Posted by: kshayes513 | July 13, 2014

Using TV and Movies as Research (with Dire Examples)

Should you ever use what you see on TV and in movies as reference material for a topic you know little about?

Here’s a hint: “Don’t try this at home” applies to a lot more than the stuff they do on Mythbusters.

Today’s dire example is this online exchange between a friend of mine who is designing a sculpture of a cybernetic horse, and a friend of hers (unknown to me) who offers advice on the cybernetic horse’s capabilities and behaviors. The sculptor is a professional horsewoman. The advice giver, apparently, is not. [Names omitted and some details changed for anonymity].

Sculptor/horsewoman (thinking aloud): Would a cybernetic horse rear?

Advisor: I think the horse rearing up, as a means to go into a full run would still be there. Rearing up in fear or being startled probably would not.

Sculptor/horsewoman: Horses rearing up to go in full run? I don’t follow….

This is where I almost fell off my chair laughing. If you’re a horse person, you know why. If not, let me explain: Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | December 22, 2013

Here’s Your 2013 Holiday Stocking!

I don’t know about you, but I’m too full of holiday goodies to get my head to do any serious work. So rather than attempt (and fail!) at a discussion of any substantial worldbuilding topic, let me offer a stocking full of little goodies for you to open at leisure.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Before I could get around to deciding whether to review The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a friend brought to my attention this blog post on Legendarium, which offers an excellent discussion of Tolkien’s position on film adaptations, as it relates to this particular movie. The comment thread here is also worth reading in full, for many thoughtful comments about the article and the movie. Taken as a whole they represent a pretty good review for serious fans!  Here’s a bit of the discussion of Tolkien’s letter on the issue: Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | December 8, 2013

Watching Catching Fire and Tripping over Romance.

In many ways, Catching Fire is a better movie than The Hunger Games. It does an even better job of portraying the hideous disparities between life in the Districts and the oblivious, self-indulgent luxury of life in the Capitol. And it cranks up the stakes between them by personifying it in a direct conflict between Katniss and the despicable President Snow.

It brings back some favorite characters (Haymitch, Effie, Caesar, President Snow) and introduces some promising new ones (notably Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch and Sam Claflin’s Finnick). Most important, it avoids making the “games” half of the story seem like a repeat of the first movie, by abandoning the first movie’s emphasis on violence porn, and by changing the structure of the conflict.

I found it absorbing to watch from start to finish, yet it still left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. I wasn’t sure why, until I came across Linda Holmes’ article on NPR, discussing the non-typical romantic roles played by the 3 young leads.

“You could argue that Katniss’ conflict between Peeta and Gale is effectively a choice between a traditional Movie Girlfriend and a traditional Movie Boyfriend,” says Holmes. “…Her larger mission — her war against the Capitol — often drifts out of focus behind her smaller, more immediate mission: saving Peeta.”

The moment I read this, I understood where Catching Fire falls short. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | November 17, 2013

Watching Sleepy Hollow and Making the Preposterous Work

The best new TV series this year is the one that everyone, including me, believed was the most preposterous, out there, guaranteed-to-fail TV premise we’d ever heard. Until we watched the pilot and realized that the only preposterous thing about Sleepy Hollow is how incredibly entertaining it is. You don’t have to take my word for this; reviewers from everywhere, even The New Yorker, are saying some version of, “This should never work, and I love it!”

Washington Irving Sleepy Hollow owes nothing to Irving's original story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" except the legendary horseman, the locale, and the names of three main characters.

Sleepy Hollow owes nothing to  Washington Irving’s original story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” except the legendary horseman, the locale, and the names of three main characters.

Here’s how it goes: patriot Ichabod Crane is mortally wounded in a Revolutionary war battle, but preserved by a spell cast by his good witch wife, Katrina. He wakes up in 2013 to find that the Hessian soldier who killed him, and whom he beheaded at the same time, now rides Sleepy Hollow as the Headless Horseman, aka Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Crane is found by a young police sheriff, Abbie Mills, whose partner and mentor was murdered by the Horseman, and they team up to stop the Horseman from bringing on the Apocalypse. Throw into this mix some demons, portals into hell, rival covens of good and evil witches, undead cops, and Freemasons descended from the Founding Fathers, and you have a bubbling brew that has no right to form a coherent world.  Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | October 6, 2013

Hard science fiction vs space opera: what would Clancy do?

To commemorate Tom Clancy in the week of his untimely death, Writer’s Digest reposted a 2001 interview with Clancy. In it, he gives the advice he thinks most important for any writer:

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damn story.”

I’ve only read The Hunt for Red October, and I don’t remember it being weighed down in the slightest by technoporn (lengthy descriptions of military hardware). Yet Clancy’s novels are admired for, among other things, their accuracy in weaving military and intelligence technology into the story.

Should New Colorado look more like Mars or the Mojave Desert? Yes.

Should New Colorado look more like Mars or the Mojave Desert? Yes.

Writing hard science fiction also requires a high degree of accuracy in pretty much any known science that your story uses. Hard SF readers will let you get away with a few waves of the magic wand of fake science, as long as they’re either minor in the story, or widely accepted in the genre (FTL travel, for example). But in general, they demand that the science and technology be both detailed and accurate.

Writing space opera, not so much.   Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | September 7, 2013

Watching The Hobbit and Debating Realism

The gates of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Image: Warner/New Line

The gates of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Images: Warner/New Line

When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered last year, fans and critics had a more than usually mixed reaction to a Peter Jackson Tolkien film. While I agree with some of the criticism about length – the chase through Goblin Town could certainly have been half as long, as far as I’m concerned – overall, I found that, once again, Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth is filled with wonderful characters and extraordinary images. It’s a place I’ve always loved to visit, and one that I’m eager to return to, especially with the remarkable Martin Freeman leading the cast.

Now that fans and the media are ramping up for the premiere of The Desolation of Smaug, I want to revisit a specific criticism of the first movie, resulting from PJ’s decision to film at a new, high frame rate of 48 frames per second, instead of the usual 24 (a speed dictated by technology from the earliest days of the film industry). A number of critics complained that the sharp new clarity of 48 fps made the world and the characters look too real, and in doing so, it destroyed the very magic the movie tries to create. As one critic put it, The Hobbit‘s magic works better when it’s not so real and closeup, when it remains slightly obscured by a mist of imagination. (I’m paraphrasing, as I can’t find the exact quote).

As a writer and worldbuilder, I find this an extremely peculiar criticism. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | September 1, 2013

Superhero sidekicks and other magical friends

Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Kirk and Spock, Han Solo and Chewbacca. What would a hero be without a sidekick?

Holmes and Watson; Illustration by Sidney Paget for The Strand

Holmes and Watson; Illustration by Sidney Paget for The Strand

You may think the sidekick is a modern literary invention, as the word itself certainly is. However, the archetype of the hero’s best friend has probably been around since humans first started telling hero stories. One of the oldest known works of literature, the 4000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, centers on the friendship of the semi-divine king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu.

Arthur and Lancelot, Roland and Oliver, and Robin Hood and Little John have all been famous in western literature for well over a millennium. And fairy and folk tales from all over the world feature sidekicks in the form of magical helpers who befriend the questing youngest son and the daughter escaping her wicked stepmother.

What’s the role of the sidekick? As a literary device, the sidekick gives the hero a staunch and always reliable ally for plot purposes.  Having a friend to care about also gives the hero motivation when his friend is in danger: Superman has to rescue Jimmy Olsen as often as he has to rescue Lois Lane. But this friendship doesn’t just motivate heroic actions; it can also motivate emotional development. Read More…

Continuing the conversation about speculative fiction and the Other:

When I’m reading stories that have other sentient species, I love best the ones that really dig deep into how differences in biology might create vastly different cultures and perspectives than those we humans consider normal. (I don’t say “watching stories” because it’s rare that movies or TV shows can really address these questions; they are too often constrained by the external, visual nature of their storytelling, and by the need to appeal to a broad audience).

Since my own created worlds are populated mostly with humans, this is not a question I often explore in my own work. So I’m happy to share this recent article by  io9 and Kinja contributor Esther Inglis-Arkell. In it, she talks about the ways that everything, including our understanding of reality itself, might appear completely wrong to aliens whose senses are significantly different from ours. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | July 14, 2013

Race, science fiction, and “the Other”

Trayvon

“If Trayvon Martin had been born white he would be alive today. That has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. If he had been white, he never would have been stalked by Zimmerman, there would have been no fight, no funeral, no trial, no verdict. It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty – far more than the man himself. It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good no matter who they are or what they are doing.”  
~ Michelle Alexander, Professor of Law and author of The New Jim Crow (on Facebook)

 A day or two before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was expected, law enforcement agencies, especially in Florida, were given the word to prepare for possible rioting after the verdict was announced.  The assumption was that angry black communities might rise up in violent rage if George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. There have been no riots – why should there be?  The black community has always known, all too well, that Zimmerman was very likely to be acquitted.  So did anyone else who has been paying attention to the relationship between race and criminal justice in the United States.

For me, a white woman in a predominantly white community, the pernicious tenacity of American racial prejudice hit me in the face last week, when I was talking with neighbors about the trial. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | June 23, 2013

The Traveling Worldbuilder Drives Across a Continent

This month, I drove from Rhode Island to California, helping a family member move. We drove 3000 miles in 3 days. Even in the relative comfort of a 21st century car, that’s a lot of traveling in a short time. It’s a trip that, before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, took months, by any possible route. What really struck me, though, is how the landscape we passed through both changed and didn’t change. In 72 hours, we drove from this:

Chafee sunset 2 2012

Even the stone walls in Rhode Island can grow green stuff!

to this:

SoCal high desert - less green in 100 sq miles than in that one field in RI

SoCal high desert – less green in 100 sq miles than in that one field in RI

Of course, the transition from RI  meadows to high desert is much more gradual than these photos. Most of the time. For the first thousand miles, the changes in the landscapes are so subtle that you notice relatively little difference in the building styles or the types of trees and wildflowers growing along the road. Even the hills look much the same; there are just more and higher ones in some places.

Hills and farms in Tennessee look pretty much like hills and farms 1000 miles away in New England.

Hills and farms in Tennessee look pretty much like hills and farms 1000 miles away in New England.

I’m speaking of rural landscapes, of course. Urban landscapes in the US are pretty much the same anywhere you go. Apart from any trees and plants bordering the parking lots, a strip mall in Yucca Valley, CA is almost identical to a strip mall in Warwick, RI. The analogy that comes to mind for me is the Roman Empire, where the temples, roads and fora in a town in Britain probably would have been perfectly familiar to a traveler from Roman Africa. Then and now, you have to look away from the centers of commerce and power to find the local differences.

After a thousand miles of mostly the same rural landscape,  you come to places in the continental US where the land changes as sharply as a drawn border changes the color of a map. Read More…

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