countries. US seems to be handling the problem rather well, but in case of France, there is a large culture clash between traditional French and the new Arab immigrants who want to keep their culture. (What do you expect? They’re the French!) :)

    1. Guys,

      Yeah, so you seem to have argued this out. My thoughts:

      Yeah, EMPs would wipe out way more than banking and finance, because so much depends upon (oh, I am tempted to mention a red wheelbarrow here) those institutions. Likewise, with no fuel, food supplies are not onyl harder to transport, but also to produce at the rate we are now — energy is needed for farm equipment, modern irrigation systems, the transport of things like fertilizer, and so on. Because of how complexly the web of modern civilization is, I agree with Junsok, it’s also particularly delicate in some important ways. Norman Borlaug’s work was impressive, but as Clive Ponting points out (in A Green History of the Earth), there seem always to be increased energy and pollution costs (externalities?) for every radical advance, and pulling off yet another Green Revolution is going to not only produce much more cost, it’s also going to be quite difficult if we want it to also be “Green” in the more recent sense of the word.

      The lesson of keeping paper records applies in other fields too, incidentally. The amount of culture and history (in the form of old media) rotting away in vaults because nobody knows who owns the copyright, is stunning. Unlike books, celluloid films decompose faster than copyright frees them. Not only paper records, but copyright liberalization is necessary to keep our cultural archive as complete as possible.

      The fringe groups: oh, I still fear a real and ongoing process of climate change more than I fear the North Koreans engineering a plague. Maybe I’m wrong, but my impression is that the Workers’ Paradise is somewhere about mid-twentieth century in its Gernbackian evil gizmo production program, so we probably have more time to deal with the Kim Dynasty than the climate, even if the most lurid prophecies of the scientific community turn out (we hope) to be wrong, and we don’t slip into autocatalytic cycles in the next few years.

      On the racism of the Worker’s Paradise — oooh, you should see the book by B.R. Myers I’ve reviewing. Briefly put, his thesis is that juche isn’t an ideology at all, just a front, and that the real ideology of North Korea is simply a racial purity innocence fantasy, in which a strong, motherly (yep, motherly) leader is the only hope of the cleanest race on Earth. He quotes that exchange you allude to, about whether “a few drops of ink in the Han river” are acceptable. Though, to be fair, the South Korean general came off as relatively racist too, just less so than the Northern one. (I don’t know if he was just playing for his audience, but referring to the mixing of blood as tolerable primarily because it is negligible comes off as being racist in my books.)

      And yeah, the EU’s struggle with its own immigrant population should be instructive to Korea, no so much in the sense that Korea ought to resist the influx of foreign women — that’s not gonna happen — but in the object lesson of the importance of finding ways to integrate your diverse population. From the little I’ve read, Islamism is as much as anything a refuge for disaffected youth who feel Europe has rejected them. I doubt we’ll be getting an Islamist movement in Korea among mixed-race youth, but I do think we’ll be seeing them marginalized, faced with disproportionate rates of unemployment and discrimination and, as a result, disproportionately low education, substance abuse, suicide, and crime.

      I’m very interested to see how Korea chooses to deal with this, and whether a series of campaigns to heighten awareness and acceptance of these people would have any hope at all of working, after so many years of touting the (essentially fascist in origins) blood-purity myth that was rammed into education after Independence.

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