My thoughts on Avatar

Copied from my personal blog (because WordPress is more searchable):

Here it is then, as promised. I’m not really going to do a review, since it would be very short:

I freaking loved the movie.

I’d just like to comment on some aspects of people’s discussions about it, and try to extrapolate about what messages there could possibly be for fiction, or for SF.

Some caveats:

1. For me, first contact stories are the equivalent of hot chips in fiction: you can wake me up for them. Any book that has some form of alien-human contact I simply *have* to read. I love that stuff.

2. I am a dreamer

3. I am not a Trekkie, and apologise in advance for some stuff I may say below.

So yeah, let’s not repeat all that’s already been said about the wonderful worldbuilding. I just love that stuff. This aspect actually reminded me of Dinotopia, a movie with a non-existent plot that goes on forever, but that’s so incredibly pretty you just have to keep watching. Avatar was clearly made to be pretty. Other movies with that secondary aim come to mind. Dances with Wolves, Out of Africa and Australia.

The plot. Yeah, yeah, enough with the bellyaching about the standard plot. The plot worked, and that is important for something pitched at a large audience. You cannot take undue risks. I think they took a bit of a risk with the overt environmental message, but probably judged the time was right for it.

I dunno. Have you ever watched a movie where halfway through, the plot went in a way where you would have just stood up and walked out? I remember one. I watched this movie called A Japanese Story. The beginning was a lovely, and rather edgy, tale of a Japanese middle manager pretending to be on a business trip to NW Australia (he wasn’t; he’d been sacked). His guide (Toni Colette) drives him around and gradually peels away the truth. It turns into a sightseeing holiday (lovely scenery). And then the dude drowns (I presume it was suicide, but it didn’t think that was adequately supported by the preceding scenes). And I was going WTF WTF WTF WTF?? No resolution, no nothing. Just lengthy grief scenes from his wife and the guide. Total crap for my level of movie enjoyment.

The ‘best’ (most provocative, most emotional, whatever) movie I saw this year was Gran Torino. It, too, ends sadly. I took my daughters, who also had a bit of a WTF reaction to the ending. I thought it was bitterweet, but it’s not a movie which leaves you happy, or, for that matter, satisfied. I thought it was very good, but didn’t enjoy it as much.

Avatar was never intended to be an edgy drama. The plot was risk-free. People said it resembles Dances with Wolves, and that there was a large amount of native American resemblance. I dunno about that. I saw Fern Gully and a large part of the plot had Rio Tinto (a mining company which is screwing people in the highlands of PNG) all over it. It doesn’t matter. This stuff has happened before. This stuff is still happening. This stuff has been the subject of many plots. It was done well enough that: 1. the story worked, 2. the story left a large majority of the audience to walk away so happy that days later, they are still talking about it.

To me, fiction, of any sort, is about immersing the reader and making the reader feel happy. The best books are those where you have an insane wish to dive in and BE one of the characters. For a large percentage of the audience, this movie does just that. I wrote about that here two days ago.

This plot speaks to a lot of people on a very basic human level. It’s chockers with messages, but to most people, the messages are either justified or not noticeable enough to be annoying. Humans rape and pillage. Good on the ones who stand up and put an end to some of it. Show it at Christmas time, and people will love it. Stroke of genius, really. All that was missing, I think, was a donation box outside the cinema with ‘Save the Rainforest’. They would have made thousands.

Anyway, some of the gaffes (which were not many, and not as important as I thought they would be).

The dead brother switcheroo. What is it with film makers that they insist on putting insufficiently educated characters in important roles without any justification? (James Kirk anyone? Oh man! As if the military would allow that sort of cock-arsery). There was no need for the dead brother, plot-wise. I cannot believe that any scientist would accept a non-trained person with an attitude problem in a vitally important project. The solution would have been as easy as enforcing an equal-opportunity law that says that disabled people should make up a percentage of any workforce. The dude’s been injured, can’t be in the regular forces, so he gets a steam course in science and gets slotted into a program three months after it’s started when someone decides to have himself killed. Easy.

Unobtainium. Yeah. The editor who let that placeholder name through deserves to be shot. That said, the element that shall not be named was mentioned only twice in the entire movie, and wasn’t half as cringe-worthy as Star Trek’s red matter (for crying out loud dudes, read the definition of BLACK HOLE before you come up with something as stupidly insane – and store it in a freaking glass cylinder).

The sex. Oh, you say, what sex? Yeah – well, that’s just the problem. It isn’t as if this is a kiddie movie. It’s rated M for crying out loud. If these two blue aliens were mated for life, and you show some scenes that suggest they’re having sex, for crying out loud, show them having sex. Unless, of course, the nerds who programmed this animation don’t know where the bits go. Come on, ya prudes! It was a scene lasting a few seconds. Long enough, because the point was made, but make the freaking point properly.

What I thought was very elegant, plot-wise, was the fact that the military are rent-a-guns. It was the weaselly guy named Parker, with the fat tie, who made the final decision. Now he’s going to have to justify heavy losses to the shareholders, he’ll be sacked, the military will move elsewhere, and the company will lick its wounds. They won’t be back in a hurry, or at least not in that form. Yeah, I loved that, in terms of a lasting solution.

Then again, I’m a dreamer. I love happy endings. And I wish I had a tail.

the Avatar effect

Funny how this post slots in with what I was writing yesterday.

Something odd has been going on in our household in the past few days. In general, my husband doesn’t read fiction. I spotted him reading Dune. I know: what the…? But every time he speaks to someone on the phone he mentions we went to see Avatar on Thursday night.

My daughters have been complaining that every time they go onto Facebook there are floods of messages going around in their large groups of friends that all amount to the same thing: OMG, did you see it?

As I said, my husband doesn’t read SF – he doesn’t even read fiction. My daughters don’t read SF – although they do read fantasy. Neither they or their friends are familiar with the genre, neither is my husband. To them, the term SF might represent the science-y, stodgy, old-fashioned ideals of the 1950’s. They, and a large group of other people, are now saying: OMG, is this SF? I want more!

And that, my dear friends, is what will happen.

By pattyjansen Posted in SF Tagged

the future of SF…

Here is a subject that gets me all hot under the collar. Yes, I’ve written about this before, but earlier this week, Jetse de Vries posted an entry on his blog (and various others) Should SF Die?

To which my answer would be: do you think people will ever stop writing novels about people travelling to other worlds by means other than magic, or about what happens when people colonise space, or when they encounter other intelligent life, either on Earth or elsewhere? Do you think people will stop writing about getting lost in the cyberworld, or about what happens during/after a nuclear war/environmental disaster, or some other calamity as yet unthought-of? Do you think people will no longer be interested in reading what happens when companies own DNA, and governments start creating people for their own purposes, when mind and body become separated and when human-developed technology puts us before dilemmas that are new and challenging?

Do you believe that? OK, then you do believe SF will die. However, I’d think you’d agree with me in saying that people will never stop writing and reading about these subjects in various forms.

What I can see changing, is the way we label various types of fiction. Not that anyone cares, because the bookshop/publisher category is Science Fiction AND Fantasy and no one gives two hoots about the division between the two. But the writers, and genre buffs….

I’ve heard people compare SF with westerns. No one publishes westerns very much anymore. That said, westerns cover a very narrow concept in a very narrow geographic area and a very narrow period of time. SF is not like westerns AT ALL, at least not the full gamut of it. Think of it – hard SF, cyberpunk, space opera, military SF, first contact stories, Earth-based mystery/crime SF, sociological SF, and lots of subgenres I’m forgetting. Is there any other genre with a scope as wide as all that? But no, say some. Star Wars is really fantasy, and anything that’s Earth-based is mainstream, and the one true SF is the genre of ideas. Well, I’m sorry, but where does that leave Miles Vorkorsigan? Or, gasp, romantic SF? And what is more, who freaking cares?

And this is the bit I really don’t get. In fantasy, there isn’t a similar bitchfight going on about what is fantasy and what isn’t. No writer who writes traditional, long-winded epic fantasy would suggest that urban fantasy, magic realism or fantasy/romance is *not fantasy*.

So go on. If the term Science Fiction is so cringe-worthy, and evokes images of the 1950’s, find another term for it. A genre must keep evolving after all. Just don’t forget that an increasing majority of readers are too young to have read the SF classics, and many enjoy at least one or two of the plethora of SF subgenres, and are not going to stop enjoying it ‘because SF is dying’, however you want to define the genre.

/end rant

By pattyjansen Posted in SF

a fertile future

I’m writing a story about a society that has fertility issues. In fact, fertility-related topics commonly pop up in SF and even in fantasy. One such trope is the notion that some time in the future/on another planet, women will no longer give birth, but that babies will be designed and grown in an artificial environment, or carried by a surrogate. There are many variations on this theme, which range from total artificiality to various types of assisted reproduction. Fertility issues make for interesting material, and can be done very well.

For me, the prize for ‘best fertility technique use’ in fiction goes to Ethan of Athos, a novella in the Miles series by Lois McMaster Bujold. In the world she has created (Athos), there are no women. The men clone eggs from a number of female cultures, fertlise them, and babies are grown artificially.

In C.J. Cherryh’s world, some human colonies produce artificial designer people from scratch. Most of these people are specialist workers. In most of her books, they’re not fertile, so the process of creating them has to be repeated.

In Cyteen, C.J. Cherryh creates a clone from an older woman who has been killed. She treats the subject of cloning very well. A person is shaped by his/her genetic material (which is clone-able) just as much as their environment (which is not clone-able), so clones who are identical are not particularly believable to me. Identical twins are natural clones, and identical twins are never completely identical.

The big question is: why? It’s a question that has to be answered satisfactorily for a book to work. Cloning is high-tech stuff. IVF is high-tech stuff. Creating new people from scratch is high-tech stuff. You are not, ever, going to make me believe that these forms of conception will take over from – ahem – the natural way (which costs nothing), without some pretty good arguments.

Athos doesn’t have women. The Cyteen designer people are infertile (so that their bosses can keep their workforce in hand). In both these worlds, there is plenty of natural breeding going on elsewhere in the universe.

I would buy a world in which a big bad virus makes people infertile and some sort of artificial process became necessary. I would buy that rich people would want, and pay for, designer babies, and that they’d leave the discomfort and pain of pregnancy to a surrogate.

However… I would never buy a world in which all people would become reliant on assisted reproduction.

An analogy – plastic surgery may well become very popular in the near future, but you’ll never get all women to submit to it. Some won’t want it, some simply can’t afford it. If assisted reproduction/designer babies are optional (i.e. women are still fertile), there will always be natural conception. It might be messy, uncomfortable and hurt like hell, but it’s free.

If infertily is a disease: like myxomatosis and rabbits, a virus would make 99.9% of people infertile. With 10 billion people on the planet, 0.1% is still a million fertile people – more than enough for a quick repopulation.

forgotten people

There’s been a lot of talk recently about representation of minority groups in SF. I don’t really want to go into this debate. I think what counts most is a good story, and I also think that we should all be willing to broaden our horizons. That said, I don’t think that those vocal minorities are the only ones that get bypassed. There is a very large group of people who rarely get ANY representation in SF, as characters: those over 50, especially women.

Yesterday I conducted a preliminary survey on Twitter to ask who knew of a SFF novel where the character is female and over 50. I don’t mean those novels, of which there are a few, where an older female recounts what happened to her in her youth. I mean a novel where an older woman (or man for that matter) is the main character, doesn’t get wonderful treatment so she/he becomes younger. I mean a novel where the character is on the wrong side of middle age and coping with creaky joints and reading glasses, while being challenged with whatever the plot happens to be.

Please let me know if you know of such novels in the replies. I’ll update the list as I go. Please mention specific titles.

I am also looking for older main characters that are in fact ‘old’ in the novel. Immortality or having been extensively rejuvenated doesn’t count. I want characters who are getting closer to an inevitable death, and cope with whatever physical and mental conditions your world throws at them in that stage of life. I want characters who cannot ignore age, and don’t have a cure for it.

Paladin of souls – Lois McMaster Bujold
A Remnant Population – Elizabeth Moon
Green Mars and Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Singularity Sky – Charles Stross
Tehanu – Ursula LeGuin
Hyperion – Dan Simmons
Hammered – Elizabeth Bear

Science Fiction – too geeky, doldrums or what?

I love science fiction. Although I read and write science fiction and fantasy, and a bit of mainstream (shh, don’t tell anyone), my heart is in science fiction. Therefore, it pains me when agent Kristin Nelson says:

I just wish the market was stronger in SF right now. I did just sell an SF novel a couple of months ago but that wasn’t an easy task.

And she’s right. I haven’t read or bought any fantasy for a while, because I’ve been catching up on SF. There is some good stuff out there, but… anything that’s recently published is likely to be a work of an established author, or a collection/reprint of older work. Why? Why aren’t as new science fiction writers getting a break as there are new fantasy writers?

Here are a few points to consider or discuss:

1. Science Fiction may be one of the last bastions of male dominance (see also this excellent post by Alisa Krasnostein). Since the reading audience is female-dominated (how much – reply if you can provide a link, I’ll put it up here), this implies a reduced market.

2. Science Fiction seems to suffer an identity crisis. While some purists would like to see science fiction limited to works which extend the boundaries of known science, in practice, science fiction includes all those works that involve futuristic technology and/or concepts, extra-terrestrial intelligence or space travel, whether any of these things are intended to reflect reality or not.

3. Hard science fiction has become too geeky. Science fiction that extends the boundaries of known science is becoming both harder to write and harder to understand. Since the boundaries of science have shifted into regions few people without degrees in quantum mechanics will understand, the audience for this type of science fiction is shrinking.

4. Science fiction has the reputation to be all about the ideas and not about the characters.

To a certain extent, I would say bollocks to all these points. There are good female science fiction writers. Not as many as men, though. Frankly, I’m disappointed that at this day and age, such a stupid point should matter. I don’t care about the gender of the author of a book I read. But apparently, men are less likely to read a book by a woman.

Science fiction is a very wide genre, and readers embrace that. To argue that a book that doesn’t adhere to strict realistic facts isn’t science fiction is just plain silly. Ditto the requirement that science fiction should somehow push the boundaries of science. Ow-come on! Readers love McMaster-Bujold’s Miles books. Do they push the boudaries of science? No. Does anyone care? No. Does that make the Miles books ‘not science fiction’? Tell me where else you’d classify them.

We do see character-based science fiction on the shelves. Again, the Miles books are a good example. Again, this falls in the sub-category some people would classify as inferior science fiction. Soft science fiction, space opera. Not real. By the same token, Star Wars isn’t science fiction.

Tell me, if part of the science fiction community disowns part of its own genre, what hope is there the genre will grow? Do we see epic fantasy writers try to exclude books written about vampires from their genre?

I would like to promote ALL science fiction. Frankly, I’m sick of vampires.