Friday, March 25, 2011

Top 5 SF Megaprojects that Would Have Had a Tough Time Getting Budget Approval

Anyone who's followed the news when a megaproject is proposed, like a new hydro-electric dam, or a highway or railway, or the design, construction and purchase of a fleet of new ferries, knows that there are huge obstacles to getting budget approval for them. Politicians, bureaucrats, business interests, lobby groups and the public can all stonewall spending in one way or another, sometimes making it a miracle that anything large and expensive gets accomplished at all.

Speculative fiction is full of megaprojects. Everything from city-sized space stations to colonizing expeditions to super weapon development. Some of these expenses are understandable because there may have been cost-sharing (like the Babylon stations in Babylon 5) or long-term benefits or the unifying motivation of national pride or a rich guy's personal dream fulfillment (such as Sad King Billy's city of poets in Hyperion) or whatever. But others make me think they probably got a pretty rough ride in budgetary hearings before they got a grudging go-ahead to start cutting cheques and begin development.

Here are, to me anyway,

The Top 5 Megaprojects that Would Have Had a Tough Time Getting Budget Approval:

5) The Starfighter Legion - from The Last Starfighter
When the peaceful Star League is confronted with imminent invasion by the Ko-Dan Empire and its ally, the traitor Xur, its citizens begin allocating resources to the construction of a military base and a fleet of Gunstars, along with a program to recruit and train starfighters and navigators to man the heavy fighters. Problem is, the people of Rylos - and we're led to believe the citizens of the other League worlds as well - are pacifists. For thousands of years they've worked to weed-out violence in their culture until it is virtually non-existant. What's more, the mere thought of violence makes them physically ill (as evidenced by the look of distaste on the Rylan official's face when he talks about the "gift" to be starfighters, and the novelization where author Alan Dean Foster goes into greater detail about the level of discomfort brought about by thoughts of violence). Anyone in this society who is even remotely tetchy is treated for mental illness, hence the great challenge of finding those capable of not only working on the base, but actually piloting the spacecraft and firing their weapons. You'd think in a society so relentlessly pacifistic there would be serious political, bureaucratic and public opposition to paying for this project. It would be easy to believe that there would be a big push to instead use the funding to support the superior scientific minds of the League in a project to simply augment the defensive shielding of their Frontier drones to do a better job of keeping the warlike aliens out. There must've been some serious political wrangling to get the Legion's budget approved in the years and months before the actual Ko-Dan attack.

4) The repair/replacement bill for the ships lost fighting the Reavers over Mr Universe's moon - from Serenity
So many ships damaged or destroyed, so many lives lost, so many angry surviving families and insurance companies with so very many lawyers. There's no doubt that in the wake of the firefight over Mr Universe's moon at the end of Serenity that some hard questions were asked in Parliament. And not just about the release of classified information on the planetary pacification program or the Reavers. No, there would be some bureaucrats and politicians seriously cheezed about the titanic expenses resulting from when one Operative went wild and pushed an independent contractor freighter captain of marginal legality into severely escalating a custody dispute. The cost of the lawsuit settlements for benefits payouts alone would constitute a megaproject, never mind the money needed to repair whatever crippled Alliance ships that managed to limp away from the fiasco. Then there would be the parliamentary bill to build replacement ships for the ones destroyed in the fight - lots of new capital ships and support vessels with the latest technology from a whole assortment of design firms and contractors just waiting to cash-in. No, it wouldn't be cheap, and it sure wouldn't be easy to get that past the Alliance's naval budgetary appropriations committee. No bureaucrat would want to divert money from their pre-existing budgets, and no Member of Parliament would want to go back to their world and have to explain to taxpayers why their taxes were going to jump to pay for a massive military replacement.

3) The Ringworld - from Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The idea of the Ringworld, or any Dyson sphere or similar supermassive construction really, has always struck me as alternately ultra-cool and yet politically and economically ridiculous. Here's a culture that's decided (maybe because it likes the idea of maximizing the efficient use of energy from its parent star, maybe because it likes the idea of having a whole lotta land so everyone can have a really big back yard with a swimming pool, maybe because it likes the idea of staying close to home) to sink staggering resources (as in quite likely tearing apart all planets in the solar system) over huge amounts of time into building a ring or a shell around a star. Now, if your civilization had that level of knowledge and technology to build the ultimate mega project, wouldn't you also be able to figure out that it would probably just be quicker, easier and cheaper to colonize other habitable worlds in other star systems? Remember, in Niven's Known Space, faster-than-light travel is possible, so high-tailing off to colonize other planets isn't too big of a deal. And when you're talking about a civilization with the ability to tear apart whole planets to build massive constructions around a star, it's not like there's be much chance of serious opposition from native species on those prospective colony worlds. They colonizers could simply break out the mass-drivers, snag some local asteroids, and bomb them back into the stone age - with stones! - then move in and rebuild their society on the new world. You'd also think that a civilization with this capability would know that stars don't last forever, sooner or later they swell into red giants and die off. Any civilization that's building a ring or sphere is clearly in it for the long haul, and should realize its super-long-term chances of survival are best served by moving to other younger star systems, rather than hanging around the home system in a ring or sphere that's going to be torn apart, melted, or otherwise destroyed when the home star starts to expand in its grumpy old age. Because of this, I have to wonder if when the builders first proposed the Ringworld to others of their civilization, if they weren't met with opposition from more conservative elements who would refuse to spend the time, effort, and possibly money on a project that's doomed in the long term and certainly more costly than just packing up the kids and moving to the next system over.

2) The Encyclopedia Foundation - from Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
In the last years of the Galactic Empire, psychohistorian Hari Seldon has crunched the numbers and knows he has to set up a colony on the outskirts of civilization to preserve knowledge and shorten the dark age that lies ahead from tens of thousands of years to a single millennium. So he concocts a grand scheme of setting up this colony of great minds that will rebuild society and disguising it (because he wants to minimize the chances of war-like civilizations preying on it) as a project to compile an encyclopedia of the sum total of all humanity's knowledge. Really? A whole planet just to put together an encyclopedia? All the politicians of the imperial court and all the staff of the galaxy's bureaucracy are supposed to buy that? Let alone allocate the vast amounts of money necessary to set up a government-funded colony of several thousand people with all the latest technology, toys and trinkets? Not likely. My memory of Asimov's Forward the Foundation and the other prequel books written in the late 80's/early 90's is a bit dim, but I seem to recall that Seldon had taken the Emperor into his confidence and obtained his approval for the project. But I also seem to recall that the Emperor was not long on the throne before being assassinated or dying by some illness or accident. Which creates the very real problem of what his successors and ministers would do about the project. To get funding - more importantly, to sustain that funding through the various years-long construction, colonization, and supply-before-self-sufficiency stages, would require that the entire imperial government apparatus know what was going on; everyone would need to know that this was really an ark, not just a big book. And they didn't, because again, this was a secret. So here you have a line-up of new emperors in the next few years, not to mention a horde of politicians and bureaucrats, who think this whole expense (when they bother to give it any consideration at all) is about compiling a book, which, let's face it, a computer could do in a fairly short period of time, and which they'd reasonably expect had already been done at any of a number of universities around the galaxy, or could be done if the order was given. I was a reporter long enough to know that when politicians and bureaucrats don't know what a project is and what it's real goals are, they won't fund it. Hell, even when they do know what's going on, half the time they don't want to fund it either! When the Emperor died, Seldon would have lost his backer. His successor either wouldn't know about the project's true purpose, or wouldn't agree that it had value, and would could very well put the kybosh on it. Worse, the new emperors might not know about it at all, and the Foundation project could get stonewalled by a bureaucrat for red tape reasons, to save money, for political opportunism, or out of simple mean-spiritedness. It's amazing that Seldon's Foundation worked as long as it did, but more amazing still that it actually succeeded in getting the budgetary approval to get its start.

1) The Death Star - from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
One of the throw-away lines that's never really explained in the original Star Wars movie is why the Emperor decided to finally dissolve the Senate. Oh sure, we know he's a power-mad Sith lord asshole who can't tolerate the idea of anyone else having any real say in how the galaxy will be governed, but he could have told the politicians to go home at any time in the years after he assumed total control. There had to be something real or imagined that provoked him. In recent years, I've started to wonder if it was because the Senate was taking Palpatine to task over cost-overruns on the newly-operational Death Star. Oh sure, there's probably some Star Wars super fanboy out there who knows the everything about everything in Lucas' creation and is able to dig deep into the expanded universe to find the real explanation in the backstory of some minor character like that little hamster guy making gimme-gimme motions for his drink at the bar in the cantina in Mos Eisley to prove he was instrumental in bringing down the Senate by having sex with Palpatine's favourite pet Gungan disguised as the senator from the hammerhead planet or something. But I'm sticking with the budget theory. I think, shortly before Princess Leia was captured, a copy of the final bill for Death Star I was given to the Senate committee overseeing the Imperial Navy's budget. The cost of the station would have been hell to justify in the first place. After all, the civil war was over; the galaxy was at peace. Why, the senators might reasonably ask, would the Emperor need to build a war machine as big as a moon? Couldn't the current fleet of Star Destroyers, with the projected and budgeted-for replacements over the next few years, continue to do an adequate job of keeping the peace? The Death Star may have greater firepower than the fleet, but it isn't anywhere near as maneuverable as the ships, and can't be in as many places at once. In terms of suppressing the growing Rebellion, spending fewer credits adding more ships to the fleet makes more sense. "Ah yes," cackles Palpatine and his admirals, "But the Death Star can destroy an entire planet! That'll show them!" To which the Senators might narrow their eyes (or whatever they sense the environment with) and say "The Rebels, and even the planet's inhabitants, might have it coming, but what about all the valuable resources you're destroying in the process, never mind the tax revenues from those inhabitants - at least while you've got them in your tight grip?" That would have been enough to seriously piss the Emperor off, so the Senators, wanting to live a while longer, would probably have passed the initial Death Star budget. But as the years passed and the thing got closer to completion, costs were sure to soar. Supply lines might have been endangered by Rebel attacks, driving up the cost of materials. Add to that the cost of labour (and I can't comment any better than Kevin Smith did in Clerks), and other assorted incidentals, and costs were probably getting way beyond the initial estimates. When the station went operational and the final bill was presented to the Senate, there was probably an uproar. So much so that Palpatine probably told them to fuck off and go home and then threw one or two of their hover pods around with the Force for good measure. Sure, he rammed the cost through the budget process, but he couldn't do it without serious political opposition and without removing the last vestige of democracy that had probably prevented the Rebellion from further escalation. For that reason, because Palpatine had to push the Death Star funding through so much serious budgetary opposition that it contributed to the eventual downfall of his government, this megaproject tops the list.

So what megaprojects of SF do you think would have faced a tough time getting budget approval?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Paul

Think of Starman. Now, instead of having The Dude from The Big Lebowski having sex with Karen Allen, think of Zack from Zack & Miri Make a Porno in the body of one of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind xenomorphs hitching a ride with a couple of English nerds and assorted others. Insert an asteroid belt's worth of SF in-jokes and you've mostly got the idea behind Paul. Mostly.

The latest gem from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost tells the tale of a pair of fanboys who've come from the UK on the ultimate geek's pilgrimage: to attend the San Diego Comicon, followed by a roadtrip to see various alleged alien landing sites and conspiracy locations around the American west. One night while driving their winnebago (which continually gave me flashbacks to Lonestar & Barf's ride in Spaceballs - and I'm not sure whether that was intended by Pegg & Frost or not) on a lonesome highway they witness a car crash. When they come to offer help, they're met by a stereotypical big-headed alien named Paul who asks for a ride. Turns out he's not just another extraterrestrial trying to get home, he's also a wisecracking, frequently rude, ganja-rocker who's got a pretty down-to-earth outlook on life. Along the way the boys pick up a trailer park worker and are relentlessly hunted by a trio of federal agents played by Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, and Joe Lo Trugilo (who are themselves hounded by their boss Sigourney Weaver), not to mention an angry dad and the occasional redneck.

And, as mentioned, there are enough science fiction references to satisfy a legion of nerds. Most are pretty obvious, enough so that non-geeks in the audience will get them and laugh, but none-the-less endearing to fanboys and fangirls. Then there are more scattered here and there that are more subtle. No spoilers, but pay attention to the name of one of the restaurants in the first half of the movie, and listen closely to the bluegrass band in the back half. And then there are the ones that will earn you your ultranerd badge if you can pick up on them. Again, no spoilers, but let's say I was the only one in my audience of 300 who laughed at Pegg's homage to Star Trek: Generations. There's no doubt that half the appeal of the movie will be rewatching it on DVD once or twice just to pick up on the allusions that are missed in the first viewing.

Is there anything truly profound about Paul? Does it examine the question of what an extraterrestrial's perceptions of life in general and Earth and American culture in particular would be? Does it probe (heh-heh, "probe") the depths of the human condition and our views on existence? Nope. But it's funny as hell. Paul isn't trying to be a deeply moving drama or existentialist art-house flick. It's a straight-forward roadtrip comedy and it works very well in this capacity. It's also a loveletter to SF (and here I'm borrowing very appropriate wording from the CBC's review) and is genuine and well-crafted in this respect too. And it benefits from a cast of likable characters. Do all of the jokes work? No. Some fall flat. But most are funny enough to elicit a chuckle and a lot are worth a full-on laugh.

For SF fans and non-fans alike, Paul is definitely worth paying full price to see at the theatre.

What I Didn't Expect to Hear in the Movie Line-up

The last thing I expected to hear Saturday night when my wife and I were waiting in line to get to the ticket counter at our local bazillionplex theatre was a very serious discussion about temporal duplication.

Sure, if there were any science fiction or comic-based or fantasy movies currently running in the theatres featuring time travel as a plot device, I could understand people standing around waxing philosophical or busting out some physics about whether there could be multiple versions of a person coexisting in the same time frame as a result of time travel. But there aren't. So this was coming out of nowhere.

Since we had a few minutes before we'd be at the front of the line to get our tickets to see Paul, I couldn't help but eavesdrop a little.

I had to smile because it was an 8-year-old kid trying to convince his dad.

"Really, think about it," says the kid, "If a guy went through a time portal into his past, then lived forward to the point where he went through the portal, then followed himself through, there'd be three of him!"

The expression on the dad's face for the next few seconds shows that he's twisting this around in his mind like a Rubik's Cube, giving it serious thought.

"No," Dad says, "I don't think so. I think you'd only have the one guy."

"No, it'd be three." Insists the kid, running his hands through his hair like one pitmaster running up against an equally obstinate meat aficionado in a sauce vs no-sauce debate. "You're not considering the effect of the radiation-"

[Huh? Radiation? I thought, My knowledge of physics is admittedly pretty elemental, but time portals generating radiation that could contribute to duplicating a person? Not so sure about that, kiddo...]

"I don't think the radiation would have that effect." says the father.

And on they went, but I missed the rest as it was now time for us to get our tickets.

I loved this whole exchange. For the sheer, unabashed public nerdiness of it. But most importantly because this kid had a dad who would not only indulge his geeky chatter, but give it real consideration and participate in it.

That's an experience I would never have been able to have with my dad - not at that age, and not now. I love the old man, but he isn't a geek, doesn't understand that stuff, and doesn't care about it. If I'd have tried to engage him in a discussion like that when I was eight, I probably would have received a half-hearted "Oh?" for a response before he turned his attention elsewhere.

I can't say whether this dad in the theatre the other night was a fanboy or not, but he made the effort, and that's an achievement as great as constructing a time portal in my books.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Forget the Zombies & Aliens, Are You Ready for a Real Disaster?

As science fiction and fantasy fans, we're well-versed in the subject of mind-blowing, world-altering disasters. We watch them and read about them over and over, and discuss them ad-nauseum online and at conventions. But in the wake of the recent tragedies in Japan and New Zealand, I thought I'd take a quick break from SF in this post and ask whether you're prepared for a real emergency.

Put aside the so remotely unlikely that they're for all intents and purposes impossible SF-relegated scenarios like an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse. Then let's put aside the geologically occasional but in human terms by no means regular catastrophes like large meteorite/asteroid/comet impacts and supervolcano eruptions.

Let's focus on the sadly more common emergencies that you will likely have to deal with (one or more of them) at some point in your life. The house fires, highway pile-ups, train derailments, toxic spills, avalanches, blizzards, tornados, volcanic eruptions, disease quarantines, city-wide power outages, civil unrest, floods, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, forest fires, and yes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

One thing I've noticed, both as a former news reporter/anchor and as a current volunteer emergency preparedness session presenter for the City of Vancouver, is that most people are aware of the possible disasters that could happen in their regions, but they're not actually prepared for them. They haven't thought through a plan to deal with disaster and they don't have supplies to help themselves or their loved ones and neighbours. Admittedly, in some cases the forces of nature are just too powerful, but generally, taking the time to make a plan and create emergency kits tends to make life a little easier for people dealing with emergencies.

If we, as geeks, are supposed to be the smart ones, the ones who discuss all these eventualities or possibilities that just don't occur to most people, shouldn't we be the ones who are prepared to face an emergency?

Have you made a home/work disaster plan?

Do you have an emergency kit ready if you need it at a moment's notice?

If the answer is "no", here are 10 tips for emergency planning that we teach people in Vancouver's Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Program. They're not just for people living on the West Coast of North America - they're helpful for people living anywhere to plan for most types of emergencies that you could face.

1) Identify the hazards in your area.
What's most likely to happen in the region where you live and work? Is it a blizzard, earthquake, train derailment, or something else? The type of emergency you might have to face can affect your planning and definitely what you'll include in your emergency kits.

2) Establish a family meeting place.
If something does happen (whether it's a house fire or a major natural disaster) and your family has to evacuate your house, or can't come back to your house, where will you meet up? This should be somewhere nearby that everyone in your family knows where it is and can reach easily on foot. Maybe the home of a trusted friend or family member? A local community centre or park?

3) Establish an out-of-area contact.
This is someone who does not live in your region who would not be effected by any natural disaster that you might have to deal with. If there is an emergency, your family might be split-up (maybe you're at work when it happens, your spouse/partner is at home, and your kids are at school) and unable to reach each other or communicate with each other. However, it might be possible that social services at a disaster shelter could get word out to a friend or family member outside of the affected area. This person, your out-of-area contact, can act as your family's communications link, letting everyone know as they check in how the rest of the family is doing and where they are waiting. Make sure everyone in your family knows who your out-of-area contact is and what that person's phone number is.

4) Emergency kits.
These are your emergency supplies. In most places, governments will quickly set up disaster shelters to get people out of the weather and offer food and medical care, but sometimes it takes a while for these services to get up and running, and you may have to travel a bit to reach them. It can make your life a lot easier if you have emergency kits ready with the essentials that you will need/want. Here are the different kinds of emergency kits you should have:
  • a) Grab-and-go kits. This is exactly what it sounds like - a duffle bag or backpack in your home that you can grab easily on the run and take with you as you get out of your house quickly. It should have essentials that you'll need for at least 3 days. A first-aid kit is a must. You should also include food and water, a flashlight (preferably crank-powered, or with extra batteries stored separately), a radio (crank-powered radio/flashlight combos are widely available), a blanket or plastic rain poncho, a knife, matches, an extra sweater, work gloves, toiletries, any medications you require, anything else you think you might need. Everyone in your home should have their own grab-and-go kit (that includes having a separate bag for each of your pets with items and food/water they will need).
  • b) Home kits. These are larger emergency kits with all of the essentials listed above and, again, anything else you think you might need (like candles, a tarp, rope, cooking apparatus, more batteries, more food/water, more first aid supplies, books or games to pass the time with, more clothing & blankets).
  • c) First aid kits. This is a no-brainer. Every type of emergency kit you have should include a first aid kit. Make sure all of your first aid kits are fully supplied, and ensure there is a first aid kit for every grab-and-go kit in the family.
  • d) School kits. If you've got school-aged children, think about putting a small version of a grab-and-go kit in their schoolbag with a first-aid kit, contact numbers for you and other trusted family and friends, water and food, etc. Ask your child's school what its emergency plan is... Does it have emergency supplies of its own? What is the school's policy about caring for children during a disaster, especially if parents aren't able to reach their children by the end of the school day?
  • e) Car kits. Another no-brainer. Keep an emergency kit in the trunk of your car with your jumper cables and other auto necessities. You don't want to be stranded on the highway without emergency supplies if you get stuck in a disaster.
  • f) Work kits. Keep a small grab-and-go kit in your desk drawer if you work in an office in case you need it. Ask your employer about their emergency plans. Does the office have emergency supplies ready if employees are stranded there? Ladies: consider keeping an extra pair of running or hiking shoes under your desk - high heels may look great, but it'll be hard if you have to walk in them through a couple of kilometres of rubble, snow or water.
5) Food & water
Store foods that require little to no preparation and will store safely for a long time. Try to get foods that are familiar to your family (less stress during an emergency if you don't have to worry whether your kids will eat that brand of canned soup or dried noodles). Try to get foods that are low in salt/sodium so that they will not increase your thirst. Keep enough food to last everyone in your home for at least 3 days (preferably 7 days, because you don't know how long it will take your government to get help to you). For water, have at least 4 litres per person per day ready.

6) Prepare your home.
You can do a few things that might make your home safer such as checking your hot water tank to make sure it's secure. Something that's very important to us nerds: bookshelves! Make sure they're secured to a stud in your wall to minimize the risk of them falling on you. Look around your home to see if you have heavy items up high on shelves or in your kitchen, consider whether you can move them to lower storage spaces or make them more secure so they don't fall on you. Attach door fasteners to your cupboards to reduce the chances of them opening and dumping items on top of you.

7) Utilities and fire prevention.
Make sure everyone in your home knows how to get out of it in an emergency (and where to meet-up afterwards). Ensure you've got a working smoke detector and fire extinguisher. Know where your gas, electrical and water shut-offs are.

8) Plan for helping vulnerable populations
Do you have children, seniors, or people with disabilities living in your home? What about your neighbours? These people may need your assistance in the event of an emergency. Be sure to plan how you will help get these people to safety. If they require special equipment (like a walker or wheelchair), be sure you know how to help the person get to safety in/with this equipment.

9) Plan to help your pets
Pets are part of the family too! Make sure you plan for their safety. Have a grab-and-go kit specifically for your dog/cat/bird/whatever that you can take with you along with your animals if you have to evacuate. Include food, water, medications, a collar and leash, bowls, vaccination & registration papers, toys, a blanket, kitty litter or newspaper and plastic bags for waste, and a carrying cage/kennel. Anything else they might need.

10) Practice your plan.
Hey, your parents and teachers were right: practice makes perfect! Practice your disaster plan and check your emergency kits at least once (preferably twice) every year. That's a good way to keep your food/water supplies fresh and to consider whether you need to add anything else to your emergency kits or if you need to alter your evacuation plan.

If you've got a disaster plan and emergency kits, you'll be better prepared for an emergency. If you're prepared, you'll be in a better position to help your family and friends and others in your community.

For more tips on emergency preparedness, visit the City of Vancouver's emergency preparedness pages.

Or check the website of your city/regional/provincial/state/prefecture/national government to get information specific to your area.

You can also get lots of helpful information from the Red Cross/Red Crescent branch in your country.

Stay safe.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Marking International Women's Day - The Best Female SF Characters

Today is International Women's Day, a time to reflect on the accomplishments of women around the world and the challenges that still lie ahead.

Certainly women have always played an important role in creating and guiding speculative fiction, from Mary Shelley at the dawn of the genre, to Leigh Brackett, Octavia Butler, Alice Sheldon, Phyllis Gotlieb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Judith Merril, Nalo Hopkinson, Kit Reed, Naomi Novik, Cherie Priest and many, many more.

As memorable and influential as the authors (and directors and producers and pencillers and inkers and letterers) are, so are the female characters that we get to know in science fiction, fantasy, and comics. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at who some of the best female characters are in SF, and what makes them so interesting, and most of all, why are they important?

And because it's International Women's Day, I thought it was especially important that I get a woman's perspective on this issue. So I've gathered a group of female friends who are from different walks of life and different parts of the country, but who all share a life-long
love of SF to share their opinions. I'll throw in my to cents as well, but today, it's ladies first.

First up, my oldest friend, Sam McCreath, university student, private school housemother, and the person who tried (and failed) to get me to like
Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels:

"Discovering sci-fi & fantasy at an early age is what really turned me on to
reading. As a young-ish girl I first found Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, then Mercedes Lackey's books. I was attracted to their female characters, each of whom was strong, independent, and intelligent. They represented an image of being a girl which is often missing in mainstream literature and other media. The stereotype of being female that required being rescued instead of a woman saving herself never appealed to me. In sci-fi and fantasy, strong female characters are the norm, not an interesting plot twist.

"My appreciation continues today. I’ve found shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Resident Evil, the Lara Croft character in Tomb Raider, and even some of the Bond Girls portray an image of femininity based on strength rather than being compromised by it."

Another friend, Sarah Corbeil, a financial analyst, and hoarder of books with a collection that may rival (or exceed) my own in size, had this to say:

"For me, the female characters in SF that are the best or most important are the strong characters who are women in stories where the fact that they are women is irrelevant and plays little or no part in the point of the book.

"For example, the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. The books cover the career of a very strong woman, starting from a young age and mov
ing forward/upward through her career to various command positions. The fact that she is a woman isn't even emphasized; in fact, it is her class that causes issues in her society. When the series takes you to a planet where women are considered less than men, it was interesting seeing the two societies clash as Honor's people learn to deal with people who look down on women, believing them incapable of things they take for granted. Over several books you see Honor and her society change the views of this planet as she refuses to be anyone but her
self. Honor is respected as a person, and it has nothing to do with her being a woman."

My cousin, Jenn Eades, is an entrepreneur and mother, and used to watch
Battle of the Planets/G-Force/Gatchaman with me when we were kids, and always had a Stephen King book by her side as a teen, summed up her thoughts in
one word:


My friend Nicole Yamanaka, a kinesiologist, personal trainer and fitness studio owner, and truly amazing costume maker, had this take on the question:

"As a woman, my love for comic books has always been kind of a 'Secret' (a badly kept one, at that) because it just wasn't cool, even though I spent hours at comic book stores and religiously make reference to Star Wars Day (May 4th, but I'm preaching to the choir here)! My love for comic characters has been a huge influence on my life, ever since childhood.

"Catwoman, since the campy
Batman TV show days, has always captured my heart. Admit it, the majority of you women out there have this strange affinity for felines (sexy!) but the appeal to the tom-boy, bad girl in all of us is also satisfied. I don't know if I love her because I love cats, orif I love cats because I love her. Call me sick and twisted, a martyr, or an angry anti-hero and tormented type, which is probably why the Tim Burton version (okay, I love black vinyl and leather too) resonates with me so much. And finally, I do happen to have two 6+ foot bull whips in my possession, which I love dearly and do play with from time to time. Clients hate that. Which brings me to the second big love in my life, Rogue, of X-men fame.

"When I discovered this character, I wished that I was indestructibe and, yeah, that I could fly too. Being a science major, I knew self-propelled flight was out of the question, so when my boyfriend at the time suggested I start weight training (I think he was sick of my whining), I took it up. And it stuck. So I have Rogue to thank for dropping the seed in me that lead me to my career as a kinesiologist, personal trainer, and attempting feats of flight through climbing, pole dancing and whatever else I can laungh myself off of.

"There are a million fun female characters that have meant a lot to me, for various reasons, but I'll stop there before you all get glassy-eyed and skip away from Robin's blog.

"Many women in
my life laugh at these stories and judge me for loving a gal in spandex and critique the negative image of women in comics. But I prefer to see the beauty and good in what they can (and have done) for me. At this stage of my life, I look back at the complexity of the women in fiction and realize that we are drawn to them because of how real they are. Story lines, character development, conflicts... they resonate because we see ourselves. Take away the powers and the costumes and what do you have? Us. Simply, and beautifully, just us. I have learned a lot about myself through fictional characters and watched myself evolve through my attachment to certain strong female 'role models'. We take the good from them, leave the bad (I should hope) and make our lives a little richer, if not a little funner (yes, I know 'funner' isn't a real word, but that's why English is so awesome) sometimes, too."

And my wife, Phoebe Lau, an entrepreneur and administrative professional, who always has the last word in this house, had this to say:

"Zoe from Firefly has to be one of my favourite female characters. She's comfortable with being tender and loving with her husband, but she's also a soldier who doesn't take crap from anyone (even Wash) and fights 'till the end. I've also always like Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan, from The Lord of the Rings... another great fighter, responsible for taking down the Nazgul king."

Thank-you, ladies!

For my part, there are a lot of female SF characters that I think are worthy of highlighting:
Martha Jones and Donna Noble from Doctor Who - smart, adult Companions who supported the Doctor but also stood up to him; Admiral Jane Roland from the Temeraire books; Athena and Six from BSG who grew into so much more than replicants; Brawne Lamia from the Hyperion books; Zoe from Firefly; Aeryn Sun from Farscape; Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen in the A Song of Ice and Fire series; Galadriel from LOTR, who joined her family's mad rebellion in the elder days of Middle Earth but settled down to rule with wisdom; Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies (except the fourth, which was so bad we shall not name it); Uhura from Star Trek; Chrysalis from the Wild Cards shared universe; Sultana Katima from Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt; Machiko Noguchi from the first Aliens vs Predator comic series; Yu Shu Lien from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; Briar Wilkes in Boneshaker; Fio Piccolo, whose aeronautical engineering genius keeps the pig in the air in Porco Rosso; and General Susan Ivanova and Delenn (too many titles, so much greatness) in Babylon 5. And I can't forget Wonder Woman, who, when I was just a little guy in the 70's, I first saw incarnated as Linda Carter camping across the TV screen, but over the years has been a character that's revealed herself to be more than a jiggling pin-up girl, rather a strong, intelligent character who holds her own and certainly deserves her status on the front-line, A-list of the Justice League. And last, but never least, Princess Leia, who also formed a lasting impression on me when I was knee-high to an astrodroid; she's smart, tough, tender, and quite capable of cutting down the badguys with either a blaster or her caustic wit. Give me another million pages and I'll name another million women in the pages and on the screens of SF
who I like and respect.

So how about you? Who are your favourite female SF characters? Why? What makes them important? Nominations from ladies and gentlemen are both appreciated.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Top 10 Tear Jerkers of SF

A few days ago I was having coffee with a friend and we got onto the topic of Futurama. Amidst the laughs about the antics of the crew of the Planet Express, we got to talking about how sometimes the show sucker-punches the audience with something really heartbreaking. That got me thinking about some of the sadder moments in SF in general. So grab your kleenexes, this weakly list is devoted to:

The Top 10 Tear Jerkers of SF:

10) Futurama - "The Luck of the Fryish"
Anyone who has a sibling knows that there are times when your brother or sister is your best friend, and others where you could just kill them. This episode features Fry dwelling quite a bit on the
wrongs his brother did to him over the years, but ends with him discovering just how much he meant to his brother. It's a bittersweet moment that's guaranteed to put a lump in your throat.

9)Pan's Labyrinth
This was a movie that like an oldschool, pre-Disney fairytale didn't pull any punches. The audience is made to sit through the visceral, impotent horror of not being able to do anything but watch while a child is menaced by monsters both supernatural and human, and then ultimately murdered by one of them. The only thing that takes the sting out of this movie (and keeps it from being higher on the list) is that in the end we find out that Ofelia actually is a fairy princess and gets to go and be happy in her "real" life among the fey. Of course, that's kind of cold comfort considering that she had to make the transition in such a painful and frightening way. And, one might even say that she isn't transported to the land of the fairies, but rather passes totally into death, with the magic land really just being her own personal perception of heaven. And if you really want to put a cynical spin on it and leave the movie super depressed, you might say that she doesn't go to the land of the fey or to heaven, and that the final vision in the movie is nothing more than a final hallucination experienced by consciousness as her brain dies. Eeeesh. I think I might just stick with the fairy princess ending so I don't start weeping right now.

8) The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - Appendix B - when Sam goes into the West
There are a lot of sad moments in the Lord of the Rings: when it seems that Shelob has killed Frodo; the story of the loss of the Entwives; when Gandalf and Boromir die; when Elrond takes Arwen aside to say goodbye forever before he leaves for the West; when Sam, Pippin and Merry have to say goodbye as Frodo and the others sail into the West; or later in the Appendices when Aragorn dies and Arwen goes off to live for ages alone in Galadriel's abandoned forest. But for me, the saddest part of the story has always been the note in the Appendix about Sam's fate. About how he grows old, and his wife Rosie eventually dies, and Sam heads off to the Grey Havens to get a little boat and try to sail into the West himself to join Frodo. We're never told in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit or LOTR what happens to hobbits when they die (we know the elves are sent to the halls of the dead in the West, but that they essentially get a reboot and can come out and hang out with everyone else again when they're ready; humans have some sort of afterlife that's hinted at but never revealed; and the dwarves are pretty convinced they'll get their own little piece of heaven serving the earth god Aule, even if the snobbish elves claim the dwarves will just turn back into dirt and stone) or what they believe will happen. Maybe they're atheists, content to be happy in the world for one lifetime. But if that's not the case, then Sam certainly makes a painful choice by going to live forever with Frodo in the West, rather than waiting out the rest of his days and eventually joining Rosie in the afterlife. Even though all hurts are supposed to be healed in the West, you'd think that after their long life together and the love they had that, content as he may be, the now-immortal Sam would still miss his wife (and later his children, who would eventually die), and missing loved ones for eternity doesn't sound entirely like my idea of heaven. In fact, Sam's decision becomes even more strange and painful when you consider that Sam knows that hobbits are allowed to sail into the West (since only humans are specifically banned, and he's seen Frodo and Bilbo go, and, though Sam doesn't know this, we know also from the appendix that dwarves can go into the West) and so one has to wonder why, knowing this, Sam didn't go down to the shores of the sea and get on a boat with Rosie while she was still alive?! He could have had the best of both worlds then. Lastly, this is an immensely sad footnote to LOTR because there's no guarantee that Sam actually survives the voyage and lands on the shores of the West. Certainly it says the tradition of his daughter's family is that he sailed over the sea. But there's really no info beyond the fact that he departed. There's no mention of whether he found a group of straggler elves and hitched a ride with them, or if he found or built a little boat of his own and set off on a solo voyage - which wouldn't bode well considering that hobbits aren't known as mighty mariners and it's a long voyage for an old gaffer to take on his own. In any case, Sam's journey (or attempted journey) into the West after Rosie's death has always been the saddest part of the tale to me.

7) From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury - Chapter 9 "Homecoming"
In this strange, sometimes wonderful, sometimes creepy tale about a family of vampires (and mummies, and ghosts, and assorted other nightmares) living in a huge old house outside a small town in Illinois, and the human child they've adopted, the chapter "Homecoming" with all its raucousness of a family reunited, is, at its heart, terribly sad. The human child, Timothy, can't join in the family's fun, he lacks their abilities, he isn't able to drink their special "wines", he stands out because he has a beating heart. These things together would be enough to make for a painful story about a person who, even in a child, is radically different and thus isolated; someone who doesn't fit in and is reminded of it constantly and can't do anything to change the situation. Add to this the unspoken truth that in being raised by this family, he's apart from normal human society and comfort, and thus will probably always be an outsider from humans as well - really, there's no belonging anywhere for this poor kid. But what makes this chapter especially crushing is the scene at the end where poor Timothy is sitting in the barn with his pets, having just cried about how he's so different, when his mother comes out to check on him. She's tender, she reminds him the family loves him, and tries to comfort him in her own way (from the unnerving perspective of the undead). But in telling him that someday he'll die and the family will make sure his grave is protected, she really only serves to emphasize the fact that he isn't one of them, and will never be, and will someday be parted from them forever. In one blow this poor kid has been confronted with the stark reality of his own mortality and, worst of all, that he will never truly fit in. It's horribly sad, but there's some cold comfort in that because of his status apart, Timothy is able to take on the role of observer/historian/author and keep the family alive in memory in the years ahead as more and more of them fall victim to modern times where supernatural monsters have no place.

6) Babylon 5 In the Beginning - Londo's tale of the war
This movie is one of my favourite parts of the Babylon 5 story for many reasons, one of which is Londo's heartbreaking description of the height of the Earth-Minbari War when humanity was almost destroyed. It's an immensely powerful sequence: a combination of beautiful and frightening visuals as Earthforce ships are blown to pieces, families holding each other and soldiers dying; the sheer moving poetry of Londo's emotional description of heroics, tragedy and inevitability; and underneath it all there's the mournful wail of a pipe and the teardrop-falling notes of a harp. It's a sequence that's designed to illicit an emotional response and it does it perfectly. How many times have I watched it? Doesn't matter. I'm still caught on the verge of tears anytime I see this part.

5) The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - "There Will Come Soft Rains"
There's no way you could make an SF tear jerker list without including this story. The complete desolation of the city and house (and by obvious extension all of mankind's works) is powerful enough, but then we're confronted with an innocent, uncomprehending victim: a family dog, suffering from radiation (and probably starvation and injuries), dragging itself home to die. Even the animals that have loved us and served us aren't safe from our folly. And then there's the bit that follows that makes my skin crawl where the house's cleaning robots nip out of their holes to cut the carcass up and remove all traces. Bradbury knows how to pluck heartstrings.

4) Babylon 5 - season 4 - "Between the Darkness and the Light" - Ivanova in the Whitestar sickbay
This has always been a tough scene to watch. Forget about 99% of all other Hollywood-made deathbed scenes (especially those made for TV), this one doesn't try to sugarcoat suffering. Where other shows or movies would have some actress made up to look as beautiful as can be (if, perhaps, a tad pale), lying on clean white sheets, alert and making some chirpy speech, hearing about how everything will be okay and then softly sighing her way into heaven, Babylon 5 paints a grim, steely, very real picture of someone whose body has been shattered as the price for a hard-won victory in war. It's a dark, grey room that Sheridan finds Ivanova in, her normally pretty face is pasty and puffy and bruised. There are metal rods jammed into her skull to immobilize her head. She's surrounded by machines. She shudders from the pain and involuntary muscle spasms. Her breathing and speech are laboured and she drifts in and out of consciousness. And she knows she's in trouble and demands to be told the truth, and we have to watch Sheridan's pain as he's forced to bear the awful burden of telling her she's going to die, and probably soon. And he knows he won't be there for her when it happens. What makes it all the more wrenching is that Ivanova got there trying to help Sheridan, and there on the edge of death, she's still trying to help him, telling him not to feel guilty for what happened to her, and thinking about the best place for him to be when he leads the liberation fleet to Earth. Right to the end she's trying to do her job as his right hand. It's a painful scene to watch, but you just can't turn away. Bravo to Straczynski and the rest of the B5 team for not flinching either.

3) Babylon 5 - season 5 - "Sleeping in Light" - the destruction of Babylon 5
Another B5 reference - damn Straczynski & co are good at making me weepy! There are so many painful moments on this list (and many more that didn't make it) involving people, and yet one of the spots in the crucial top 3 is devoted to a thing, a collection of spinning metal, a space station being decommissioned and (violently) dismantled. And yet it's a powerful scene. Certainly it's emotional because the destruction of the station follows right on the heels of Sheridan's death. But the impact of the station's destruction is also so great because of all it has come to mean to us, the audience. For the characters, it's been a home - the one place in the universe many of them could fit in and heal their emotional wounds in; the last, best place for peace; and the last, best place for victory. For the audience however, it's the heart of all of the great tales and characters that we've come to love over five long (but not long enough!) years of storytelling. It's taken a beating but always survived (if not always completely intact). In so doing, it has beaten the odds - those against its chances of success within the context of the story itself, and those against its chances of survival (especially for 5 years) as a non-network science fiction show. And so when the explosions blossom inside B5's hull, blasting it into memory, it feels very much like we've known a person as real as any of the other characters. Perhaps its an unconscious feeling along the lines of Shinto beliefs that everything has a spirit, and so the loss of B5 is legitimately as important as the death of Sheridan. And it's also just a basic, visceral reaction to something so familiar and loved suddenly being destroyed before our eyes. What's especially noteworthy is that this destruction of a vessel has an emotional impact on me in a way that others don't necessarily - certainly as a viewer I spent as much time watching Galactica pull through against the odds in the new BSG, but when when it finally flew into the sun, the sadness just wasn't there; I just shrugged it off. But B5... there's always a catch in my throat when I watch its end.

2) Futurama - "Jurassic Bark"
Remember when I said earlier my friend and I had been talking about the sucker punches that Futurama throws at you sometimes? This was the biggest one of all. If you've ever owned and loved a pet, and been loved by a pet, it's damn near impossible to watch the end of this episode and not have tears rolling down your cheeks. In the space of a minute or two it's a retelling of Greyfriars Bobby. It captures all of the love and loyalty that a pet can feel for its human, and the lengths animals are willing to go, and the sadness they feel if there's an accident and the owner doesn't come home one day. I can say that every person I've spoken with who's an animal lover and a Futurama fan has unfailingly said "Oh, let's not talk about this episode! I don't want to cry!" - and meant it! - whenever "Jurassic Bark" is mentioned. That's a powerful piece of storytelling, not just for a comedic science fiction cartoon, but for any kind of entertainment. Damn. I'm getting kinda choked-up just writing about it.

1) Up - the opening sequence with Carl and Ellie
If you're not weeping into a kleenex by now, this final nomination might clinch things for ya. Whole novels and movies have been written about couples and their relationships over a lifetime, their happy moments and their tragedies, and failed to accomplish what Up does in five-or-so minutes. We see Carl and Ellie come together as children, share their dreams and adventures, grow up together, grow old together, and then get parted by death, with poor old Carl left behind, alone, in a house full of memories that's soon to be taken from him. There are very few words, but it doesn't take much for us to quickly bond with these two, to feel happy for them having each other, and to feel their devastation at not being able to have children (in a scene that looked an awful lot to me like she'd probably miscarried), and finally to cry (or come damn near close to it) when Ellie dies. It's a piece of storytelling that captures in its own way what many couples go through if they're together long enough. If you're in a loving relationship when you're watching this film, you can't help but quickly turn to your wife/husband/partner when there's that shot of Carl sitting alone in the funeral home and feel that lump in your throat as you think "Someday that will be you! Or maybe me! And then what will I do?!" and then you just as quickly look away before they can see you looking at them because they're doing the same thing. Maybe part of the emotional impact comes from the fact that because this is a cartoon, we expect to laugh, not to cry, and so scenes like this tend to ambush us. But when it comes to Up, there's more than simple emotional bushwhacking at work here. It's good writing, plain and simple, effectively and powerfully capturing a truth of the human condition. Though it shows it on an animated face, the movie accurately illustrates the reality of the loss and grief when a spouse dies in a way that few other works ever do. That's why Up is the number one tear jerker in SF in my opinion.

So if that wasn't enough, what other SF short stories, books, TV shows, or movies get you crying?

Friday, March 04, 2011

When Worlds Collide - SF & Food

"This station is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest we use it."
-Admiral Motti, Star Wars - Episode IV, A New Hope

"Next time: we eat Kevin bacon."
-Epic Meal Time, the Meatball Deathstar episode

It's a rare thing for two of my passions to converge, and when it does, I'm a pretty happy fellow. This time, it's science fiction and food. For the past few months (since shortly after they began exposing their culinary shenanegans to the world, really) I've been following the exploits of the gang at Epic Meal Time and I've been pleased to see occasional SF references (both overt and subtle) worked into their schtick.

Epic Meal Time is a weekly online show (each episode running about five minutes) featuring a group of young Canadian men who take experimenting with food to whole new extremes of size, flavour, and meat content. Their motto: "We make your dreams come true, and then we eat them."

Each episode starts with the group's tall frontman Harley Morenstein staring slack-jawed and bug-eyed at the camera and putting on a trash talkin' gangsta act as the cooking gets under way and he describes every ingredient (which always includes bacon, "and more bacon, and more bacon, and more bacon...") and each step in their process as they assemble their gigantic creations. Their accomplishments include the Meatball Deathstar (pictured above): a massive sphere of ground meat stuffed with pancetta and tortellini, then covered with meat sauce and cheese and perched on a wheel of garlic bread as wide as an Imperial interrogation droid - oh yeah, and a few vegetables just for decoration. Then there's the Turbaconepic: a "next level" take on the classic turducken, with a cornish hen and a quail stuffed inside the turducken, bacon and a meat stuffing crammed between each layer, and the whole thing then stuffed inside a pig which is then covered in bacon. And the carnivorous feast goes on. Meanwhile, on the side of the screen, a window displays a calorie counter that climbs faster than the US national debt. Seriously, each concoction has a total calorie count that's probably equivalent to the recommended intake for a family of four for a month. The episodes end with a mock promise of what they'll eat next time, a promise that never comes true, given the absurdity of the item to be devoured. My favourite: "Next time: we eat corduroy pants."

And yet, as frightening as the size of their creations are, I've gotta give these guys credit. There's clearly a lot of creativity that's gone into what they're making, and most of the epic meals look pretty damn tasty. I'd certainly join them in tearing off a chunk of the Turbaconepic or a slice of the Giant Protein Bar - though probably not a serving as large as each of these guys is attacking. The show is to be applauded for its unapologetic glorying of delicious, plentiful food in an era when we're constantly nagged about how pretty much every damn thing that tastes good will kill you and have an unforgivable impact on the environment. Nobody lives forever. Eat, drink and be merry. These guys get that.

By now you're probably wondering what this ode to gluttony has to do with science fiction?

There's certainly a fair amount of horror involved in watching one of these episodes as these dudes gorge themselves on their creations like a T-Rex family digging into a triceratops carcass - and in similar quantities. And while most of the meals look good, the occasional experiment, like the Slaughterhouse Christmas Special "gingerbread house", turns out to be simply disgusting.

But there is a sci-fi element that occasionally spices up episodes. One of the more obvious references is the afore-mentioned Meatball Deathstar. Darth Vader may have said of the original Deathstar that "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force" but if he'd taken a gander at EMT's version with it's ability to curbstomp circulatory systems with its cholesterol levels, incapacitate legions with the meat sweats, and induce enough gout to cripple populations of entire star systems, he might have rethought his position on things.

Then there are the more subtle occurrences like the Giant Protein Bar episode which contains a line of dialogue from the Beasties/Beast Wars/Beast Machines (whichever title of choice you prefer from the 1990's animal-oriented Transformers franchise) series. It also gives a nod to the Carl Weathers-Arnold Schwarzenegger handshake/arm wrestle/pose-off at the beginning of Predator. There may be other geeky references in some of the episodes that I haven't caught, but I'm sure these won't be the last.

What I'm waiting for (and admittedly, it probably won't ever happen) is for Epic Meal Time to display the ultimate synthesis of SF and food... I'd love it if they ended an episode with: "Next time: we eat the Ol' Porkchop Express."

Bon appetite.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

MindMelding with SF Signal

Check out the latest MindMeld over at SF Signal discussing movie novelizations that were worth reading. Among the other, more interesting members of the group, you'll find me!

Admittedly, once in a while I've picked up some adaptations that made me wish I'd left them on the shelf (I'm looking at you, Predator, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters 2!) but overall, a lot of the novelizations I've read over the years are reasonably entertaining. That's why I've never really had a problem with them or the authors who write/adapt them. Sure, they're not original works, but how many times through history have we seen authors rehash the stories told or written by others, and do it well? Plenty. The fact that these books come out on the heels of a story that's just been told on screen, and that they're a part of a studio's overarching marketing plan, doesn't matter much to me and borders on irrelevant. Now, I don't read novelizations all the time, in fact it's become a rare occurrence in the past 20 years, but that's more a statement about the size of the pile of original novels in my "to read" inbox and the amount of time I have available than anything else.

My top 5 picks for novelizations were:
Vonda N. McIntyre's adaptations of Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III The Search for Spock
Orson Scott Card's novelization of The Abyss
Piers Anthony's take on Total Recall
Alan Dean Foster's (the king of the movie novelization) The Black Hole

Check out SF Signal to find out why these novelizations (and others!) are worth reading.