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Saturday, December 12th, 2009 Horrorthon Posts

“You should do what I do and write a whole new post,” Octopunk said (in response to my response to his voluminous post below). So I figured he had a point. Here’s my response again:

1) I wish my Patton Oswald post had “dominated the blog over the weekend.” It only got three comments (and only one of those comments was actually about the posted clip itself); I assumed that everyone missed it.

2) The Emperor’s lightning sound was, I believe, a reference to Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me.

3) I saw Lynch’s Dune before I read the book, actually. So I kind of dug it. I had nothing to compare it to, so all I got from the movie was that it was an attempt at a genuinely different approach to epic sci-fi. Later (Junior Year of college, actually) I read the book and realized how badly they’d screwed it up. It was kind of like all those idiots who admired Francis Coppola’s Dracula (“He added a sexual subtext…and a commentary on Victorian mores! Brilliant!” Jordan: “He didn’t ‘add’ anything, you idiots”) but with me, Jordan, as the idiot.

4) If I don’t ignore your detours through Gibson and Phillip K. Dick, I’ll never finish this comment!

5) You’ve hit on the basic conundrum of written sci-fi. A movie shows you several ideas at the same time, but a novel is only one sentence (and one word) at a time. (J.J. Abrams on the Star Trek commentary track, during the shot of Kirk and Bones on the Starfleet Campus discussing the upcoming Kobayashi Maru test: “I wanted to start with an establishing shot that was already a genuine story shot, with action and dialogue.” Right, and he did it, but just try that in written prose! You can’t.) So the trick of making a locale visible to the reader without interrupting the action is a constant struggle for the fiction writer (and I’ve got the empty Tylenol bottles to prove it). The problem is compounded in sci-fi, where nothing is taken for granted and every object could be some weird-o version that the reader can’t picture properly unless the writer takes a sentence or two to clue you in. I like the way Larry Niven does it, personally. David Gerrold actually collaborated with Niven on a couple of books; they have (I think) similar approaches (at least based on your example). Ultimately, as a writer, I find the whole thing so tiresome that I’ve completely back-burnered any desire to try my hand at prose-based sci-fi. (Prose-based horror is much more approachable, and I’ll be hitting the bookstore shelves with that shit in the first week of July.)

6) Above, I made it sound like the cinematic approach (discovering the environmental details around the edges of the story) is some kind of basic, obvious trick. But it’s actually not, as any connoisseur of older sci-fi movies can tell you. It took Kubrick and Lucas to create that approach, where the story is the main focus and the gizmos and vehicles and floating platforms and crazy rooms are just there unremarked upon. David Gerrold discusses this in one of his Star Trek books, talking about how 1930s-1950s sci-fi was so damn “talky,” with every machine being explained verbally and with ridiculously elaborate establishing shots conveying everything to you in the most laborious possible way. Lucas gets more credit than Kubrick for fixing this, because Lucas made it work in a colloquial action-adventure setting (rather than Kubrick’s magisterially-paced cerebral sci-fi movie); all the stuff is just there, and the characters don’t remark upon it at all.

7) Despite all this, I find myself reading less and less sci-fi, and losing my patience with older sci-fi movies more and more often. I have trouble sitting through the stuff when the visuals are so damn primitive, and I have trouble reading the newer stuff because of the cloying, overly-clever stylistic bullshit that takes the place of the traditional turgidness of older “classic” sci-fi. I’ll probably change my mind, later. My friend Barney is watching first-season Star Trek and I repeated my claim that it’s basically like Shakespeare (e.g. basically literary): the sets and props and effects and production values are so miserable that the entire story is carried by the writing and the acting. (Basically the opposite of Revenge of the Sith.)

8) Another interesting development in literary vs. cinematic sci-fi: Basically, everything used to follow what I think of as “Jordan’s Rule” (and I will continue to think of it this way until it’s demonstrated that somebody else said it): On paper, sci-fi is infinitely scaleable with no costs. In other words, a single giant robot destroying a house can become a single giant robot destroying a village or a group of giant robots destroying a city, or a thousand spaceships destroying an entire planet, with absolutely no cost overrun. The guy typing the book didn’t have to spend another dime, and neither did the publisher. (It didn’t cost me anything in terms of time, money or effort to escalate the scenario in my preceding example.) But with movies, it’s completely different: just two people talking in a room in a sci-fi movie automatically costs five times as much as the same thing happening in a non-sci-fi movie. What are they wearing? What’s the room look like? Is there a window showing the city? Etc. etc. etc. and already we’ve spent $600,000. This is the main reason cinematic sci-fi is so much more juvenile, by definition, than its written counterpart: youv’e got to pay for it, which means you need a huge audience to generate the box office to offset the costs. A sci-fi novel costs the same as a regular novel to publish, but once you film it, you’re spending a fortune and if you can’t draw in the kids, you lose. “Jordan’s Law.”

But what’s amazing is that this is actually changing, thanks to advancing movie technology. I’m amazed at the sheer scale of what’s presented in modern sci-fi movies (especially the expensive ones). For example, think about Star Trek (ironic example, given that they started with gypsum board sets in the ’60s): Think through the movie. Not just the drill, but the aforementioned Starfleet Academy; that enormous Vulcan temple; the collapsing Vulcan landscape; the battle that destroys ten (!) starships completely; and of course Nero’s ship. Any single one of these spectacles would be enough for an entire 70s or 80s sci-fi movie. It’s such a big deal! But these days, it’s approaching the freedom of the written word! “Ten thousand orcs”? Done. “Vulcan temple the size of a mountain, and it collapses?” Done. etc. etc. This means that we actually can have “boutique” cerebral space-movie projects like Soderbergh’s Solaris which are totally adult and uncompromising, like good sci-fi novels, and yet are as well-made as any mainstream sci-fi and don’t bankrupt the fucking studio if they flop (or don’t do as well as Spider-Man). I think that’s a really good development…Hollywood has actually found a way to break “Jordan’s Law.” And now I’ll stop before I start getting depressed at the thought of how much I just wrote vs. how few people will read it.