Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Meaning of "Life"

Taking advantage of the fact that movie tickets in Mexico (where I currently live) are about a third the cost of those in the USA, last night I saw the science fiction-horror film, "Life."

Note the title of the movie in Spanish is actually "Intelligent Life" (Vida Intelegente), which is actually somewhat more appropriate.

I'm going to discuss some problems I saw with this film, leading up to a general criticism that applies to many recent movies. A few spoilers follow, though most of what I will mention you can deduce pretty easily from the movie trailer and the poster I shared. I will deliberately avoid telling exactly how the movie ends and will be rather general about the information I share.

Yes, as per the trailer, life is found in a sample of soil brought from Mars to the International Space Station (ISS). The scientists on board, a special crew largely dedicated to studying the Martian samples, nurture this life into a multi-cellular organism, which over a process of time turns out to be malevolent. And intelligent, as per the movie title in Spanish. Most of the crew is dead by the end of the film.

This is sort of what we expect from a thriller set in space, what is essentially the retelling of 1979's Alien film, except in near-Earth orbit. Except...Alien was both thought-provoking science fiction for those interested in that, with an internally-consistent world view, AND a really scary film. Whereas Life managed to be mostly not that scary with the exception of a few notable scenes while not being very thoughtful at all--plus the story world it builds off is a jumbled mess.

The scariest scene in the movie is mostly given away by the trailer. There is something quite terrifying about the idea of having your hands in those gloves in a biological sample container--and then the SAMPLE grabs you and won't let you go. Only one other scene I found as uncomfortable as that, but if you've seen Alien, the second scene, which featured the alien entering a human body, comes off as a gruesome echo of what was a much more surprising scene in the 1979 film.

One of the things I really liked about the movie Life is how convincing the visual scenery was. It looked like the setting really was on the ISS and at times the view was stunning.

However...that leads to the film's greatest downfall. When telling a story, even in science fiction, you create certain story rules that a good story sticks to throughout the tale. Given an interstellar freighter on a deep space mission backed by a greedy corporation who is willing to risk the lives of the crew to bring back a potentially profitable life form--and you have the story world for Alien. Life's story world setting is as part of most highly publicized mission on Planet Earth (intended to bring back life from Mars), with an internationally well-known crew, on a orbital platform with numerous safety back-ups of many types and which is in constant communication with Earth via various means.

In spite of what you'd expect from the setting, Mission Control is virtually non-existent in this movie. As you might expect (in imitation of Alien), the crew does get completely isolated from Earth...which I don't have a problem with as the direction the plot needs to go. But hey, this is the ISS. That isolation should not come so soon. There are multiple communications systems and they don't just switch off from a single quick cause. Why not have the alien take them out systematically? Nope, that's not what happens.

In general the movie makes the ISS take on a lot of features the International Space Station does not actually have, like single-person escape pods and quite a lot more. The plot at one point envisions pushing the ISS into deep space but you can't actually do that with any kind of normal system. The ISS is too big and too low in Earth orbit. There's more, quite a lot more technological problems, which made the stated setting into something that's really quite different from a real place that actually really IS orbiting Planet Earth. I don't want to give all of these errors away, but they are numerous.

I want to be clear that I don't have a problem with changing the features of a real place for a story. Let's say the Empire State Building in New York City has a secret floor for government experiments. OK, no problem. Or a secret elevator. OK, cool. But as my imaginary example goes on, let's say we find out halfway through a movie that the secret elevator actually goes to hell...what, that's weird...oh and also, the Empire State Building can fly. I'd think: Really unlikely, but maybe with giant jets or something--but no, it can fly because somebody fitted it with a balloon the size of a baseball filled with a really special lifting gas...eventually I  find myself saying, ER, NO, THIS IS DUMB.

A story world needs internal consistency. A story cannot just go on magically changing aspects of real things because it helps move the plot along. That's sloppy script writing.

So there's that, the false story world. There's also the fact that the life in "Life" is seriously overpowered. It is not shown to be able to do anything it wants, but it gets quite close to that. Ordinary things that kill all known life don't work on it. And unlike in Alien where the features of the monster are revealed step by horrifying step, the beast in this film goes from innocuous to murderous to practically invulnerable at a very steep curve.

There's also the crew. For highly trained astronauts and scientists, they seemed a bit dim. There were multiple times while watching this movie I thought to myself, "OK, that's not going to work. Don't do that." Or, "Hey, that's clearly not working, do something else." But they kept on pursuing their bad ideas until they imploded.

By contrast, I felt the crew in Alien did things that made sense for the characters--even if at times their planning wasn't the best, it had internal logic. They, after all, were a space freighter crew, professionals but ordinary people at the same time. The crew of Life are supposed to be the brightest and best Earth has to offer...but they seemed, most of them, a bit ordinary in terms of how quickly they figured things out.

But even though they were ordinary in brain power, they were not as sympathetic or interesting as the characters in Alien. They seemed a bit like cardboard cutouts instead of fully-developed characters (to me at least), with one surprising exception to that--the Japanese astronaut, who wasn't even one of the headline actors in the film.

So how did this film get made with so many story problems? What inspires a studio to create an inconsistent story world, shallow characters, an over-powered baddie, and an unconvincing plot?

I find myself answering this by going back to what the film did best--it's visual effects. The film sure looked good. The actors were attractive, too. It seems that no expense was spared to provide visual images. The looks of the "life"form itself, which was a product of CGI, could perhaps be criticized somewhat. But I would say if the alien failed to be fully convincing it was because of how it moved and how it acted, not because of what it looked like.

It seems that recently when studios think "science fiction" they spare no expense to pour money into visual effects. Stunning visuals are more and more common in movies. But at the same time, the stories as in plot, character, and consistent story setting seem to be getting put on the back burner.

So what is the meaning of "Life"? It means that movie studios think science fiction fans care most about special effects and that stories, especially those with internally consistent story worlds, don't matter much.

Are they right about that?

I surely hope not.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Answering what it means to be a Christian author--the Mythic Orbits 2016 way.

(the chart above illustrates the updated view of this story classification system)

This blog post is inspired by a reviewer of Mythic Orbits 2016 who stated he felt the collection did not comment on what it means to be a Christian author. I disagree and will explain.

To set context, more than a decade ago I had a conversation with some writer friends in a critique group. What does it mean to be a "Christian" author of speculative fiction?

At one point in the conversation a friend said, "Does a Christian bricklayer lay Christian bricks?" (Johne Cook said that.) His point was that the work Christians do is just that, WORK, and it is not marked by everything we do being what anyone would call, "Christian." In fact, his point raised the question, "Is it even possible for work to be Christian?"

I objected, saying something like, "Yeah, but stories are built out of ideas, unlike bricks. It's possible for an idea to line up with Christian doctrine or not. Therefore it is possible to write a Christian story in speculative fiction. And that's what Christian authors ought to be doing."

This divide among my fellow Christian authors has never gone away. Some writers I know feel that the very attempt to write a Christian story is a wasted effort. Others feel that a Christian story is a real thing and furthermore, what any self-identifying "Christian" author ought to be creating.

And some Christian authors fall in-between those two poles, of course. Including me now.

I would now say that I believe God is involved in the act of inspiration for those who are committed to Him. By "committed to Him," I mean I think it's possible for a Christian to shut out God from his or her thoughts and write something that in fact contradicts what God would want a person to do. So a Christian author should be careful to maintain a close relationship with God and examine each work individually to see if it matches up.

But other than what I just said, I think following inspiration where God lets it lead is what we are supposed to do. I have come to believe that the God who put such a variety in nature will inspire us as Christian authors in myriad ways. Some of us will be overt and/or very evangelical. Some will be more subtle. There is room for both and all varieties in between. 

This current attitude of mine was why I sought out Christian authors for a collection of speculative fiction short stories in Mythic Orbits 2016, without requiring them to write to any specific theme or meet any doctrinal standard.

If you subject the stories I published to some analysis, you will find the authors resolved the issue of writing stories as Christians in a variety of ways. I'm going to break down the methods used and name them by type, from most to least overt.

TYPE ONE: These are OVERT in referencing something directly related to Christianity with that message CENTRAL to the story (even if an unconventional message). Direct references to Christian doctrines and beliefs come on a recurrent basis throughout the story or are the central point of the plot, without which the story would cease to exist. In Mythic Orbits 2016, those were:

1. Sherry Rossman's "The Water Man" has a direct reference to visible souls of dead people right from the beginning, portrays a character with faith and a sense of conscience, quotes a psalm (without saying it is a psalm), and refers to Jesus directly in the story. (But still involves murder, removing it from being a Sunday School story :) ) OVERT, CENTRAL.

2. Joshua M. Young's "Domo" features an android pondering the meaning of mortality and God and seeking answers from a priest. OVERT and CENTRAL.

TYPE TWO: Stories that are OVERT in Christian references but such references are NOT CENTRAL to the story. Clearly what is central to a story is a bit subjective, but I would say for these you could remove the Christian references and still have a story--but it would be a different story, of course.

1. "HMS Mangled Treasure" by L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright is the one tale I am not sure whether or not it would be better described as a Type 1 or Type 2, but have decided 2 is a better description. Jagi has the issue of souls come up with important story results, the central character is overtly Christian, but the essential plot of rescuing a doll from faries would be the same without Christian references, though the ending of the story would be very different. OVERT, but probably best described as NOT CENTRAL.

2. "The Disembodied Hand," by Jill Domschot features a secondary character who helps the protagonist, who makes an open reference to believing in God and who prays. This character could probably be altered to making no references to God and not praying, though this would change the impact of the story. Perhaps the Christian references are central to the story for the author, but I would say they are not. OVERT, NOT CENTRAL.

3. "Nether Ore," by Kirk Outerbridge features a freaky world of a future dystopia filled with viscous squid. The main character "overtly" dreams of a world where the Bible is read and his dreams wind up having an important connection to the end of the tale. Several other characters make overt statements about the Bible and it's clear the good guys believe. But erasing the Christian references would still leave a tale of dystopian, squid-infested waters. OVERT, NOT CENTRAL.

4. "Cameo" by Linda Burklin features a young woman as the main character who prays and several other references to prayers to God, which in cultural context of the story can safely be assumed to be Christian prayers. Still, the story would be essentially the same story if the references were removed. OVERT, NOT CENTRAL.

TYPE THREE: Stories which have INDIRECT (or covert even) Christian references, but such references are CENTRAL to the story. The Christian themes cannot be removed without gutting the story, but such themes are not openly stated.

--After the original posting I broke this down into a type THREE A and THREE B. The A's would have indirect but very clear references. The B's would have indirect but not as clear references to Christianity.
1. "The Bones Don't Lie," by Mark Venturini occurs in a parallel world, where God is referred to as the "Eternal Lord." It's quite clear what this reference means, but the priests in the story, their means of determining God's will (by casting bones), and even what they are looking for is quite distinct from any direct references to Christ or God or overt Christian messages. But the religious element that parallels Christianity is essential to the tale. INDIRECT but CLEAR, CENTRAL. (Type 3A)

2. "Graxin" by Kerry Nietz has a central theme of prizing a particular thing that Kerry told me relates to the "Pearl of Great Price" parable in the New Testament and which relates to the concept of love. While saying this relates to Christianity is a matter of interpretation, the author's stated intent counts and this theme IS essential to the story. INDIRECT but NOT CLEAR, CENTRAL. (Type 3B)

3. "Baby, don't cry," by RV Saunders has an indirect reference to the human sin nature in accordance with Christian ideas that is indirect to the degree that someone could debate whether it's Christian at all (though it is very clearly there). But I believe it does qualify as a reference to Christian thought and I think the story would cease to exist without the protagonist deliberately trying to hurt her friend.  INDIRECT but NOT CLEAR, CENTRAL. (Type 3B)

TYPE FOUR: The logical-analytical types reading this know what's coming next: INDIRECT, NOT CENTRAL. Several stories in this collection make Christian references that are indirect and not central to the story.

1. "Escapee," by Richard New features a protagonist who behaves monstrously. His victims in the tale are aliens, who have a chapel on their ship with the image of an alien suffering on a Y-shaped post. Clearly the good aliens have beliefs which parallel Christianity, providing an INDIRECT but CLEAR reference to the Christian faith. But the protagonist's story could exist without such a reference. NOT CENTRAL. (TYPE 4A.)

2. "Ghost Roommate," by Matthew Sketchley features a mostly-comic ghost which begins to take on a more sinister aspect as the tale moves along. One passage compares ghosts to demons, providing an extremely indirect Christian reference which could easily be removed from the tale. INDIRECT, DEBATABLE/NOT CLEAR, NOT CENTRAL. (TYPE 4B.)

TYPE FIVE: No clear Christian references at all, but a direct or indirect moral message that is harmonious with Christianity. 

1. "Dental Troll," by Lisa Godfrees shows a girly trying to avoid pain at all costs--and finding such an effort to be a mistake. MORAL, NOT CHRISTIAN

2. "A Model of Decorum," by Cindy Emmet Smith shows a protagonist who is exceptionally polite and well-behaved as a general rule (with an important exception), who experiences a reward for her good behavior. No clear Christian references at all. MORAL, NOT CHRISTIAN. 

TYPE SIX: Just a story, folks. No real moral is evident. Nor are there any Christian references, either direct or indirect.

Mythic Orbits 2016 has only one story in this category:

Kat Heckenbach's "Clay's Fire." We could argue the central character experiences empathy for both the storyteller and the protagonist in the story-within-a-story and feeling empathy relates to the Christian virtue of love. But the story in no way reinforces or rewards this empathy. It simply tells a story.

I suppose there could be other types of Christian stories I haven't seen in Mythic Orbits 2016. But I have a sense that the categories I discovered in the tales submitted to me would do a good job of covering most of the possible ways a story could be considered "Christian" in theme.

Do you agree or disagree with the categories I created? If you disagree, what other ways would you identify Christian stories?

And what types of stories do YOU write? Please feel free to mention your own style in the comments below this post. :)