Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Series, soaps, and epics

Did you ever start loving a book or TV series and then disconnect from it? Maybe it went on too long, didn't seem to know how to end, or the plot just became too weird and fragmented, or the characters started acting strange?

My first love was a series. Asimov's Foundation. That's when it was only three books (he added a couple twenty years later - they were okay, but a first love is a first love). Next came Clarke's Rama series, then Herbert's seven Dune books.

Let's face it, if you love a book series, or a TV series, it is a little like being that series' lover: you can remain faithful to it through thick and thin, or if it annoys you or you lose interest, well, you can dump it and start seeing or reading something else. It's like dating. So, when does dating turn more serious and develop into a relationship? Is love-at-first-page sustainable?

I tend to be loyal. I watched the last seasons of Battlestar Galactica and Farscape, wondering what had gone wrong in the writers' heads, what had happened to those beautiful series. Some series know how to end. Fringe was one that for me was somehow made better by the Hollywood writers strike, and it stopped with dignity at Season Five and a decent closure (I wanted to move to the alternate universe, by the way).

My longest love affair with a book series has to be Dune, since some time after Frank Herbert's death, his son Brian, together with Kevin Anderson, produced several trilogy prequels, some of them brilliant. But after the nth book (yep, I actually lost count) I started to feel they didn't know how to end it, and I never finished the story, I just began not to care, like a marriage bled dry. Sad. Writing about it now, I even wonder if I should see the series one last time, check out that final book, if only for proper closure.

Then there are series I think I should stop seeing but can't. Game of Thrones, for example. I fell in love with Season One, got through Season Two, then swore I'd stop after Season Three, by which time he'd killed off so many main characters there was no one left I really cared about. But now that Season Four is out, I find myself glancing at the ads, pretending not to, like an ex I know I should stay away from, who still turns my head...

So, why does it go wrong? As with love, when I was a kid it was easier. I'd watch Star Trek religiously, and when a new Star Wars film came out there was no question, I'd go and see it. My youngest memories are of the old series of Flash Gordon, which I'd go and see every Saturday morning with my brother, spending my week's pocket money in one go. But even then I realised that the plot was being stretched to make me go back each week. It was never going to end. I loved watching Flash, so it didn't matter. But as an adult, being manipulated gets a bit irksome, no matter how pretty and seductive the series is.

An epic is supposed to be a story, or collection of intersecting stories that has a conclusion that binds them together, and a satisfying finale. Like Lord of the Rings, for example. It is self-contained. Frodo finds the ring, and has to take it to Mordor to destroy it. A lot of things happen on the way to try and stop him, but he does it, at great personal cost. The kingdom is saved. The end. [Sorry for the spoiler; please tell me you've read/seen it!]

And then there's the film version of the Hobbit. WTF? It's one small book, not a rambling trilogy of films. What were they thinking? They were thinking cash, of course.

Most (okay, all) TV series are there to make money, as in soaps, so-called because of the soap commercials that used to happen in the middle of each episode. They're designed to keep you engaged by you getting to know the characters better than your own friends, by making you care. They form relationships with you.

But that relationship is changing.

Nowadays, series are more brash, with more sex and violence, and the plots run fast and wild, going for the shock and titillation value, driven by relentless tension. Sometimes it works. Talking non-scifi for a moment, the series Homeland had a brilliant first season, an okay second, a mediocre third, and a gripping return-to-form fourth season. Like Twenty-Four Hours it excels at tension and plot twists, it keeps you guessing and dying to know what happens next, the TV equivalent of a good page-turner. But is that story? Is good sex the same as love?

Back to books, and particularly ebooks. There are many science fiction series out there by authors I'd never heard of, that are topping the charts with very long series, e.g. 'episodes' that run into double figures. It used to be that a trilogy was as far as you would go. Well, maybe five books, the last one of which would be a prequel. But now... It seems more like an addiction than love ('Is there a difference?' I hear some say).

Maybe it's just me. I still like stories; you know, a beginning and an end, with a middle that isn't eternal. So, for my own Eden Paradox series, it was meant to be a trilogy. However, an idea took mid-way through book three over that meant it ran to a fourth book, but that's definitely the end (I even called it 'Eden's Endgame' just to make sure), with no prequels planned. I recall one reviewer who quit after book 3, saying that it was good but that was enough. I felt guilty, because at the time I wasn't sure how to end the final volume, and I didn't want it to spill over into a fifth book, didn't want to lose my way in the story, or for it to become a soap...

It wasn't easy to end it. I'd carried those characters in my head for almost a decade. I still miss them sometimes. But I'm happy with the ending, and so too are my readers (except of course that the series has ended).

TV is different, of course, it's ruled by the dollar, so you don't find many TV show producers bold (insane?) enough to simply take a single epic story and screen it. Instead, they'll try to keep it running, do anything to get to Season Two (most don't make it that far), lose track in Season Three, and then it's anyone's guess, because when it was started nobody was thinking that far ahead. So here's my advice - don't start with just an idea, a new high-octane sexy TV series concept; why not find a really good story? There's plenty out there. But hey, what do I know?

So for now, I'm back to reading non-series SF, because one of the advantages of reading is that you can find a good writer (e.g. Banks, Asher, Hamilton, Reynolds, McDevitt, etc.) and then stick with them and all their different books and series, and it feels like a marriage that's going somewhere. I'm also watching Defiance (Season Two), and yes, I'll probably watch Game of Thrones Season 4, because it still turns my head, maybe for all the wrong reasons. But I'll fondly remember Star Trek Deep Space Nine's last three seasons, one long magnificent, epic story, and Lord of the Rings, which as far as I'm concerned is the best story ever told.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Science fiction and the limits of imagination

Trace science fiction back to its roots, such as H.G Wells, and it was borne of exploring what was conceivable, and not necessarily what was thought possible. A material that defeats gravity allowing people to land on the moon, for example, realised instead by rockets nearly a century later. Science fiction was often dubbed Fantastic Tales, more evocative of fantasy than anything with even a vaguely plausible scientific foundation. Then various authors came along, sometimes themselves astrophysicists, and began doing the scientific math behind the fiction, lending it the term 'hard science fiction', because it was in theory practicable.

More recently there has been a move towards 'mundane science fiction', meaning only tolerating what is theoretically possible now. I'm against this. If we are limited by what we know today - especially at the rate we are finding out new marvels in the cosmos - then our imagination is constrained, and to me the science fiction actually loses something, it becomes mundane literally as well as conceptually. As a kid I used to read 'Astounding Science Fiction', and wanted to be astounded and amazed by what Orson Scott Card calls the 'wonder factor,' what I felt when I first read Asimov and Clarke, and why I fell in love with Scifi.

But when does science fiction become science fantasy? Who gets to draw that line? And how quickly does it shift?

A recent article (read it here) shows some of the stunning facts being discovered by astronomers, ranging from stars covered with clouds of metal, to binary stars so close they are practically touching.

The link was posted by fellow SF writer Mike Formichelli, and he and I sometimes discuss the edges of what is possible given recent scientific findings. I found this article fascinating because it relates to something I put in two of my books, much to some surprise from a few SF 'hardists' who read them. I have an alien race (the Tla Beth) who live on a shielded asteroid inside a supernova. These aliens, millions of years old (not the oldest in the galaxy by the way) can also control gravity, to a limited degree.

I have also used Transpace as a means of (faster-than-light) travel, though I discount wormhole travel as unfit for humans (or any 'organic' species). In my last book, Eden's Endgame, the scope goes further than ever before, and I speculate not only about dark matter and energy, but about different types of space, and even what lies beyond black holes, and what their function is. But these aspects never take over the story; it's the characters that matter, mostly human, some alien. Characters are a product of their environment, at least partly. By placing them in strange, alien environments, we see how they react. This is how scifi authors explore human psychology, the human condition, and potential human futures.

I sometimes feel Mundane SF is borne of the idea that we are alone in the universe, or at least the galaxy. Most of the advances in my books occur via aliens far older and wiser than our civilisation. Yes, we might not be able to invent FTL travel, but maybe there are smarter aliens out there who would make Einstein seem like a dullard.

So don't get me wrong, the imagination needs to serve the story, and it is up to the author to lay down at least semi-plausible argumentation, which has some grounding in theoretical possibility, as otherwise it has the feel of magic, and crosses that once indistinguishable line from science fiction to fantasy.

One of my favourite reviews was from somebody who said he has been reading science fiction for fifty years and never seen some of the ideas in my books. I know I'll never write SF as accurately as Peter Hamilton, or as well as Iain Banks, but if you're looking for ideas, and want to occasionally feel that 'wonder factor', Eden isn't such a bad place to start.

The Eden Paradox - where we find out we are not alone
Eden's Trial - where humanity is called to account
Eden's Revenge - where it gets personal
Eden's Endgame - where it all ends

Monday, 2 February 2015

Inner Space & science fiction

Last night I watched the Norwegian film Pioneer, a thriller partly based on real events concerning  deep sea diving near the oil rigs in the North Sea back in the 70s. I loved it for three reasons: I love deep diving, I used to work with oil rigs, and I used to live in Norway (still miss it). What's it got to do with science fiction? For me, quite a lot.

The film pretty much opens with a scene where a diver leaves the diving bell in pitch darkness of deep water (300 metros of it) lit in stark black and white by the lights on his torch, and free falls slowly to the silty bottom of the sea. When I do deep diving, this is what it feels like, and it is probably the closest I'll ever get to what an astronaut might feel being weightless, drifting towards the surface of a new planet where no one has set foot before. And when the divers walk, it reminds me of when I was a kid, watching the first astronauts walk across the surface of the moon.

In the early 80s I worked on the safety of offshore oil rigs in the North Sea, with companies ranging from Shell to Statoil and Norsk Hydro (and Statpipe, the company mentioned in the film), and ventured offshore a few times, which was sometimes hair-raising, like when I was hoisted from a boat up thirty metres onto a floating rig via a crane, without any attachments; the advice was 'Don't let go'.. right, I got that already.

But I loved the intensity of life on the rigs - they are dangerous places - you fall off one into the North Sea in winter and either the fall
kills you, or if you're not in a survival suit you'll be dead in a few minutes. As part of my job I studied and worked to prevent recurrences of accidents such as when a rig overturned (Alexander Kjelland, Norway 1977) or blew up (Piper Alpha, UK sector, 1988), and occasionally got to interview people who had been in offshore accidents or incidents. I remember one man telling me how he ran along the deck of a burning rig, chased by rapidly expanding fire, and dived into a lifeboat, whereupon they slammed the hatch shut (he was the last) and a blast wave of fire slammed into the boat, rocking it before they descended to the surface of a rough sea.  Reminds me of scenes from Alien, or pretty much any scifi film where they are evacuating a failing ship. He told me that when there's an evacuation offshore and you're in the thick of it, that's when you discover the color of adrenaline is brown. Something my character Zack should have said.

What people don't often see is how developed things can be underwater, on the sea or ocean floor, so much so that it starts to look like an underground town or city with small structures and even deep sea habitats strewn along the barren sea floor. Aside from the bubbles, it looks like a scifi movie and another planet, yet it's here and now, beneath tons of pressure. And deep sea divers live down there for weeks at a time, working and then depressurizing so they don't get decompression sickness (DCS) or the bends, so-called because nitrogen bubbles flush out of the blood stream and get caught in the joints (e.g. elbows, finger-joints), and one of the ways to relieve the pain is to 'bend' the joints. I once knew an ex commercial diver who could no longer make a fist, because his joints were so seized up from recurrent minor DCS.

I've had my own scary moments underwater, including getting lost inside a wreck at fifty metres, having to do in-water recompression (don't ask), getting stuck under a layer of hammerheads at 6am in Borneo at serious depth,and being involved in five rescues as an instructor, one at sixty-four metres. So I really enjoyed the spirit of diving in the movie, and the main guy's obsession with depth.

These days my diving is purely recreational, the shot here taken recently from the Maldives where a dozen of us were looking for hammerheads - we found plenty of other sharks but no hammerheads, they like depth, too. Diving continues to inspire my science fiction writing because it's an alien world (more harmonious than you might think), and as a diver hearing the sound of your breathing all the time (hopefully), you never for one moment forget you are in a  dangerous habitat, one you're not actually suited to. As a diver, you're the alien.

It's no coincidence, therefore, that in a couple of my books there are actual diving sequences, one set in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean in the world, another in an underground ocean on the planet Esperia. And who knows, the first life we encounter in our solar system may well be in the icy waters of Io around Jupiter. Then we'd have astronauts who are divers. Aside from the amount of training and technology, I'm not sure there's so much difference.

The Eden Paradox Series
The Eden Paradox
Eden's Trial
Eden's Revenge
Eden's Endgame

© Barry Kirwan |
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