Movies and TV

American Version of “Black Mirror” – “San Junipero”

Black Mirror - San Junipero. Yorkie and Kelly. Photo: David Dettman-Netflix

Black Mirror – San Junipero. Yorkie and Kelly. Photo: David Dettman-Netflix

Last year I reviewed a few episodes of Black Mirror, the British dark series about grim futures with technology:

I fired up Netflix and watched the supposedly best episode, “The Entire History of You,” about a troubled couple using the technology of life-recording to break up in the ugliest possible way. Now I’ve counselled couples who break into each other’s phones and this was much the same, but more horrific than even that could be.

It was well-written, powerful, and depressing. Let’s focus on awful people and show how technology can enable them to be *even* *more* *awful*! …

There’s no denying these are really great — artful, like the best short stories. But minus any Human Wave sense of struggling to beat back the darkness.

Because being fully human has a *purpose*, if you are well-adjusted. It might be religious, it might be building Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere and reaching the Omega Point with as much knowledge as possible, it might be building the best world for your children’s children’s children. But there are positive goals to strive for, not just surviving and contending with other humans for a shrinking share of a shrinking world. Raising children is a risky exercise, and you do it when you have some faith in the future. Malthusian dread and belief in ever-darker futures kills off the will to fight and to win against those who would tear it all down.

Now that I’ve seen all of the episodes of the British seasons and the “White Christmas” special with John Hamm, I still think the overall bleakness is akin to torture porn, with horrible people doing horrible things to each other enabled by advanced technology. But there’s no denying how excellent it is, in both script and execution. It is much like sifting all the episodes of Twilight Zone for the grimmest 10%, then unleashing those as the whole.

I had heard the American third season, funded by Netflix, would be a little sunnier, with “San Junipero” the episode cited as showing this most clearly. And that turned out to be accurate — much more human, much more kind, much more optimistic.

The episode starts with the resonance of the name — “San Junipero” brings up associations with “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” the heightened-real-world simulation game set in California. Video games appear several times in the episode. And then one of the first things we see in a small town’s downtown strip is an ad for Lost Boys, the teen vampire movie set in 1980s Santa Cruz. San Junipero turns out to be a re-creation of a beach party town much like Santa Cruz, though it looks like filming was done further south in the beach towns north of San Diego. The producers licensed some great 80s music as well, so the episode ends with Belinda Carlisle singing “Heaven is Place on Earth.”

We follow a shy, bespectacled young woman, Yorkie, as she enters a disco obviously wary of the social goings-on. She meets the vivacious, attractive Kelly, who’s trying to blow off a guy who’s attached himself to her. Sparks fly.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The unwary viewer doesn’t get a hint that this isn’t your usual beach town until some dialog hints that many of the people in the town are dead. It turns out San Junipero is a simulated village full of the sims of people dead or just visiting in old age to get ready for “crossing over” to join the dead in a digital afterlife and to stimulate their brains to ward off dementia. The living are limited to 5 hours a week to prevent side-effects, and their visits end abruptly when the clock strikes midnight. So for the visitors it’s always Saturday night, and the partying is constant, especially at the decadent Quagmire orgy warehouse.

Unlike other episodes of Black Mirror, this one centers around a romantic relationship that doesn’t go horrific or turn into a trap. Both girls / young women are adorable in different ways, with the shy, fawnlike Yorkie attracting the outgoing, fiery Kelly. The lesbian sex is hinted at tastefully, and the dynamics between them believable. When Kelly goes missing, Yorkie goes looking for her in different years, a fun look at period styles and music.

Difficulties arise, of course. It turns out Yorkie is really dying in a hospital after spending nearly all of her life as a bedridden paraplegic — her parents took her coming out at 21 badly, and she drove off and crashed, breaking her neck and severing her spinal cord. So she’s never really had a life, or sex, and her hunger for attachment scares Kelly, who just wants to have fun — or so she says.

Kelly turns out to be nearing the end of her life, too, in a care facility. She has made up her mind to die naturally and not “pass over” to San Junipero because her husband had refused, and even though she doesn’t believe her husband and daughter are really waiting in Heaven for her — they are gone forever — she wants to honor his memory and their 47 years of marriage by going with him.

If you don’t cry at the end you have a heart of stone.

But while some religious conservatives might find the lesbian relationship and simulated afterlife troubling, this is an optimistic view of technology’s effect on humanity compared to the rest of Black Mirror. There are interesting questions about the meaning of life — if you are only simulated, what is it you are living for? Can you have children in San Junipero? I touched on some of these in Shrivers, where intelligences could choose to submerge themselves in a simulated afterlife to become the Revenant, abdicating responsibilities to relive old memories and pleasurable fantasies.

But the idea that dying people could live again to enjoy some of the life they had denied themselves for family and health reasons is pretty damn attractive. Thus the waterworks. I’m tearing up writing this, as my mother slowly declines in a memory care facility and forgets who we are.

[edit: turns out filming locations were near Capetown, South Africa!]

 

Star Trek Beyond: Teambuilding Exercise

Star Trek Beyond - Paramount

Star Trek Beyond – Paramount

Watched Star Trek Beyond at the local theater minus 3D or extended screens. Entertaining and a bit of a throwback to a typical TOS episode: contrived situation, bad science, attempts to make a social point, plenty of interpersonal character-building.

The first scenes present a tired Captain Kirk after a few years of their “five-year mission,” playing diplomat to bring a symbolic gift to a paranoid species who see it only as a trap. Kirk wonders what it’s all for, then the ship picks up a distress call and rescues a survivor who claims her people have crashed on a planet inside a nearly-impenetrable nebula (your usual SF-movie-cliche dense asteroid belt with constant collisions, which wouldn’t last a hundred years in that form.)

Starbase Yorktown from Star Trek Beyond - Paramount

Starbase Yorktown from Star Trek Beyond – Paramount

The ship returns to the new Starbase Yorktown, an asteroid-scale glass bauble threaded across with bridges lined with skyscrapers projecting at all angles — artificial gravity permits this rather impractical and fragile city-station, which is inhabited by a multicultural, multispecies cross-section of the Federation. It is decided that the Enterprise will undertake the rescue mission since they have the most advanced equipment for penetrating the nebula. Kirk discusses his ennui and future career path with Commodore Paris (played by the excellent Shohreh Aghdashloo, recently of The Expanse), who advises him that some dissatisfaction with ship life is normal for a captain and they can discuss his transfer to a desk job as Rear Admiral after the rescue mission. Meanwhile, Spock is considering leaving Starfleet to take up responsibilities on New Vulcan now that Old Spock has died, and his lack of commitment has created a rift between him and Uhura. The theme — which will be later reinforced by the villain Krall’s motivation — is being stuck with the job you have while feeling drawn to another responsibility you think you want to pursue.

After the Enterprise penetrates the nebula and approaches the planet, they are attacked by swarms of metallic shard-ships that penetrate the shields* and embed themselves in the hull. The ship is disabled and the saucer section is separated and crashes, while most of the crew have escaped in pods which land in the same area.

Scottie meets a major new character, the alien Jaylah, whose alien-ness is signalled by white makeup and stripes on an otherwise completely human face. She has escaped from Krall’s prison camp where spacefarers captured by Krull are held to labor and keep him alive — he feeds on them for eternal life. Coincidentally (!) she lives in the crashed USS Franklin, which she has been gradually repairing — her dream is to escape the planet, and she wants Scottie to help her fix the Franklin so she can.

[spoilers follow…]

Conventional escape plot follows. The Franklin happens to have a motorcycle aboard which Kirk uses to conduct a distraction raid on the camp while the others spring the prisoners. Krall has obtained the McGuffin — the ancient artifact Kirk had tried to give the paranoid species in the first scene, which turns out to be the key to an advanced nanoweapon Krall intends to use to destroy Starbase Yorktown. Krall leaves to attack Starbase Yorktown with his swarm-ships and our heroes follow in the restored Franklin.

Naturally there’s lots of hand-to-hand combat and inaccurate phaser fire, chases, and humor. Kaylah is a fresh new character and had some good lines at the expense of Federation culture, which she’s studied in the Franklin’s data stores.

Our heroes discover the swarm ships are controlled by an FM radio signal, and start jamming it with FM broadcast of the same Beastie Boys song the young Kirk played when he had “borrowed” and crashed a Corvette in reboot movie #1. The swarm ships crash into each other and burn. The idea that an advanced alien mining system would be controlled by noise-sensitive FM radio easily disrupted by another signal is pretty unlikely, after we were already asked to believe no Federation vessel could deal with a swarm of projectiles, so we have to give the science advising on the script a big FAIL.

Krall, it turns out, was actually the captain of the Franklin when it crash-landed over a hundred years earlier, and he discovered an alien technology that allowed him to extend his life at the expense of others. His motivation? As an ex-soldier from the pre-Federation era when Earth was at war, he felt abandoned and wanted to return war and chaos to the overly-pacifist Federation. This is intended to parallel Kirk and Spock’s search for meaning — but doesn’t make any sense. He claims he was abandoned by the Federation, but he’s well aware the nebula is impenetrable and the Federation doesn’t even know what happened to the Franklin. It is presumed his mind has been warped by the alien life-extending technology, but it’s barely touched on in hopes you won’t notice it’s implausible.

When the same motorcycle model as Kirk’s dad used was found on the Franklin, I was sure the writers were going to contrive some explanation that explained that it was in fact George Kirk’s. Good thing they realized this was a step too far in symbolic coincidences, but the writers still worked in some unconvincing thematic parallels. That the motorcycle and ship still worked over a hundred years after a crash landing also pushed credibility.

Meanwhile, our theme is served because both Kirk and Spock recognize that their team is worth sticking with and that they’re doing valuable work right where they are, on a team of friends who can count on each other in crisis. This is a bit formulaic — be happy with what you have! I can see the motivational poster now.

So while I enjoyed the movie, it was like an episode of ToS – not bad, try again. A bit more substance to the story — and a more credible bad guy — would have helped a lot. Hire real writers, a military science advisor, and have Pegg add humor as needed; this outing is just adequate.

This is another recent big-bucks production showing the increasing influence of overseas markets, notably China, on story depth. Director Justin Lin comes off the successful Fast and Furious franchise. These films featured a thin layer of lowest-common-denominator character development over hours of car chases and macho posturing, so crossed language and cultural barriers easily as popcorn cinema. As Lin explains in a Verge interview:

“Before I said yes, I had to really understand what we were going to do, even on a thematic level. I thought, okay, it’s going to be 50 years [since the show started]. It would be great if we can somehow come up with a journey for these characters to deconstruct Trek, to deconstruct a lot of the ideals of the Federation. By doing that, maybe by the end, we can reaffirm why there is so much passion and so much love for this franchise.”

“It was like, ‘Let’s ask some questions that haven’t been asked before,'” explains Pegg, particularly when it came to the universe’s United Federation of Planets — perhaps the biggest symbol of the show’s utopian ideals. “It felt good to question whether they weren’t just a version of the Borg in a way. Whether they were just a force of assimilation, not a force of collectivism and goodness.”

For Lin, deconstructing Star Trek started with an idea that he admits was rather literal: taking the Enterprise apart piece by piece in one of the film’s opening set pieces. “Simon was like, ‘You can’t destroy the Enterprise and you can’t do it in the end of the first act. It has to be the end of the movie!'” Lin laughs. “That was our first meeting. We walked out and I think all of us were like, ‘I don’t want to work on this movie. What’s going on?'”

“We call it The Longest Day,” Pegg smiles. “We were in this room at the SoHo Hotel, just talking for 16 hours and we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. But it was a great way to establish that all of us really wanted to make the best film we could.”

But as the team started writing the script — Pegg was still shooting Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, so the trio would sometimes be working in different time zones as the calendar raced toward production — they found themselves looking to political events, where the first signs of the Brexit movement and the start of the US presidential race resonated with the story they wanted to tell. “It was all bubbling up then, with the Scottish referendum and various acts of separatism around the world,” Pegg explains. “Trump talking about building a wall between here and Mexico. This sort of rampant xenophobia that seemed to be reestablishing itself.”

In the finished film those concepts manifest in the form of Idris Elba’s Krall. A former soldier intent on stopping the Federation’s spread across the galaxy, Krall comes across ideologically as the anti-Roddenberry. He preaches isolationism where the Federation wants to expand and include all; he rejects peace and sees solutions only in military strength. It’s not subtle allegory, but it works, and as the crew of the Enterprise recover, they learn the only way they will be able to defeat Krall is to come together and work as a whole — a literal depiction of Roddenberry’s multicultural future.

“We liked the idea of old god versus new,” says Pegg. “Of narrow-minded thinking, or fear of collectivism, versus the Federation model, which is to embrace and expand in a non-aggressive way. That seemed like the obvious thing to do for this 50th anniversary iteration of the story.” It turns the film into a thematic proof, making the case for the original show’s vision over the course of its running time.

Star Trek Beyond is an entry in a successful series of blockbuster movies, so of course everything eventually resolves to allow sequels to keep coming down the line. (In fact, Paramount’s already green-lit the next installment.) But by creating a movie that feels more like an episode of the original show, with its five-year mission and themes intact, Lin and his writers have also performed a sort of soft reboot. And to Pegg, the closer it feels to the television series, the better.

“When we spoke about [writing Beyond], it was, ‘Let’s make it as if an episode of the original series had been injected with gamma radiation,'” he says. “The crew happen upon a mysterious planet. They’re on the surface. They meet an adversary. They learn a lesson. It’s what the original series episodes were constituted by, but with the trappings of a gigantic, summer blockbuster. Which is what the movies always were, really.”

From this interview we see that the script was rushed and the story thrown together by writers unfamiliar with science fiction and interested in simplifying the message to fit it back into the TV format of TOS. Like Tomorrowland, the movie fails to explore its subtler thematic implications because most screen time goes to hand-to-hand fighting, chases, motorcycle stunts, and high-school-level relationship interaction. The new Spock has Uhura as a love interest apparently for years when they break up because he is thinking of heading back to New Vulcan. New Spock is often emotionally out-of-control, a plot ploy that is only valuable if rarely used.

So — enjoyable light entertainment, but giving up on the opportunity to explore larger issues seen in even TOS plots, and even more in later DS9 and TNG episodes.

* – What exactly are shields good for if they can’t stop impacting objects? Has the Federation and its many contributing civilizations never encountered swarming weapons before?

Trailer #1:

More on pop culture:

“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
Fear is the Mindkiller
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and The Weapon Shops of Isher
Kirkus Reviews “Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3”

Genre Reviews and Commercial Reviewers

Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews


I normally just pay for one review from Indie Reader, who are the indie version of a Kirkus or Publishers Weekly-style institutional reviewer. These institutional reviews are typically paid for by the publisher, but because their reputation as unbiased reviewers is what keeps the review companies in business, they are valued as neutral reviewers, though there are hints of bias — one could speculate they shade their reviews to avoid crossing the Big 5 publishers, and so will tend to go easy on “big books” that a publisher intends to push hard. But any favoritism to heavy advertisers is light enough that you can be sure that a truly bad book won’t be recommended, and a recommended book will be at least competent.

If I’m a publisher of reviews, I have several goals that sometimes conflict. If I’m the New York Times Book Review, I know my reviews will be read for entertainment by a readership that skews high in literary education and income, so my reviews will tend to play to that audience, which is why genres like science fiction and romance have a hard time even getting reviewed there, and often starting with two strikes against the book. If I’m running a SF&F website, my audience is readers of the specific genre, and the review will assume familiarity with the conventions of the genre and compare the book with other similar works, rather than being based on how the average literary fiction reader would view them. And in narrower niches, like mil-SF or zombie fantasy, it is assumed the readers of the review start out liking this sort of story, with these sorts of characters.

So I was leery of spending my publisher’s money to get a Kirkus review done. The review was glowing, but without the coveted star that tends to get notice from other reviewers and purchasing agents. I was interested in how they had treated other genre books, so I did a quick survey.

It appears that in the past, Kirkus assigned reviewers who were less than sympathetic to the book’s genre and intended audience. This review made me laugh:

GHOST by John Ringo

Mindless, misogynistic military slaughterfest, a change of scene from the author’s usual military SF beat (When the Devil Dances, 2001, etc.).

A middle-aged ex-SEAL with creaky joints, a bad back and a wrecked marriage, Mike Harmon retired on 50% disability and opted to return to college. But when Mike—codename: Ghost—observes a young co-ed being expertly snatched off the street, he investigates, and discovers a warehouse from which Islamic terrorists are shipping kidnapped girls off to the Middle East. Mike frees two girls and kills many opponents. As another consignment of girls leaves, Mike hops into the plane’s wheel well and ends up inside a terrorist base in Syria, where the bad guys are preparing to rape, torture and kill the girls in front of a video camera on the theory that this will induce the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East. Fortunately, Mike has a GPS phone, so he calls in. Decisive President Cliff orders a SEAL team to the rescue. But girls are already dying, so Mike goes in himself, kills bin Laden and what seems like half the Syrian army. Despite being shot full of holes, Mike hangs in until the SEALs arrive. For his bravery, he receives a monetary reward and later gets to indulge his sexual fetishes (bondage, dominance) with a couple of co-eds in Florida. In the Bahamas, he kills many terrorists, gets shot full of holes and receives much money. In Eastern Europe, he indulges his taste for rape, kills many terrorists, etc.

Disturbing and disgusting. An incentive to never read books again.

But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? This is Ringo. His books aren’t likely to be accidentally considered for reading by people like the reviewer, so the review is useless for deciding which violent testosterone-infused male fantasy adventure book to buy for people who enjoy that sort of thing.

One of the best writers of science fiction and fantasy, Lois McMasters Bujold, never got a starred review from Kirkus. Here’s the summary of their review of middle Miles Vorkosigan in Mirror Dance: “A well-conceived series, solidly plotted and organized, though heavy going in places and, finally, lacking that spark of genuine originality that would blazon it as truly special.” Kind of missing the point, no?

I was talking to my husband about this, and he commented that he discounted all science fiction movie reviews in major media until recently because most were so biased against the genre. The situation is changing as more younger reviewers who are steeped in genre get into reviewing positions, but it’s still hard to get respect for even the finest SF&F writing unless it comes with New York-style literary credentials.

“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland

[Edited to add material after watching it again to catch more dialogue]

Having read mixed reviews, I waited until Tomorrowland came out on cheaper streaming services. Directed and mostly written by Brad Bird, auteur of brilliant work like Iron Giant and The Incredibles, the previews looked promising — a story about the shiny visions of the technological future we had as kids in the 1960s, and a world where they actually happened.

The first two-thirds of the movie are great — the young heroine gets into trouble for trying to save a NASA launchpad from demolition. The failure of dreams and a rising tide of pessimism have left the world obsessed by dark visions of dystopic futures. Then she finds a pin which, when touched, transports her to Tomorrowland, which riffs on Walt Disney’s vision enshrined in the eponymous part of Disneyland. There are several Disney in-jokes, like one robot’s insistence that she’s “audio-animatronic,” Disney’s term for lifelike automatons.

Tomorrowland is congruent with Earth but in another dimension, and was founded by Tesla, Edison, Jules Verne, Gustave Eiffel, and similar geniuses as a place for the best and brightest scientists and artists to work on dreams of the future unlimited by politics and hidebound Earth thinking.

The heroine meets Frank (George Clooney) as an older scientific genius who was brought to Tomorrowland as a child, but then was exiled for inventing a machine to predict the future, which foretold of disaster to come. They are chased by killer robots to Tomorrowland itself, which is decaying and abandoned. The apparent dictator of Tomorrowland, played well by Hugh Laurie, is the only Tomorrowland resident we meet who isn’t a robot, and he no longer believes humanity deserves to be saved. The explanation for the decline of Tomorrowland is never given, but a thriving high-tech colony in 1964 becomes a dystopia in 2015 with a dictator who ruthlessly kills anyone who gets in his way. The movie shows its deep schizophrenia here — having satirized today’s obsession with dystopias and pessimism, it doesn’t even bother to explain why a settlement founded on idealism should turn so sour. The one hint comes when dictator Nix tells Frank it was his fault for not believing. And later it’s suggested that the heroine’s refusal to give up can magically effect the probability of doomsday. So the woo factor a la “The Secret” appears, with the trite metaphor of the two wolves: “You have two wolves, one representing darkness and despair, the other light and hope. Which one lives? The one you feed.” So it’s all about attitude!

After much clanking plot with explosions, fights, chases, and other worn-out devices, the bad machine that is creating negative consciousness on Earth is destroyed, and the future looks more hopeful. Nix admits he was intentionally beaming negative thoughts at Earth, expecting they would motivate people to fix the problems leading to Doomsday, but they just reveled in despair and refused to sacrifice convenience. Ahem?

The vision is inspiring. But the end is chilling — bad machine destroyed and dictator killed, a new corps of fresh-faced young robots will recruit the artists and scientists of the future to persuade others to apply creativity to fix problems. This bit looks like an Apple commercial, with its gauzily sentimental multicultural recruitees.

The laundry list of problems shown as destroying the Earth includes global warming (the melting glaciers and flooding coastal regions are shown), nuclear war, and political unrest. Putting the clues together, the solution is found by persuading people to sacrifice comfort to do what is necessary as instructed by the best and brightest. So a kind of techno-fascism will save the planet! This has little of the optimism we associate with Disney, and a lot of today’s politicized environmentalism.

The script loses faith in the audience and resorts to the same old villains, fights, and chases to keep their interest, when the material is fascinating enough without demonizing anyone. As a result, instead of exploring the issues in depth, most screen time is action. It might as well be a Transformers movie for most of its running time.

There’s a parallel with the book I’m working on now, Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3. Near the end, a “Galactic Tribunal” similar to the one in Heinlein’s Have Space Suit–Will Travel is deciding whether to destroy humanity, or allow it to join the community of intelligences living in the computational substrate of the universe. The young woman pleading our case ends her testimony with this:

“I just have one more thing to say.” Kat didn’t know where this was coming from, but she had to speak. Aurora looked alarmed.

“You sit in judgment of us. If you applied the same standards to the oldest among you, how many would pass? How many are still making an important contribution to knowledge? I’ve experienced each of your lives — you were driven, reaching for the stars, and working to advance your people. But how many of the First are lost in some virtual dreamland, using cell space for nothing but fantasies? And you judge other civilizations and have them murdered in their infancy so that you might never be inconvenienced or have to give one moment’s thought to the outer universe. You don’t want to think of the cost — you kill the new life you don’t want to know about and can’t be bothered to assist, while more and more of you do nothing.”

Quog’s eyebrows had gone up. “Do go on.”

“If I am ever uploaded,” Kat said, “I’m going to work. I’m going to find a way to bring every civilization forward. It can’t be that there’s just not enough space for everyone. There must be a way to expand it.”

Sunday Pimping

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Ah, “pimp Sunday.” Another fine tradition that starts today!

I got back from Taos Toolbox three weeks ago. It was interesting meeting people mostly going the tradpub route, working hard to get short fiction into publications. It was suggested I need to write some short stories to get my name known, so I wrote one, which has so far survived the winnowing process at a new ‘zine, Mothership Zeta, which looks like it’s going to be a fun read.

Also interesting to learn that even what I would consider to be proven great writers — Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, who ran the Toolbox — have trouble getting and keeping good agents and publishers. Walter is now doing well self-publishing his backlist, but even he has difficulty getting major projects off the ground. Meanwhile, Nancy (a self-described pantser, meaning she doesn’t plot out a book in advance) has written one good novel she can’t get published, and despite winning a Nebula for her latest novella and being one of the better-liked writers around, has a spotty record in getting publisher support.

The takeaway lesson is that changes in the publishing business are pushing writers into self-publishing, where at least they have a chance at making a living if they work hard and develop a deep backlist. The total revenues in conventional SF&F publishing are stagnant or falling, and new markets like media tie-ins, flash fiction, and new venues like phones for reading are where many of the readers have gone. There’s a great hunger for SF&F works in developing countries, and anyone looking ahead has to consider getting their work out in Simplified Chinese and publishing with some of the phone media platforms out there. Which all ties in to the Hugo controversy, where a tiny US-centric group has defended their award as “the best of SF&F” but retreat to “what Worldcon-going fans (less than two thousand voting each year before 2014) think is best” when questioned closely.

But wait, I’m supposed to pimp my work here. My current series, The Substrate Wars, is about a group of libertarian-ish students who discover that the universe runs on a computational substrate, and by hacking the substrate with quantum computers, they can create not only quantum gateways to anywhere, but weapons of unimaginable power and replicators that can end material shortages for everyone. They are pursued by Homeland security and the intelligence agents of many nations before they escape to a New Earth, then work from there to free Earth’s people from their security and surveillance states. Working out how you would actually do that while doing minimal damage was a lot of fun.

My Taos readers found the going a bit rough on the start of the third book, tentatively called “Shrivers.” So I’m reworking the beginning to provide a stronger narrative line. OTOH, several spontaneously commented they thought the series would make great movies (based on the synopses I had prepared.) So I’m working on that now, heading to the Calliope Workshop, a new weekend seminar at UCLA meant to introduce new writers to agents and publishers interested getting liberty-oriented stories into pop culture outlets like movies.

The “logline” started out as a single-sentence description encapsulating the setting, protagonist, story problem, antagonist, and goal, which would be hand-written on the spine of a script or in the reading log as an executive summary. The idea is to demonstrate the basic appeal of the story so that a decisionmaker can quickly reject it if it doesn’t work for their purposes, or ask for more if it does. Time is short and no one in the industry has time to do more than reject 99% of what’s presented to them as quickly as possible. So remember the lesson of Powerpoint’s dominance: you only have a few seconds to get someone interested enough to stop for your work.

Loglines for the Substrate Wars books:

RED QUEEN

In a near-future US surveillance state, California college students invent quantum gateways and have to fight Homeland Security to gain their freedom on a new planet.

http://amzn.to/1Idwmx1

NEMO’S WORLD

From their base on a new planet, freedom-fighting techno-rebels use their discovery of quantum gateways to steal all the world’s nuclear weapons and bring down Earth’s oppressive governments.

http://amzn.to/1IibqTw

SHRIVERS

As humanity expands to new colony planets and enjoys a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, the new government has to fight a fleet of robotic destroyer ships to save humanity from extinction.

[In progress: release date around November 2015]

One of my earlier books on applying attachment theory to relationships and mate-seeking is still free today: http://amzn.to/1IibPVO

“The Man in the High Castle” – Pilot Episode

The Man in the High Castle - Amazon Studios

The Man in the High Castle – Amazon Studios

Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle is one of his best books, apparently having been written in less haste and under fewer drugs than some of his others. It’s an alternative history set in the US of a 1962 where the Axis powers won WWII and the pacifist US succumbed and is partitioned, with the West Coast ruled by the Japanese Empire and the East Coast under a Nazi puppet state a la Vichy France. But like all his books, much more is going on here than just an alternative history story; reality is slippery and no one is quite what they seem, and this history may not be real, either.

It is not really science fiction — there’s no scientific explanation for what is going on, or portals between multiverses, although some characters can “see” other realities in foggy San Francisco. The delicacy and ferocity of Japanese culture is examined, the I Ching functions as a kind of Greek chorus pronouncing on the plot, and there’s a shadowy author who has written a book describing a world where Roosevelt wasn’t assassinated and the Allies win the war. The author points out what all historians know — the conquerors are affected by the conquered and absorb some of their culture.

Most of Dick’s novels and stories have been made into movies by now:

Although Dick spent most of his career as a writer in near-poverty,[6] eleven popular films based on his works have been produced, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau and Impostor. In 2005, Time magazine named Ubik one of the hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923.[7] In 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.

He is now seen as marketable by Hollywood financiers. His estate’s commercial success is a bit tragic, since he died largely unrecognized in 1982.

Now we have a miniseries of Man in the High Castle, partly produced by Ridley Scott (another magic name in Hollywood) and financed by Amazon Studios. I watched the pilot and highly recommend it for its high production values and good acting. Because the complexity of the novel would be hard for film viewers to follow, it’s been simplified a bit, but the essence of the novel appears intact. This is the kind of production SyFy would mount if it weren’t run by science fiction illiterates.

Watch the Pilot Episode at Amazon Prime Streaming

Review by Jim Henley

For more on pop culture:

“Game of Thrones” and the Problem of PowerThe Lessons of Walter White
“Blue Valentine”
“Mad Men”
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family
Coen Brothers: 30 Years of Great Movies