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My wife has a very simple rule when it comes to fiction: If fire could solve the problem, there has to be a good reason for the characters not to try it.
Take Sleepy Hollow. I love the show, but this week’s episode featured a serial killer who confined to a painting in between murders. The simple would see the characters take the painting, toss it in the fire place with some lighter fluid, and the episode is over by the first commercial break. Unfortunately, this isn’t what the characters did, instead going a route that required tracking down magic bullets embedded in a dead body (always leave one bullet in, no one should have to say that!) and using them to shoot the painting.
Because…shooting a painting instead of burning a painting?
Look, if there’s a simple solution to a problem, it is going to occur to the audience. Who will then wonder why it doesn’t occur to the characters. So it needs to occur to the characters and be dismissed for one reason or another. This takes two lines of dialogue, a mere blip in a story, TV episode, or movie.
It’s the simple things, it really is.
I noticed something odd when I began the Great Hugo Read two years ago. At that time, of all the Hugo winners, only three had been adapted to film. One was Starship Troopers, a controversial adaptation that is probably one of my top ten favorite films of all time. One was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which grabbed a win for the series by beating out A Storm of Swords. The third was Dune.
Oh, Dune. I grabbed the movie out of curiosity as part of a four movie DVD pack. I started watching, but was interrupted by a baby nap not lasting nearly as long as it normally would. I never ended up coming back to it. Paul was just heading out into the desert, and there was shockingly little movie left for how much plot they still needed to cover. I’ve still never finished it. I’m not sure I will. I just don’t really feel any great need to watch it. I’d be far more likely to track down the miniseries.
There have been attempts to turn other Hugo winners into movies, and more recently television shows. Several have failed. The biggest one currently limping along trying to find a home is the on-again-off-again adaptation of American Gods. Some, however, are moving forward. One I’ve heard about for awhile was the Ridley Scott helmed adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. I wasn’t aware that they were moving forward. Or casting. Or filming. So it was a surprise to learn that the pilot was not only complete, but that it was part of the Amazon pilot program release this week.
And it’s fantastic. There’s no other word for it, it’s just fantastic. It takes most of the background elements of the book, several of the characters, but fixes up the plot to better fit the format. While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, it isn’t really plotted in a way that lends itself to adaptation.
Of course, this is just a pilot. Just one episode. If its going to become a series, it needs viewers, and it needs those viewers to rate it. While the eventual series, if we get one, will require Amazon Prime, the pilot can be watched by anyone. So go watch it. It’s great. Then rate it. Because I need more episodes of this show yesterday.
Welp. It’s 2015, which means the eligibility period for the Hugos has wrapped up and the nominations will open up soon enough. Or eventually. Still, never too soon to have a few thoughts, including my annual thought: stop nominating so much Doctor Who! Yeah, I enjoyed this past season too, Peter Capaldi has brought a new energy to the role, and they finally figured out how to use Clara. Still, this is the golden age of television. Which means there are dozens of science fiction and fantasy shows on television, and most of them have managed at least one episode better than the fourth best episode of Doctor Who.
A few thoughts, some of which will be on my nominating ballot (the list is currently too long):
- Agents of SHIELD: Turn, Turn, Turn or What They Become
- Person of Interest: Deus Ex Machina
- The Leftovers: Two Boats and a Helicopter
- Adventure Time: Escape from the Citadel
- Sleepy Hollow: This is War
- Stephen Universe: Lion 3 Straight to Video
- Game of Thrones: The Lion and the Rose
My probable Long Format ballot while I’m at it:
- The LEGO Movie
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Edge of Tomorrow
- Over the Garden Wall (showed as episodes, but eligible to be nominated as a unit under Hugo rules)
As long as we’re talking the Hugo, I would be remiss to not mention my one eligible work (I am not yet Campbell eligible): The Face of the Serpent, published in Bad Ass Faeries: It’s Elemental.
Damnit, who let it get all dusty in here? And what’s with all the cobwebs? It’s still a little early for Halloween decorations, right?
So it’s been a few months since I’ve sat down on the first and wrote out what I’ve been up to. Which means there’s a lot to cover. First up, I had a short story published in the most recent edition of the Bad-Ass Faeries series, which had a rather exciting launch at Balticon. It’s the first time I’ve been in a room where someone was buying a copy of my fiction, which is an odd experience, and one of those milestones of writing that I’ve never thought of. The anthology has gotten some positive reviews, including at least one that has specifically called out my story. Which is exciting.
The characters and their conflict appear in a world masterfully designed to meet their supernatural needs, and the resolution is a beautiful solution perfectly suited to the lucha libre world in which the story is set.
Aw shucks. It’s my first positive blurb. Which kinda gave me happy chills the first time I read it.
In ongoing projects news, my generation ship novel is now a complete story that has a beginning, an end, and stuff that goes in between. It’s in a rough state, but it’s also in the hands of some beta readers who will tear it down so I can build it back up that much stronger. After that, I’ll probably be looking for some more beta readers. If you’re interested, do nothing for now except remember to watch this space, and follow me on Twitter. When I’m looking for beta readers, I won’t be quiet about it.
Nickajack has been in a holding pattern while I’ve been working on Back Half, but October is as good a time as any to get back into it. There are some chapters that need to be written, some that need to be rewritten, but it’s still a novel I’m enjoy, and still a story that I think works on the page like it did in our heads. My wife and I are in the early stages of our next joint project, which will probably be a Lovecraftian novel that salvages a lot of elements of a spec pilot we wrote years ago.
(WordPress isn’t sure whether I meant “salvage” or “savages” in that sentence…suddenly I’m not sure either.)
I’m also playing around with the idea of an epic fantasy space opera. Which really hasn’t gone too much farther than me wondering if I have the chops to write an epic fantasy space opera. I have a notion about how the magic will work, how the science will work, and where the interaction between them will be. Now all I need is a plot. And characters. And some settings. But, really, aren’t those kinda secondary.
The nose is to the grindstone, believe me.
Take a look at the cover to the right. I’ve made it larger than most images I include on posts because…well, it’s glorious. This comes from the first batch of Ace Doubles I bought at a library sale two years ago. I knew nothing about the book, I didn’t even really know what Ace Doubles were at the time. All I knew is that the cover was glorious, and I wanted to own the book.
I picked it back up today because I was looking for something to read while waiting for the Hugo Voters Packet to get put together (yeah, I bought myself a supporting membership to Loncon so I could get the packet and a vote). Since I’d be reading a lot from 2013 and 1939, why not split the difference at around 1959. I pulled the book out and the first thing I noticed was the name in bold at the bottom right corner.
I probably don’t have to go into who John Brunner was on this blog. However, the particular point of interest is that the name John Brunner had never before appeared on the front cover of a book until this one. He’d pseudonymously published one novel a few years earlier, but Threshold of Eternity, published by Ace in 1959, is the first John Brunner novel.
But it’s the cover that dragged me in, and it’s the cover I wanted to know more about. So I went to an Ace reference site that lists cover artists for the classic Doubles and Singles of the late 1950s and early 1960s. That drew my attention to four letters hidden in the whirling fan blades just above Brunner’s name: EMSH. This is the signature of Ed Emshwiller.
Emshwiller was a graphic artist who won the inaugural artwork Hugo in 1953, then called Best Cover Art. He went on to be a four time winner in the updated Professional Artist category in the 1960s. Including the year 1960. Since this novel came out in 1959, this cover would have been part of his portfolio under consideration by Hugo voters.
It would be an exaggeration to call it a Hugo winning cover, but it was a cover published in a year that the artist won a Hugo for his work during.
So just grabbing a book that caught my eye at a book fair, I ended up with the first real novel by a future scion of the genre, with a cover by a five-time Hugo winning artist.
Oh, and on the flip is a book by some guy named Poul Anderson.
Ace Doubles are awesome that way.
Just a near-last-minute reminder that Hugo nominations are closing soon.
And that Welcome to Night Vale is eligible as a dramatic presentation short form.
And that The Sandstorm should have at least two nominations if you’re looking for an episode to back.
G started writing Western shorts, but no markets. Change Old West to alien planet–it's science fiction! #awp14
— Nick Mamatas (@NMamatas) March 1, 2014
The G in question in that tweet is author Molly Gloss, and it came out of the guest of honor interview at the 2014 AWP Conference, held this past weekend in Seattle. The idea that westerns moved to space works in science fiction is hardly new. Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Firefly was so thoroughly a western that it featured a train job episode in its short run.
However, I like the idea that intersecting the past and the future can make for compelling science fiction. It’s the genesis behind the space western. It’s the genesis behind steampunk.
Earlier this week a tweet led me to a Slate article about a 1940s French board game that taught players how best to thoroughly exploit the resources of a colony. It’s an interesting artifact from a specific point in history, sure. Maybe even a little chilling. It’s also a short step from that old game to the same game being played by kids in the 2140s.
It’s the cyclical view of history. The cynical view of history. Even those who do study it are doomed to repeat it, humanity comes to the same point, over and over again. There’s easily mined drama in the notion of our species just never learning a damned thing.
So many problems, in horror especially, can be solved by a copious application of fire. You know it, I know it, and readers know it. There needs to be a compelling reason that fire won’t work. It can’t just not occur to the characters.
“I see you’re reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” [Childan] said. “I hear it on may lips, but pressure of business prevents my own attention…A mystery? Excuse my abysmal ignorance.” He turned the pages.
“Not a mystery,” Paul said. “On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction.”
“Oh no,” Betty disagreed. “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.”
“But,” Paul said, “it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.”
–Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle
In 1996 a doctor immigrated to the United States from England. Not because he found a better hospital to work at, but because he found a different network. Yes, the individual in question was no medical doctor, but instead Doctor Who, transitioning from his traditional home on the BBC over to the Fox network. After a backdoor-pilot was produced and run as a movie of the week to blockbuster ratings, the network jumped at the chance to air the newly Americanized series, and slated it for a Sunday time slot in the 1997-1998 television season, pairing it with the fifth season of The X-Files to create a two hour block of science fiction.
The show had a bumpy start. Existing fans of the BBC series were constantly frustrated by the re-establishment of so many basic elements of the mythology (and even some changes to the core notions, such as the Doctor now being half human). New fans were often overwhelmed by the 35 years of history the show traveled with. It was an awkward middle ground, but the show persisted, pulling in 12-15 million viewers a week. Which was enough to keep the network happy, though not thrilled. An attempt was made to goose the ratings during the 1998 November sweeps when the two shows crossed over with a single two hour narrative that saw the Doctor help stem an invasion from the shape-shifting bounty hunters. This episode also saw the departure of Daphne Ashbrook as the Companion, killed during the climactic battle.
Ashbrook’s departure was the first kink in the armor. While long term fans of the British show understood that Companions came and went, and that even the Doctor changed faces every few years, American audiences were accustomed to more continuity in their programming. The second season also saw some cost cutting by the show. The Master, recast from the television movie, steals the TARDIS, stranding The Doctor in present-day San Fransisco for most of the season. While the show never went to truly exotic locales, due to budgetary restraints, this locking down of the Doctor changed the tenor of the show considerably.
The big news hit in the third season. While his TARDIS was restored, the show was losing viewers. Worse, it was about to lose its star. McGann announced his intent to walk away from the show at the end of the season, forcing Fox to weigh their alternatives. Cancellation was discussed, but the show was still proving profitable, and though the viewership had shrunk, the remaining fans were devoted to the show. Fox made a blockbuster move, courting George Clooney who had announced his own departure from ER. Clooney was looking to pursue his movie career, but couldn’t pass up the chance at such an iconic role. He agreed, but with a stipulation.
He would only do thirteen episodes.
Fox assented to the demand, largely in hopes that Clooney would change his mind once on set. He was set, however, and his rapid departure ushered in an instability of casting as Fox jumped from one actor to another, sometimes keeping a Doctor for as long as a half season, sometimes stunt casting an actor for a single two-parter. It was seen as a guest role, even though it was the star of the show, and focus moved away from the Doctor himself and towards the more stable companions. After two seasons of this, Fox saw the writing on the wall and announced the show would end after its fifth season. With The X-Files ending the same year, it was a blow to science fiction on Fox.
20th Century Fox held on to the rights to Doctor Who, however, denying the BBC an opportunity to reboot the show on no less than three occasions between 2001 and 2008. Finally, in 2010, they were in a position where they were forced to exercise or lose the rights. Not wanting to put the character back on television, they attempted a feature film. Believing that saddling the character with now 45 years of back story was asking too much of the audience, Doctor Who was to be rebooted with a fresh origin story.
There was initial promise. Wanting to return the Doctor to his roots as an older character, not to mention in hopes of casting the first British actor to play the role since McGann, Fox landed their dream actor, Patrick Stewart. He’d been central to not one, but two science fiction franchises, why not a third? Unfortunately while the casting was well received, the movie was panned by critics, largely for Damon Lindelof’s confounding back-and-forth time travel plot. The movie made a profit, but not enough of one to justify a sequel. However, Fox still puts out direct-to-DVD follow-ups every few months starring a British actor known mostly for the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series Sherlock in the main role, just to hold onto the rights. And they’ll probably keep doing so. They’re cheap enough to put together, and just enough people buy them.
If y0u believe in alternate universes, somewhere out there might be one where Fox passed on the show. Where the BBC started it back up. And where it was done right. However, the various attempts at Americanizing the show left it a shadow of its former self. I hope they know the bullet they dodged by the McGann version failing. It’s not that McGann was bad. He was great. He was my first Doctor, watching him on Sunday nights on Fox. But everything else around the idea was so bad, so cynical, so…not Doctor Who.