Tag Archives: Heinlein

The day my favorite book became my favorite movie.

I first read ENDER’S GAME at age 14. It was introduced to my family by aunt Bronya, one of the sweetest ladies you’d ever meet, and has great taste in fiction. (She’s also a stellar baker and hostess; if you’re ever in rural Missouri, I recommend stopping by.)

After devouring this quick read, I was stunned by its much deeper sequel and the philosophical volumes that followed.  When CHILDREN OF THE MIND came out, dad bought four copies: One for himself, me, my brother, and my then-girlfriend; none of us had to wait. That’s one of my favorite memories of dad: spontaneously generous, thoughtful, and sharing our excitement.From high school onward, I read science fiction because of Card. Oh, I’ve since read Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke, but that came later.

I majored in Philosophy because of science fiction, which was difficult to explain to my professors.THE WORTHING SAGA — which even most Card fans have never read — remains one of the most thorough and convincing treatments of theodicy I’ve ever read. (“Theodicy” is the problem of evil and suffering in a world governed by benevolent and omnipotent being[s].)

When an old friend finds me on Facebook, they’re liable to mention Card. As in, “I still read Card because you got me into him.” So Card has not only influenced my reading and my education, but the warp and woof of my social life, and of course my career as a writer. There are a dozen autographed OSC novels in my home. ENDER’S GAME and SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD sit on the top shelf in my office, facing out so you can see their covers. I will buy anyone who wants a copy of either book, no questions asked. Read More →

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Director who Understands Character

Each Saturday, Jason spotlights one person, product, service, or work of art he finds particularly amazing; the kinds of things that make you wonder, “Why doesn’t everyone have this?” (Read more at www. jasonrpeters.com.)

I’m not sure what they teach in film school. Judging by most of the dregs that make it screenward, not much. One wonders how an industry ripe with possibility can yield more garbage than industries which deal directly with garbage.

I suspect they teach a lot about camera angles. And integrating sound effects. And working with visual arts teams. And securing funding.

But not so much about story.

Take Science Fiction, for example. There are pillars of brilliant storytelling in the history of Science Fiction. Frank Herbert. Asimov. Heinlein. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. These individuals have created stories which form almost a canon for future storytellers, but more impressively, offer great insight into human behavior.But if you flip on the SciFi channel (or “Syfy” as it has egregiously re-branded itself), you won’t find these greats.

Instead, you will find Attack of the Giant Bees. Attack of the Mutant Spiders. Invasion of the Hot Babes From Other Planets. Oh, sure, “syfy” plays its share of Quantum Leap, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and a few blockbusters, but an annoying percentage of time is devoted to trashy monster movies with little premise and less plot.

This is not unique to Science Fiction. Turn on Oxygen or WE and you will find ten crappy romance flicks for every decent one.

The reason for this is that most directors copy the TRENDS of other directors without UNDERSTANDING what actually made a particular movie successful. What made a movie really come to life — every time — was the characters. This is why James Cameron’s Aliens was so amazing — you could feel the bond between Ripley and Newt and Hicks, and you wanted them to win. So when Dan O’Bannon and David Fincher decided to kill off everybody but the star even before the opening credits of Alien 3, fans were turned off. And non-fans never built the connection with Alien 3’s cast that they had with the prior two movies. O’Bannon tried to copy the premise of the first two films without understanding why they were so successful.

The most obvious evidence of this copy-catting can be seen in the plethora of epic fantasy titles which immediately followed Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson picked Lord of the Rings because it was a timeless story which already stood on its own. Fantasy fans exulted because of the previous dearth of good fantasy movies — poor writing or low budgets or both plagued almost everything we’ve ever seen in theaters. Lord of the Rings was the holy grail of big screen entertainment for fantasy. At long last, an epic movie we could tell our friends about!

The trilogy debuted with Fellowship to resounding success in 2001, and Return of the King hit theaters in 2003. What followed?

2002 – The Count of Monte Cristo, Reign of Fire

2003 – Pirates of the Carribean, Underworld, The Last Samurai, Timeline

2004 – Troy, King Arthur, Van Helsing, Hellboy

2005 – Kingdom of Heaven, The Brothers Grimm, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

2006 – 300, Apocalypto, Eragon

2007 – Stardust, Beowulf,

Woah…suddenly epic fantasy is cool. How’d that happen?

Hollywood wanted to mimic the success achieved by Lord of the Rings, but flung out blindly for any big budget epic fantasy that might work. Some true artistry (thankfully) shines through, but the bulk of these are as memorable describing a fairy tale to a friend.

It seems surprisingly rare for a director to understand what brings a movie to life. Which is why today’s spotlight falls on Christopher Nolan, whom I first discovered with the movie Memento.

Memento was a film with a gimmick. Gimmicks by themselves do not work. But Nolan put the gimmick to work in a brilliant way. He developed a character for whom you felt sympathy, suffering from severe short term memory loss. To force you to relate more closely to this character, and experience each moment through his eyes, Nolan presented the film backwards. So in each scene (just like the protagonist) you don’t know what just happened. You DO know what will happen in the protagonist’s future, and this allows you to piece together the overall story.

You might know Nolan better as the writer and director of both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, both of which breathed Oscar-worthy new light into a franchise I’d never liked — but under Nolan’s guidance has become one of my favorites. These dealt directly with character motives in a way previous batman films never bothered.

Nolan’s most recent film was Inception, which I sadly have not yet seen, but is getting amazing reviews. That is to say, I have no idea what the so-called “critics” think, but wise individuals who I trust have ranked it very highly.

Thank you, Chris Nolan, for understanding that PLOT and CHARACTER as the necessary ingredients for a successful film; not big budget special effects chasing after the latest “market trends”. When you add cool ideas, now you have a film which broadens the mind long after it is done entertaining the eyes.


Dodging the Sci-Fi stigma

nogeeksThere is a certain aversion to fantasy and science fiction by those who aren’t outright fans of those genres.

And yet there are some sci fi authors among the best-selling writers in America — of any genre. And somehow, their books aren’t kept in the “science fiction” section near the back of the bookstore, but rather among the cool kids up front with “popular fiction”. What’s the difference?

Consider Stephen King: It is a giant spider demon from another planet in outer space. You can’t get anymore ‘sci-fi’ than that. King has also delved into wizards, vampires, ancient kingdoms with honor codes, and even dragons.

Dean Koontz is another. His work is filled with talking animals, magic powers, demons and other strange monsters.

You can’t find these two authors in science fiction with Asimov and Heinlein and Card and Sanderson.

But…uh…why?

Is it because they are SO successful, they now transcend genre? They are now somehow ‘better’ than science fiction?

Could it be the other way around: Their success is thanks in part to the fact they were never relegated to those back shelves at all? King is an impressive writer, but he can’t get me to turn pages nearly as fast as Orson Scott Card or Brandon Sanderson or Dan Simmons.

And I can’t think of any reason why Dan Simmons shouldn’t be more popular than Stephen King, given the quality of work and depth of story and strength of character I’ve seen in both of their writing, except this: Dan Simmons is “science fiction” (though he has won awards in every genre) and Stephen King “isn’t”.

To a sci-fi fan, aversion to science fiction is bizarre, especially given the number of ‘exceptions’ allowed by non-fans of sci fi. A look at Rotten Tomatoes’ top movies of all time reveals any number of movies are technically science fiction or fantasy by any definition.

#2: Toy Story Two: A movie beloved by all, I can’t think of a single person who didn’t like it; kid or adult. The premise is that toys are magically living beings which spring to life when their owner isn’t around.

#7: The Wizard of Oz. Come on, now; “WIZARD” is in the title.

#15: Toy Story (the original)

#18: King Kong

#20: Seven Samurai

#28: Aliens

#30: The Evil Dead

#36: The Adventures of Robin Hood

#39: The Bride of Frankenstein

#49: Mary Poppins

#60 & #61: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day

There are more, but the point is made.  Furthermore, while some of these are genre-classified as ‘science fiction’, you won’t find others of them (such as Mary Poppins or Toy Story) relegated to such a back aisle of the video store. (Although a story identical to Mary Poppins in every way except set in Middle Earth instead of London would be thus punished.)

The dogfight sequence at the end of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope is indistinguishable from World War II dogfights for one simple reason: Lucas used WWII footage and movies as templates for his storyboard, camera angles, cuts, and even dialog. Heck, he even named the imperial armies ‘Storm Troopers’ after Nazi Germany’s armies.

Plenty of people who “hate science fiction” loved The Matrix. Plenty of people who “hate fantasy” loved Braveheart.

Some have said that ‘horror’ or ‘thriller’ doesn’t fall under the science fiction umbrella. This argument certainly lends credence to Stephen King’s inclusion with the cool kids, but it doesn’t explain why Ann Rice is stuck in the fantasy section.

Some have said that if your story falls in modern times, then it isn’t fantasy or science fiction. Bullsh–evik. Do you mean to tell me that Terminator and Predator aren’t out-and-out science fiction? What about E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds?  Of course these are sci-fi. And every last one of them is set in the present day.

Furthermore, ‘horror’ isn’t even a genre, properly speaking; indeed, neither are science fiction and fantasy. If they were, where would steampunk fall: Into science fiction or fantasy? What about a story where wizards fight off a zombie invasion: Horror or Fantasy? What about I am Legend? Horror or science fiction?

No, together these three genres are considered speculative fiction, and they are nearly indistinguishable when you consider them together.

Vulcans/Elves
Romulans/Dark Elves
Klingons/Orcs (or by TNG, more like Dwarves)
Starfleet Federation/Council of Elrond

Stargates or portals to other dimensions? Advanced technology or magic spells? Nanotechnology or innate superpowers? Evolution or deification? These are the dilineations between science fiction and fantasy, and yet none of them are mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, the concepts of science fiction aren’t exclusive from those of ‘popular’ fiction either. A Sheriff from a western plays much the same role as a Jedi or a Starfleet Captain or a Captain of Gondor. Guns, phasers, and blasters serve identical purposes in action scenes.

Sometimes normal stories are classified as ‘science fiction’ for no discernable reason. Rotten Tomatoes lists The Truman Show as science fiction/fantasy even though there isn’t a single alien, space ship, sword, magic spell, or laser in the entire movie. Cube is similarly categorized.

So what’s the difference? If there’s space travel in a movie does it automatically carry the sci-fi stigma? What about Apollo 13? Deep Impact? Armageddon?

If a work is ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy”, is it now impossible for it to be a Romance or a Comedy? I doubt it.

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions. If I did, I’d make sure to always call my work “thriller” or “popular fiction” instead of “science fiction” when trying to promote my work to anti-geeks. I’d sell my romantic science fiction stories as “Romance”, the humorous ones as “Comedy”, the character-driven stories as “Drama”, and the action-based stories as “Action Thriller.” It’d be much nicer to be included on those shelves instead of stuck among the Trekkies.

But I’d be lying. Because science fiction is exploration of the imagination, asking the question, “what if?” and that’s what I write, no matter where or when it’s set.

While I was wondering how to classify my stories which take place in present-day America, I wondered where Dean Koontz and Stephen King were first published. I looked up their bibliogrophies and checked their earliest published short stories.

As I said, you can’t find them in the ‘science fiction’ section. They’re too cool to be included with the real freaks and geeks who worship dragons and space and go to conventions.

But they were originally published in magazines of science fiction. Go figure. I guess the marketing companies think they’ve returned to planet earth. They were just allowed to bring their imaginations with them.