Sunday, 20 March 2016

Scifi World-Building - Reader Imagination vs. CGI

Recently I watched Divergent 3 at the cinema, and had to admit I was impressed by some of the images, both the dystopian ones of a burned out Chicago, and the new cities. So it got me thinking - would I rather envisage something in a book, or see it on the screen?

Of course, I'm a writer, so bear that in mind...

It used to be that cinema could never match a reader's imagination. I remember cringing at early attempts to bring one of my all-time favorite epics, Dune, to the silver screen. Later ones got better, but still, I preferred my imagination of Caladan, or Arrakis, and the Heighliner transports.

Then, recently, came Elysium, a film (very) loosely based around Larry Niven's (awesome) Ringworld classic. And I had to say to myself, okay, that's pretty neat (even if the film's ending was a huge disappointment, descending into a brawl as so many scifi movies seem to do these days).

And let's not forget Inception. I was mesmerized at some of the special effects, like the girl folding  the world in on itself like a mirror - and I thought, now how on Earth (or elsewhere) would I have described that to readers? And some of the other images in this film were particularly powerful.

And let's go back even further to Blade Runner, with its mind-blowing images of a future Los Angeles. [Did you know that the film Gandhi actually won the oscar for special effects that year instead of Blade Runner?Seriously?] Now while I love Philip K Dick's book (Do androids dream of electric sheep), which I consider more of a psychological scifi thriller, I think of Blade Runner as the best scifi film ever made, and its images will haunt me to the grave.

So, what about books that I still think they could not do in scifi? Well, a lot of battle scenes would still defy cinematic translation. The Lost Fleet series, for example, is pretty accurate on what space battles might actually look like, including the facts of time dilation. So how would that translate onto the big screen? Or Iain Banks' Excession, where space battles are over in several microseconds?

But the core issue is how we want to experience science fiction. Going to see a movie is very transitory. At most (e.g. Interstellar) we're looking at a bit under three hours. A book can last from a day to several weeks, and all the while the world-building is going on inside the reader's head, building and evolving as (s)he reads through the novel or series. It is a relationship, and a personal one between a reader and great visionary minds, whether Banks, Reynolds, Hamilton, Asher or hundreds of other great writers. And their visions don't grow old as quickly as the latest cinematic tricks do - easy come, easy go.

As a writer, I often try and come up with new visions. However, I think cinematically, and often conjure up something that I believe could be translated onto the screen. Here's an example from Eden's Trial, when humans are first taken to Ossyria Prime:

Pierre’s quicksilver eyes gazed through the space-portal. The pearl-coloured home world of Ossyria Prime, the Galactic home of medicine, grew large. It appeared as if it had been cut into a dozen horizontal slices, then re-assembled. Each section turned at a different pace, creating a hypnotic effect. He saw no large masses of water: he’d gathered from the Omskrat orb – his handy Ossyrian encyclopedia – that water was largely underground, and only occasionally precipitated in precise locations via environmental control satellites. It took him back to a forgotten childhood – it was the most beautiful marble he could ever have imagined.

But the planet I describe isn't 'sliced' for no reason, as someone explains to Pierre:

“It took them forty thousand of our years, more or less, to re-model the planet. It’s ingenious – the contradictory turning rates create magnetic flux inside the planet’s core, itself partly hollowed out and replenished with tera-tons of graphite-like material, generating almost limitless clean energy.” 

One of the key questions for any scifi writer is how people and aliens can get around the galaxy given that it is so incomprehensibly big. In the Eden series I had a ten million year old superhighway called the Grid. As in Dune, the mode of transport affected multi-alien society in subtle, and occasionally not-so-subtle ways...

Despite Micah’s attempt to play it cool as Captain, a “Wow!” slipped out as Grid Station 359 Alpha grew large in front of them on the viewscreen. It reminded him of a giant sea urchin, hundreds, maybe thousands of electric blue spines stretching out into space, myriad ships docked at the ends. The central hub was lozenge-shaped. Every part of it – and his resident told him it was forty kilometres long – glinted dark phosphorescent indigoes and blues. 
            He focused on the hub again, and realised it wasn’t the most impressive item on their viewscreen. The space-port acted as a node on a ringway, a conduit of sliding colours. Micah recalled as a kid seeing a cuttlefish at the Monterey aquarium, how it changed colours as fluently as a man utters words, different shades rippling up and down its surface. Yet this was on a more majestic scale, and wasn’t just about aesthetics. The light show was a side effect of the type of radiation his resident translated as Eosin harmonics, propelling ships around the Grid without the need for fuel. Occasionally a swathe of colour, like the aurora borealis, whip-lashed from the hub to the ringway’s horizon, indicating that another ship had just been catapulted into the Grid network.  

            The ten kilometre diameter conduit lasered into space in both directions from the hub, cutting a bold line across the black tableau of space. He focused on a particularly large vessel in the upper levels of the hub, and the resident labelled it as Varctiarian – farm produce – Ischrian leaves. He studied numerous different ships, and formed a hypothesis. Aside from a few yachts and military vessels, the Grid was mainly for commerce: Grid culture was about barter. Not only that, each race appeared to have a particular niche in the market. It made sense. After a million years, Grid society had decided its needs, and each race had been accorded one or maybe two functions. He wished people back on Earth could see it.

Can you see it? It's one of the reasons I read science fiction. I carry around images of Rama, of Foundation, of the planets Asimov's Daneel R Olivaw visited, and a hundred more. Those imagined images outlast those from films, with a few notable exceptions as alluded to above. So, for me, for now, imagination trumps CGI. There is perhaps a key difference: as readers we have to use mental effort to lift the words off the page and create an image in our mind's eye. In a film it is presented on a plate, and then whisked away. Sometimes, the path of least resistance, the easy route, is not the best way. 

I'll pay one last tribute to CGI, in the form of Ender's Game, as I really enjoyed the final battle scenes, though not quite as much as the books...

The Complete Eden Series
The Eden Paradox
Eden's Trial
Eden's Revenge
Eden's Endgame
© Barry Kirwan |
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