Friday, May 30, 2014

REJECTIONS II: SUITABLE FOR BURNING


Pippa’s excellent post about overcoming rejection reminded me of my first Romance Writers of America National Conference in Washington, D.C. in 2009.  One of the main speakers at that conference (whose name I forget—but she must have been big in the business to get the gig) described being brought so low by rejections in the early days of her career that she hauled a huge box of the letters to the curb and burned them, tears streaming down her face.  She was ready to quit.  She went back to the house, the phone rang, and it was The Call.  You know, from New York.

We’ve all heard the stories of famous writers and their multiple rejections—J.K. Rowling, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Dan Brown, James Michener.  I love those stories.  You hear a lot of them at Nationals, inspirational tales of how those people we admire from afar reached those lofty peaks.  They didn’t fly there on gossamer wings.  They slogged through swamps and over rocky trails.  And from the looks on their faces when they accepted their hard-earned awards, they could hardly believe they’d made it.

I have quite a collection of those rejection letters myself, or I would have if I saved them (I don’t), or if most of them didn’t come via email these days.  I’m proud to say I went through nearly every agent who accepts SF and/or romance until I found my wonderful agent, Michelle Johnson.  Then she and I spent a long time looking for a home for my SFR novel Unchained Memory, only to be thwarted by a publishing industry in flux and unwilling to try anything new.  That adds up to a lot of rejection.  And I’m not the only one who could tell this kind of tale.

Meanwhile every aspiring author has to contend with the news that some piece of unedited fan fiction schlock about a boy band has garnered 500 million downloads from a free website and jinned up a contract for the newbie writer from a Big Five publisher.  Just like Fifty Shades of Gray.  Great.

This is the sound of me plugging up my ears and singing: lalalalalalalala

But this is a strange and wonderful business.  For every obstacle, there is a workaround.  For every setback, renewed determination.  Out of all the many hundreds of agents, I found just the right one for me.  She’s not one to give up, and she believes in me and my book.  Michelle came up with just the right solution for publishing Unchained Memory, through a newly-established publishing arm of Inkling Literary Agency called Ink’d Press.  I have all the creative freedom I need to flourish, and I’ll have all the editing, artistic and promotions support I need to make sure my book finds its audience.

That audience itself may be a source of rejection.  Not everyone will love my baby.  Some will even go out of their way to call it ugly.  Learning to turn a deaf ear to those kinds of comments will be harder, but it’s part of the business, too.  

I’m willing to take the bad with the good, because I’m excited to be able to finally say, “Yes, my book is coming out in February, 2015!”  And at last, like Pippa, I can say “nyah-nyah!” to some of those nasty little rejections that stick in my head.  

Cheers, Donna

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Looking Back On Rejection


A couple of weeks ago I found the file with all my printed rejection letters, from back in the days when I was first querying agents for Keir, then a couple of email ones for Gethyon. Why have I even kept those? Lol. All authors are really masochists. That 'tortured artist' thing has a basis.

I actually smiled at finding them. Four years on, with five titles currently available, another three scheduled, one re-release due, and the possibility of another novella before the end of the year, those rejections don't matter. Or so I thought.

After seeing a friend on Facebook mention her latest rejection, then another asking me for advice on query letters, I decided to pull those old rejections out. My original query letter was among them, and I'd promised to share that to the friend about to query. I started reading through them, and I discovered it still stung. Even now. I spent a year querying agents in the UK, the very few who not only took SF but that I thought might be a good fit for me. Nine in total - not many. Most UK agents specifically WON'T take speculative fiction at all. Few specialize in it. And the response varied, although all were a no.

The worst was probably the one that came back a day after I sent it, so fast that I expected it to have scorch marks. I didn't even think Royal Mail was capable of that kind of speed, lol. And a form rejection? Not even that. Just "no" scribbled over my own query letter. Ouch!

Most were just the usual printed forms - after much consideration, etc. One sent me a request for the full but wanted a reading fee, a real red flag. Also their 'minimal charge' equated to a week's food shopping or school shoes for all three of my monsters. I declined. But two of them were actually what encouraged me to keep trying, though I switched my efforts to querying small presses in the US instead. One was a form rejection from a Dorothy Lumley at Dorian Literary Agency, now sadly deceased as I discovered on Twitter a while back. Though a form, she'd taken the time to handwrite 'Nicely Written' on the slip, which also said her client list was full. So, not my standard rejection. I wish I'd taken the effort to thank her, but it didn't seemed appropriate at the time.

The other had feedback scrawled across my original query letter - clearly a fresh sheet of paper was too precious a commodity to use, lol - mostly illegible. But what I could make out said 'This is really nice writing - it's taking a very long time to get to inception of story - it feels like lots of time spent on set up, and less on actual story - I could be wrong - *unreadable, think it was their name/signature* (main agent passed this to me who reads spec fiction here).'

The fact that two agents had bothered to take the time to give me even a scrap of feedback, and both had complimented my writing (yeah, it would have been great to get 'awesome' rather than just nice, but I am NOT complaining) encouraged me to keep trying.

I have to admit that I think I've been very lucky. Writing is such a subjective area. Not only does your writing have to be good, your story compelling, and your pitch enticing enough to snare an agent or publisher, but it has to be in front of the right person at the right time. While you can improve the odds by researching your target - what genres they like, what other books/authors they've signed, following their guidelines to the letter, honing your skills - you cannot engineer luck. It may even happen that you put the perfect story in front of the perfect person, but they've woken up with a headache, spilt coffee over their desk, and argued with the secretary. Those are things you can't control. You just have to hope that Fate smiles on you.

And while I may not be in the position of doing so well that I can now ner-ner at those agents (not professional, and I wouldn't anyway. Well, except maybe for the scribbled 'no' one), and those rejections still make me wince ever so slightly even now, it's not so bad. If I hadn't kept trying despite those nos, I wouldn't be writing this post now with five titles under my belt and another four to come.

NEVER GIVE UP - NEVER SURRENDER!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Tiny Little Life Forms"

So who remembers the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Data makes up a song while he's scanning for life forms?



I don't remember anything else about that episode, but I can't hear or use the term life forms without that song playing in my head. 

Last Thursday I attended a talk on "Finding Alien Life: On Earth, on Mars, and throughout the Cosmos" by Dr. Steven Benner, director of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in Gainesville, Florida. This was an event sponsored by the University of Washington's astrobiology department and the NASA Astrobiology Institute. 

I'll preface this post by saying I attend every UW Astrobiology talk that I possibly can. I was a liberal arts major who loved science and space but was daunted by the math, and these talks are typically geared toward a nonscientist audience. I always find them fascinating and inspiring. The mere fact that there is an actual SCIENCE called "astrobiology" is enough to give me geeky little shivers. Benner said astrobiologists refer to their field as "a science without a subject matter." (And they refer to some of their *potential* research subjects as "Weird Life.")

With all that said, much of this talk *was* over my head. Though there was a healthy dose of entertaining scientist humor (including examples from multiple iterations of Star Trek) sprinkled in, the bulk of the talk was delivered in a strange language that consisted mostly of letters and funny little geometric graphics. My chemist friend who works in biotech (and attended the talk with me) was entranced. I, however, came away with the conviction that quantum physics is a walk in the park compared to chemistry. 

But there were parts of the talk I *could* understand, and some of those sound bites are worth sharing. 

He started off his presentation by talking about the growing interest in Big History, especially during this exciting time of accelerating exoplanet discovery. Here's a definition of Big History from Wikipedia

...an emerging academic discipline which examines history from the Big Bang to the present. It examines long time frames using a multidisciplinary approach based on combining numerous disciplines from science and the humanities, and explores human existence in the context of this bigger picture.

Big History looks at Big Questions: Why did the Big Bang occur? How did we get here? What is life? These are questions the field of astrobiology is particularly interested in. 

Benner provided a definition of life he credited to Carl Sagan: a "self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution." The last part of that definition is key, because without it, you could classify things like fire and crystals as life forms (examples taken from a discussion between Data and Beverly Crusher in another Star Trek episode). The key component lacking in these two examples is the ability to replicate imperfection. (Er, what?) 

Both fire and crystals can replicate themselves, and, like other life forms, their offspring will contain flaws. However, the flaws/mutations in a "baby" crystal are unique, and not inherited from the mother. Also if the baby has babies, it will not pass on its flaws. So according to this definition, they are not life forms. 

It's also interesting to note for science fiction purposes that Data would not be considered a life form by this definition. But Benner stressed this is merely our best definition of life to date. It may be that one day we'll discover something on one of those exoplanets, or even right here in our own solar system, that will cause us to revisit this definition.

After neatly boxing up life — at least for now — Benner went on to talk about how he and his colleagues search for extraterrestrial life and alternative life forms in labs right here on Earth. Benner's specific area of research is synthetic biology, and he is credited with being the first scientist to synthesize a gene from scratch. Applications of synthetic biology include developing treatments for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, and resurrecting ancient proteins from microorganisms. 

Extraterrestrial life, if it exists, clearly cannot be "observed" or "analyzed" according to traditional scientific method (at least not yet). Benner and his colleagues conduct their research via "synthesis." They explore the possibilities regarding life on other worlds by synthesizing life right in the lab — they try to gain a better understanding of life by creating it. 

This is where the alphabet soup came in, and it had some to do with DNA and more to do with RNA, and I'll leave you to research the particulars on your own. In closing I'll drop one more fun fact about Dr. Benner before turning it back over to Data — Benner is most known for his assertion that life may very well have begun on Mars. The essential little organic bits involved in the origins of life are water soluble, and the Earth was almost completely covered by water when life came into the picture.



I just love scanning for life forms. Life forms ... you tiny little life forms ... you precious little life forms ... where are you?

Friday, May 23, 2014

GODZILLA: THE DR. HOUSE OF MONSTERS SAVES THE DAY



Another day's work done for the Big Guy.
Okay, so well-crafted cerebral science fiction, with romantic elements and big, weighty concepts, appears to be too much to hope for in this summer’s cinematic environment.  How about a good, old-fashioned monster movie, complete with mangled science, flattened cities and epic battles between behemoths?  Such is the fun to be had in GODZILLA, director Gareth Edwards’ latest iteration of the Japanese film legend.

That’s right.  Do not expect to hear some reasonable explanation of how this prehistoric mega-monster survived from the Paleolithic era in the depths of the ocean. Or how his nemeses, the MUTOs—Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or something, I was crunching popcorn at the time)—slept deep in the earth, close to its core, until disturbed by human mining operations.  They eat radioactivity!  They want to breed!  Nothing will destroy them!

All of this is explained to us by those staples of 1950s sci fi flicks, the Good Scientist (Ken Watanabe—wonderfully soulful) and his Smart Girl Assistant (Sally Hawkins—wide-eyed, but ever ready with the facts).  Dr. Serizawa tells everyone who listens that the hulking beast wading out of Honolulu Bay to do battle with the MUTOs is actually the good guy, sent by Mother Nature to restore the balance.  The U.S. Navy admiral charged with defending the world (David Strathairn), takes some convincing.  He just wants to blast all monsters to hell.

Of course, if you’ve seen any kind of monster movie before, you know how this goes.  Godzilla and the MUTOs play hide and seek from Honolulu to San Francisco. Then they clash in a climactic CGI frenzy of destruction, laying waste to the City by the Bay.  Along the way, we learn, through various subplots, how humans have been complicit in creating this disaster—by ignoring the warning signs, by trying to manipulate the MUTOs for “research” purposes, through ignorance and arrogance.  Like the original GODZILLA of 1954, the monsters of this film are tied to nuclear proliferation (this time for energy, not weaponry).  It’s no coincidence that the MUTOs find the nuclear missiles launched against them to be a tasty snack.

The talented Bryan Cranston, fresh off his turn in BREAKING BAD, chews up the scenery in one of these subplots as a nuclear technician who loses his wife in an early breakout by one of the MUTOs.  He never gets over it, and keeps pushing to discover the real reason why his power plant imploded, but didn’t leak radioactivity everywhere.  His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) becomes the human hero of the film, suiting up to deliver the bomb that finally destroys the MUTOs’ nest. 

But the real hero of the film, as it should be, is Godzilla, the “king of the monsters”.  Battered and beaten, he rises from what looks like certain defeat to kill his Mothra-like enemies in the end.  Then he roars in triumph (who can forget that “BLAAAAAAATTT!” sound?) and stomps off into the sunset, er, ocean.

You have to expect that a movie like this one would have great special effects, and it does.  But GODZILLA has something else, too.  It has heart, a kind of root-for-the-underdog, cheer-at-the-end simplicity.  The human characters do their jobs, and in most cases, they are sympathetic and relatable. (Watanabe and Cranston are, after all, really good at what they do, no matter how silly the context.)  But it is Godzilla himself we recognize as the star of the show.  He is the Dr. House of the monster world—crusty and misogynistic on the outside, willing to die for us on the inside.  

Much of the appeal of Edwards’s GODZILLA is born of a respect for the original material and the time in which it was produced.  The first GODZILLA, produced by Toho Films and directed by Ishiro Honda nine years after the end of WWII, was weak on special effects, but spoke to the deep pain in the Japanese psyche left from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It became an instant classic, not only in Japan, but around the world.  And Gojira himself, as Godzilla is called in Japanese, became a cult hero, with a spate of sequels in which he saves Japan over and over from any number of threats.

Edwards recognized this and gives Godzilla his due in this film, unlike the 1998 film of the same name starring Matthew Broderick.  Fans dubbed that monster GINO—Godzilla in Name Only—because he set out to destroy New York like any other ginormous radioactive beast.  The credits in Edwards’s film stress the nuclear connection, also, with old film stock of bomb tests juxtaposed with redacted material about the bad-guy corporation of the story.  Coupled with a number of “Easter-egg”-type references to the original film, you get a real sense of the director’s love for his subject.

So, pass the popcorn, y’all.  I’m in the mood for a ten-story tall, scaly, green lizard hero.

Cheers, Donna




Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Pippa's Journal - 5/21/2014

Action!

Last week I blogged about the Women in Scifi panel, and how visibility seems to be the big issue. So I am definitely doing BristolCon in October this year. I can't sit back and hope the internet is enough. It isn't. It's time to go out into the big scary world and show my face. :P This means I really need to get myself in gear and get Keir back out, since that's currently my only print option. As yet, Gethyon hasn't qualified for print, all my upcoming releases are digital first, and I've yet to put together enough short stories to justify a print collection of my own. Sigh. I will, however, be taking along a print edition of Tales from the SFR Brigade as a display copy, and possibly do one as a giveaway. I'm thinking maybe a bundle of goodies that I can raffle, but I'll have to see how it goes. Since my post went live, Jo Fletcher Books who organised the event have now posted part one of a video of the panel, and I recommend you watch it.



However, I said earlier on this year that 2014 would be the year of the edits. Both my scifi romance Tethered and YA paranormal romance Restless In Peaceville have all completed their editing cycles, and been sent back with all the associated paperwork. Restless is up on Goodreads now (go HERE to check out the blurb (which I've been told is hilarious), and Tethered is up HERE, so add them to your to-be-read shelf, pretty please?). My paranormal romance short is still with my editor. All three are awaiting cover art, and if you'd like to sign up for the cover reveals and/or blog tours please go HERE. As yet I don't have dates for the cover reveals, but if you sign up I'll let you know asap, and no hard feelings if you then have to drop out due to commitments.

This means I have three definite releases - Tethered on the 25th July, Restless on the 20th August, and the PNR short on the 1st October. On top of these, I need to re-release Keir. I also still have my decopunk superhero romance on submission after being asked to revise and resubmit. That could potentially release October/November if contracted. So it looks like I'll have releases every month for the rest of this year from July. Er, help?!

As for 2015... Well, if I thought I'd get a breather, I'd be wrong. I have five short stories and two novellas that still need polishing off for release. Plus a novel-length sequel to Imprint. Add to that at least book two and maybe three of the Keir series, and I think I'm fully booked until 2016. That's with not even thinking about the last two books for Keir, and the dozen other incomplete WIPs in my Plot Bunny Storage Facility, which would probably take me into 2017/18. And I worried when I first finished Keir that I would run out of ideas for more books. <insert manic laughter here>

However, I *am* away on holiday next week, and I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that. I'm going to need it!

Want to hear what I sound like? Last week I did my first audio interview with the charming Ryan Attard. I giggle. A lot. Check it out here.

Discoveries

On the subject of visibility, here are 317 power words that are supposed to make you a better writer. The site also boasts a free download of tips that'll help your blog posts go viral if you sign up to their weekly newsletter. If anyone tries that out, let me know how it goes?

The Squeeze

The SFR Brigade blog has some excellent blog posts for writers this month, with JA Kenney talking about writing aliens, Patricia Green discussing her writing influences, and Evelyn Berry covering deep POV. Check them out here.
Following on from CE Kilgore's excellent post on Dubious Consent, io9 actually picked up on the article and ran one of their own. Check it out HERE. It also has the link to CE Kilgore's original post.
And after I borrowed a link to a discussion about what turns readers off and posted it to the Brigade group, Ed Hoornaert summarized the comments into the Top Ten Things Readers hate about books HERE.

Pssst!

Both Breathless Press (romance) and Lycaon Press (YA) are actively looking for submissions, and they take SFR. Right now Breathless Press has an anthology call open. Not much time left, but if you already have something sitting on your hard drive... Check it out!


Bookshelf

I had a bit of a book binge a couple of weeks ago, but the highlights were by two authors I've waited far too long to read. JC Cassels Sovran's Pawn is an excellent piece of space opera in the lines of Firefly and Farscape, and a brilliant example of how a self published work can easily rival and surpass a big five book production. I can't wait to read the next! Also Caught in Amber by Cathy Pegau - it reminded me of those great Humphrey Bogart detective films mixed with a bit of Blade Runner. Loved it (although I would have given the hero such a slap). Lol.

Happenings

The Brenda Novak Online auction for diabetes is still running! Have you put your bid in yet? Don't forget to check out the space-themed SFR Brigade sponsored category right here.

The SFR Brigade's 3rd Annual Midsummer blog hop is coming! If you're a Brigade member, have you signed up yet? Go here. This is one of our biggest events of the year, and really draws attention. Would you like to help us spread the word? Here's our event button for you to share on your social media platform of preference! Just right click and Save As. Please link to the Brigade website at http://sfrcontests.blogspot.com. Mark your calendars for the 21st June!



Ping Pong

*humbly begs forgiveness for her absence*

Laurie, blown away by the post on the Amazonian mother. I think as a society we're all too quick to make judgements on things that sometimes we really have no idea about. That poor woman must have felt she'd been transported to an alien planet experiencing Western civilisation for the first time. Also, bumping parents off. I've done a mixture in mine, and the results are also mixed. In my YA scifi, Gethyon's father is dead but his mother abandoned him, which leaves him pretty angry with the universe but actually leaves him perilously close to choosing the Dark Side, so to speak. In fact it's the reconciliation with his mother that turns him around, so I think it's possible to have a huge character development even with parents still in the scene. Again, we need to decide whether it has significance to the story. I don't feel that killing the parents off could potentially be lazy writing, but I do like some variety.

Sharon, congrats on the release of your CYOP story! May you have many downloads and five star reviews.

Donna, I guess I always thought of Firefly as SFR so I was kind of bewildered. But again, I think his not being able to find a big budget company to produce this all ties into issues with getting SFR noticed, and that Hollywood is just refusing to take ANY risks. When someone with his standing has to do it himself... >.<


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Adrift in a Parent-less Universe

Hark! After doing a lot of thinking about last week's post--Son of an Amazon: A Mother's Day Story-- I realized something a bit disconcerting about my manuscripts.

My MCs are all orphans!

Drea is the daughter of a recently deceased ship designer/engineer and a mother she never knew. Her mother was contracted to bear two children for her father--her brother and herself--after which she disappeared from Drea's life forever. (And for the context of this post, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. But there might be a little more along that vein to come...later.)

Katrina's mother died shortly after childbirth and her father was killed in a plane crash in Kenya when Kat was a teen.

Lissa's mother died shortly after childbirth (do you sense a pattern here?) and her father was killed in a hovercopter crash as a result of a water riot in Philadelphia circa 2034 when she was 20-something.

Lissa's hero--Mitch--lost both of his parents in a shuttlecraft explosion while they were celebrating their second Honeymoon.

Dava's mother died horribly at the hand's of an enemy military squad in a forced boarding of her father's ship. Dava has been estranged from her father ever since, blaming him for her mother's death.

Lindy's parents moved to Japan when she came of age. Now their idea of supportive parenting is to send a Christmas card every December.

And the others...

Let's just say parents don't tend to play a really strong role in most of my novels.

Hmm, I ponder. Why am I making my darlings parentless? I was faced with an interesting, if somewhat disturbing, question. I set about a personal research project to find out more about parentless characters in fiction.

The first article I stumbled upon from wiseGEEK raised my eyebrows. It seems the loss or lack of parents is a common thread in superhero stories, legends and fairy tales.

Why are there so Many Orphaned Superheroes?

Now that I think about it, okay, yes. Superman. Batman. King Arthur. Cinderella. Snow White.  Dorothy Gale. Bambi, for freakin' sake!

But it doesn't stop there.
How about Harry Potter. Frodo Baggins.

LUKE SKYWALKER!

So it's an archetype, right?

In some ways, yes. Maybe.

Or no.

It might just be a way for an author to disencumber (sorry, I use that word at my day job a lot) a character from any parental interaction. In other words...it's a lazy way out of the "but what would Mom say?" trap.

So it's me telling my creations, "Sorry, kiddo, in my universe...you're on your own."

For some of my characters, seeking the sense of belonging and family that they've lost is a very big part of their journey and what sometimes secretly or subconsciously drives them. Even so, they tend to initially resist any form of inclusion with all of the force of a willful, thrashing 300-pound baby Thoroughbred. (Oh wait...where did that come from? Oh yeah, must be from my recent experiences with a willful, thrashing 300-pound baby Thoroughbred.)

If my subconscious-level muse really had a purpose for making my characters orphans, it might be for the level of angst it brings to their being, or an expression of their loneliness for which they are seeking a special someone to quench the ache, or maybe it just makes them more resourceful and independent, because they've had no guiding guardian to protect and direct them through life.

In 2010, Nathan Bransford blogged about the lack of parents in children's literature, something he called "The Ol' Dead Dad" Syndrome.

Characters without parents don't have a crutch. They can't say, "Push me again and my Dad'll beat you up!" They have no Mama-Bear parent willing to "have a long talk" with the parents of a troubled bully, intervening into or aleving a difficult situation for their child. Orphaned characters are ships without harbors, and because of this they must learn to sail on troubled seas (she says, waxing all poetic).

But let's look at the flip side for a minute. How many genuinely heroic, deserving characters are going to arise from a stable household with two strong, nurturing parents who sheltered them and left them with nothing to crave except the brand of jeans that's in at junior high this week.

Like great artists, great characters must suffer.

After reading Bransford's strongly pro article on the lack of parents in literature, I came across this counterpoint article in the New York Times online: The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit which lends some air time not only to the alarming absence of parents in YA, but also to those who are there, but have a very "dark side" to their presence--bad or abusive parents, the ghostly, living-in-their-own-little-world  "barely there" parents, and the reverse-role parents who are so broken or incompetent they require their children to take care of them. This bad-parent stigma is not a recent development, it's found in near-classic literature such as The Outsiders (1967) and Rumblefish (1975).

Some characters might be more traumatized by a bad parent than having no parent at all. Those familiar with the TV show Nashville have experienced this through the struggles of two of the show's young female artists and the disruption to their careers and lives brought on by a troublesome, and deeply troubled, parent. Both Juliette Barnes and Scarlet O'Connor endured years of damage done by their drug-using or psychologically abusive mothers.

And then there's Lady Lysa Tully from Game of Thrones... O.o

Speaking from my character's POVs, I'm thinking it's better to have loved and lost...than to have survived years of parental abuse at the hands of a destructive sociopath.

So what did I discover on my journey to uncover the paradigm of my parent-less characters?

I learned that there are good reasons for orphaning a character that lend themselves well to fictional storyboarding and that my muse recognized these elements, even if I might not have been consciously aware of them myself. (Until now.) Such characters are the Phoenix-Rising-From-the-Ashes of their lost childhoods. They have nowhere to go but up after life has taken them to the deepest, lowest point of their existence. They are stronger for their pain and suffering and loss. They've lived through the darkest horror to befall any child.

Now they will rise...


Friday, May 16, 2014

SF. JOHNNY DEPP. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?



Plenty, judging by TRANSCENDENCE, the latest film variation on the “computers- are-smarter-than-us-so-they-will-destroy-us” SF trope from newbie director Wally Pfister.

Pfister is best known as the cinematographer of INCEPTION and two of the DARK KNIGHT films (DARK KNIGHT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES).   There’s little evidence of that experience here, however.  Pfister’s first film as a director is visually flat, easily something you could view at home on the telly.  The best image is wasted (as many film bits are these days) on the previews—the vast field of photovoltaic cells arrayed to provide power to the growing machine consciousness.  The majority of the film is confined to the lab, both visually and dramatically, the science fiction equivalent of a drawing room mystery.

As for Johnny Depp, let no one say his ego gets in the way of his artistic judgment.  In this case, he spends 30 percent of his screen time dying of radiation poisoning (not attractive, even in the Hollywood version), 30 percent as a computer-screen version of himself at the end-stage of the dying process, and the rest of the time as some variation of himself and screen versions of himself.  What genius thought it was a good marketing idea to hire a (handsome) big-name star and hide him this way?  Granted, this is not the first time Depp has made this kind of choice (think SECRET WINDOW, in which Depp spends most of his screen time in a bathrobe), but others (the director, the writer, the publicists, for God’s sake!) should have had more sense.

The other members of the cast—Rebecca Hall (really starting to like her), Paul Bettany and the ever-sturdy Morgan Freeman—do their best to flog a flagging pace.  No one can blame them when the plot veers into, first predictable, then sigh-worthy territory.

So Depp’s character, Dr. Will Caster, his scientist wife Evelyn (Hall) and his partner Max (Bettany) are close to a breakthrough on their independent search for the key to “the singularity”—self-aware artificial intelligence.  But tragedy strikes when Will is shot by anti-tech fanatics.  The bullet only grazes him, but it turns out to be laced with radioactive polonium, sentencing Will to a lingering death (and also conveniently giving his loving wife enough time to plan what comes next).  Over Max’s quite sensible objections, she insists on finding a way to “upload Will’s consciousness” to the AI machine they’ve been building in an isolated warehouse.

No.  I don’t know where they get their money.  They’re independent, okay?  And the uploading is apparently accomplished by having Will read the dictionary into the computer.  And other stuff.  With wires into his brain.  The upload is almost complete, but then Will dies. Cue violins.  But wait . . 
.
Anyway, the experiment works, but anyone who has EVER read a science fiction story or seen an SF movie can tell you what happens next.  At first, things are great.  Evelyn is over the moon that her husband is “alive”, albeit in the computer.  Max, as the voice of reason, is freaked out.  “It’s not him,” he insists, though no one mentions the word “soul” in the entire movie.  Really?

The machine/Will starts performing miracles—reviving the dead, healing the sick, the halt, the lame.  He has plans to heal the Earth, to change the world.  I’m in the audience thinking maybe we need an all-powerful machine/guy.

But, of course, there’s a dark side.  Those he heals are forever “tied” to him, bound to do his bidding, for good or ill.  There are a few inconvenient deaths.  **sigh**  Max tries to run, then colludes, first with the anti-tech extremists (who seem to use a helluva lot of tech themselves), later with the government, to bring Will/the machine and Evelyn down.  Eventually even Evelyn is frightened by Will’s power and the final betrayal is set.

*****SPOILER ALERT******

Turns out, though, Will’s not the only one about to be betrayed.  Evelyn and those of us in the audience who might still have wanted to like this movie are about to take one upside the head.  In the climactic scene, Evelyn talks with Will/the machine, trying to convince him she’s ready to “become one” with him (when really she’s the delivery vehicle for a destructive virus that Max has engineered, which, by the way, will shut down all computers everywhere in the process).  He reminds her that he, Will, never wanted to change the world. He just wanted to do the research. That was her dream.  Some part of her consciousness was somehow transferred to the machine in all that frantic programming at the end of his life.

Nice.  So now Evelyn gets blamed for all this.  Not his ego, his lack of emphathy or his lack of social skills (all pointed out in the early part of the film), but her idealism and warm heart.  The machine is a megalomaniac ’cuz she’s a girl.  Right.  Thanks.

And the worst part?  That just makes her want to save him!  That’s not surprising--she’s done all of this because she loves her husband. (The film could easily have been SFR, but there’s no clear romantic arc, and it obviously doesn’t end well.)  But as things often go, someone gets trigger-happy, Evelyn is shot, Will has to upload her to try and “save her consciousness” and the virus takes them both, along with all our iPads, PCs, Androids and other fun toys. Oh, and the essential stuff—would we really want to do without medical or flight computers? Not that we’d need them after the financial collapse.  Pfister only hints at this apocalypse by bracketing his tale with scenes of mild dystopia, a shopkeeper propping open a door with a keyboard, for example.

What are we to think, exactly?  Is it worth the destruction of everything to save our humanity?  Or might we be better off transcending our mere human status into something more?  And what about God? Interesting questions.   Too bad they're lost in this muddled cinematic presentation.

PING PONG

--Congratulations, Pippa, on two years of successfully sailing the sometimes choppy, always exhilarating seas of publication!

--And as for women in SF—yes, we’ve always been here, we’re still here, we will always be here!  Whatever style of SF/SFR you write, make it your own and, when necessary, blaze a new path.  Others will be there to help you on the way and still more will follow behind.

Cheers, Donna





About Spacefreighters Lounge

Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.