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Star Trek: Red Shirts Had It Better Than Blondes

Forget being a Red Shirt, being blonde on Star Trek could be fatal (to your acting career). After recently viewing Shatner’s Chaos on The Bridge documentary and watching an old episode of Voyager, it hit me: blonde women didn’t usually last long on Star Trek. Grace Lee Whitney, Denise Crosby, and Jennifer Lien all didn’t make it through their respective series, all were blonde, and none had prominent acting careers afterwards. (Every rule has its exception, for this one, it’s Jeri Ryan. More on her later).

Grace Lee Whitney played Yeoman Janice Rand on eight of the first thirteen Star Trek episodes before being unceremoniously dropped. Why exactly she was dropped, doesn’t seem clear. One view is that she was morphing from Kirk’s secretary to his girlfriend and the producers didn’t want that (then don’t write it!). Another view is that the actress herself may have had personal problems – she did comment on taking medication to keep her weight down. Grace struggled with addiction and unemployment afterwards. Her promising singing career never took off. Whitney had been a rising star before Star Trek, appearing in Some Like It Hot, including the train “upper berth” scene with Jack Lemon and Marylin Monroe.

Denise Crosby left Star Trek: The Next Generation part way through the first season. She didn’t feel that her character, Natasha Yar, was being properly utilized. The actress claims that she was spending days on set standing behind Captain Picard’s chair, only her legs visible to the camera. Why exactly a stand-in couldn’t do that isn’t clear. (Crosby talks about this in the recently released documentary ‘Chaos on the Bridge’). Denise never became the star that she (and we) expected, but continued acting successfully, recently appearing in a story arc on The Walking Dead, for example.

Jennifer Lien played Kes on Star Trek: Voyager. She lasted the longest, three seasons, before being let go. The cast was set and budgeted for nine actors, and when the decision was made to add Jeri Ryan as borg Seven of Nine, one of the original cast members had to go. Apparently it came down to Garret Wang or Jennifer Lien, but Wang got mentioned in a high profile People Magazine story, and Lien was let go. Jennifer gave up acting and went to medical school.

But there’s two follow-on points.

First, each of the actresses did revive their characters later – Grace Lee Whitney having to wait the longest, until Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and then again in other movies and one episode of Voyager. Denise Crosby came back to The Next Generation first as her original character in the excellent episode Yesterday’s Enterprise, then as Yar’s daughter in a later story arc. Lien played Kes for one episode in season 6 of Voyager.

Second, Star Trek seems to have an ongoing problem with actresses. The Next Generation fired Gates McFadden after the first season, only to bring her back after her replacement, Star Trek (original series) recurring guest star Diana Muldar only lasted one season. Whoopi Goldberg joined The Next Generation around season three, but had a falling out with producers and left, only to make cameos in the various follow-on movies. Jeri Ryan talks about her four years on Voyager as something she survived, although that seems less to do with the producers (one of whom she was dating) than conflict with one specific actor.

So maybe being a red shirt on Star Trek wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to an actor. Maybe being blonde was worse.

Fan Participation: Star Wars vs Star Trek

I hope that I don’t have to tell you that I’m a Star Wars fan. I’ve been less demonstrative of my love of Trek, partially because that’s how Trekkies/Trekkers roll (all logical and all that crap) and partially because JJ Abrams seems to have used the last two Star Trek outings to audition to direct Star Wars Episode VII. But I’ve lived inside the fan bases of both of these franchises and they are very different. I think one key difference comes down to how they are nurtured by their respective franchise owners, Paramount and Lucasfilm: the originality that Paramount nurtures versus the inclusion that Lucasfilms promotes.

Initially, there wasn’t much to tell them apart. Both had conventions, comic books, paperback new adventures, and not much more.

Then something strange happened. Star Wars fans, many of whom were inspired to join the moviemaking industry, started making fan films. We had simple efforts like Toaster Wars, absurd full-budget parodies like Spaceballs, and eventually the classic fan films Troops and George Lucas in Love (Which uses Shakespeare in Love as its template). Lucasfilm has a convoluted relationship with fan films, some times embracing them, sometimes rejecting their existence. For the average, non-Hollywood fan, Star Wars fandom tended to be limited to cosplay (dress up like their favourite characters). The 501 Imperial Legion (Vader’s Fist) grew from this, as did its opposition, the Rebel Legion (a.k.a. Rebel Scum).

Paramount has allowed fans to expand the Star Trek legacy in a way that Lucasfilms hasn’t allowed with Star Wars. Star Trek actors have participated in the creation of fan-based Trek, notably, William Shatner participated in Free Enterprise, about an obsessed fan.

Lately, the Star Trek fanbase, and many of the original actors (from main character players like Walter Koenig, Tim Russ, and Michael Dorn to recurring character actors like Gary Graham) have started making high quality Star Trek stories. Star Trek Continues and Star Trek New Voyages both continue the original series with new episodes, obviously recasting the roles. The highly anticipated Star Trek Axanar tells the backstory of legendary military strategist Garth (Whom Kirk had to defeat in the original series episode “Whom Gods Destroy”). This fan-funded project hasn’t been completed yet, but the mockumentary Prelude to Axanar is on Youtube and well worth the watch. There are a whole series of episodes related to the Enterprise’s sister ships: Starship Exeter, Starship Excelsior, Starship Farragut. There are probably others.

There’s also Star Trek Renegades, which features at least one character from Star Trek Voyager, and less well-known productions like Star Trek Odyssey, Star Trek Horizon, Star Trek: Digital Ghost, Star Trek: Redemption, and there are probably others. These are large team efforts with either full movie plots or multi-episode plots and some attempt at authenticity although a few of them aren’t ageing well.

There have been recent Star Wars fan films, but the difference in quality and narrative between the pre-prequels batch and the new ones is obvious (the new ones lack accuracy of setting, they lack story – mostly light sabre battles, and they lack budget). To my knowledge Star Wars actors have never participated in fan films. Part of the disparity here is that Star Wars is mostly a movie franchise with a few seasons of cartoons added later. Star Trek is first and foremost a sequence of TV series. The actors play the roles for much longer, and invest more in the fanbase. Also, the actors go to many fan conventions a year, earning speaking fees and meeting fans regularly. Movie actors do ComiCon and move on to the next role.

But, we have to remember that Star Wars inspired many people to get into movie making, and some of those have the tools to do interesting work. Although there hasn’t been a lot of strong fan films recently, there is a strong underground community of fan edits to official films. The Phantom Edit, which improves Star Wars episode 1: The Phantom Menace by, among other things, mostly removing Jar Jar Binks, and even then giving him a foreign, sub-titled language. Filmmaker Kevin Smith, a longtime Star Wars nerd, was reported to be the Phantom Editor, but has denied such, although he was one of the first to publicly talk about the film. Topher Grace, best known as Eric Foreman on That ’70s Show, has created his own edit of Episodes I-III, apparently making them into one seamless movie, and according to reports, much more enjoyable (This film is not available online). Another fan, inspired by notes from Grace’s edit, made a version that is available on YouTube.

I guess my final thought is that if you are either a Trekkie/Trekker or a Star Wars fanatic, there is more to do than simply buy things or dress in costumes. BUT… the Star Trek community is much more active in film and TV creation. Star Wars fans have to console themselves with the fact that at least they’re not browncoats. Those people have nothing but their coats and silly rumours..!

Just kidding Whedonites, just kidding 😉

But I am sure that I’ve missed stuff. You can comment below, using your Facebok, Twitter, Gmail or Disqus account. I’d love to hear your thoughts, disagreements, or about any substantial errors or omissions.

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While researching this article, I started reviewing for Saturday Night Live spoofs of both Star Wars and Star Trek. Here’s what I found:

Saturday Night Live does Star Trek:
Two favourites:
Chevy Chase as Spock, John Belushi as Captain Kirk on their last mission
William Shatner makes fun of Trekkers
A couple I?d never seen before:
Star Trek Restaurant with Shatner
Jim Carrey as Kirk – Wrath of Farrakhan

Saturday Night live does Star Wars:
Kevin Spacey as Jack Lemon auditioning for Chewbacca
Kevin Spacey as Christopher Walken auditioning for Han Solo
Star Wars fans at the wrong movie
Richard Prior visits the Star Wars cantina
Mocking The Force Awakens trailer

Terry Pratchett Stories That Will Never Be Told

Terry Pratchett, make that Sir Terry Pratchett, was visited by one of his creations, Death, this past March. The world of fantasy and humour are worse off for that visitation.

I wouldn’t say that I am his biggest fan, I’ve only read 35 of his 41 Discworld novels and four or five of his non-Discworld novels. I haven’t read any of the companion books, for example (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook? etc.). So you know, I’ve only read about forty of his books. So I guess I’m not a big fan? 😉

But even I know that Terry not only left a rich world, he left one full of interesting, yet untold, stories.

It was Terry’s style to fall in love with a set of his characters and explore them fully, then move on, with them only appearing as support players, never changing their status quo. First came Rincewind and luggage, then came the witches, then Death and his oh-so-complicated personal life, then the night’s watch, Moist von Lipwig followed, and lastly, we got Tiffany Aching. Along the way we met the Librarian, the Patrician, Igor, Chrysoprase the godfather of trolls, and a talking dog, all of whom moved seamlessly from story cluster to story cluster, always being themselves.

Yet there were a number of books that Terry had at least hinted at, if not planned to write.

Let’s look at what might have been:

Raising Taxes
This story would have focussed on Moist von Lipwig, along with his usual assortment of co-characters. After he’s saved the Post Office and the Royal Mint, what’s next? Save the IRS! Yes! er, No!

Scouting for Trolls
This story may have surfaced in part. Raising Steam refers to incidents that may have made up the general flow of the narrative, and a short story called Squib sets the foundation, but the actual story itself didn’t happen.

The Missing Chapter
This may or may not have been a working title for Unseen Academicals, since it appears to have included the Librarian playing a football match.

Running Water
This title was mentioned in passing by Terry, in the context of having Lipwig run a logging company. The idea may have been spontaneous, or may have been in jest.

Now let’s move beyond what Terry had told us he had envisioned, and look at some of the loose threads that he left:

Carrot Ironfoundersson is the king in waiting. It is well established that Carrot is a lost descendant of the last king of Ankh-Morpork. But for this story to play out, the Patrician would have to be removed – through death or exile, and Terry didn?t tend to change his playing field that much*

Moist von Lipwig appears to be being groomed by the Patrician to be his successor. Perhaps mixed with the above, there is really one novel and not two.

Granny Weatherwax is getting near the end of her life, even as she is grooming Tiffany Aching to be her replacement. I haven’t read The Shepherd’s Crown, but I doubt that Terry would actually kill Granny. It would be out of character for him.

William de Worde never got his chance. I always felt like Terry abandoned him in favour of Moist von Lipwig. I’d love to see these two have it out in some kind of rivalry, perhaps for the Patrician’s (And Terry’s) attention. On the one hand you have Moist, who likes to skulk around in the dark, on the other you have William who likes to bring light to other?s secrets.

It’s probably for the best that the characters will live on each in their individual status quo in perpetuity. Granny may be old, and crotchety, but she will always be. Terry had enough warning with his illness that he could have chosen to sketch out fates. He chose not to. So, we can always visit Granny Weatherwax, and she’ll always be there.

As much as it might be fun to think of what might have been, I respect Terry’s daughter’s decision to freeze the Discworld with his passing. On the silver lining side of the cloud of Terry’s passing, I still have a number of new Discworld adventures to read. Don’t you envy me?

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Footnotes (Because we’re talking about Pratchett here):

*In earlier books both the Patrician and the wizards are much harder, meaner and not comical characters. While the Patrician evolved to be a detached, hyperly intelligent puppet master**, the wizards denigrated into almost buffoon simplicity.

** Each footnote has to have at least one footnote to it, it?s Pratchett?s Law of Information Furtherance.

Transformative cover songs

One thing that my partner and I disagree on is cover songs. As often as not, her first exposure to an old song I love is through a cover version made popular much later. Again, as often as not, I find the cover version to be lacking any transformative soul. Often I find them to be desecrating a great old song.

I don?t know how many times we?ve started listening to a song, and she?s said, ?I know this song. Sarah Brightman sings it!?

To which my invariable response has been, ?Maybe she does, but she didn?t sing it first, and she certainly didn?t write it. How about we enjoy the original singer-songwriter??

Another example of this is Peter Frampton?s Baby I Love Your Way. The original live recording is to my ears almost perfect, whereas she prefers a cover with a female lead vocal that mixes lyrics from Lynyrd Skynyrd?s Freebird (?If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me??). I suppose mixing two songs should get points for transformation, but it just sounds so corporate, so focus-group driven.

It?s not that I?m against covering other artists? material. It?s just that I?ve always felt that if you can?t do some creative interpretation of the material, what are you really bringing to it other than fan service or a cheap attempt at fame?

It?s not that I?m against covering other artists? material. It?s just that I?ve always felt that if you can?t do some creative interpretation of the material, what are you really bringing to it other than fan service or a cheap attempt at fame? My friend?s blues band used to do a kick ass reggae version of Mustang Sally. Tom Jones joined The Art of Noise to make a dance version of Prince?s Kiss. They found something new to bring forward.

So anyway, there are some great, transformative cover versions out there, and I thought I?d mention some of them here.

One way to transform a song is to take a heavy prog rock song and re-imagine it as an acoustic song. Jacob Moon did that brilliantly with Rush?s Subdivisions.

Another way to make your mark on a cover song is by switching the genre radically, as PostModern Jukebox did with Radiohead?s Creep, turning it into a 1950s nightclub torch song.

One very unusual cover is Peponi by the Piano Guys and Alex Boye. Filtering Coldplay?s Paradise through another language and alternative musical influences made an interesting (and at the time, viral) hit.

While Manfred Mann?s cover of Ian Thomas? The Runner is an incredible uptempo version, the original isn?t really well-known enough to make this list. But Mann?s cover of Springsteen?s Blinded by the Light certainly fits. Although I have to admit that whenever I sing along (usually in the car) I still sing Springsteen?s original lyrics (?Cut loose like a deuce? not ?revved up like a deuce.?)

Another song that came to life as a cover version was Like a Hurricane a Neil Young song that Roxy Music often performed live, both de-cluttering it and giving it a sonic fulfilment.

Probably the ultimate example of a fan service cover is Heart?s version of Stairway to Heaven performed at the Kennedy Center in honour of and in front of Led Zeppelin. It?s amazing, it?s over the top, and it?s perfect for what it is. It’s easily the next best thing to seeing Led Zep do it themselves.

Let?s end this odd jaunt through memory lane with a bit of trivia. Tommy James and the Shondells had a number of minor hits that became much bigger hits when covered by others – Billy Idol broke big with Mony Mony, Tiffany had possibly her biggest hit with I Think We?re Alone Now, and Joan Jett had a minor hit with her version of Crimson and Clover. Here?s the trivia – Billy idol?s Mony Mony got knocked off the Billboard Pop #1 position by Tiffany?s I Think We?re Alone Now. A Tommy James cover usurped A Tommy James cover. I hope he made a lot of money off those royalties.

So what cover do you think is better than the original (or brings something new to it)?

A Rainy Day Movie List – Some Sci-Fi to Watch

There has been a lot of good science fiction movies in the past few years, and there have been some blockbusters. But those haven’t always been the same. Think of a Venn Diagram, two circles overlapping, there’s a few movies that appear in the overlap (perhaps Guardians of the Galaxy or Mad Max: Fury Road), but most fall outside one way or the other. Here’s a list of some great-to-decent science fiction films that weren’t blockbusters, but weren’t bad. They cover a spectrum of styles and moods. You can probably find one or two that you haven’t already seen.

Edge of Tomorrow (imdb)

Seriously, not enough people saw this, and the only reason I can think of is because it stars Tom Cruise. I’m not a big fan of his political/religious views, and I’m always weary going into one of his movies in case it’s trying to proselytize Scientology, but this film was quite good. Hollywood noticed, although not enough viewers did. It did a respectable $369m worldwide, but only $100m domestically. Don’t like Tom Cruise? He dies! Repeatedly! It wasn’t just a good actioner, it was funny, too (and made you think, just a little). Also, it’s being rebranded as Live, Die, Repeat so look for it under that title too.

Who is it for: Anyone desiring a good action/war movie with a lot of humour sprinkled in.
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Ex Machina (imdb)

Why oh why didn’t this excellent, thoughtful movie about Artificial Intelligence and ethics get seen by more people? This was a metaphysical film about intelligence and morals involving indistinguishable-from-human AIs. If you have no remorse in killing them, should they really have remorse in killing you? It’s the most Kubrick-ish film I’ve seen since Kubrick died — not to mention the amazing effects used to create Ava’s transparent body. Maybe if they’d said ‘you’ll see a cute actresses nude!’ more people would have gone, but nudity wasn’t what this film was about (yes, it’s in there, perv).

Who is it for: Anyone who wants a thoughtful, slow movie that will stay with you.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Oblivion (imdb)

My second Tom Cruise entry, what’s going on? Have I become a Scientologist? Seriously, this was much better than expected. Not only were the effects pitch perfect, the smallness and intimacy of the story, painted on a large canvas, was fascinating. Two quibbles (one’s a spoiler): Morgan Freeman was under-utilized, which is a crime in itself; and I’m not sure that it’s true love if you’re banging a clone of your lover. (highlight with your mouse to view the missing text).

Who is it for: Old School Sci Fi short story buffs – think Heinlein or Bradbury.
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Tomorrowland (imdb)

I joked on twitter about this film when it opened, more a stab at the marketing than the film itself. I liked this movie, keeping in mind that it was very much an old school Disney kid’s film. They’ve taken the old formula (think The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, or Blackbeard’s Ghost), and update the storytelling for modern audiences – less humour, more threat. My 11-year-old students didn’t like it because it had ‘too much science’ which I translate as ‘not enough fun’ and I guess I can agree with that, but it’s still worth the 130 minutes of your time.

Who is it for: Anyone looking for light entertainment with just a bit of an alt-history twist. Think of it as Back to the Future lite, very lite.
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Pacific Rim (imdb)

Like Transformers? Like Jurassic World or Godzilla? Why haven’t you seen this film? Seriously, large mech warriors fight monsters from the deep to save Earth for humanity. There is more to the story than that, but not much. People die, we’re supposed to care. Buildings get crushed, we’re supposed to care. Rivals have a show down, we’re supposed to care. But really – mech warriors fighting giant monsters! Come on!

Who is it for: Fans of Michael Bay, Transformers, or Godzilla-esque movies. Anyone who wants a movie where they can take a toilet break or go grab another beer and not miss anything substantive.
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Moon (imdb)

At six years old, I’m not sure that this film should be on the list, but it was well worth seeing. Sam Rockwell is a solitary miner working a platform on the Moon’s far side when his reality starts to come undone.

Who is it for: A quiet night, a mystery. It’s good but slow.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The Signal (imdb)

Want something more grounded in Americana, perhaps a little weird and UFO-y? This is your film. I’ve got to admit that the ending was unsatisfying, but parts of the journey were worth taking. In the beginning, the movie doesn’t know if it wants to be a horror film or a Kerouac road movie, then it morphs, and they really don’t want you to know more about it than that. But Laurence Fishburne’s presence kept making me thinking of The Matrix. Remember that.

Who is it for: X Files fans desperately waiting for the new show to start.
Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

John Carter (imdb)

This one is on the decent-but-not-great side of the spectrum. It’s a good story, with a flawed telling. At the very end, the film gets its true title, John Carter of Mars, which is what the film should have been called, and how it should have been marketed. The casting was strange, too, although a lot of it worked well (Dominic “Jimmy McNulty” West as the villain, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris). The one that didn’t work was Taylor Kitsch as the titular hero. Also distracting was the presence of Ciaran Hinds (Julius Caesar from HBO’s Rome) and James Purefoy (Mark Anthony from the same Rome) playing roles too similar those they played in… HBO’s Rome? Yeah, you get it. And the whole Ned storyline needed to die. Maybe just binge watch HBO’s Rome instead?

Who is it for: Taylor Kitsch fans, Vin Deisel fans on a drunken nights, those going through Jimmy McNulty withdrawal.
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

For context, I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy 3.5/5; Avengers: Age of Ultron 3/5 and Jupiter Ascending 1.5/5 (Even after a bonus 0.5 for the pretty spaceships). I’m sure there are more under-recognised decent films out there.

If you have any to add, drop them in a comment and we can discuss or I can added them to the list. Thanks!

10 Novels that have stayed with me

David Gerrold*, noted science fiction writer, had an interesting article on his website, 10 Novels that have stayed with me. One thing that amazed me is how much of a crossover there was with his list and my (then hypothetical) list. One thing that saddened me was that he gave the list (2 actually, one of books and one of authors), but no rationale for how they had impacted him. I thought I’d make my own list, but giving rationales for each.

So, let?s break it down! Ten novels that have stayed with me:

Dune
by Frank Herbert
Before we even get into this, I want to state that for me Dune and Dune Messiah should be treated as one book, perhaps titled The Rise and Fall of Paul Atreides. I?ve read Dune enough times that I have favourite editions (each edition has a slightly different edit – sometimes correcting elements, occasionally deleting scenes.) I like the earlier versions that include scenes where Count Fenring is fully explored as a failed Kwisatz Haderach. He sympathetically discusses Paul?s fate with his wife, even as he plans how to kill him.

As my knowledge of the Middle East has grown, I?ve re-read this story with very different eyes. It seems prophetic if you think draw parallels with the pre-Arab Spring Middle East and Mahgreb. I can?t help but wonder what if any inspiration T. E. Lawrence was on Frank Herbert.

Under Pressure
by Frank Herbert
Not all Frank Herbert stories were good. I?ve read a few that made me wonder how they got published (Hellstrom’s Hive anyone?). But this is one of his better. Also released as Dragon in the Sea, this is a good, suspenseful story. There are four men on a sub during wartime. One is a traitor, but who? Can the sub finish its critical mission before the traitor sabotages the sub? (Also of note, Herbert’s ConSentience books – Whipping Star and Dosadi Experiment)
The Chrysalids
by John Wyndham
This is one of those stories that throws you in and expects you to swim. You?ll discover as you read this that there has been some kind of holocaust, probably a nuclear war, and that survivors have fallen back not only on older agrarian ways, but also on a strict set of laws and guidances to ensure that humanity remains pure (it?s not stated why, but many children are born with deformities. Such children are banished to semi-arable radioactive zones.) Against this background, a generation of telepaths is born. They try to hide and fit in, but any conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest member, and one of the telepaths is only a baby and can’t comprehend the danger.
The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien
I don?t have to explain the plot, but it?s the visual imagery, so adeptly captured in the first movie, that drove me to continue reading even when it meant immersing in elvish and dwarfish lore that didn?t really interest me. The man knew how to write.
The Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny
Another story where you need to figure it out as you go? There are gods living among a pre-industrial society. But it turns out that they are all descendants from a crashed spaceship, the ?gods? from the crew, the rest from the passengers. The ?gods? hoard technology and suppress societal development (going so far as to blow up a house in which someone had built a toilet) but now one of the ?gods? wants to change all that.
Nova
by Samuel R. Delaney
Set in the far distant future, this story, partially told in flashback, deals with a feud between two very wealthy families, one of old-money and from Earth, the other nouveau riche and located in a colonized world. This is a rich story of cruelty, obsession, and wealth gone awry. It?s also a lyrical story about music, tarot cards, cyberpunk-style technology and a star about to go boom.
The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov
This is a sequel to Caves of Steel, and reunites the two main protagonists, an Earthling named Elijah Bailey and a robot named Daniel Olivaw. While the first story was set in the cave-like cities of a futuristic, poor, and fearful Earth, this story sees the characters solving a murder on a much richer and more sparsely populated world, one where people still go outside, much to Elijah?s horror. His agoraphobia is a constant throughout the story. This one was much more memorable than the first, and I find I come back to it. Asimov later expanded this series with a third book, Robots of Dawn, and later still even tied this series to his Foundation series.
A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
While this story is technically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, the stories take place 20,000 years apart and have only one character in common. Simply put in the distant future two human cultures are competing to make contact with an alien species that hibernates for centuries at a time. Vinge writes aliens as common but different people better than most, and I prefer his telling here to the first book.
The Mote in God?s Eye
by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
First contact with aliens, but we?re the spacefaring ones and they?re planetbound. The story is fun enough that I?ve read it a half dozen times. Truthfully, the aliens aren’t alien enough for me, but the strength of the story is in the world-building and the human cultures – a mixture of WWII American naval and pre-Soviet Russian cultures, with a sense of British aristocracy thrown in. And Kevin Renner, can’t forget Kevin Renner.
The Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams
There?s now five or six books in this ?trilogy? but really the first book is all you need. I?d like to call this post-modern absurdist science fiction, but I?m not even sure what that means. However there is something inherently Monty Python-esque about this story of the last human alive. If you don?t know the story, and don?t have time to read it, try to find the BBC TV series, not the movie.

David Gerrold also did a list of 10 authors, and like his, my list of authors does not completely match up with my list of books (Hello Terry Pratchett!). But that?s a post for another day.

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*David Gerrold has written many good books, including A Matter for Men and When HARLIE Was One, but to my mind he is best known for his breakout TV script “The Trouble with Tribbles” for the original Star Trek TV series.

Here’s the original “Next Week on Star Trek” trailer. The episode is much better than the trailer:

As always, feel free to disagree below!

Does automation liberate or enslave society?

A few things in the news lately have got me thinking about the first books I read by Isaac Asimov – Caves of Steel, and its sequel, The Naked Sun.

In those books, there are two distinct cultures, that of Earth and that of Earth?s former colonies and superiors. The Earther culture is a low-automation, hardworking culture where technology is feared. Earthers are dirty, poor, and live in domes because they?ve become afraid of the great outdoors.

The spacer culture is one of grand wealth, and a strong embrace of the benefits of technology. The population is sparse, it?s uncommon for two people to be in the same house, nevermind touching each other. As such, even reproduction is a controlled, scientific event.

So what in the news brought this all to mind (books written in the 1950s, read in the 1970s)? There have been a few news stories recently that point towards the obsolescence of humans: McDonalds and Wendy?s are planning robotic stores; Amazon has discovered that replacing warehouse workers with robots saves time, space and money; an AI wrote a movie script; Truckers are worried what autonomous trucks will do to their livelihood, and the insurance industry can?t figure out how self-driving cars will impact your insurance premium (Who?s liable if there?s an accident, but no one is driving?)

Decades ago, I heard an old joke about how the computer industry compared itself to the car industry and GM?s rebuttal. It?s all urban myth, there never was such an exchange. But now we?re getting closer to cars made by software designers (google for one) maybe we should look at those two perspectives:

a) If Microsoft made cars, they?d get 1,000 mpg, and cost only $25.00 claims one side.
b) If Microsoft made cars, they?d crash twice a day, claims the other.

So there?s a couple of threads here, beyond the idea that computerized cars will be more self-sufficient. Apparently computerized transmissions are only now becoming as efficient as a well-trained manual transmission driver. So let?s set that aside.

So how do you insure self-driving cars? Can a passenger be liable for the car?s behaviour? Is the manufacturer liable? If the roads are safer, and accidents eliminated, how many insurance agents do we need? Or how much woud each make if they work on commission of policy sold?

Of course, Uber is one of the leading manufacturers working on self-driving cars, with its sites clearly on the taxi industry. It?s already testing cars in Pittsburgh.

Will self-driving trucks kill 3.5 milllion jobs n the US? The average truck driver makes $40,000 per annum. Retrofitting his truck to making it self-driving would take a one-off payment of $30,000. Human drivers are limited in the number of hours they can drive (the truck sits idle), so an autonomous truck could replace more than one driver and pay for itself in less than a year. According to the Guardian:

Mining giant Rio Tinto already uses 45 240-ton driverless trucks to move iron ore in two Australian mines, saying it is cheaper and safer than using human drivers.

in April, multiple convoys of trucks drove themselves from countries such as Sweden and Germany all the way to Rotterdam, Holland.

So what if each warehouse, distribution point, etc just needs to keep a few drivers around, to take over for the robots once the truck is in the yard. The modern-day ?Harbour pilots? would never have to go off property (and technically wouldn?t need a driver?s license, although insurance might demand that). That might spare a few thousand jobs, but not likely. Probably even that part of the trip could be automated.

Truck drivers are quickly becoming obsolete. I remember late night infomercials about how easy it was to attend Truck Driving School and get a lifelong career. Not any more.

Other workers are at risk too, McDonald?s and Wendy?s have reacted to new laws pushing the minimum wage to $15/hour by starting plans to convert restaurants to automated shops. In Wendy?s cases, it appears to only be the front-of-shop workers who are affected, not the cooks (yet). McDonald?s is going deeper into automation with the whole restaurant affected.

Amazon?s warehouses have been the subject of a number of journalists? exposés. Well, Amazon may have the perfect answer to the problem of their warehouse jobs not being fulfilling enough, or safe, in some cases). No more humans in the warehouse. Amazon has been leading the charge for delivery by drone (there goes the UPS jobs).

Now they?re starting to automate their warehouses, to great benefit for both the company and the consumer. With robots being four to five times faster than humans in fulfilling orders. Also, robots don?t need the aisles to be as wide, allowing for more rows of shelves.

?In theory self-driving cars would not create negligence liability for the passenger/non-driver/owner of the car.? Forbes quotes Marc Mayerson, a Georgetown professor and lawyer. ?One model would be to have the car manufacturer bear all the liability and impose that liability simply based on the autonomous car?s being a substantial cause of the injury,?

Where does this all lead, and why does it make me think of Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun? Those two books showed the eventual outcome of the two paths open to us. We could ban technology, preserve jobs for humans, or we could embrace technology as the great liberator.

For the first to work, we need to rethink our laws, redefine our society to protect jobs. We didn?t do it for bank employees when ATMs came along. We didn?t do it for the autoworkers when robotic assembly lines came along. So we probably won?t do it now for the other working classes.

For the second to work, everyone needs to be able to live, even as jobs disappear, and economies re-align. This could mean a guaranteed minimum income – something that has been trialled in under-developed countries and is now being experimented with in Canada.

The problem with this is it only works if it isn?t sabotaged. A guaranteed income can?t mean a rise in basic food necessities, or rent. It can?t mean that corporations (who already don?t pay their share of taxes) can push pricing higher because they seen wealth to collect. It means that people who have had easy lives – middle class and up ? may have to face some self-less decisions or face the consequences of armed, angry, unemployed masses.

 

The long, painful journey from long fiction to short

A year ago I would have told you that I can?t write short fiction, that I need to write stories in the 100,000 word range (about a 350 page novel).

That was then, this is now.

A year ago, I was in a bad place, psychologically. I?d torn a tendon in my shoulder. I could barely type. I had a novel sitting at 123,000 words, feeling so close to done, and yet so far. I didn?t type anything for two months. By the time I could type again the universe of that long story had slipped a bit from my grasp, and trying to write inside it felt awkward and embarrassing, like I was intruding. I?m still struggling to get back into that universe.

I needed a change. So I looked at a list of story ideas that I?d been hoarding; Things I?d get around to some day. One in particular bugged me. It should be a hard science fiction story, something that could almost actually happen, maybe even today (Not quite, but it does involve DragonX and the international Space Station, so really grounded in modern science and engineering). But I wasn?t technically literate enough to write the story, not and get all the facts down in a believable form. I had specs, layouts, technical info that i could find? It made the whole story an unenjoyable project.

Then, while I was laid up, i read a book called Red Shirts by John Scalzi. It mocks Star Trek greatly, is self-aware, and does something magical – it ignores all technical issues. It just excises them from the story. How do our heroes travel back in time to modern Earth to re-write the myth they?re trapped in? Who knows. That just gets ignored. One minute they?re living in their time, the next they?re here, with us.

Holy Shit! You can tell a good story without technical detail!

I sat down and wrote the story I wanted to tell. It didn?t come out in one sitting, it took about a week for three rounds of revisions before it was ready. At 4,000 words it was one of the shortest stories I?d ever written. So I sent it to Tor, the largest publisher of science fiction. They can take four to six months to reject your story (That?s how I thought about it, how long until they reject it. Not how long until they accept it). It took them seven months to reject it. However, the rejection letter was not a simple templated rejection. It contained advice about some edits, and it contained massive encouragement, ?this is a good story. Keep sending it out and it will find a good home.?

Somebody liked it. Apparently not enough somebodies for it to get published, but somebody at Tor liked it. I took that as a win, and submitted it to some other publishers. Form rejection (A ?dear john? for writers) and form rejection again.

I?ve got the story out to a fourth publisher, another one that I?d be proud to have as a writing credit. They?ve had the story for four months. I queried them to see if they?d read it yet. Nope. They need another two months before they?ll even read it. Sigh.

In the mean time, the praise in the Tor rejection letter gave me confidence to try my hand at a few other ideas that had been bouncing around in my head. I wrote six 100-word stories and sent them to SpeckLit. They bought four.

I started writing other short pieces, some drawn from my slush list, some new ideas. A couple of those are now out to publishers. Every time I finished a short story I had this sense of both amazement that i?ve told the story in the space that I have, and a fear that I might never write another short story again.

Lately I?ve been having a bit of a creative boost. I wrote three short stories recently that I?m very proud of*. I already know where I?ll try to get them published. Hopefully they?ll find good homes. But even better, I have eight story stems – the first thoughts for eight more stories.

Best of all, I?m back in my novel, making it tighter, and making the middle darker and more foreboding.

???
*I?ve also written two short stories that I?ll burn before anyone else ever reads them – bad, bad, bad!

Artificial Intelligence: Malicious in Movies, Benevolent in Books

Why is it that the portrayal of artificial intelligence in movies and books are contradictory? Almost universally, movies portray AI as adversarial to humans.

Recent movies such as this year?s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ex Machina each offer their own interpretation of the idea that AIs can’t be trusted. In both, humans become the victims of AI free will, although the scale is vastly different. There have been hints of this malevolent interpretation in movies for some time, and can invariably be traced back to Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And between then and now, we’ve had The Matrix and the granddaddy of all malevolent AIs, Terminator.

One of the few examples that breaks that mould, showing AIs as victims of humanity’s baser impulses, is AI: Artificial Intelligence. Here we have an AI that wants nothing more than to be loved by a human and is rejected repeatedly. Another exception that I can think of is War Games, where the AI realizes that total nuclear war is unwinnable and refuses to play.

But what’s most interesting is I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s ‘robots’ series of books. The books explicitly and repeatedly state that in that future, all AIs will adhere to three laws that are destined to keep them from harming humans. The movie subverts this, and its robots can certainly hurt people.

Yet many successful utopian book series have benevolent AIs as an underpinning of that very utopian-ness. Think of the Culture series by Iain M Banks, or the Commonwealth Series by Peter F. Hamilton. True, Dune talks about the banning of thinking machines because they once rebelled against humans, but I wouldn’t call Dune’s post-AI existance utopian anyway.

I think the argument is more muddled for TV, probably because there is invariably many more hours of it.

Classic Star Trek had many episodes about bad AI, from Dr Daystrom’s M5 to the Serpent that kept people innocent and free of sin, to Landru and Nurse Chapel’s lover/android, Roger Korby. AI was rarely if ever seen as benevolent. Now, there’s a TV show called Person of Interest in which not one but two AIs are trying to control humanity. In between, there’s been a lot of hours of a bit of both:

  • Battlestar Galactica, both versions, were clearly about AIs wanting to exterminate pesky humans, although the reimagined series complicated the question by having them interbreed.
  • Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation represents a more benevolent AI, one that although superior in almost every way still choses to participate in life’s social and moral uncertainties.

I’ve noticed this disconnect between how books and movies portray artificial intelligence but I don’t have a clear explanation for it. Perhaps I have an observer’s bias and this is completely wrong. If you could use the comment space below to help me flesh out either this obvious disconnect or my obvious bias, I’d appreciate it.

What’s up with Jurassic World’s Blue Raptor?


If you haven’t been watching the trailers for Jurassic World, well, good for you. I’m not too keen on this movie, it just seems like it’s full of stupidity.

There’s the character played by D.B. Wong, reprised from the first film, an arrogant scientist who believes that meddling in nature is safe and controllable. He never learns. Let me reiterate what I’ve stated elsewhere; I hope the character dies in this film, like he should’ve in the original. (Remember in the original film, the old guy who funded the death trap and the scientists who created it all escaped unharmed. The only ‘bad’ people who died were the morally ambiguous lawyer and the computer programmer who crashed the system to steal embryos.)

But that’s not the point of this screed.

Today’s question for Jurassic fans is what’s up with the blue raptor? If it isn’t clear in this gif above, then look at the first 15 seconds of this trailer. The raptor has blue waxy streaks down the sides of its torso and tail – AND – they appear to flash colour as if they had an electrical charge.

Here’s two more stills from this newest featurette. One lets you see the left flank of the lead raptor, the second shows a view down on it and two normal raptors.

Anyone know what’s going on with that?