Space Ramblings

Category Archives: Essays

Revisiting Star Trek Enterprise

Last week I wanted to check something in one of my Enterprise reviews and found that Trekweb‘s directory links to my Enterprise reviews seem to be down and a lot of the reviews are infected with redirect malware. I pieced together the reviews, some from older links and archives and put them up. The experience was curiously uninvolving. I remembered some of these episodestar trek enterprise season 1s, but I couldn’t find myself caring about them.

Even when the show originally aired, there was a distance there. Today I have trouble remembering the episodes off the cuff. Looking at the reviews, I remembered them again, one by one, but it won’t take long for me to forget. That’s not true of any of the earlier series which stuck with me. It shows in the reviews.

Going back over some of my old Voyager reviews to try and put them into order, I find myself reacting in one way or another, good or bad. Enterprise episodes get a flat response. I remember faintly that I didn’t really want to review Enterprise. After a few years of reviewing Voyager episodes for Trekweb, the new show didn’t really appeal to me. Steve Perry was the original reviewer. I was asked to fill in when he couldn’t do it anymore. At first it was going to be alternating. But then before you know it, four years had gone by.star trek enterprise two days and two nights

The quality of the reviews is different too. I put more work into the Voyager reviews. They had more to say. The Enterprise reviews are shorter. Curt. Often they’re angry and dismissive. More so than I remembered. But on

some level I did care about the show, because it was Star Trek, even if it didn’t really feel like it or look like it. I went into every episode wanting it to be good, and coming away feeling nothing at all.

Was that my fault or was it the show’s fault? Enterprise seemed like the show that inspired star trek enterprise the crossingthe least passion and interest from… everyone.

When looking for images to stick into the reviews, I found a lot of pictures for every Voyager episode, but fewer and fewer pictures for Enterprise. Season 1 still had some people collecting graphics. By season 4, they had become hard to find. The most frequent Enterprise episode screenshots are usually T’Pol nude scenes. Jolene Blalock criticized the writing on Enterprise and while it improved gradually toward the end, she had a point. What she didn’t say, though I suspect she knew, is that before Enterprise, no Star Trek series had a character who was there to get naked. Over and over again. 7 of 9 came closest and that was a symptom of Voyager’s decline. T’Pol was a sign of complete desperation. Another emotionally dead woman, there tStar Trek Enterprise T'Pol naked Harbingero appeal to fleeing viewers by taking off her clothes. And it didn’t even work.

Despite the erotic massage arc of Season 3  (Yes, there actually was such a thing. It’s hard to believe. It’s even harder to believe that it fused into the show’s version of September 11.) the viewers kept losing interest. And that was also sad. Because Season 2 had been better than Season 1. Season 3 had been better than Season 2. And Season 4 was better than Season 3.

For all my criticisms of Enterprise, the show kept improving. Consistently from year to year, it got better. And still viewers kept leaving because it never got good enough. No other Star Trek series got better year after year. Some had a golden year, like Voyager’s Season 6. Some, like TNG, bounced up and down. Some like TOS, went into a decline.

But the writing was only part of Enterprise’s problem. Star Trek’s writing was always uneven. Every series has had great moments and a lot of average ones. And what people tune for isn’t the writing, it’s the characters.

Orson Scott Card wrote about Tarzan and Edgar Rice Burroughs,

Here’s the great secret of literature: No matter how good a writer is, both language and fashion change over time, and what was once a vivid part of the culture becomes a footnote in literary history.

The stories and characters that endure do so for reasons having almost nothing to do with the talent of the writer.

It’s true of Star Trek also. Not completely. Talent has something to do with it. The star trek enterprise shuttlepod oneability to envision all this, from the setting to the characters, is also a talent. But writing original plots, gripping dialogue and compelling ideas… that didn’t matter as much.

Enterprise’s writing was uneven and trended mediocre, but it failed because the characters weren’t there. Because Bakula’s Archer was an erratic manchild, who only slowly became an adult and a commander to be admired. By the time his evolution was complete in Season 3, most of the viewers had left, never to return. The easygoing capable captain he played in Season 4 was the one that viewers wanted all along. Developing him as a character from a borderline idiot and bigot had alienated them. It was someone’s idea of “good writing” that did that.

T’Pol had potential. Blalock wanted to play Spock. Instead she was forced to play a repressed hysteric who was prone to explosionsstar trek enterprise north star and an unwanted intruder on a starship whose captain would rather hang out with his best friend. She was usually right, but was never allowed to be right. By DS9, the Star Trek franchise had developed a bizarre hatred of Vulcans. They began to show up as villains. By Abrams Trek, their planet was blown up to get them out of the way.

Tucker, a classic character out of place, that no one could figure out what to do with. On his own, Tucker seemed like a good idea. A throwback to the kind of men who went into space. He was meant to be McCoy, but he was more like Paris, another man child, on a ship that already had too many of them. Tucker hanging out with Archer felt like a grown up frat party. Tucker and Reed felt off. Tucker and T’Pol was creepy and not just because of the blue lighting and skin shots. Maybe it was star trek enterprise future tenseBraga’s touch, but there was sleaze all over Tucker. He seemed less like a great engineer and more like the guy who never finished High School, but hangs out in the parking lot throwing a football and trying to pick up High School girls. Tucker was McCoy without the sense of duty or old school gentleman habits.

Mayweather was a blank. Nothing. Harry Kim all over again. Bakula and Blalock don’t get the blame for their characters, but that’s not the case here. Mayweather got developed. And the role didn’t require him to act like an idiot.

Hoshi Sato, Reed and Phlox were good characters, but like the rest of the show they were muted. There weren’t enough people. The star trek enterprise singularityEnterprise always seemed deserted. There wasn’t enough life in it. Voyager and DS9 had felt crowded. The Enterprise NCC-1701E was a flying city in space. Enterprise NX-01 felt like a generation ship with too few people and none of them really worth paying attention to.

So many episodes were dark, visually, lonely and cramped. The show seemed to be going nowhere. The characters weren’t engaging. They were all lost in their own worlds. Archer, nursing his grudges, T’Pol, her secrets, Hoshi, her neurosis, Reed, his shyness, Phlox, his alienness, Mayweather, his emptiness, and Tucker went round and round, badgering them, trying to party with them, seduce them, cadge a drink from them. The only completely alive man on a dead ship. And somehow creepier for it.star trek enterprise future tense

Where the DS9 or Voyager crew pulled together in emergencies, it never felt that way on Enterprise. Not until the last season. That made the Enterprise crew feel real. Strangers passing each other in darkened corridors. But it wasn’t what people expected from Star Trek. The series had always been about a group of comrades blazing the star trails together, men and women who knew each other and felt comfortable with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Enterprise might have become that show in Season 5. But we’ll never know. And revisiting it gives me the same hollow feeling I had while watching. After writing this up and trying to think about Enterprise, I still come away feeling nothing at all.

The Two Types of Games that will define Gaming

The split has been coming for a while, but it looks like it’s almost here. I’m not talking about RPG vs FPS or casual vs hardcore gaming. This isn’t a gameplay split, this is a design philosophy and business plan split.

One is polished and heavily locked down. A game that’s practically on rails in its gameplay, high end graphics and little user agency, and plans to monetize players outside of the purchase price with DLC and in game purchases. Its designers like consoles and apps better than the PC, and if they do publish it on a PC, they include crippling DRM and always on connections. They’re pushed into the social with user accounts and co-op and multiplayer.

The other is troubled, but ambitious. It has big ideas, big bugs and room for users to explore, expand and transform the game world. The flaws get fixed by mods, the mods expand the game beyond what it is. This type of game is PC oriented. Sometimes marketplace realities mean it’s a port, but it’s the type of game that only really makes sense and fulfills its promise on a PC.

There are plenty of examples of the first type of game. Diablo III, which is really Diablo as reimagined by Zynga, or the latest AAA FPS shooter, practically on rails, with amazing graphics, and a game where you don’t do much except push a button to make something cool happen, and then dive for cover, while your real or AI teammates yell things at you. Or something really silly like Assassin’s Creed.

On the other side, there’s Skyrim, a shambling grand mess of snowy peaks, bugs and mods that make the game something else. There’s Minecraft, which is ridiculous and ridiculously appealing. And the newest Game of Thrones game. And there’s a hundred obscurer and smaller games coming in through the cracks.

The marketplace, wedged into a handful of big companies, is aiming for the first type of game. Spend a fortune on marketing it, roll it out the door, brag that you sold more copies this hour than the entire GDP of Thailand, bribe and wow the game jornos, and pick up that bonus from the board.

The PC is being abandoned, not because it isn’t a huge profitable marketplace, but because it doesn’t fit into this business model. It’s not secure, its hardware is unpredictable, its players want more, its hardware is capable of more, it has too much piracy and too much chaos. Easier to just plan for the day when everyone who matters has an XBOX 720 or a Playstation 4 or a Nintendo DooWop or an iPad or something equally gated and shut in.

Microsoft doesn’t know what to do with PC gaming because it’s not in the business model. Neither do most companies. All they can do is tell us that the future is consoles, apps, cloud gaming, always on connections, crippled games with lots of user accounts that are always going down, no used games, lots of fees and no fun. And we better get used to it.

They have a point. If Microsoft, Activision, EA and Ubisoft want it this way, what choice do we have? What are we going to do, make our own marketplace? Invest in games that we like? Nuts. Go buy Diablo III and learn to enjoy it. Go play Frontierville and Angry Birds and Medal of Battlefields and all the rest.

But users have voted with their dollars at Kickstarter, funding the games they want to play. Forget the lame player boycotts of Mass Effect 3 or Diablo 3 that can never quantified and never get taken seriously. Boycotts don’t accomplish anything. Supporting an alternative marketplace does.

Kickstarter isn’t the solution, but it’s part of the solution, along with Skyrim mods, the whole indie game scene and an entire user created and often user managed marketplace. There’s no point in berating Activision for turning Diablo III into a Zynga game or complaining that Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2 are crap that were rushed out to cash in on the goodwill from earlier games.

The marketplace is splitting into two types of games. The AAA title that costs a ton to make and needs to hit the broadest and lowest common denominator target. And a range of games from big to small that are creative and unpredictable, that need work, but that open up worlds. Some are released by the big boys, but quite a few are coming in from the margins.

PC gaming isn’t dead, but it’s going to be defined by the second kind of game, more than the rest. The big boys will still dump Diablo XXXVI’s and Battlefield 61’s on the PC, while making it as miserable an experience as possible, but PC gaming will be a different place that will be defined by a different kind of game that values user agency, that is built for user modification from the ground up and that taps into the culture of PC gaming and its past.

It’s not hard to believe because it’s already here.

Why SyFy Abandoned Science Fiction

SyFy is Dead

This isn’t about the woman looking contemplatively at one of the worst programming slates on television , she doesn’t exist except as a heavily photoshopped model who probably thought she was posing for some ad that required her to be mildly amused, maybe at her new phone or the plight of children somewhere.

This is about what SyFy thinks she represents and what it wants ad buyers to think she represents.

This isn’t just another ad pitching SyFy to viewers, this is an ad pitching it to media buyers. This is the audience that SyFy wants to have.

Let’s start out with the obvious. She’s not a man. That’s not coincidental. Women are where the ad dollars are now.

She’s an “Igniter” who “sparks trends”, which means the ad dollars go further because she influences the buying habits of others. That’s a load of crap, especially when it comes to SyFy Channel viewers, but this is the brass ring of advertising.

Now imagine the exact opposite of this coolly amused young woman who influences her friends to buy major brands by making them seem cool? If you answered a viewer of Science Fiction television, as imagined by SyFy executives to be a fat middle-aged man, you are correct. And that is the audience SyFy doesn’t want, because it’s the audience their USA bosses don’t want.

But don’t take it from me, take it from the SyFy pitch.

Syfy has a target audience in mind: people with a shared mindset of curiosity, optimism, creativity and open-mindedness that drives them to take risks, push boundaries and challenge the status quo. They call these people—who are the first to find and try new things and share those finds with others—”Igniters.”

This their target audience. It’s not people who like Science Fiction, it’s people who watch SyFy shows about ghost hunting and makeup because they “push boundaries” and “challenge the status quo”. They’re exactly like Occupy Wall Street, except they buy stuff, instead of protest.

If you want to promote your new Samsung phone or non-alcoholic cranberry drink to an audience that will convince other people to try it, come and pitch to the viewers of our cooking shows and makeup shows and stuff we put together as cheaply as possible in order to build that quality “Igniter” audience.

Founded in 1992 as SCI FI Channel, Syfy is celebrating its 20th anniversary by embracing the innovation of Igniters. What exactly is an Igniter? To develop the psychographic profile, Syfy has used both Simmons data and a custom study conducted with PSFK. Simmons demonstrates that Igniters are the first to find, try and buy new products and then influence the masses to do the same. The PSFK study adds that Igniters are a powerful force in today’s market because portability and social media have given rise to new tools.

This is a ton of nebula gasses, but SyFy needs to sell this to position its viewers as savvy post-television influencers who will go out and have an impact on social media.

Look at what’s missing from the picture.

The words “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy” never appear in this piece. Superhero and supernatural are okay. Those aren’t, even when HBO is doing great with Game of Thrones. (HBO is also careful to avoid the “F” word when talking about Game of Thrones.) The name change wasn’t an accident. The former SciFi channel doesn’t want to be associated with Science Fiction. It wants to be associated with an audience it can’t have.

SyFy can’t get the flavored vodka and hot nightspots audience it’s pretending to have. It can’t have it because it’s cheap, its programming is risk free and crap. It wants to pretend that it offers million dollar value to advertisers while running a 99 cent store full of crap that no one else wants and its original programming is indistinguishable from the reality TV on every other channel.

The audience it has is not the audience it wants. It wants models who smile ambiguously at unseen things in the air. SyFy has an abusive relationship with its audience. Eventually it will drive away the last of its unique audience and be stuck with the kind of people who want to watch idiots pretending to chase ghosts around a set or who will sit through a show about makeup artists and a third-rate cooking show.

And then finally SyFy will have the audience it deserves. The 99 cent store of cable television will have 99 cent store viewers. Maybe they’ll even ignite a ghost chasing trend and then “share” it on social media.

The Meaning of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

ferrris bueller

There have been some ridiculous essays about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. All dealing with its perceived importance.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is not a great movie. It’s an enjoyable one. Among many others. You can analyze The Breakfast Club, but there’s no point to analyzing Ferris Bueller. It’s a movie about the ultimate idealized teenager, with the vocabulary of a 30 year old, the skills of a con artist and the luck of the Irish who thanks to Matthew Broderick’s performance remains sympathetic. Not accessible, but entertaining.

Ferris Bueller is the Peter Pan of a generation. Played by an actor who looked like he never really grew up. It’s the wish fulfillment of every movie about staying young forever packed into one marathon session. It’s about having to grow up, but offers the fantasy of being able to do it on your own terms. That’s what Ferris Bueller offers his friends. It’s why he has the popularity he does.

Most movies go up and down. Ferris Bueller never goes down. The antagonists never have a chance. The movie is all joie de vivre on terms that an aging man with a creative imagination who loved Chicago and was obsessed with the teenage years thought up. And it works.

There are only a few actors who could have done it. Broderick or Fox. And the movie endures better than even The Breakfast Club, because it promises freedom from teenage angst, while at the same time recognizing it for what it is. Hughes’ movies treated the transitions of being a teenager as a complex fantasy environment. But if Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink were the deep involved dramas about coping, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about freedom from angst. Bueller is a teenage superman, not bound by the limitations of being a teenager, while enjoying all of its privileges. And if that’s not perfect escapism for teenagers and adults in a country that worships freedom and youth, I don’t know what is.

What’s Killing Science Fiction TV?

And don’t say the networks. That’s too obvious. Who is really to blame for a TV landscape where Science Fiction hardly exists?

1. Pretentious Showrunners

a. Arcs – I warned about this back in the DS9/B5 days and none of the fanboys would listen. And here we are. Science Fiction dramas come with convoluted arcs built in and audiences tune out. The more convoluted the arc, the more it panders to hard cores and casual viewers have trouble getting into the show. That limits the potential audience.

b. Religion – Remember when Science Fiction shows were about doing things. Now they’re about faith and mysticism. Even the latest Stargate is about searching for the divine code of the universe. Lost ended in the afterlife. Fringe’s finale raised up an interdimensional crucifix. The Battlestar Galactica reboot, like I even need to spell that one out. The common denom is that showrunners want to say something about religion, but suck at it. The shows turn into mumbo jumbo. Viewers tune out. (I warned about this in the DS9/B5 days too.)

c. Unlikable Characters – People invest in characters. The characters can’t be too complicated. We want to know who they are a minute after we meet them. And they can’t be crazy or awful people. Not even if that’s what you think sophisticated writing means.

2. Squishy Fandom

a. Fandom today is defined less by the majority of fans, and more by a minority who are lot squishier. Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman worshipers are the ones in a position to define fandom. But they’re a minority. And the shows that the Etsy and Steampunk crowd push don’t connect well with viewers. The same thing is happening with written Science Fiction.

3. Yes, Networks

a. Scripted drama is expensive. Scripted drama with tons of effects is even more expensive. The SyFy channel decided it doesn’t really want to be in the science fiction business anymore. Most networks made that decision earlier. Some shows still get ordered, but not many. And they’re not given support. Classical space based SF is dismissed as too male oriented. And the alternatives are more copies of X-Files, instead of a more innovative concept like Sliders. Concepts which are light on effects, less expensive to make and can connect to audiences.

b. Science Fiction doesn’t fit naturally into the TV format which is aimed at the largest possible audience. TV is still built on the family model. It’s less oriented to kids now, but it still tries to hook male and female audiences equally. A movie can pander to one gender or the other, but that’s riskier with a TV show. Networks still expect audiences to carry over from one show to the next. A show that pulls in an audience that doesn’t carry over to the rest of the schedule or doesn’t pick up the audience from earlier shows is a problem. A series whose viewers just tune into that show and alienate any portion of the network audience is a problem. Science fiction fits more naturally into the theater which bills itself as giving you an amazing experience, but most TV isn’t into amazing experiences. It’s comfort food. And Science Fiction doesn’t really go as comfort food.

c. Science Fiction audiences are often more tech savvy which means they’re more likely to DVR or Hulu or just pirate the show. Networks still haven’t adapted to measuring raw numbers, rather than viewership ratings. Until that happens programming aimed at less tech savvy audiences will score better.

d. Coming up with another family drama or sitcom isn’t that hard. Coming up with a successful one is, but not as hard as coming up with a concept for a Science Fiction series. Most dramas are not that conceptually complicated. Even a dumb Science Fiction show is. And that’s the stage where most shows break down. Where the network just can’t see this pitch working. Where the pilot doesn’t hold up. Complexity is difficult.

Why Star Trek is Libertarian

Star Trek Enterprise

Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions says that Star Trek projects American and Western values into the future. Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy says this can’t be because Star Trek is socialist. File this under missing the point.

 

Calling Star Trek socialist, forget defining socialism, it doesn’t matter, because we’re told next to nothing about the local economy. Whatever economy does exist wouldn’t look much like ours in a technological environment where you can make anything if you have enough energy. We hardly see the Federation off the deck of a starship. If our only view of 20th century earth was from the deck of the carrier USS Enterprise, think about the conclusions we would draw.

It’s not just right wingers who think Star Trek is socialist. Roberto Orci stupidly mentioned Budweiser being nationalized by the Federation. (What does nationalized even mean in an interstellar and interspecies alliance?) And why would they bother. That’s the real question. In an economy where the only shortage is energy, why bother controlling the means of production?

There’s no basis for either side. Sure Picard says that we don’t focus on the accumulation of wealth anymore. Obviously. What’s the point of accumulating something you can create in a replicator. Equally obviously, Starfleet uses outside contractors and manufacturers, and if they haven’t been nationalized (federationized?) why would Budweiser be.

What little we do know, is that Earth is an open society and the Federation’s individual planets go their own way. The crews use money, but don’t take it too seriously. About the only thing banned is genetic engineering. The contrast between the Federation and the Romulans, Cardassians and the TOS era Klingons, is that the Federation lets people make their own decisions. That’s the basic idea of the Prime Directive. Is a society that won’t intervene in a pre-warp culture really going to run everyone’s lives for them? Want to join the Federation? No one’s forcing you to. Want to leave, have a nice life.

What is the Federation really? It’s a synthesis of ideals. A libertarian system that encompasses different ideas and beliefs within a vast organization that provides for mutual defense and knowledge sharing, but not domestic control. It assumes that people have improved, but technology is the real game changer here.

In a society where basic needs can be had with a replicator and some solar panels to power it, debates between capitalism and socialism, are as abstract as us debating feudalism and theocracy. It doesn’t matter because we just don’t live that way. The economic pipeline in the 24th century doesn’t look anything like the way it does today. You don’t need Budweiser to get beer. You don’t need to work for Budweiser to be able to drink beer. (Ilya Somin speculating that Starfleet exists to collect taxes is equally off the wall. What taxes? Does Starfleet really need any subsidizing when it creates or discovers new technologies every week.)

The villainous races of Star Trek have been the deniers of agency, from the Borg down to conquering empires like the Klingons and Romulans, and the echoes of Communism and Nazism among the Cardassians. And that puts Star Trek closest to the libertarian corner.

The easiest way to see that is by asking the fundamental question of libertarianism. Will you allow other people to make bad decisions without intervening? That’s the essence of the Prime Directive. It’s the essence of Kirk distinguishing the Federation from the Klingons as the people who will stand by and allow you not to join, even if you have Dilithium that we need.

The Federation not only allows people to make bad decisions, it protects their right to do so. It makes interfering with their right to do so the greatest possible offense. IDIC is not a diversity seminar, it’s a statement of absolute free will. Everyone can choose to be what they want and that will only be for the better.

Star Trek isn’t utopian. It’s full of flawed people and institutions. Sure Next Generation’s view of how things should be was smothering. But it was a view that was rarely enforced on anyone except through inaction and a speech now and then. And it was a view mostly limited to one starship in one era.

If Star Trek had any politics it was left-libertarian, dreaming of a universe where economic realities no longer conflict with the search for knowledge, where the state is reduced to a loose interstellar consensus that the individual can affiliate with through organizations such as Starfleet or ignore most of the time. It may not be all that realistic, but with the emerging trends created by the internet, maybe it’s not so unrealistic after all.

End of the Road for 80’s Nostalgia Movies?

What did Take Me Home Tonight and Hot Tub Time Machine have in common? They were both 80’s nostalgia movies that bombed badly. Take Me Home Tonight opened in 11th place even though it was in over 2000 theaters and had the lowest per theater average of any movie in the top 15, (not counting Drive Angry which alienated moviegoers so badly that it scored under a 1000 per theater), so what went wrong?

This video of the Take Me Home Tonight cast hanging out in a trendy club surrounded by the MTV idea of hip kids while they recreate 80’s movie scenes telegraphed the problem. Its coolness becomes lameness, because it’s completely unreal. Like the Rolling Stones bringing out teenage girls to stand in the front row so they can pretend they still appeal to the kids. 80’s nostalgia doesn’t appeal to that audience and 80’s kids are still not ready to give in and get nostalgic. Topher Grace, the star and producer of Take Me Home Tonight, of That 70’s Show should have known it wasn’t a good idea, when That 70’s Show’s producers tried to create That 80’s Show, a decent enough sitcom that nobody watched. 80’s nostalgia just doesn’t sell.

The Wedding Singer gave some studios the bad idea that this would work, but the Wedding Singer didn’t work because of the 80’s nostalgia, but because audiences liked the story and the characters and the music. But the nostalgia wasn’t the selling point. But try to imagine Take Me Home Tonight or Hot Tub Time Machine without the nostalgia and what do you get? Nothing.

Studios shouldn’t despair. The time will come when the 80’s kids will be ready for a heavy dose of nostalgia. Give it another 10 years when they’re losing their hair and packing paunches. They’ll come around. Just like the Boomers did.

The Zombie Movie’s Survivalist Plothole

The real reason zombie movies exist is to fill a plot hole in the usual post-apocalyptic survivalist story. The way that story usually goes, a big catastrophe happens, civilization as we know it is overturned and everyone has to wander or build their own mini-societies, recapturing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, in response to the disaster. But the plot hole in that is always, why don’t people just set up refugee camps and try to rebuild civilization.

The survivalist story usually assumes that civilization is rotten underneath, that it only takes a push before people are killing each other over tins of canned food. You can find the prototype of the “zombie free” zombie movie in Heinlein’s Survivalist essays about a nuclear war

“If the fragile structure of that city were disrupted by a single atomic bomb, those who survived the blast would in a few short days be reduced to a starving, thirst – crazed mob, ready for murder and cannibalism.”

That’s a few days in Los Angeles and there are your zombies. (This also gives Farnham’s Freehold some context, Heinlein thought that after a nuclear war everyone regardless of race would go cannibal in LA.) But this doesn’t pass the common sense test. If you made a movie where everyone went cannibal a few days after a nuclear bomb, it would bomb. Because we don’t believe civilization is that fragile.

The Survivalist story assumes most institutions and people are rotten underneath, that the only thing keeping us from beating each other to death all the time are cell phones and security cameras. Take them away and it’s zombieland. But most people don’t buy into that.

The zombie movie fixes the survivalist plothole. It usually dumps the nuclear apocalypse, and cuts right to the starving mob ready for cannibalism. That’s what the zombie is. The average citizen after a disaster who can’t take care of himself as well as our heroes becomes a zombie. (S.M. Stirling actually plays that out in his Emberverse novels where the people without skills turn to cannibalism and then turn into crazed mindless zombies.)

A convenient zombie virus, lets the survivalist narrative play out, hitting the reset button on civilization, without challenging the audience’s faith in humanity. The zombies are what survivalists think of most ordinary people. The living dead, who didn’t bother getting ready for the end of the world.

John Kessel’s Misguided Attack on Ender’s Game

Orson Scott Card’s right wing politics have inspired a certain amount of political hostility toward him. Of course branding the author of Pastwatch as a right winger is a touch simplistic, but Card’s position on the War on Terror and gay marriage stuck him in the right wing camp, and seem to have inspired some dubious attacks. Most notably from vastly overrated author John Kessel who tries to sell the rather weak argument that Ender’s Game is actually Orson Scott Card justifying genocide.

What should be obvious to a Science Fiction “author” is that drawing direct parallels between human history and a scenario taking place in an interstellar environment is a little two dimensional. Kessel charges Ender with genocide, but Ender had no way of being certain that he was taking out an entire race. And considering how easy it was to restart the species with an egg, it’s obvious that genocide wasn’t even committed here. Only the queen of the buggers represented an intelligent organism, which raises the question of whether genocide was even committed here, or can be committed against a hive mind at all.

The entire double blind setup in which Ender did not know he was fighting a real war and his commanders did not know what Ender was willing to do, was obviously intended as a commentary on war. Kessel instead uses it to psychoanalyze Card’s motivations. But if we’re to take Kessel and Card’s critics at face value then, in what humans thought was a zero sum game at the time, choosing humanity over the formics is a war crime. And that kind of attitude only contrasts Card with his critics. After all would we really want someone defending us who wasn’t prepared to make that choice?

If choosing to destroy the Buggers is genocide, isn’t choosing not to destroy them in a zero sum game genocide as well? If we were to take a less sentimental version of the war, in which only humanity or the buggers could survive, would Kessel argue that pulling the trigger is a war crime? And if so isn’t inaction the greater crime?

George Lucas, James Cameron and the Hacks of the Filmpocalypse

10 years ago, The Phantom Menace was the Avatar of 1999. It was a heavily hyped big budget movie that everyone had to go see despite it being absolutely terrible. But it also muscled theaters into making the switch to digital. Between it and Cameron’s Terminator 2, the die was cast for every movie to turn into a ridiculously budgeted 150-250 million dollar CG spectacle, that was big on special effects that never looked realistic, and light on everything else.

Today after setting Hollywood on the path to ridiculously inflated budgets and special effects with Terminator 2, James Cameron has actually managed to make movies even worse by pushing movies to adopt 3D, the same way George Lucas pushed theaters to go digital. But if George Lucas at least had a financial interest in pushing the digital agenda, James Cameron jumped on the 3D bandwagon and managed to make a terrible movie that made up a lot of money. Which means everyone is rushing to make their movies in 3D.

Alice in Wonderland, a movie almost as terrible as Avatar, was converted to 3D, and has made a lot of money for theaters who get to charge more for 3D. That makes Alice and Avatar hits, and means that movies which have already been bad will now get worse, because in addition to being giant pieces of pasted together CG, they will also be in 3D. Which gives us a ratio of 90 percent gimmicks to 10 percent movie. Even worse all these movies will become unwatchable 10-15 years later when their special effects and approach to 3D looks hopelessly dated. So thanks guys.

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