Friday, August 31, 2018

Countdown to the Invasion — Season Three Is About to Launch

Just a quick reminder that the new season of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast is set to launch in just two weeks!

A whole squadron of writers, artists and performers will be leading season three of the Invasion, but I'm not going to spoil things with any name-dropping now. Starting Friday, September 14, you'll have to tune in every two weeks to see who's taking the helm of our flagship as we talk about science fiction, fantasy, and all points in between.

Meanwhile, get caught up on classic episodes of the past two seasons right here on Just search for Invaders From Planet 3 and pick an interview. You can also catch the show on these podcast listening platforms: iTunes, Libsyn, Stitcher, Overcast and Spotify.

Let the Invasion resume! Soon.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Episode 3 of Prisoners of Gravity Doc Now Online

More documentary goodness: The gang at Radio Free Krypton has released the next episode of its series on Prisoners of Gravity!

Part 3 of "Inside the Orbit of Prisoners of Gravity" focusses on what the show meant to fans — including me — and how it inspired us in different ways.

I've shared my thoughts before here on the blog about how amazing PoG was, but it's really worth checking out this episode of the doc (well, all of the episodes!) to listen to other fans share their stories. It's great to know that so many people were inspired in different ways. And it was good to hear from the PoG producers that they're aware of how popular the show was — and still is — among fans. All too often, people can create meaningful things but exist in a vacuum in terms of feedback, and it's important that they hear how much their fans love their work.

Looking forward to the final episode of the doc this coming week!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Spiking the Canons

The Washington Post created a bit of a stir recently with Ann Hornaday's piece titled "The New Canon — The 23 best films of the 2000s". Reading the article — as well as others' opinions of its choices — has brought me circling back to the issue of how deeply problematic the notion of canons is.

The first question is one of scope: is it right or fair to lump everything into one list of what's best, most important, most groundbreaking, or most influential? If we just focus on film (to keep with the subject of Hornaday's list), is it fair to lump costume dramas in with comedies, or science fiction or fantasy or superhero movies? Yes, they're all using film to tell stories, but (genre-crossing pieces aside), they're telling different kinds of stories, sometimes using different tools, and often aimed at different audiences. Here, Hornaday has mashed together a generally humourless grab-bag that includes Children of Men and The Royal Tenenbaums (which, though it's supposed to be a comedy, I didn't find funny). These movies aren't even in the same universe! Not in terms of style, theme, or any other measure! How can they legitimately occupy a spot within the same canon? One should definitely cultivate tastes in different genres of film — it's okay to like both the Swiss science fiction drama Cargo and the raunchy little Hollywood comedy A Good Old Fashioned Orgy — but if we're going to try to define what is canon, that canon should be comprised of stories that are actually comparable in some way beyond the medium of their release. This is one of the major faults of lists like this, as well as awards. We need to compare apples to apples, rather than lump watermelons in with bone-in pork butts.

Then there's the problem of time: How long does a creation (whether a film, book, short story, comic, video game, whatever) have to be out in the world before we can legitimately claim that it has a place in a canon? Clearly, this century isn't over yet, so it's just a smidge premature to say the 23 films in the Post article constitute the canon — or even part of it — for the 2000s. Barring major man-made or natural catastrophe, there will doubtless be many, many good films in the long years ahead that will be equal to, or better than, those offered by Hornaday as the pinnacle of the art.

But even beyond the raw numbers game of how many movies of quality are released within a defined period, I think it takes time to digest a film to determine if it really is that good in the grand scheme of things. To be worthy of canon status, a movie has to be so good that audiences and critics and academics will still be talking about it decades, not merely years, down the line. It has to be a story that will maintain its strength over time as the culture around it changes. We also have to bear in mind that some films take a while to grow on people. 1982 was a good year for these kinds of flicks. John Carpenter's The Thing was panned for its gore, and critics didn't give Blade Runner the best reception either. Nor did they cash-in well at the box office — in fact, none of the other movies that we now consider to be classics of the speculative fiction genre, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Tron, did especially well financially because E.T. was rampaging across the box offices. It took a long time before these movies grew beyond their cult followings to gain the respect they deserved. For Hornaday to try to argue that films made in the years from 2000 up until today deserve a canonical spot is premature. They haven't proven they can withstand the test of time. In fact, some of the genre films on her list have decidedly not survived in the cultural consciousness: sticking with genre movies, as good as Children of Men was, I haven't heard anyone talk about it for a long time. But who knows? Maybe it will see a resurgence. I doubt it though. I would suggest that it's really not of any value to try to decide if something is worthy of canon status until at least 20 years has passed. We can talk about the films (whether within a specific genre or, more ambitiously — and I would argue that this is unwise — across culture as a whole) that constitute the canon of the 20th Century (yes, I know it's only been 18 years, not 20, since the end of that century, but it's been long enough to prove my point), but to try to make the argument that we're in any position right now to pronounce that which is best and most important of the 2000s is unwarranted.

Then there's the fact that canons placed upon pedestals by critics or academics are, ultimately, subjective declarations of what is best and most noteworthy. We might be able to say with some degree of comfort that a movie has probably reached a wider audience than any other. Or we might give a particular story credit for having broken new ground in terms of subject matter or casting or technical achievement. But even then, someone could take issue with these claims, saying this advancement was actually done before (or the groundwork was previously laid for it) in a certain film, or that another movie was released to an equally wide audience that the canonical critic wasn't aware of because of ignorance or ignored because of bias. And when we get into the question of what constitutes the "best" example of storytelling or acting or direction or technical craftsmanship — better than others of its era — or whether a film is the most influential, or more relevant (either for its time, or for the human condition as a while), I worry that we're getting into a truly perilous exercise of trying to make personal opinion into objective critical dogma. Putting aside Hornaday's mainstream choices, if we were to examine her genre picks, would it really be fair to say that Children of Men is more deserving of a place in a canon than Blade Runner 2049? Personally, I don't think so. Or can she legitimately say that Spirited Away is a better film or has greater cultural importance than Up? I would hesitate to argue either way — both stories are dear to me. So is it right or in any way intellectually valuable for one critic or academic to say "This is the canon"? I'm not sure.

Perhaps one can base one's canon selections on a survey of what many critics or audience polls (or now, in the 21st Century, the avalanches of online comments) have said about a movie's merits. But these are ultimately still a snapshot of a few opinions. There will be many who will disagree with the choices as flat-out wrong. Some might agree with a few, or even all, of the chosen films, but assert that equally well-done — or better — films have been left out, and so demand a revision of the list. And these dissenters may have entirely valid reasons for their positions. But when it comes down to it, their claims too are personal opinions rooted in their own preferences, or biases, or artistic or political agendas. Perhaps the anointing group, and maybe the dissenters, are right or wrong. Or neither.

There's a truly excellent discussion of this very question of determining what is the best, or what is most praise-worthy, over on the Coode Street Podcast, in a recent episode where Jo Walton joins hosts Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe. As they chat about Walton's new book, An Informal History of the Hugos, they grapple with the question of what makes a story worthy of a Hugo Award, or a place within the canon, and how authors are named Grand Masters and whether this needs to change. While it is a discussion about speculative fiction literature, the ideas can be transplanted directly into a consideration about what gets admitted into the canon of film for the 2000s (or any other era or specific genre). And they make a point that I agree with, which is: you like what you like.

I've always been deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a canon — for film or anything else, within the sf genre or in a broader mainstream context. Yes, we can often agree on that which is truly terrible, like Manos: The Hands of Fate (although I'll leave the door open for the possibility that there are a few poor, lost souls out there who legitimately love this steaming crapfest non-ironically). But putting the worst aside, what constitutes the best — the must-watches, the standards by which we judge all others — is just so subjective. I'm not completely opposed to the idea of canons: I think they have some educational benefit in terms of giving a newcomer a place to start when learning about the history of film (or whatever) of a certain genre or era. I also think they have some value in terms of sparking discussions — or, as the gang on Coode Street rightly said, canons give us something to argue about, and we enjoy this. But because they are, ultimately, founded on personal opinion, I've never liked the idea that canons are perceived as the last word on the subject of quality. Too often, this is used to marginalize people (either arbitrarily, or with a specific agenda in mind) based on their personal preferences or some aspect of their background. It's snobbery and prejudice, pure and simple. Science fiction, fantasy, comics, horror (everything under the umbrella of speculative fiction) were the victims of this for a long time (and are only just — slowly — starting to crawl out from under this scorn) as mainstream critics and academics (and the self-styled literati and culturally-minded members of the public who slavishly parroted their opinions) looked down their noses at genre films (and literature, etc) and performed all manner of terminological acrobatics to avoid giving credit to sf when one of its stories was begrudgingly admitted to be of quality. And here's the sad thing: we nerds do it to each other too. How often have people within the sf community declared what is canon, deliberately leaving out specific films (or stories, or authors, or whatever) or whole segments of the genre because they feel that certain niches aren't as important or of lasting value, when really, they just don't like that stuff — whatever that stuff is? How many times have others declared these canons invalid as being harmful in some way, or inadequate at (or failing completely in) including this group or that region, or ideology, or whatever, and then raised canons of their own, sparking counterattacks, and so on, and so on? It's all just your personal opinions, folks. Other people have their own opinions. With a few exceptions, I tend to get uncomfortable with notions of absolutism, and distrustful of those who advocate them, especially when it comes to art. And that's why the notion of a canon doesn't sit easy with me. You like what you like.

Maybe it's time to spike the canons. I've always taken it as implicit that when someone presents a list of "the best", that it's a list based on their own personal opinion. They may feel strongly about it. They may be able to present a carefully reasoned argument for it. It may be a conversation starter (or, in what could be the case of the Washington Post, a cynical, business-minded example of click bait to get people going to the site, thereby making advertisers happy when the sales team presents them with the tally of hits by unique viewers), or an educational tool to get a newby started. But it's just that person's opinion, and one that I (and you, and you, and even you over there... but maybe not you — you know who you are) don't have to share. But the word canon carries such critical weight, that maybe it's time to drop it as something that is wholly inadequate in the face of personal opinion, the near impossibility of seeing (or reading) everything that's released all across the world, and the question of specific scope. But most of all, forget about discussing canon until there's been enough time to see what actually proved to be a film that mattered. At least, in your opinion.


And since Hornaday only included 5 genre films in her canon (Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Minority Report, and Spirited Away), I thought I'd post the following list of some of my favourite films — so far — from the 2000s (not including made-for-TV-fare). But it's not a canon.

I'd include Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and Spirited Away, but I'd also want to highlight (in no particular order:

Rogue One
Deadpool 2
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Hobbit — An Unexpected Journey
The Avengers
Spider-Man Homecoming
The LEGO Batman Movie
Beowulf (animated)
Blade Runner 2049
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
District 9
Monster House
Monsters vs Aliens
The Muppets
Pacific Rim
Hellboy 2 — The Golden Army
Scott Pilgrim vs The World
The Shape of Water
A Million Ways to Die in the West (Doc Brown and the Delorean make a cameo, so it's genre)
The Martian
The World's End
Iron Man
Guardians of the Galaxy
Mad Max — Fury Road
Terminator — Salvation
Midnight in Paris
Sausage Party
Super 8
This Is the End
I Am Legend
King Kong (2005)
Kong — Skull Island
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Host
Ex Machina
The Incredibles

What are some of your favourite movies from the last 18 years?

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Prisoners of Gravity Documentary Continues with Examination of Early Challenges

Radio Free Krypton has dropped the second episode of its cool documentary about Prisoners of Gravity.

In this episode, they examine the challenges faced by the show as it struggled to find its feet in its first season, and some of the changes it went through later on both behind the scenes and on-screen.

As with the previous instalment, part two includes interviews with host Rick Green, producer Mark Askwith, and others involved with the show. Author Robert J Sawyer also weighs in on the early days, as do some fans — including me.

I'm really impressed with how this series is going so far. Lots of fascinating insights into what was going on behind the scenes as the show came to life. And I'm always interested in hearing what the authors and other fans thought about it too.

Can't wait for the next episode of "Inside the Orbit of 'Prisoners of Gravity'"!

Friday, August 17, 2018

Cracks in the Foundation

I've finished my reread of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, and the verdict is: it's deeply, deeply flawed, and I don't love it like I used to, but it's not terrible.

As I noted in a recent post, the Foundation series was one of the first examples of adult-level science fiction that I read as a teen, and for much of those early years, I counted it as my favourite work of sf. But it's been more than 20 years since I last picked it up, and when Asimov's Robot novels failed the reread test a few years ago, I was afraid that revisiting Foundation would ruin the memory of it.

So over the past week or so, I've finally confronted it and given each section a lot of thought. It's often been hard — sometimes cringeworthy — encountering the weaknesses, blunders, and missed opportunities in this collection of stories that's been stitched together and had a "novel" label slapped on it. Fans back in the days when these novellas (Novelettes?  Whatever.) must have been truly desperate for content as much as they were blown away by the ideas in the Foundation stories to have read them and wanted more — never mind the editors who published them. And yet we can't dismiss out of hand the idea that people can be blown away by the ideas within a story (or collection of stories), even if it is deeply flawed. You like what you like.

And yet we do have to be honest about the cracks in the Foundation.

For starters, the writing isn't that good. Asimov's approach to characters is clumsy, with both his protagonists and villains unnecessarily exploding at each other in just about every other conversation, as he attempts (and always fails) to ramp-up tension in scenes that really have none because the stories are all talk and no action (as the author confesses in his forward to the book). Beyond their forced bursts of aggression, their dialogue is hackneyed. There are the cheesy attempts at futuristic expressions like "Space!" or "Galaxy!". Imperial officials and borderworld warlords speak in an overwrought fashion that comes off as pretentious, and while it may have been Asimov's intention to use this mode of speech to try to show that the apparently (though often ultimately not) powerful antagonists themselves were pretentious (or products of a pretentious culture), it just comes off as pretentious writing. Similarly, the protagonists of the Foundation have a forced, rapid plainspokenness that feels like Asimov is trying to mimic what he thinks Humphrey Bogart might say in a movie (the stereotypical "fast-talkin' high pants" speech that probably wasn't as pervasive as old black and white films would have us believe), but doesn't quite pull it off.

Beyond their dialogue, the characters themselves are one-dimensional. The outer rim of Asimov's galaxy is populated by warlords of antagonistic kingdoms next door to Terminus who could each buy-out entire stores in Portland of their supplies of moustache wax as they scheme and utter threats, stopping just short of laughing maniacally and tying damsels to railroad tracks for kicks (nuclear railroad tracks, that is, because everything in the Foundation stories — up to and including kitchen knives — is nuclear, in keeping with the technological darling of the 1940s and 50s). Taken with the overwrought dialogue, their descriptions and actions are supposed to evoke Kasper Gutman, or Ming the Merciless, or any other well-spoken, aristocratic (or pseudo-aristocratic) bad guy of the era, but instead they fall flat and unintentionally become caricatures of characters who are themselves intentionally, to varying degrees, caricatures. The protagonists are also caricatures, chomping on their cigars in back rooms as they tell everyone around them how much more clever they are than anyone else, and especially smarter than the current government of  Terminus/the Foundation. Hober Mallow, the merchant prince of the final sequence, is an absurd, futuristic Yankee trader or robber baron, who, in spite of the story, is impossible to take seriously because he's just so over the top, painted as a giant with a booming voice who's seemingly the best at everything. Asimov misses the opportunity to create a three dimensional character in Mallow by failing to give the Trader captain any kind of internal examination of what it means to be an outsider within the Foundation power structure. He's frequently reminded that he's from one of the worlds the Foundation has conquered, and thus a kind of second class citizen, but Mallow never addresses it internally, and I don't recall him addressing it externally in any substantial way either. It's just brushed aside. A better writer could have opened the character up with this issue to let us get to know his motivations better, and to give him an opportunity to evolve. Instead, Mallow, like every other character in Foundation remains static.

There are other problems with the writing: Chapter 1 of "The Mayors" is essentially a long "as you know" piece, making it dull. That's a fatal way to start a story (or, at least, it should have been) when we consider this would have been published as a piece in an sf magazine.

Then there are the rare holographic appearances by Hari Seldon, the legendary psychohistorian who founded the Foundation: they serve no purpose. It's a logical hole in the story big enough to fly an Imperial battle cruiser through. Seldon's photonic ghost provides no guidance at all — he just checks-in once in a while to say "Well, I calculate that you probably made it through some crisis that I didn't warn you about, even though I knew it was coming, and I'm not going to spell it out now even though we may actually be thinking about two entirely different incidents if your experience varies from my predictions, but hopefully you're sitting here listening to me, even though I'm still not going to tell you anything! Basically, you're here just to look at my picture. Am I dead sexy or what?" The leaders and academics of the Foundation don't even have a schedule of when he's going to appear! They really don't know! They just have to assume that things have been shitty enough recently to constitute a Seldon Crisis, and that the old man is going to materialize in his cube any minute, look up from the book on his lap, and, yet again, tell them nothing of substance. I mean, this is the future, so you'd think there would be an electronic warning in city hall a little while prior to the airing of the latest episode of The Hari Show, but Asimov doesn't mention anything along these lines, so it could just be the case that the mayor of Terminus has a line item in his budget to pay some kid to stand around outside the Seldon vault and shout "Hey, you guys!" whenever the machinery starts to hum. Or, knowing large organizations the way we do now, it's probably an unpaid internship position.

Asimov has made some other strange decisions when it comes to the Foundation colony: only one psychologist was sent with the initial population of settlers, and there have been no others since. That's a truly astounding amount of faith in the mental health of a group of people who have to build a society, run a major project, and, you know, survive in the face of hostile neighbours (and eventually a hostile Empire) while isolated out on the rim of the galaxy, never mind your standard run-of-the-mill psychological, emotional and relationship issues, and developmental challenges, that come up during everyday life. The explanation given is that Seldon didn't want the Foundation to have psychologists who could relearn and use his predictive science of psychohistory to try to guide their society and thus skew his plan. But Asimov seems to have confused the disciplines of psychology and sociology, and besides, his fictional psychohistory seems to rely heavily on some kind of higher level mathematics, which is sufficiently different from psychology (read sociology in this case) that there's little danger of a mental health professional who does marriage counselling or developmental assessments or personal therapy, and maybe still has 5 minutes left in his/her day after dealing with this case load and making time for a life outside of work, stumbling into calculations that will allow him/her to predict and steer the future of entire civilizations.

There's also what feels like a bit of retconning going on between the introductory section, "The Psychohistorians" (which was added on later when the first Foundation stories were compiled into a novel) and the other sections over the question of the secrecy of Seldon's plan. The intro section tells us that Seldon and his team have been working on preparations for the Foundation project for two-and-a-half years prior to his trial, preparations that are so well-known that, because of his dire predictions, he's earned the nickname of "Raven Seldon". So lots of people know his take on the state of affairs (at least generally) and that he's getting ready to do something about it. And yet, by the time we get into the originally-written stories in the second section, "The Encyclopedists", nobody out on Terminus has any idea that they're there to do anything other than compile an encyclopedia, even though they're only 50 years out from the settling of their colony. It's completely unbelievable that they're ignorant of the Foundation's true purpose. After the first crisis, Seldon's recorded holograph tells them they were kept in the dark about their purpose (never mind his predictions about what's coming) to prevent them from going off the course he'd charted for them. Never mind that I've heard scientists of varying disciplines say on several occasions that scientists don't like to keep secrets, it's just not believable that with all of the extensive preparations going on before the launch of the original colony ships, and with all of the publicity about Seldon's predictions, that none of the settlers would have known or guessed what their purpose was. There's also no value in keeping them in the dark. Asimov, through the character of Seldon, saying that the Foundation's people can't know what's coming so they don't corrupt the timeline and the plan is basically so much weak handwaving. The fall of the Empire and the bid to have the two Foundations survive with all the old knowledge and rebuild society over a thousand years into a Second Empire is disaster planning on a galactic scale, and any emergency management expert will tell you that people have a better chance of making it through disasters if they plan ahead and know what to challenges to expect in different situations and how to deal with them. It's just not believable that the best way for the Foundation to succeed would be to keep its people ignorant. There may be an argument for keeping the science of psychohistory out of their hands so that the Foundation doesn't, with the best of intentions, wander too far out into left field, but using Seldon's electronic spectre to give them advanced warnings ahead of the crises would make sense and probably help them succeed.

As if all of that wasn't enough, the book is a total sausage fest. The only female character with a speaking role (and, unless I'm forgetting, the only female character in the book at all!) is the Commdora in the final section, and she doesn't occupy any place of value in the plot. A princess of the Empire who's married to a warlord out on the border, the Commdora only makes a couple of appearances to play the role of a spoiled shrew of a wife who nags her husband to prove he isn't a loser by getting off his ass and conquering some planets. Oh, and she likes pretty jewellery. This is probably Asimov's attempt to inject a little humour into a dry story, making his barbarian conqueror a hen-pecked hubby, but it isn't necessary and doesn't accomplish anything in terms of story or character development. It isn't even funny. And while we can look at the absence of women on the Foundation's council or among its Traders as an artifact of the time the stories were written (and possibly of the editorial choices of the magazine where they were published, and the writer and editor's assessment of their target audience), to have no women mentioned at all elsewhere in the stories is a major oversight, and to make the only female character a shallow harpy is bad writing. Whether cast in the role of a protagonist or antagonist, Asimov could have given the Commdora more to do, such that she actually has an effect on the plot.

It's also strange that Asimov, an immigrant born to parents who grew up in Tsarist Russia who fled with him to America to escape the Communist regime, seems to have little use for democracy in the story. It begins in an empire (which was chosen because Asimov took inspiration from the fall of the Roman empire, and probably because empires are, to our modern eyes, inherently dramatic), and starts with a colony that has a democracy in the form of the mayor and council of the planet Terminus, but one that has no teeth because it's subservient to the non-democratic council of academics running the Foundation project. The mayor, Salvor Hardin (who, at age 34, seems unbelievable in the role of media mogul and colony leader) then stages a coup and overthrows the council, but this isn't a victory for democracy as Hardin leads more-or-less as a dictator. From there, the Foundation (though still a democracy for its own citizens on Terminus) manufactures a religion to control the people and governments of neighbouring kingdoms, and this theocracy is left in place for decades, rather than installing democratic governments in their new subjects/confederates. Eventually, the territorial theocracy is replaced by Mallow's plutocracy, which more-or-less squats on top of the democracy of the Foundation itself: there's still an elected mayor, but Mallow has used his money to buy the election, and it's the richest Traders who (like the merchant families in Renaissance Italian city states, or the Hanseatic League) decide what happens in the Foundation for the next period in its history, with Mallow, as the richest, ruling as de facto dictator, tossing political opponents in jail. Putting aside the other changes to the Foundation's government throughout the rest of the series, Hari Seldon's goal, ultimately, is for a Second Empire — a monarchy — to be established, leaving no room for democracy.

But, for all its faults, I can't find it in myself to dislike Foundation. Is it just nostalgia that's holding me back, preventing me from hating this book? Or, taking into consideration the time when it was written and the nature of other sf that was being published, balancing the writer's ideas and enthusiasm against lack of ability, and its impact on me as a reader and on the genre as a whole, does Foundation have merit?

Overall, I liked the larger plot of a colony established to minimize a period of cultural darkness following the collapse of a large civilization, and, more than that, to build something greater. I like the notion of intelligent people, rather than interstellar bullies, being the ones who rebuild civilization — the nerds win! Even if I don't agree with all of his assessments or outcomes, I'm intrigued by the possibility that Foundation is Asimov's attempt to do what Plato did in the Republic and examine types of government. And I love the vastness of Asimov's future, of time so deep that humanity has forgotten its origins — that even in an age of electronics and super science, this forgetting implies thousands of years of exploration, colonization, exploitation, experimentation with different approaches to creating and running cultures and civilizations that compete with, overthrow, destroy, amalgamate and outgrow others and their predecessors; that technologies for and philosophies of record keeping and storytelling have changed; that there have been wars, epidemics, isolation, Renaissances, building and rebuilding, soul-searching, and reinterpretation of and throwing away and reinventing history; that people have created and repurposed and discarded and edited cultural myths, and repeatedly invented a new sense of self both personally and culturally. It's truly breathtaking worldbuilding contained in a few throwaway lines about historians arguing in books over centuries about humanity's origin.

Maybe there's also something to the thought that Asimov might have been a better short story writer than novelist, being better suited to a platform that could showcase his big ideas while being tight enough to let him skate over his professional weaknesses.

I think, taking all of those things into consideration, Foundation does still deserve a place in the sf canon (and whether the genre should have a canon or not is something that's been debated by many others previously and will continue to be argued about into the foreseeable future), and, personally, I think I can be comfortable in defending my enjoyment of it. If nothing else, Foundation and Asimov opened the door for me to adult sf, a lot of big ideas, and a universe of other (and often more talented) writers. For that reason alone, it deserves a place of honour on my bookshelf, and a fond bookmark in my memory.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Invasion is Expanding

Good news, fellow Invaders: the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast is now available on more podcasting/listening platforms!

In addition to being available right here on (the staging area for the invasion), and on iTunes and Libsyn, you can now listen to the show on:



and Spotify.

Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there, and spread the word about the Invasion.

In other 'Invaders news, I'm currently in the midst of producing season three of the show. I hope to start posting the new episodes in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, you can go back and re-listen to episodes from the previous seasons on the above platforms. So, let the Invasion resume, I guess?

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Check out Radio Free Krypton's New Documentary about Prisoners of Gravity

Check out Radio Free Krypton's new documentary about the immensely important science fiction- and fantasy-related TV show of yesteryear, Prisoners of Gravity, called "Inside the Orbit of 'Prisoners of Gravity'".

For those who missed it in its original run on TV Ontario (or on BC's Knowledge Network, which picked it up, as did some PBS stations; or on Canada's Space channel, which rebroadcast it years later), Prisoners of Gravity was a science fiction-, fantasy-, horror-, and comic-related TV show that ran from the late 1980s through the early 90s. The premise was a wacky, yet brilliant, combination of fact and fiction: the host, a fictional character named "Commander Rick" (played by comedian and actor Rick Green) was a fanboy who got fed up with all of the horrible things happening in the world and one day converted his car into a spaceship. Loading his stash of comics, books and other nerd treasures into the car, Commander Rick blasted off into orbit, where he promptly crashed into an abandoned space station, befriended its AI, Nancy, and began pirating TV signals. And that's just the show's intro (delivered as a set of comic book panel illustrations, after the pirate signal interrupts a sedate Canadian nature show [itself entirely fictional]). On the non-fictional side of the show's content, the program revolved around Commander Rick interviewing several sf authors, editors, artists and others about issues ranging from gender representation to the rise of artificial intelligence, to the fan community itself. The guests ranged from titans of the past, like Ray Bradbury, to then-up-and-comers (now giants themselves) like Neil Gaiman, to comic legends like Jack Kirby, to directors like James Cameron. It's been years since the show's been rerun, but many Prisoners of Gravity episodes are now available on Youtube.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago when the team at Radio Free Krypton radio show/podcast (which is a good show and you should be listening to anyway) decided to put together a four-part doc about the creation, airing and legacy of PoG. Part One of "Inside the Orbit of Prisoners of Gravity" has just hit the air/been uploaded, so I'd highly recommend you follow the link above and give it a listen. It's well put together and contains interviews with Rick Green and PoG producer Mark Askwith about the show's genesis, along with comments from authors Robert J Sawyer and Cory Doctorow about what it meant for sf writers to have a legitimate platform where they were taken seriously as literary professionals and could talk about important issues in the genre and in society as a whole. There are also clips from fans talking about what the show meant to them — including me (but don't let that prevent you from listening [even if my voice was particularly husky that day, making me sound a bit like Rowlf the dog from the Muppets] because everyone else has interesting stuff to say). Really, I'd be recommending this doc even if I wasn't in it because PoG was such an important show and any examination of it is worth listening to.

If the rest of the miniseries is as good as the first part, the cats at RFK should definitely get a nomination for an Aurora Award, or even a Hugo.

Looking forward to listening to the rest of "Inside the Orbit of 'Prisoners of Gravity'" as the episodes become available.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Digging Away at the Foundation

It's time to confront my fears.

It's been a long time since I've reread Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. More than 20 years. It used to be my favourite science fiction series; one that I held up as an example of the best in the genre, even when it had been years since I'd read it. But over the past decade or so, an ugly suspicion has started to creep into my brain that maybe it wasn't as good as I remembered. Maybe it wasn't any good at all. What if I'd been wrong in my assessment? What if I went back, as a more mature reader who's experienced a much wider variety of what sf has to offer, and reread it again, only to find out that I didn't like it? How much of an emotional blow would that be?

I read Foundation for the first time when I was 11 or 12. As I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I'd always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy, but up until that that point, I'd only been reading kid-oriented stuff: Wollheim's The Secret of books and the other old Winston hardbacks from the 1950s (at least the five or six that were in my school library), Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, all kinds of big, flashy, pictoral adaptations of movies available from the Scholastic order system, Choose Your Own Adventure books, Allan Rune Pettersson's Frankenstein's Aunt, and whatever else I could get my hands on at the school and community libraries. And all of that was a good start — I still look back on some of those kids' books with fondness, and reread a couple once every few years and still enjoy them. But I hadn't stepped over to the adult section of the public library yet to explore it's cache of sf. My uncle Malcolm, who was the lone science fiction fan of his generation in the family, decided it was time for me to graduate to the more mature stuff. For Christmas of '85 or '86, he and my aunt Janine gave me a copy of Foundation, and it




The idea of a small group of scientists with a plan spanning a whole galaxy and a thousand years. The concept of using science to predict the future. The decidedly non-adventurous notion that a gigantic catastrophe can't necessarily be averted, no matter how plucky the group that recognizes the problem when no-one else will, but that the consequences can be minimized — that sometimes victory isn't measured in overcoming disaster as it's unleashed, but recovering from it well. And that recovery itself is often slow, step by step, over a long period of time — beyond a hero's lifetime. And heroes can be people who sit behind desks and talk and research and calculate and think, rather than grabbing a gun and blasting off in a dreadnought for the nearest space battle. It was all so amazing! And so validating for a young nerd who wasn't into barrelling down a sportsball field and knocking other kids over just for kicks.

And so, when I'd finished, I immediately ran to my little local indie bookstore and bought Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation and Foundation's Edge (and, when it came out in '87, Foundation and Earth) and devoured them. And then turned my attention to everything else Asimov wrote that I could get my hands on, which, fortunately, at that time included the historical anthology series he assembled with Martin H Greenberg: Isaac Asimov Presents: The Great SF Stories (I started at #15), which introduced me to dozens of other authors, educated me in the history of the genre, entertained (and occasionally challenged me) with great stories, and prompted me to seek out the work of others like Clarke and Bradbury.

Through my teens and early twenties, I'd come back and reread the Foundation series every few years, and I still enjoyed it with each reread. Going through it in university, I channeled my minor in Philosophy and started to suspect that more than just being a tale of the recovery of galactic civilization after a Roman Empire-like fall, maybe Asimov was also using it as a platform for his own version of Plato's Republic, examining the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government.

Time passed, and the collection sat in a spot of honour on my shelf and was largely ignored as I read other stuff. In fact, for many years, I didn't read any Asimov at all, except maybe for the odd short story in a best-of or historical anthology, and even then I often skipped over those because I'd already read them in my youth.

And then I got kicked in the literary nards by that old cliche that says you can't really ever go home. It happened with Frank Herbert's Dune (another Christmas present from Uncle Malcolm and Aunt Janine, given the year after they'd presented me with Foundation). I'd loved the Dune series in my teens (well, the first three books anyway — I soldiered through the others but they each got progressively worse), but when I reread it about 11 or 12 years ago in my thirties, it was terrible. I had to wonder, were they always this bad, or was it merely the case that my tastes had just changed that much?

This worried me. What about the other favourites of my youth? Would they suck too?

Bradbury wasn't a problem. He'd kept writing, steadily putting out new collections of short stories every year or two right up until his death in 2012 (most of which were pretty damn good), and I'd read all of them, so I knew I was all right there. Clarke didn't last quite as long (2008), and for the last several years of his life, most of his stuff was co-written with other authors, but once in a while I'd reread 2010: Odyssey Two or one of his other novels or short story collections, and they'd always stood up. But what about Asimov?

I loved his stories so much that I was afraid to reread them, lest he get knocked off his pedestal like Herbert. So I decided to put it to a test: instead of diving right back in to my beloved Foundation, I'd do an exploratory return to his writing through the Robots series (the four Elijah Bailey and R Daneel Olivaw books, not the I, Robot collection). It was awful. While some of Asimov's science fictional ideas were cool, and the worldbuilding was excellent, the quality of his writing was terrible: clumsy and dumb, predictable (yes, even with the understanding that I already knew the stories, having read them before) and boring, with characters that weren't believable. They didn't work very well as science fiction. They didn't work very well as detective mysteries. They didn't really work very well as anything. Asimov was a great ideas guy, but not a very good writer.

In the intervening years, I've reread a couple of his short stories here and there, and they seemed okay for the most part. Maybe Asimov was passible as a short story writer, where he could just stick to saying "Hey! Here's a really cool idea I just had!" rather than longer forms which demand an ability with story and character (not that short stories don't need these things — the medium is just a little more forgiving if a story isn't as strong in those respects because it's short) that he just didn't have.

But the Foundation question still bugged me. Yes, the first three books really weren't novels at all, but rather collections of short stories or novellas that had originally been published separately in magazines, so, as a better short story writer than novelist, I wondered if maybe they were okay. Passable, at least. And yet, taken collectively (especially with the fourth and fifth books, which were written as single novels, rather than assemblages of shorter materials), they represented a long slog, and I wondered if Asimov's long-form weaknesses would show and ruin the experience and the memory for me.

There's only one way to tell though. Suck it up and give it another try. Yeah, I've got a ton of new books in my to-be-read pile (and a bunch that aren't so new!), but sometimes you have to make time to reread some of your old favourites. To remind yourself of why they're your favourites. Or to show yourself how much you've changed over the years, and how some stories and authors — even the ones that you built your appreciation for the genre on — don't age well.

Is it wise to go digging around an old foundation? I'm about to find out.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Mini Reviews - Tyrants Hiding in Asteroids and Mountains

So, it's been a month since Canada Day. You've had more than enough time to finally come-to after that rager of a party (or, perhaps, in your case, just enough time) and maybe a few too many rye-and-ginger-ales, or a two-four of retro stubbies from your favourite micro brewery, or maybe a regionally-made single malt whisky if you've got pretensions at being a sophisticate (and, since I do have such pretensions, I'd go for a dram of Glen Breton or Pemberton Valley or Shelter Point). You sat up slowly, brushing donut — or, specifically, beaver tail — crumbs off your red t-shirt with ketchup chip-dust-encrusted fingers, scratching at the sweat-stained toque or red stetson plastered to your skull, staring, somewhat alarmed, at the congealing remains of poutine and/or pig tails on the coffee table across your wood-panelled basement, your throat still raw from alternately howling O Canada, The Good Ol' Hockey Game, The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, the Black Fly song, and The Log Driver's Waltz (which you simulated, on said coffee table, while the animated short was crackling across the big screen behind you) for 10 hours straight like a total hoser. We won't even talk about the dried maple syrup that's still around the corners of your mouth. Good on ya, buddy.

And you may think the celebration of the Great White North's 151st is over. But it's not. There's one thing left to do: read some awesome Canadian speculative fiction. Which you should be doing anyway. But just in case you aren't, over on Twitter under the hashtag #CanadianSFAuthors, I started a list of writers from north of the 49th that you should check out, and a confederation of awesome people from around the Twitterverse jumped in and supplied a whole blizzard of other names in retweets and comments under the thread. What they put together glowed like the northern lights.

Here on the blog, since it's time for another set of mini reviews, I've decided to keep the Canada Day party going a little longer by sharing some thoughts about a couple of books that have been sitting on my to-talk-about pile for just such an occasion: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts and Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell.

Much like that plate of old poutine you're shying-away from, I'll give you fair warning: Here there be spoilers.


The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

It's a difficult thing navigating the cold, unforgiving tension of a Peter Watts book about people trapped aboard a starship circling the galaxy, while at the same time the unapologetic silliness of a J Geils Band song is looping through my brain. But that's the challenge I had to deal with reading Watts' newest story, The Freeze-Frame Revolution recently, and now that I've put that parallel out there, I defy you to pick up this book without immediately having those jaunty opening chords bouncing up from the depths of your pop culture reference base. Which might make your reading experience that much more unintentionally disturbing.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is about the crew of the Eriophora, a large asteroid converted into a black hole-powered starship and sent out at sublight speed to circle the galaxy and build jump gates so the rest of humanity can travel instantaneously between the stars. Most of the builds are handled by the ship's AI, called Chimp; though once in a while (meaning every few thousand or million years) the computer will revive a few of the 30,000-odd crew members from cold storage to supervise some of the more tricky projects. From time to time, they encounter alien life (which sometimes ignores them, and sometimes tries to attack), but there's no sign of humanity coming through the gates, and no signals from home. Some of the crew, when they're awakened for once-in-an-eon shifts, begin to become concerned with the endlessness of their mission: beyond the lack of signals, there's no indication that they're ever going to return to Earth — or that there will even be a home left, or if humanity still exists, or if it exists in a form capable of (or willing to) welcoming them home. And then they start to suspect that Chimp may be killing them. But if you've got a HAL-9000 situation on your hands, how do shut him down if you're asleep most of the time and he can pull the plug anytime he wants? You have to conceive and carry out a plan very, very slowly.

Overall, The Freeze-Frame Revolution isn't as emotionally brutal as most of Watts' stories are: its characters are not subjected to the same level of emotional or physical savagery that those in, say, Blindsight or Starfish are, and, for all the unendingness and possibly pointlessness of the Eriophora crew's mission, the story doesn't have the same degree of existential bleakness of the afore-mentioned others. To that end, it's not as emotionally difficult a journey for the reader as his other stories are either. That said, this is still Peter Watts story, which mean's it's hard science fiction — in his case, not just a reliance on hard science (though greatly extrapolated in this far-future tale), but a story that's hard (if, in this case, to a lesser extent) on the characters, and (somewhat) hard on the reader, and there's a black hole's weight worth of tension, paranoia and fear pressing down on everyone experiencing this narrative.

It's a fairly short book, just 175 pages, making it a novella by today's standards, though it would have been perfectly acceptable as a novel 40-and-more years ago. But its length makes it perfect for the emotional pitch of the story and the way the plot pays-out: any shorter and it would feel rushed; longer, and the tension would feel forced and start to lose its punch. If there's anything that takes away from the story's punch (if only a little), it's the red letter code interspersed throughout the text. With the red letters sticking out like sore thumbs every so often, they draw the reader's attention away from the story as they cause one to wonder what they're all about, or to focus on mentally stringing them together (or recording them on a piece of paper as the reader goes along) to try to make sense of the hidden message. Ultimately, it's an attempt to be clever (in a meta sort of way, reflecting on a particular plot point of the story) and to provide an Easter egg for the reader that the story could do without. That said, the red letters certainly don't ruin it — I found myself starting to tune them out after a while.

I found it interesting that the AI's name was Chimp — a nice, round, funny-sounding name that deceptively makes the reader (and no doubt, initially, the characters) think of an animal that's less intelligent than a human that we can capture and control. Of course, chimps are reasonably intelligent, but more importantly, much stronger than humans, and if they choose to use that strength, they can easily kill people. In the case of TFFR, Chimp isn't as smart as his human crew, but he can kill them any time he wants. I also wonder if maybe his name isn't a kind of allusion to Caesar from Planet of the Apes — the chimp who said "no" — in that Chimp initially appears to be a kind of servant, but ultimately he has the upper hand and doesn't have to take orders from the humans. That said, the comparison breaks down when we consider that Caesar was as intelligent as the humans around him, while Chimp, ultimately, is not.

I also liked that the story serves as a metaphor for life in today's corporate culture. One can do one's job well, but a middle manager (not unusually, one who may be dumber than some of the front-line workers) either alone or acting on orders from unseen, higher authorities who are unanswerable to the people who actually get the job done (in this case, the superior, overseer AI that the protagonist, Sunday, ultimately concludes is lurking behind the scenes), can, without warning, eliminate individuals or entire sections of staff if the numbers suddenly indicate there's an inefficiency or impediment to greater profit that can be removed. They may not kill you literally, but middle managers like Chimp can be just as devastating to individual lives and office morale (never mind the company's ultimate success) when they cut staff in the name of number-driven efficiency/right-sizing. It also serves as a metaphor for projects or departments created by large organizations that lumber off on their assignment, but continue long past the point where they have any point (or, at least, any point that people on the front lines can understand) simply because they have lives of their own, and that there's often a futility of struggling against them, no matter how rational that struggle may be.

Buy this quick read about a very long revolution.


Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell

By way of introduction, I have a confession: the end of this book made me cry. Go ahead, call me a wimp. I don't care. You know that part at the end? Where, just for a minute, Falcio gets to talk to... ah well, you'll see.

Tyrant's Throne is the fourth instalment in Sebastien de Castell's The Greatcoats saga, wrapping up the series (for now, anyway). After fighting to rebuild their country from the wreckage of civil war, install their assassinated king's daughter on the throne, overcome betrayal, bring hostile nobles and knights in line, re-establish the rule of law, and, along the way, overthrow a newly-created evil god and a horde of religious fanatics, Falcio, Kest, Brasti and the other Greatcoats (the kingdom of Tristia's wandering judiciary-and-police hybrids) are finally settling-in to resuming their duties of dealing with legal cases and occasionally still convincing, conniving, manipulating, and occasionally strong-arming wayward nobles into the fold. That is, until they receive word that battle-hardened barbarians from a neighbouring land across the mountains (think land-locked Vikings, or alpine Klingons without disruptors) are massing for an invasion in unbeatable numbers. Worse yet: they're being led by a rogue Greatcoat. Now Falcio has to pull together an alliance of Greatcoats, bards, rangers, and even his traditional enemies — the knights and the nobles — to stave-off the invasion so their fledgling kingdom has a chance to get back on its feet.

As usual, de Castell gives us a rollicking swashbuckler that includes laughs, romance, the afore-mentioned tears, and the occasional lesson on some of the basics of surviving a duel. There's also a nice moment in the final battle where music is used to sow confusion among the invaders — something that feels like a friendly nod to the old Macross (or, if you watched it on Saturday mornings here in North America, Robotech) anime series. And, as we've come to expect from the series, it's an exercise in new ways to make Falcio suffer. It's also a satisfying conclusion to the whole affair, and one that makes it (and the whole series) strong enough to warrant a re-read sometime down the road. I'm looking forward to seeing what de Castell writes next.