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Interstellar Movie Review – The Best Science Fiction Movie of the Decade

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Christopher Nolan’s big movies are overstuffed, wobbling shopping carts full of stuff that are always about to topple over. The Hitchcock and Kubrick shots, the frantic editing, the acting that varies between overwrought and flat, the plots that make less sense the longer they go on, but they’re still incredible to watch.

Interstellar is just that. A barely coherent mashup of 2001 and Contact, it’s a glorious mess that gets worse as it goes  along, that, like most big Nolan movies could have been 40 minutes shorter, and that’s still the best science fiction movie of the decade.

In an age of CG cartoons, Nolan is still trying to make movies and it shows. Spaceships, robots and explosions are in every other movie, but Interstellar is actually based on a science fiction premise, instead of playing with scifi toys.

Interstellar self-consciously references 2001, but also humanizes it. Interstellar may be much looser and messier than anything Kubrick would have tolerated, but it also provides the audience with human stakes in its stories about multi-dimensional evolved humans, black holes and temporal variances.

It’s an optimistic movie about the importance of space travel and human potential. It’s a science fiction movie that is about the strangeness of the universe.

The plot of Interstellar is a train wreck, but Matthew McConaughey drags it along with him in overwrought scene after scene with extra ham on top. He embodies the passion of a messy project. His character and his performance is Interstellar’s rejection of abstract idealism in favor of specific human needs.

Michael Caine’s Professor Brand and Matt Damon’s Mann prove to be unreliable sociopaths whose speeches about the greater good cover for their selfishness. But Cooper’s selfishness is always front and center. He leaves his family behind, not to save the world, but because he loves the idea of flying a ship. And he wants to leave the mission to get back to his family. It’s his human needs that allow a transhuman future to connect to his world.

It’s a subversive message that challenges the authoritarianism of so many science fiction movies.

2001 showed people becoming inhuman. Interstellar humanizes even the robots whose design abandons the humanoid form, but whose personalities pick up human traits. Becoming less human isn’t the path to evolution. Embracing our humanity is. It’s a clunky message, but there have been worse messages in movies.

Interstellar is badly broken and yet its ambition and dysfunction is a breath of fresh air. It has little in common with the usual Marvel or Hasbro toy line movie. Instead it’s a science fiction movie about messed up people making mistakes in a universe with a limited tolerance for human error, but also a universe with amazing possibilities.

And that is what science fiction used to be before it became the background for brand merchandising movies.

The Unincorporated Future by Danni Kolin and Eytan Kollin book review

The Unincorporated Future by Danni Kollin and Eytan Kollin is an unimaginative mashup of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars the unincorporated futureseries, Tron and bits and pieces of Metaplanetary. Reading through it and John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse was a reminder that a talented writer can make a story where not all that much happens readable and untalented writers can take a war spread across the solar system and the destruction of entire planets and make it every bit as exciting as watching paint dry.

There were a whole lot of Unincorporated volumes before The Unincorporated Future that I didn’t read, but going by what I did read, I haven’t missed a whole lot. The story is one of those incredible never-done-before tales about outer planet colonists fighting the tyranny of evil corporations on earth. The blurbs compare this to Heinlein, but The Unincorporated Future has as much in common with Heinlein as Kevin J. Anderson has in common with Isaac Asimov.

The outer colonists are religious, not in the sense that it’s really a part of their lives, but every now and then they mention Allah and there’s a Rabbi who wanders around but does nothing useful. This gives them moral superiority when destroying planets. Moral superiority that the evil earth corporations lack when they’re destroying planets.

The Unincorporated Future is one of those showdowns between different Space-Hitlers, both of whom kill billions of people, but some of whom we’re supposed to root for, because they occasionally feel bad about it. Not bad enough to stop doing it. But bad. There’s also a Tron element in it that feels more like World of Warcraft, but that’s so lame it’s not even worth mentioning.

Some of this could be forgivable if either or both of the Kollins could actually write. They can’t. The dialogue is terrible. The cliches are rancid. And they can make destroying a planet every bit as interesting as ordering lunch. Most of the action manages to happen off-screen, even though it’s the only thing keeping the narrative going.

The characters are so one-note that they might as well be made of cardboard and hopelessly undeveloped. The dead savior is named Justin Cord. No, seriously. J.C. The villain does everything but twirl his mustache and rape his way around the novel.

What is truly sad is that someone made the decision to publish four of these, even though they would have barely passed muster in the 80s. It’s a sign of how poor the Science Fiction part of the field has become that this didn’t get tossed out the door. And you can’t even blame the Kollins for that.

The state of Science Fiction is so poor that John Scalzi is considered a major writer even though the only thing he can write is scenery descriptions. Once he starts writing people, he’s operating at Kevin J. Anderson’s level. Cory Doctorow is now considered a writer, not a punchline. So why not the Kollins. They can’t write and they’re recycling things that were cliches 40 years ago. They’re not even hacks, because hacks can at least write.

Bring ’em on.

How Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths Predicted ISIS

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths was a pre 9/11 novel. Its fractured world 1920247torn apart by the shadow of extremism and financial decline is extremely prescient.

In The Chronoliths, giant monuments appear in major cities across the world commemorating their conquest by a dictator named Kuin twenty years in the future. The monuments are indestructible but cause mass destruction and panic. The public is terrified waiting for the next one to show up every year, but some are attracted to Kuin.

Like the ISIS kids now, they wear Kuin clothes, join groups and run away from home to go on Haj and form brutal militias. Society is fractured between high level Adapt and Prosper collaborators who want to surrender to Kuin and a militarized government that pours money into trying to stop a seemingly invincible threat.

Kuin never puts out a political program. He might not even exist. But the teens who want to support him read their own programs into the chronoliths. It’s the idea of changing the world and creating stability that drives them.

Robert Charles Wilson writes about ordinary people caught in strange temporal events. He writes with the casual insight of memoir fiction about things like alternative universes and time travel that most science fiction writers don’t like to touch. And he makes the world of The Chronoliths seem amazingly relevant to ours.

Wilson not only nails the post-cyberpunk Amazon world in which the big data gig is predicting people’s behavior, but the fear and uncertainty of a declining America where the youngest generation is willing to turn to mass murder in a search for identity and meaning.

It’s a world with a wide generational gap, a dwindling middle class, the loss of privacy and security that faces a war against an unstoppable dictator from the future who conquers by terrorizing the past and builds shadow armies by tearing apart nations.

The Chronoliths vision of a divided America panicked by global terrorism, the end of privacy, financial collapse, teenage extremism and cities torn apart in ways that closely resemble 9/11 is amazingly prescient for a pre-9/11 novel.

It’s one of the very few Science Fiction novels to talk about where we actually are.

And its failure to win the Hugo for Best Novel over the fangirls and status seekers who gave it to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods foreshadowed the controversies that would turn the Hugo into a joke.

The Chronoliths isn’t Wilson’s best novel, but like Vinge’s End of the Rainbow, it’s one of the few that seems to capture where we’re headed. It’s hard to look at the beheadings, the teens running away from major cities to join militias and not think of the way that an uncertain future drives people to find certainty in brutality and terrorism.

Willful Child by Steven Erikson Book Review, a Lame $25 Star Trek Parody

Willful Child by Steven Erikson is supposed to be a Star Trek parody, but its real joke is about the publishing industry which will put out a 50 year joke as a 25 dollar hardcover novel because its author has a few bestsellers under his belt.

Funny parodies have been written about Star Trek. Take John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet? Or Peter David’s New Frontier novels which take the basic MPQAngag of Erikson’s Willful Child about a psychotic Kirk-like captain and play it straight while adding characters and deadpan comedy.

If you ever heard The Firm’s Star Trekkin’ with its chorus of “We come in peace/Shoot to kill” then you’ve already sat through Willful Child, but without reading through hundreds of pages.

That’s all there is to it.

Willful Child’s captain Hadrian Alan Sawbuck is a psycho who wears stretchy shirts, seduces female crew members and blows up aliens. And he’s the only realized character in this. He’s Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan without a Kif, just a bunch of disposable female sidekicks with names like Joss Sticks (Yes, Steven Erikson is a master of comedy) whose only joke is saying “Like” in every sentence.

And that’s just for starters.

If you wanted to read the kind of groundbreaking comedy about Star Trek that dates back to the 60s, Steven Erikson delivers. There are jokes about how fake the sets look and how other planets look like Northern California. Did you ever notice that?

But Steven Erikson also daringly ventures into the 80s and even the 90s by making jokes about how awful Celine Dion and Barry Manilow are.

This is material that Jay Leno would call lame. Guys doing standup in Branson would ask for something fresher. The only people who didn’t are Tor editors.

It’s a bunch of a Mad Magazine gags with a glowing recommendation from Robert J. Sawyer, because that’s just how the publishing industry works. And considering how old the jokes are, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this was just a trunk novel/bunch of papers Erikson had lying around in his desk from high school that he handed over to Tor to buy some time. And they published it. As a novel.

Want proof? Sulu is renamed Zulu. I refuse to believe that an adult did that.

This is a 25 dollar hardcover novel in which the characters actually keep shouting that their adventures are “episodic”. They keep doing it like a standup comedian getting up off stage and elbowing you in the ribs to laugh at his joke about how white guys are all like this and black guys are all like that.

It’s not just that Willful Child’s jokes are lame. A lot of them aren’t even jokes.

Like the name of the ship. Willful Child. Or the rogue AI named Tammy Wynette. They’re placeholders for jokes. Or desperate randomness.

And those are the good parts. Two thirds of the way, Erikson loses whatever is left of his plot and begins randomly throwing out alien attacks. It might have made Willful Child worse if ‘worse’ was an option. It’s not.

Erikson interjects lectures on how social media is destroying our society. Willful Child is so bad that I can’t tell if he’s being serious. It’s so bad that I don’t really care.

The only joke here is what a miserable mess the publishing industry has become. The joke is that Tor will publish this, but it won’t publish actual Science Fiction. The only actual big picture SF novel I see in their new releases in John C. Wright’s Judge of Ages.

What Willful Child reminds me most of all is when execs chose to turn Batman into a bad TV gagfest because they refused to take the original material seriously. The last laugh was had and it wasn’t by the executives who refused to take comic books seriously.

Putting out Willful Child while boycotting actual blue sky Science Fiction is an act of contempt by Tor’s editors who refuse to take Science Fiction, the traditional kind, seriously. Science Fiction, with its spaceships and galactic empires and silly men in silly suits exploring the stars, will have the last laugh.

It’ll have to because there are no laughs to be had in Willful Child. Not unless you think jokes about Celine Dion hold music are as funny as it gets.

Is SciFi Lit Dead? The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection Review

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It took me a while to get around to reading The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection. I don’t like Gardner Dozois on principle, but the annual collections, despite the nepotism, were usually dominated by strong writing.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection stinks of nepotism and mediocrity. There are few strong stories and few bad stories. The dominant theme is mediocrity.

Most of the stories are mediocre. The same five or six writers have two stories a piece in the collection. I never saw that before and it’s telling.

There’s the foreword with its phony confidence about the health of the industry. The pathetic attempts at inclusiveness. And the stories that are congealed masses of SciFi lit genre cliches.

Third world nanotech. Forgiveness and near death experiences. That’s the dominant impression. It’s like the genre hasn’t changed in fifteen years. And it needs a bath.

There are a few ‘different’ stories like Steven Popkes’ “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” and “Old Paint” that feel modern, but the rest is the usual post-cyberpunk trash clogging SciFi lit. And there’s even a Steampunk entry. And at least one zombie story.

“Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan has a certain charm, but doesn’t seem like a best of anything, though it comes closer to fitting the Sudden and Old Paint template of modern Science Fiction.

“Chitai Heiki Koronbin” by David Moles circles that same template, but is too mediocre to be here.

Some stories were so boring that they’re unreadable. They’re not bad. They just sit there. Like Holmes Sherlock or Lavie Tidhar, who gets two stories to demonstrate that she can write like it’s 1995. Or Carrie Vaughn’s Astrophilia.

Nobody sums up tired 90’s post-cyberpunk better than Pat Cadigan with “The Girl-thing Who Went Out For Sushi”. Thanks, we’ve done this already. Try a time machine to when computers ran Windows 95 and this story would have been edgy and fresh.

But Alastair Reynolds has his shot with tired Third World genre cliche “The Water Thief”. A refugee camp. Remote work. It’s so timely. In 1995.

Robert Reed’s Eater of Bone is dark and good. “In The House Of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear is actually decent and uses the Third World setting intelligently. It’s the exception to the rule.

Indrapramit Das’ Weep for Day is used to market the book, but it’s a mediocre cliche with occasional bursts of style and about the only reason for the hype is the new diversity quotas.

Lavie Tidhar appears to be another diversity quota entry. “Tyche and the Ants” by Hannu Rajaniemi is another diversity quota and poor story. “Vainglory” by Alastair Reynolds would have been a much better substitute.

“Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” by Paul McAuley takes the prize for longest title and most worthlessly mediocre story.

“Nightfall On The Peak Of Eternal Light” seems like a Heinlein story. Except more mediocre. It’s a decent depiction of lunar life, but not really very interesting. Not sure why it’s even here. Ditto for “Nightside On Callisto” by Linda Nagata with a different setting.

Michael Bishop’s Twenty Lights To “the Land Of Snow has its moments of charm, but it’s too long and directionless. Again, mediocrity.

There’s “Steamgothic” by Sean Mcmullen which is every bit as awful as it sounds.

“Ruminations In An Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh. See quotas, diversity.

“The Wreck Of The Charles Dexter Ward” by Sarah Monette And Elizabeth Bear is somewhat intriguing, but it’s a technophobic zombie story with an interesting setting and no background.

“Invisible Men” by Christopher Barzak is an “I’m so clever I’m writing about class as a metaphor” reworking of The Invisible Man. It would have been mediocre even in 1955.

The overriding theme is mediocrity. It seems as if SciFi Lit, despite being more vocal and more editorially powerful than ever, has run out of steam. It’s unable to jettison its tired cyberpunk gear and its attempts at diversity just make a bad thing worse.

Social Justice Warrior Writes About Science Fiction, Shows How Dumb He Is

"This man, he knows nothing of my work."

“This man, he knows nothing of my work.”

If you want to see the consequences of idiots who know a lot about how to analyze everything in racial terms, but don’t know the subject, writing about anything, you could do worse than look at this Noah Berlatsky essay on Science Fiction and Colonialism in the Atlantic.

But not much worse.

The link between colonialism and science-fiction is every bit as old as the link between science-fiction and the future. John Rieder in his eye-opening book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science-Fiction notes that most scholars believe that science fiction coalesced “in the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century.” Sci-fi “comes into visibility,” he argues, “first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects—France and England” and then gradually gains a foothold in Germany and the U.S. as those countries too move to obtain colonies and gain imperial conquests.

Also toasters. And detective novels which are probably also a metaphor for Western colonialism.

Science Fiction also dates back, in various forms, thousands of years. But whatever, circle drawn. If you define the parameters your way, you can turn correlation into causation. And look, it’s a college essay.

In such stories, sci-fi is about “them” (a non-white, foreign civilization) doing to us (Western, largely white powers) as we did to them. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness, for example, imagine a non-white antagonist who preaches the colonial ideology of eugenic culling against the less biologically perfect, Western-ish protagonists.

Wait… what?

I haven’t seen the latest Abrams Trek, but its star is a white British guy. The actual Khan viewed the Enterprise crew as inferiors, but wasn’t spending his time calling for the extermination of inferior races. He even married a biologically ordinary woman.

So Berlatsky probably isn’t familiar with the subject matter, but…

Take Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, about a totalitarian Britain conquered and occupied by Germany, in which native English people are second-class citizens.

Wait… what?

Did Berlatsky confuse Brazil with The Boys of Brazil? Did he even see the movie?

From Brazil, it’s only a brief hop to 1984, which, as I’ve pointed out here at The Atlantic, can also read as a reverse colonial parable.

Noah Berlatsky can also be read as a parable of what happens when an idiot gets a column. What does he think INGSOC stands for?

But going by his comments on Star Trek and Brazil, he’s just randomly pulling stuff together he never read or saw.

Even the Terminator films fit pretty easily into a colonial narrative.

And what about Alien? Colonization of the body. And Alf. And Jaws. The shark is a metaphor for the British Empire.

So what to make of this colonial obsession?

“Hey doc,” says the patient looking at the Rorschach inkblots, “What’s up with all the dirty pictures?”

Reverse colonial sci-fi don’t always have to be anti-imperialist, though. Ender’s Game, both film and book, use the invasion of the superior aliens not as a critique of Western expansion and genocide, but as an excuse for those things. The bugs invade human worlds, and the consequence is that the humans must utterly annihilate the alien enemy, even if Ender feels kind of bad about it. Olympus Has Fallen runs on the same script, as a North Korea with impossibly advanced weapons technology lays sci-fi siege to the White House, giving our hero the go-ahead for torture, murder, and generalized carnage.

Olympus has Fallen? It’s the best SciFi movie since Die Hard. Or Rambo. Which is a parable of colonialism.

See?

In Terminator, as well, the fact that the robots are treating us as inhumanly as we treated them doesn’t exactly create any sympathy. Instead, the paranoid fear of servants overthrowing masters just becomes a spur to uberviolence (as shown in Linda Hamilton’s transformation from naïve good girl to paramilitary extremist). The one heroic reprogrammed Terminator, who must do everything John Connor tells him even unto hopping on one leg, doesn’t inspire a broader sympathy for SkyNet. Instead, Schwarzenegger is good because he identifies with the humans totally, sacrificing himself to destroy his own people. Terminator II is, in a lot of ways, a retelling of Gunga Din.

Finally. An article sympathetic to a genocidal computer. Sarah Connor should have rethought her biological privilege.

But give Noah Berlatsky some credit. At least he actually seems to have watched Terminator 2. Unlike Star Trek or Brazil.

Also he watched Olympus has Fallen. He’s such a Science Fiction nerd.

This is what happens when you don’t know what you’re talking about, but you get by with the same college bullshittery of comparing everything to colonialism.

The Atlantic. It’s like college never ended.

Is Science Fiction Fandom Hopelessly Polarized?

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This isn’t just about Larry Correia and Vox Day. Or Jonathan Ross. Or Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Or Mick Resnick. Or all the rest of it. The bitter accusations and counter-accusations. The outrage and counter-outrage and counter-outrage-outrage.

Science Fiction, like a lot of publishing, rests on more than ever on writers marketing themselves over social media. That’s why we pretend that Scalzi is a good writer, when he’s actually a bad writer and an entertaining blogger.

It’s what he has in common with some other recent big names.

We have less of a fandom of writing now and more of a fandom of writers and causes. Followings of writers who are the best at online presence because they polarize and mobilize.

The Hugos have been worthless for a while, but the 2014 finalist list shows how easy it is to rig them. After Vox Day’s appearance on the list, I don’t see why any writer would even want to be associated with them.

But it’s all about the marketing. And the marketing is now all about the politics.

It’s easier to market yourself as a writer if you have controversial political views. It’s much harder if your views are ordinary, boring or if you don’t have any.

A bad writer with an entertaining and controversial online presence. A dramatic online presence. Beats a good writer with little online presence.

In a fractured marketplace where that same audience is buying movies, video game and a dozen other things, politics pulls people together. Fandoms built around writers with a commanding online presence have more power because fandom is a pale twisted shadow of what it once was.

Science Fiction is polarized because that’s what stands out in a crowded and mediocre marketplace. You can’t set yourself apart from the latest 40 urban fantasy series or Martin imitators who are growing out their beards, but you can set yourself apart by being loud and obnoxious.

Maybe this is what’s happening with our politics, but it is what’s happening with our Science Fiction. And then everyone is outraged and outraged by the outraged and no one can hear themselves talking because they’re screaming talking points at each other.

And you pick a side, any side, join in, because that’s fandom now.

Jack Vance’s Darsh and Frank Herbert’s Fremen

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Jack Vance wrote The Face, the fourth novel in the Demon Princes series after his friend Frank Herbert wrote Dune.

The Face has Jack Vance’s own take on the desert people who adapt to the environment, but Vance’s Darsh with their female mustaches, aggressive manners, overt thievery, inedible food and horrifying mating customs are so much more colorful and real than the Fremen.

Dune’s Fremen are there to be noble warriors. The desert has boiled them down into survival mechanisms with a hidden cause. The Demon Princes’ Darsh were made aggressive and obnoxious by the desert. They are intolerant of authority and can’t work together. Their macho attitude expresses itself as Plomash, they duel and conspire against each other, their marriages are based on mutual hatred and they dwell under giant metal umbrellas that rain water that make their homesteads more memorable than those of the Fremen.

Like the Fremen, the Darsh have something valuable that everyone wants and it’s tempting to see the Darsh as a more realistic take by Vance on his friend’s most famous creation.

When Vance wrote The Face in 1979, Herbert had turned Dune into a huge franchise. Children of Dune had become the first Science Fiction bestseller 1976 and its sequel was eagerly awaited. Dune had transcended its original characters and become a story of the environment. And The Face is also about the environment, but the environment doesn’t make its men and women noble, but ignoble.

The Darsh, a wacky mixture of Gypsies, Arabs, Eastern and Southern Europeans, feel much more real than the Fremen because of their glaring flaws and their zest for life. They may be horrible people, but like so many of Vance’s fictional characters and cultures, their horrible enthusiasms make them come alive.

Vance’s description of Darsh gastronomy alone brings more life to a culture than all of Dune does for the Fremen.

Their food is seasoned with vile condiments, so that they may better savor cool pure water; they drink offensive teas and beers if only to exemplify this typical perversity, which they value for its own sake.

The traveler must adjust himself to a Darsh meal as he might a natural catastrophe. It avails nothing to pretend relish; the Darsh themselves know that their food is repulsive, and apparently derive a perverse pride in their ability to consume it regularly.

 

The Semplica Girl Diaries or Why Does Art Lit Love Bad Science Fiction?

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Despite all the progress made in yadda yadda, Science Fiction is still a ghetto. Sure the occasional Philip K. Dick will be plucked out into the spotlight, but despite the aggressive trashing of the genre by the New Wave, Science Fiction stays in the ghetto.

Sure it may at times be better written, smarter and deeper than the Art Lit (and in keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, an equal amount of it is crap), but it’s just not serious enough. Greg Bear, David Brin, Vernon Vinge, etc are never going to show up in the New Yorker. They’re just not serious enough. (Stephen King is, but that’s a whole other club subject.)

But when Art Lits like science fiction (small caps), it’s usually some very badly written Science Fiction from their own ranks. The kind of thing that almost no SF magazine (except the maybe Asimov’s under Gardner “If It’s Bad Art Lit Posing as Science Fiction, I Love It” Dozois) would accept. It’s bound to be so hackneyed and such a string of lame cliches that it would get tossed into the trash after a page.

The big writer now that we’re supposed to be paying attention to is George Saunders, who is “the writer” of the age. No really. He’s “the writer for our time.” Until maybe next week. There’s a bunch of his books in the window of every Art Lit book store, which almost makes me feel good about the triumph of Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Saunders lifted into a whole new stratosphere with a story that appeared in The New Yorker a few months ago. It’s one of the standouts in his new book. “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is an example of writing that combines both devastating realism and a stunning detour into surrealism.

It pretty much floored me. Many others had a similar reaction. It was circulated and commented on the way a trend piece on Slate might be passed around. The eighty-six-year-old mother of a friend of mine was so excited she called up her son right after she finished it to say she thought it was the best story she’d ever read. Again, the publication of this story felt like an event, a beautiful moment when emotion, meaning, and experimentation with form dovetailed perfectly.

What is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”? It’s bad Science Fiction.

Semplica Girl Diaries is bad for three reasons.

1. It’s badly written. This is a function of Art Lit which has a fetish for awkwardly written narration in a way that no human thinks or talks as a signpost that this is artsy important writing that gets down into the consciousness stream of all life on earth. Maybe the narration is supposed to clue you in that the story is set in the “NOT SO DISTANT FUTURE” (another staple of Art Lit and its Mudane SF cousin), but other characters speak a coherent modern English, so that’s not so.

“Hereby resolve to write in this book at least twenty minutes a night, no matter how tired. (If discouraged, just think how much will have been recorded for posterity after one mere year!)”

This is a sample. It gets annoying after one sentence. By ten pages it’s unnecessary nails on a chalk board. It’s supposed to project sincerity, working class realism and that kind of stuff. It doesn’t.

2. It doesn’t make any sense. This is another function of Art Lit, which we’ll get back to. When Art Lit does SF, it tries to make no sense, that way it’s surrealistic, rather than a plot. The French sighed when Edgar Allan Poe insisted on laying out and researching exactly how to fly a balloon to the moon for his satirical short story. He was so imaginative, yet so prosaically Americans, they said. Science Fiction is still Edgar Allan Poe. Lit Fic is still French.

3. And this is the really relevant one… it’s a string of cliches with political relevance.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” has been done 400,000 times before in Science Fiction. It’s a concept that has been explored since the early days of the genre. Even the politically relevant aspects of it have been done to death. Cheap labor and the middle class? Done. There is nothing new to say about it and Semplica Girl Diaries has nothing new to say.

It cloaks its non-newness in style and in the equally unoriginal YOU THINK THIS IS A CURRENT STORY BECAUSE I MENTION LOTTERY TICKETS AND JOBS, BUT SURPRISE IT’S TAKING PLACE IN THE FUTURE, EVEN THOUGH EVERYTHING IS THE SAME EXCEPT FOR A SINGLE PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY AND LEGALIZING SLAVERY.  It cloaks it in the sneering at the Middle Class that makes Art Lit go round.

Strip away the style and you have a bland story about how the middle class oppresses the lower class to climb into the upper class using a Science Fiction cliche that is handled as ineptly and implausibly as is humanly possible.

If you have never read anything except The New Yorker before, then yes it’s new to you. If you have read Science Fiction before then it’s like seeing a white guy do a lame Chuck Berry and watching the New York Times critic praise him as a defining moment in music history.

Science Fiction is still in the ghetto. And Art Lit is its own ghetto. The two don’t often meet and that makes it possible for crap like The Semplica Girl Diaries to be treated as a great story, instead of a lame watered down, shoddily written, badly plotted retread.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero by John Barnes book review

Most of what sits on the Science Fiction section bookshelf these days is fairly predictable. There are categories. Urban fantasy. Steampunk. Heinlein teen novels for adults. Dystopian space operas. Space Cop sagas. But John Barnes is an offbeat writer whose work is usually hard to categorize. How do you categorize Kaleidoscope Century, Finity or A Million Open Doors? But that lack of categorization has probably held Barnes back from also being a successful writer.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero look a lot more successful because they’re easy to categorize in the glancing way that a genre plot daybreakzerousually is. We all know what’s going to be in an end of the world novel or a teenage girl in love with a vampire novel. The contents are the details of a known quantity. And that is and isn’t true of the Daybreak series.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero are part political thriller, end of the world survivalist tale and speculative futuristic semiotics. In terms of interest level, it goes something like 3, 1 and 2, but in terms of content, it’s more like 2, 1, 3 so that there’s a whole lot of scenes about people trying to maintain and rebuild civilization after its collapse, a lot of political wrangling and not a lot about the emergence of a meme.

The story is simple enough. A group calling itself Daybreak operates out of an online community (Barnes calls it an online game at one point but never describes it) and then uses everything from nanotechnology to nuclear bombs to wipe out civilization and then forms into stone age tribes to wipe out the human race. But the group is really run by a meme.

The concept of a meme war trilogy would have been a lot more interesting and plausible set in a framework of modern tech, but instead the Daybreak series follows its usual bunch of characters from these types of novels (the plucky female FBI agent, the nerdy programmer, the stiff government official, the creative journalist) through the end of the technological world and the beginning of a 19th Century broken America.

Barnes has never done characters well. They always fall into the category of being almost, but not quite there, and the Daybreak novels are no different. The civilization story has been done too many times and Barnes doesn’t have much new to offer there, especially since he’s covering a lot of the ground that S.M. Stirling just covered. It’s Daybreak that’s interesting and it’s what we see the least of.

The politics are occasionally interesting, because while Barnes never really makes his heroes come to life, he does better with the secondary characters who populate the political background. They’re still types, but they’re also flawed ambitious people with good and bad instincts trying to do the right thing, which makes them more real and more interesting than his main characters.

There’s some politics of the current kind, but Barnes balances out both sides so it never turns into a preaching contest, and after taking the requisite amount of shots at tree-huggers and bible-thumpers, spends more of it looking at the political system and the consequences of handing out that kind of power to people. Unlike his main characters, the presidents and players behave with human unpredictably. They’re born out of stereotypes, but occasionally transcend them. The naive Liberal Vice-President dies foiling a terrorist attack and the fanatical Christian candidate turns into a moderate leader in the middle of a crisis.

Still that’s not a show that really is worth showing up for. Daybreak however is and while Directive 51 doesn’t provide enough Daybreak, Daybreak Zero does begin showing the bigger picture and some of the bigger ideas that we would expect in this kind of story.

An end of the world story is only as good as its apocalypse and the Daybreak Zero has a very human and inhuman apocalypse at its center as the online community becomes a global terrorist network and then a genocidal stone age cult that turns its old online programming into a tribal play and replaces instant message flash mobs with spirit stick barbarians. It’s a compelling concept that is never developed all the way, but that the success of the first two novels will hopefully enable Barnes to more fully execute in The Last President.

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