human wave

“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire



[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.”

“Substrate Wars” Orientation

Welcome to Substrate Wars, the series about how one group of scientific rebels reform their world through discovery and courage.

Book 1, Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1, followed a group of freedom-oriented radicals and grad students on a California campus after they discover quantum gateways and come to the attention of Homeland Security. In Book 2, Nemo’s World: The Substrate Wars 2, the rebels defend themselves from attacks from Earth, then strike back to free humanity from weapons of mass destruction and the great powers that use them to control the world. Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3 takes up ten years later, when a prosperous and expanding human civilization is confronted by alien exterminators sent by the original inhabitants of the substrate.


Also, take a look at my website covering attachment and relationship issues, — I split from it as the amount of material grew too large. The relationships site is about human beings, attachment, health and social policy issues. There will be some overlap, but at SubstrateWars the emphasis is on science fiction, politics, and story.

My books on relationships are on Amazon: Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner, and Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. If you’re looking for your first or second partner, Bad Boyfriends is the one to read; if you have a partner but either you or your partner is reluctant or unable to enjoy closeness, Avoidant is most useful.

I respond to all reasonable comments and invite you to add your email to the mailing list or add the RSS feed to your reader so you’ll see new posts.

Golden Age Science Fiction Quotes

First edition Ringworld - by Larry Niven

First edition Ringworld – by Larry Niven

When I decided to write some hard science fiction in response to young adult novels like Pills and Starships, I went back and reviewed some of the books that had inspired me as an adolescent, since it was their sense of possibility and achievement I wanted to recapture for a younger audience. I used that research to add an appendix of quotes at the end of Red Queen: The Substrate Wars, which follows:

I learned much of what I know by reading science fiction. For my younger readers, many of the quoted titles and authors below will be unfamiliar, but they are still worth seeking out and reading from a time when anything seemed possible. The long tradition of social tolerance and advanced thinking in science fiction has been under attack by ignorant academics who want to turn all entertainment into propaganda for their idea of progressive thought. If you are still learning, read widely and route around the schools and libraries who want to program your thinking by restricting what they offer you to read.

These quotes seemed especially suited to the themes of this story:

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination
—Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination, 1956

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power, Green Lantern's light!
—Alfred Bester, writing for Green Lantern, c. 1945

Every law that was ever written opened up a new way to graft.
—Robert Heinlein, Red Planet, 1949

How anybody expects a man to stay in business with every two-bit wowser in the country claiming a veto over what we can say and can't say and what we can show and what we can't show—it's enough to make you throw up. The whole principle is wrong; it's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't eat steak.
—Robert Heinlein, The Man Who Sold the Moon, 1950

Reason is poor propaganda when opposed by the yammering, unceasing lies of shrewd and evil and self-serving men.
—Robert Heinlein, Assignment in Eternity, 1953

I also think there are prices too high to pay to save the United States. Conscription is one of them. Conscription is slavery, and I don't think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called. We have had the draft for twenty years now; I think this is shameful. If a country can't save itself through the volunteer service of its own free people, then I say : Let the damned thing go down the drain!
—Robert Heinlein, speech at World Science Fiction Convention, 1961

I believe in—I am proud to belong to—the United States. Despite shortcomings, from lynchings to bad faith in high places, our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.

And finally, I believe in my whole race. Yellow, white, black, red, brown—in the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability … and goodness … of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth, that we always make it just by the skin of our teeth—but that we will always make it … survive … endure. I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching, oversize brain case and the opposable thumb, this animal barely up from the apes, will endure—will endure longer than his home planet, will spread out to the other planets, to the stars, and beyond, carrying with him his honesty, his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage—and his noble essential decency. This I believe with all my heart.
—Robert Heinlein, “This I Believe,” 1952

The future is better than the past. Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands…with tools…with horse sense and science and engineering.
—Robert Heinlein, The Door Into Summer, 1957

“…They have no art and only the most primitive of science, yet such is their violent nature that even with so little knowledge they are now energetically using it to exterminate each other, tribe against tribe. Their driving will is such that they may succeed. But if by some unlucky chance they fail, they will inevitably, in time, reach other stars. It is this possibility which must be calculated: how soon they will reach us, if they live, and what their potentialities will be then."

The voice continued to us: "This is the indictment against you—your own savagery, combined with superior intelligence. What have you to say in your defense?”….

“—you say we have no art. Have you seen the Parthenon?"

"Blown up in one of your wars."

"Better see it before you rotate us—or you'll be missing something. Have you read our poetry? ‘Our revels now are ended: these our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself… Itself—yea—all which it … Inherit—shall dissolve—“

I broke down. I heard Peewee sobbing beside me. I don't know why I picked that one-but they say the subconscious mind never does things "accidentally." I guess it had to be that one.

"As it well may," commented the merciless voice.
—Robert Heinlein, Have Space Suit—Will Travel, 1958

"My mother said violence never solves anything." "So?" Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. "I'm sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that."
—Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, 1959

Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws—always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: Please pass this so that I won't be able to do something I know I should stop. Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them for their own good.
— Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 1966

I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy…censorship. When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.
—Robert Heinlein, If This Goes On—, 1940

First they junked the concept of “justice.” Examined semantically “justice” has no referent—there is no observable phenomenon in the space-time-matter continuum to which one can point, and say, “This is justice.” Science can deal only with that which can be observed and measured. Justice is not such a matter; therefore it can never have the same meaning to one as to another; any “noises” said about it will only add to confusion.

But damage, physical or economic, can be pointed to and measured. Citizens were forbidden by the Covenant to damage another. Any act not leading to damage, physical or economic, to some particular person, they declared to be lawful.
—Robert Heinlein, Coventry, 1940

Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crud. That's because ninety percent of everything is crud.
—Theodore Sturgeon, 1951

Here, too, was the guide, the beacon, for such times as humanity might be in danger; here was the Guardian of Whom all humans knew—not an exterior force, nor an awesome Watcher in the sky, but a laughing thing with a human heart and a reverence for its human origins, smelling of sweat and new-turned earth rather than suffused with the pale odor of sanctity.
—Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human, 1953

Earth keeps a solemn festival at the meadows of Hack and Sack, through whose blue arch came first death, and then life.
—Theodore Sturgeon, “The Incubi of Parallel X,” Planet Stories, 1951

The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity—a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.
—Isaac Asimov, Foundation, 1951

New Reviews: “Red Queen: The Substrate Wars”


The Kindle version is available on Amazon here, at only $2.99, while the trade paperback is available here at around $13.

The next two Amazon reviews:

4.0 out of 5 stars Fast paced, well plotted read. December 28, 2014
Good, well paced story. Reminded me of Heinlein’s “juveniles” in the pacing, dialogue, etc; and I mean that in a good sense. Young people (and some not so young) faced with making choices that have far-reaching consequences. An intriguing scientific development which can affect the whole human race forces the protagonists to grow up. I am looking forward to the continuation of the series.
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but fun December 30, 2014

I really enjoyed this book, but a warning for the hard science people – you may not like some of the cavalier treatment conservation of mass and energy gets.

Another nitpick I have is the old story of 1) discover a technology on Monday 2) debug the technology on Tuesday and 3) deploy the technology on Wednesday. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

In spite of this I gave it 4 stars, because who doesn’t enjoy giving it to the man?

I would share this reviewer’s concerns if the violations of standard conservation of mass and energy weren’t explained in two ways: explicitly, by Steve Duong (who shares the unease), and implicitly by the “world as simulation” thread of the story, which should leave the reader wondering if the story is taking place in a simulation itself. It’s pointed out that just such violations of physical laws would be expected on the margins of a less-than-perfect simulation, and there’s no reason to believe the physics-as-computation-on-substrate of what we think of reality is free of such flaws.

As for the normal pace of development of a technology, I’m asking the reader to believe Steve Duong is one of those rare geniuses who can do in a week what might take a team of scientists a year. While such people are rare, they do exist; and the story must move fast and so can’t stop to do more than hint at the long process of development in normal teams.

Reviews: “Red Queen: The Substrate Wars”


The Kindle version is available on Amazon here, at only $2.99, while the trade paperback is available here at around $14 — but use the sale code BOOKDEAL25 for 25% off (I assume until Dec. 25th.)

So far, it’s received two Amazon reviews:

4.0 out of 5 stars
Good read!
By M. Cunningham
Verified Purchase

This is a fast pace science fiction thriller which pits college students against the powers-that-be in a realistic near-future. The dialog and characters are well-developed, believable, and the author seems to capture the mind-set and vernacular of the intellectual college students who tend to rebel against the status-quo. Some of the story had me ‘on the edge of my seat’ so to speak wondering if the college rebels were going to succeed. The novel also gives one much to think about concerning government power, educational systems, capitalism, and the limits of social equality. I heard echoes of Robert Heinlein here (which made sense in reading the author’s end-notes ‘Quotes from the Golden Age of Science Fiction’.) The only disappointment for me was I now have to wait for book 2 to see how the conflict proceeds.

4.0 out of 5 stars
The story took a moment to get going, but …
By Benjamin Olsen
Verified Purchase
The story took a moment to get going, but became one the most engaging reads I’ve encountered in months. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

“Red Queen: The Substrate Wars” for Kindle

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

The Kindle version is available on Amazon here, and at only $0.99 for a week or two so my friends can all buy it cheaply. Of course I want some good reviews to get it going, presuming it deserves them!

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars, first book in a long series.

Set on a California college campus just a decade or two from now, the world of Red Queen is post-terrorist disaster, repressive and censored — rather like China today, but with a stagnant economy and no jobs for young people. In that sense it is a dystopia, though not so far from our own day and time; only a few steps beyond where we are now. The students are cowed but not unaware, and they seize the opportunity to make a difference when their smarts and courage allow it. And so they change the world.

This is Book 1 of Substrate Wars, the series: A growing band of campus freedom-fighters discover a new technology that could either destroy the world, or save it. They take on the responsibility of using it for good. Homeland Security is one step behind them. Spies and traitors lurk. Shall it be repressive bureaucratic stagnation, or human expansion to the stars?

Kindle Format now at $0.99, regular price $3.99. Trade paperback in a few weeks.

“Red Queen: The Substrate Wars,” Second Part

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

I’ve finished a readable draft for the second part of Red Queen: The Substrate Wars, first book in a long series. Beta readers of Part 1 generally liked it and wanted to keep reading, so if you were holding off thinking it’s bad, maybe that will encourage you to give it a read.

In this part, our growing band of campus freedom-fighters discover a new technology that could either destroy the world, or save it. They take on the responsibility of using it for good. Homeland Security is one step behind them.

[edit: removed drafts since full book is available]

There are interesting questions about how much techno-geekery and science you should throw at the reader. Those who aren’t into it will see a paragraph of unintelligible babble and skip over it (“it’s magic!”), and those who are into it will read every word and try to find holes in the science, which they will of course be eager to point out.

So I need a wide variety of readers to help me decide just how far to go. There’s also an interesting problem with exposition: it’s necessary for the omniscient narrator to just tell the reader things, but they are more convincing coming from characters. But then you have long dialogues where characters go on in an unrealistic way. This has been accepted as part of the artifice since the time of the Greeks, but you can go too far. Let me know what you think!

Questions, errors, and comments to: Hope you enjoy it.