Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Speculative Spotlight: Moon

In case you missed my notice earlier this week, my weekly posting schedule has officially moved to Wednesdays. And since today is the last Wednesday of the month, that means it's time for the Speculative Spotlight, in which I scour the multiverse for hefty chunks of speculative fiction awesomeness. Today, the spotlight falls on a science fiction film called Moon.

What Is It?

Moon is the 2009 directorial debut of Zowie Bowie Duncan Jones, who went on to direct Source Code in 2011, and has recently been tapped for the upcoming film adaptation of Warcraft. It was the winner of two BAFTA awards, two British Independent Film Awards, two Fantastic'Arts Prizes, and the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (beating out heavyweight blockbusters like Avatar, Star Trek, and District 9).

On the surface, Moon is a story about isolation. The film introduces us to Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), an astronaut at the tail end of a three-year contract with a company called Lunar Industries. The job sees him taking up the sole residency of a base on the dark side of the moon, where he oversees the automated mining of Helium-3. In the near future, this isotope has become the answer to the world's energy crises thanks to breakthroughs in nuclear fusion (a scenario that might become reality one day). As his contract winds down and his ticket home is just a couple weeks away, strange things begin to happen to Sam Bell. At first, it all seems to be a side effect of his prolonged seclusion, but it soon becomes clear that something else might be going on up there.

What's So Awesome About It?

Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to describe the plot much further without spoiling some of the turns for those who've yet to see it. For me, discovering what was really happening on the dark side of the moon was one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. In fact, I was originally going to embed a video in this post, but the official trailer actually reveals one of the story's biggest plot twists. It's a revelation that comes fairly early in the film, but I still think my enjoyment would have been lessened if I'd known about it ahead of time. If spoilers don't bother you, however, you can watch the trailer here.

With Moon, Duncan Jones clearly sought to pay homage to the influential science fiction movies of the 1970s and '80s, and with a budget of only $5 million and a primary cast of just two actors, he manages to do exactly that. From the get go, every scene recalls classic films like 2001: A Space OdysseyTHX-1138Solaris, and Logan's Run, and that's undoubtedly one of the reasons I liked it so much. It hits all of the right nostalgia buttons for me, and yet still manages to pack a few neat surprises.

In fact, one of my favorite things about Moon is that it deliberately toys with viewer expectation. Take Sam's assistant on the mining base, an artificially intelligent robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) that sees to his every need, from bringing his morning coffee to providing a haircut when he needs to look sharp for a video transmission. When things start to get weird on the base, it's hard to avoid implicating GERTY, as it's made clear that he knows much more than he lets on. But rather than play Sam's companion as yet another cookie-cutter HAL 9000 ripoff, Moon treats GERTY to a satisfying character arc as he struggles with the growing conflict between his role on the base and his primary objective of helping Sam Bell. GERTY subverts the malevolent AI trope beautifully, and becomes one of my favorite movie robots in the process. His awesome emoticon expressions don't hurt either.

That's just one example of how Moon manages to play with genre convention to enhance the character drama at the heart of its story. If it sounds like your cup of tea, and your curiosity has been piqued by all of these spoilers I'm dancing around to avoid ruining the movie, I'd highly recommend picking it up. It's out on Blu-ray if you'd like to own it, or you can stream it on Amazon instant video.

Images courtesy of Stage 6 Films

Monday, March 25, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Mondays

I just wanted to post a little FYI for anyone who's wondering where today's blog entry is.

Starting this week, I'm moving my weekly posts to Wednesdays. I've been playing around with my schedule a bit this past month, but I think I've found the sweet spot now. So come back around in a couple of days for this month's Speculative Spotlight feature.

Until then, have a great Monday. Try not to strangle your coworkers.

photo credit: vermegrigio via cc

Monday, March 18, 2013

Forging a Universe: The Whats and Whys of Worldbuilding

For a long while now (hell, since I started this thing), I've been wanting to do a blog series on worldbuilding. It's easily one of my favorite parts of writing speculative fiction, and depending on the genre you're working with, it's also one of the most important. In fact, just about every author of fiction employs worldbuilding to some degree, even those who frame their stories in the real world. It's just that science fiction and fantasy writers have done a little more to quantify the process, given that it permeates our work so obviously.

Starting with this entry, I'm going to embark on a monthly journey into the process of crafting a universe. I'm going to break down what I (and many others) consider to be key elements of building a believable world, giving you a few glimpses into my creative process along the way. Since this is far too much ground to cover in one post, this series will last as long as I need it to. But before jumping into the deep end, I'm going to use this introductory post to cover the simple whats and whys of the process.

What is Worldbuilding?

It's widely believed that the term itself was coined sometime in the 1970s, conjured up at one of the various workshops and conventions where science fiction writers would gather, make merry, and discuss the craft. For the most part, it means exactly what it sounds like. It's the construction of the world (or universe) in which your story takes place. It's the process of filling in the details of setting and backstory that make up the playground you toss your characters into, then weaving these elements into a coherent backdrop that frames and complements your narrative.

That sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Generally, it is. But before an author can break the process down into manageable bits and pieces, he must decide which approach to take, as there are essentially two methods of worldbuilding: the "top-down" method and the "bottom-up" method. Those of you who've spent time as Dungeon Masters in the tabletop roleplaying world might recognize these as the same "outside-in" and "inside-out" methods that Dungeons and Dragons encourages for designing adventures.

Top-down worldbuilding is what I think of as "the mapmaker's approach." It begins with as broad a perspective as possible on your world and its inhabitants, defining things like physics, ecology, and geography first and foremost (assuming you're working with a single planet—if your story spans galaxies, you may be plotting cosmology at this stage as well), then building your way toward the culture and history of the civilizations therein, before finally working out the background of the main characters and their plight. This method is usually favored by outliners, since it involves a lot of work prior to writing the story itself. Some famous examples that were likely born of this approach include:

As it sounds, bottom-up worldbuilding is pretty much the opposite, and I tend to think of it as "the Columbus method." Here, you begin with the story itself, crafting characters and plot at the outset and essentially filling in the rest along the way. The writer doesn't bother building the greater world their characters inhabit until it becomes essential knowledge for the reader. In this way, it's possible to avoid the dangerous temptation of worldbuilder's disease (in which one spends more time working on the backstory than the actual story) and focus on moving the plot forward. However, it also comes with the danger of in-world inconsistency and plot holes, which become easy to fall into if you're making things up as you go, and will require backtracking to correct. As you may have guessed, this type of worldbuilding is usually favored by discovery writers. Famous examples that likely came from this approach include:

It's also very possible to use a mix of both approaches, though it's less common. This is often the result of multiple creators working within a shared universe, such as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I've used both methods myself, though I tend to use the former for novel-length work and the latter for short stories. Ultimately, which approach you take will depend entirely on you, your story, and your writing style.

Why Worldbuild?

In a work of science fiction or fantasy, particularly the sprawling realms of epic fantasy or the infinite worlds of space opera, worldbuilding is the glue that holds your setting together. If plot and character is the meat of a story, worldbuilding is the fire you cook it over. The stronger a fire you build, the better that meat will taste when you're done. Good worldbuilding enriches the reader's experience, teasing and tapping that hunger for more that every good book gives you, even while you're reading it. It pulls you in and makes you forget that you're sitting on a couch with a book in your hand.

Obviously, this is all just one part of what makes a compelling story. There are many elements that help to transport the reader into your universe. But good worldbuilding will make that universe feel real. If you don't spend the time and effort necessary to flesh out your world, readers will notice. No matter how good the rest of your story is, if you try to pass flimsy worldbuilding in front of their eyes, chances are it will pull them out of your work the same way poor special effects can detract from an otherwise good movie (here's looking at you, cartoon wolf from 300).

Knowing all that, the question then becomes why wouldn't you worldbuild, at least to some degree? We certainly have enough things competing for reader attention without giving them an unnecessary reason to put the book down. So take advantage of this fantastic medium and grow some flesh on your story's bones. Use the awesome powers at your disposal. Forge a universe. Craft a realm. Build a world.

photo credit: Pensiero via cc

Monday, March 11, 2013

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The Mundane Masquerade

It's a fair wager to say there is much we take for granted in this world. These things may vary depending on your location, personality, or station in life; perhaps you take for granted that there will always be a roof over your head, or food in the fridge. Perhaps you take for granted that the trains always run on time, or that the sun will rise each morning. The more regular and commonplace something seems, the more likely we are to assume that's exactly what is: ordinary, boring, mundane. But what if that wasn't the case? What if it was all a masquerade, calculated strictly for the benefit of your unseeing eyes—and that little old lady sitting next to you at the bus stop was not quite a little old lady at all?

That's the basic premise of the mundane masquerade: your world is not what it seems, and someone is going to great lengths to keep that from you. There exists another layer to reality hidden in plain sight that, if revealed, would alter the very foundation of your day-to-day beliefs.

This trope is an old one, but its history is a little harder to nail down than most of those I've tackled before. While folklore and mythology are running over with examples of human beings conducting their affairs without realizing there's a whole other supernatural world right beneath their noses, the nature of this unawareness differs from source to source. Many of the creatures and entities in those kinds of stories escape notice due to pure human ignorance or an unwillingness to believe in fairies (so to speak). As such, they're not really examples of a mundane masquerade, since there is no outright deception at play.

There are some tales of supernatural mischief that fit the bill quite nicely on the surface. For instance, the selkie, a mythological shapeshifter that lives in the sea, but occasionally sheds its seal-like skin to take human form. Selkies were often said to have taken on unsuspecting human lovers, hiding their true nature until their return to the sea. Another example is the changeling—stories in which a fairy, elf, or some other entity swaps its own offspring with that of a human being, usually with the child's unfortunate mother and father none the wiser. These and many other tales involve supernatural deception of a sort, but still don't quite offer instances of true masquerade, since it's not the existence of the otherworldly itself that is being hidden, but the evil deeds thereof.

For a better example of the mundane masquerade in fiction, we can point to an excellent modern use of the trope: Men in Black. The eponymous organization of the movie series (and the comic books that inspired them) is shown to have worked for centuries to keep mind-shattering secrets from the public at large—specifically, the existence (and earthside residence) of extraterrestrial beings. In the comics their mandate even extends to supernatural creatures such as werewolves and demons, as well. The MiB's web of intergalactic espionage and secrecy is so far-reaching that they use their acquired alien technology to erase the memories of anyone unfortunate enough to witness extraterrestrial events.

One of the reasons I point to Men In Black as an excellent example of the mundane masquerade, aside from its rigorous adherence to the trope itself, is because I think it really gets to the heart of just why it has persisted in fiction and popular culture for so long. The secret organization depicted in the MiB franchise is based on an actual real-world mythos that has surrounded conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts since the 1950s. Following the Roswell incident and the subsequent explosion of popular interest in UFOs, stories began to emerge of mysterious men in nondescript black suits interviewing and harassing people involved in UFO sightings. They were usually said to have identified themselves as government agents of some kind, but over the years the various stories have spread from one end of the rationality spectrum to the other, depicting them as everything from Air Force OSI officers to telepathic crossbred alien hybrids with multiple sets of eyelids.

The point is, there are people in this world who believe that many aspects of this trope exist in the realm of cold, hard fact. And in some respects, they're right. Virtually every major government in the world maintains various operations at a certain level of secrecy, hidden from the very public they serve, from the CIA to MI6. But some believe that this extends much further than foreign intelligence or national security. Some believe that the government may well be hiding something else from us—something otherworldly, perhaps.

Whether you count yourself among the conspiracy theorists or not, I think it's plain to see the relationship this trope has with that aspect of our culture. It's simple human nature to assign malevolence when someone in a position of authority decides whether or not you "need to know" something, especially when your tax dollars paid for the stationary they printed it on.

Recommended Reading:
Methuselah's Children by Robert A. Heinlein
The Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick
The City in the City by China MiĆ©ville

Recommended Viewing:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Harry Potter

Recommended Gaming:
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Assassin's Creed

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

IWSG: The Sound of Whooshing Deadlines

It's the first Wednesday of March, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

The subject of this month's entry is oddly appropriate, I think. Some of you might be wondering why there wasn't a Speculative Fiction Tropes entry this past Monday. To accommodate more writing time, I've decided to stick to a strict once-per-week blog schedule from here on out, including the first week of the month. Since I really enjoy taking part in IWSG every first Wednesday, that means I'll be moving the tropes series entries to the second Monday of each month. This month's entry will come next week.

So in the interest of a little continuity, I thought I'd share one of my favorite quotes from the legendary Douglas Adams. If you're not familiar with his work, Adams was a celebrated humorist, best known for the comedic science fiction of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as well as the series it spawned. In The Salmon of Doubt, he had the following to say about deadlines:

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

You can see why this is relevant, no? Unfortunately, I don't share Mr. Adams's love for that sound. I happen to find that whooshing noise extremely discouraging. That being said, the drive never to hear that sound again motivates me to work twice as hard the next time around.

Deadlines have long been the bane of the writerly ilk, but they're an absolutely necessary evil in the larger publishing world. In fact, they're not evil at all. They're downright good for us. Not only because it's hard to become a successful writer if you never actually, you know, finish anything, but because that loud red-alert klaxon we hear in our heads when zero hour approaches can often serve as the kick in the pants we need. I can only speak for myself, of course, but my gears naturally start turning faster when I know I have a deadline coming up. Sometimes I surprise myself at just how much more productive I can be when there's a big, bold date hanging over my head. Every writer is different, but I'd be willing to bet that many of you might find similar results.

So why not harness the positive side of this white-knuckled phenomena? You don't have to be a bestselling author with a six-figure contract to feel the drive of a strict deadline. You don't have to be published at all. All you need is a little self-imposed discipline. Don't wait for an agent or a publisher to set your deadlines for you. Set them yourself! Open that calendar and set a realistic goal for your work. It doesn't have to be something broad and long-term—in fact, it probably shouldn't be. Focus on the short-term and the immediately measurable. "I will write 5000 words by Saturday" is a much more effective deadline than "I will finish my novel by December." This lets you feel that rush on a regular basis, and allows you to tweak and adjust as you learn how best to push yourself against your goals. The first time one of your deadlines passes and you have nothing to show for it, you'll be ready to chastise yourself in the mirror like a naughty toddler caught with sprinkles on his face.

But don't beat yourself up too hard. Instead, knuckle up and prepare for war. Meet the next one with sword in hand, and vow never to hear that whooshing sound again.