Thursday, August 8, 2013

Prime Directive

One of the things that bugged me (mildly) about Star Trek: Into Darkness was its decision to be consistent not with the original show's version of the Prime Directive, but with the one established in The Next Generation and beaten to death in Voyager.

The Prime Directive was there in original Trek. It got referred to on a regular basis. But Kirk and Spock and McCoy broke it all the time. And the fact that they broke it all the time and got away with it can only be attributed to one thing: the original Prime Directive was a regulation intended to promote moral outcomes. It was designed to protect developing civilizations, to allow them the freedom to grow as they naturally should. When the crew of the Enterprise acted in accordance with that purpose, their superiors let them get away with breaking the letter of the law if that was the only way to adhere to its spirit.

But in the later shows, and in Into Darkness, the Prime Directive has been elevated to a moral good in and of itself, while simultaneously decaying into a cowardly piece of CYA bureaucratism. Latter-day Trek forgets the protective intent of the original, choosing to view nonintervention as an absolute moral stricture -- even when nonintervention guarantees that instead of being protected, a developing civilization will instead be destroyed. Nonintervention has gone from a tool for avoiding harm to a dogma that needs no purpose or goal, that must be followed because it is presumptively good, regardless of what evil might result from its application. And when a justification of this attitude is required, the one that is implicitly communicated is this: "If we do nothing, we can't be blamed for screwing things up."

Note to the clueless: it is not morally defensible to allow an entire civilization to be destroyed by a planetary cataclysm just because you're worried that saving them might result in their civilization being altered from its pre-cataclysmic state!

Ultimately, Star Trek is about being the good guys, and the Federation is supposed to embody that. The notion that entire civilizations should be allowed to die, simply because they have not yet developed warp drive, makes a mockery of the Federation's core morality.

Into Darkness isn't quite as bad about this as some episodes of Next Generation and Voyager were: the thing that really gets Kirk in trouble is not saving the alien race, but choosing to allow the Enterprise to be spotted in order to save Spock. So there's hope that future installments in the franchise will be truer to the TOS Prime Directive than TNG's or Voyager's.

I certainly hope so. The last thing we need is more Star Trek built around dogma instead of reason.

Shouldn't the real Prime Directive be: Use your brain!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pacific Rim

When I heard that Guillermo del Toro was making a giant monster/giant robot movie, I was really excited. Then, when I saw the first trailer, I found myself ambivalent. The visuals looked great, but there was no dialogue to speak of, only some really lame voiceover narration that seemed to be spoon-feeding the audience. Then I watched the trailer again, and thought, "Maybe the reason they used voiceover narration is that the dialogue in the movie is too contextual and substantive to be snipped together into a trailer that the editors think Joe Sixpack will understand." I crossed my fingers that the movie might have some smarts to it. Then people I knew started seeing it, and almost uniformly, they said things like, "If you want to see giant robots fighting giant monsters, you probably won't be disappointed in this movie." That didn't strike me as the most ringing endorsement.

So, while I still wanted to see the film, my expectations were for a passably good time and not much more.

Last night, I went to see Pacific Rim, and let me say this: there is a scene in this movie, just a fragment of a scene in fact, less than ten seconds long, that I would have paid the entire $10 ticket price to see.

And while the rest of the movie was not as mind-blowingly perfect as that scene, a great deal of it was still mind-blowing.

At this point in a review, there's usually a plot synopsis, so here it is:

Giant monsters start appearing, so to fight them, humanity builds giant robots.

Wait, no, that's the plot synopsis of the trailer, and the plot synopsis I expected based on everyone else I talked to who had seen the film. Let's try that again.

After losing his brother in one of the most pitched battles of the Kaiju War, Raleigh Becket hides from his past as an anonymous construction worker helping build the Wall -- a new system for defending the continents against giant monsters, intended to replace the giant robots that are now being decommissioned as relics. But (unsurprisingly) the world's politicians have foolishly misjudged the situation, and the Wall proves useless at stopping the monsters. Now only a handful of robots (called "jaegers") remain to stand between humanity and destruction, and Becket is the only person with experience piloting one of the models. When the commander of the jaeger program tries to recruit Becket, he initially refuses. He and his brother were mentally linked through their robot when the brother died, so Becket directly experienced his sibling's death, and doesn't ever want to have that happen again. But the commander convinces him, and he reluctantly rejoins the program.

Okay, so at this point, if the second synopsis doesn't sound strikingly more interesting than the first, you can probably give up on this movie. The added themes of family, loss, and disastrous politics are only the first of the layers that Pacific Rim adds on top of giant robots fighting giant monsters, and I've only covered the first few scenes of the film, but if you're not interested at this point, nothing I say about the compelling cast of characters, the careful development of the relationships between them, and the genuine emotion that the actors bring to the roles is likely to breach your resistance.

But if you're starting to think, "Hey, that does sound like there's a lot more to this movie that the trailers seemed to imply," then you're absolutely right.

The mental link between the jaeger pilots is not just a technological gimmick -- it's also a storytelling device, whereby we see riveting flashbacks of the characters' lives that make us understand where they have come from, who they are as people, and why they relate to the other characters as they do. The lame narration from the trailer is a cripplingly edited reduction of the movie's opening sequence, with all of the richest details excised. The only other dialogue from the trailer is part of a speech by the jaeger commander, Stacker Pentecost, and as with the edited narration, it leaves out all the context and all the best parts.

In short, this movie presents a richly imagined world full of its own technologies and social phenomena.  It presents its characters as people, and respects its audience enough to let the viewer infer years of life experience from a few carefully chosen, exquisitely conceived scenes. Guillermo del Toro pulls terrific performances from almost every member of the cast, and frames those performances onscreen with masterful composition and razor-perfect editing.

Of the movies I have seen this year, this one is perhaps the least spoiled by its trailers. It's full of people and settings and concepts you would never dream of from the previews, which basically just tell you that the movie is giant robots fighting giant monsters.

If you're any kind of action movie or sci-fi movie buff, I thoroughly recommend this film to you. And if you happen to also be a fan of giant monster movies or giant robot anime, then I can't believe you haven't already rushed out to see it.


Sunday, April 7, 2013


I love the new Doctor Who series, and given my post on nucleosynthesis Friday, I was more than a little tickled last night when the Doctor started telling a little girl that her atoms had been formed in the hearts of stars billions of years ago.

But I do wish they would have at least an occasional episode now and again in which the Doctor wasn't saving an entire planet from imminent destruction while delightfully describing how all the little bits that make life just so are the really, really important parts that we should always be ever-so-mindful and protective of.

When someone has all of time and space to knock about in, you shouldn't have to resort to formula in order to write good stories about him -- even if you've got a really, really good formula laid out for you.

Friday, April 5, 2013


For the first half of my lunch hour today, I watched the opening lecture in a DVD geology course, and was pleased that the lecturer chose to set the stage for geology by discussing the origins of the universe and its constituent elements. I am endlessly delighted by the fact that the world around us consists primarily of atoms made in the cores of long-ago stars and flung out in catastrophic explosions billions of years in the past.

I first read about stellar nucleosynthesis in one of Isaac Asimov's astronomy books when I was in high school. As with today's lecturer, Asimov was able to run through the conceptual basics at a brisk pace: you start with hydrogen, pulled together by gravity until the pressure becomes immense, crushing the hydrogen atoms together into helium and giving off light as a byproduct. If the star is massive enough, helium can then be squashed together as well, until elements successively higher in atomic number are created, all the way up to iron. Big stars tear themselves apart in supernovas, unbelievably powerful explosions that create still more elements and spread all these multifarious kinds of atoms across space in great clouds of gas and dust that eventually aggregate into solar systems like our own, again by way of gravity.

In this way, the humblest element in the universe, hydrogen, becomes both the grandest, mightiest objects conceivable -- stars -- and also the building blocks of the most complex, mysterious phenomenon -- life -- that we can observe or imagine.

So I'm a big fan of nucleosynthesis. Maybe I should have a t-shirt made.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Self-Publishing: Illegitimate Boondoggle or Canker on the Posterior of All Literature?

I'm about 16 months into my career as a self-publisher, and let me tell you, the luster has been agonizingly sandpapered away in those 16 months.

On the plus side, I had a brief burst of sales at the end of March, with four copies each of The Sharp Edge of Memory and The Ingressionist being sold on Amazon in about a week's time. If that rate sustained itself, I'd be looking at a dependable source of pizza money, which is certainly not something I would turn down.

Also on the plus side, The Last Tragedy received its tenth review that same week. By my count, that's seven complete strangers who liked the book well enough to give it four or five stars.

So I can't say the experience of self-publishing is entirely thankless. Clearly, at least a few people really like my work and are willing to buy it. That bodes well for the dream of eventually attaining some kind of wider readership.

But the downside is that I have no idea why those eight copies of the sequel books sold. Did one of my free promotional periods for The Last Tragedy finally start paying off, with several readers getting through the free ebook and deciding to buy the sequels? Or has my recent investment of time posting in the discussion forums on resulted in a handful of fellow writers being curious enough to plunk down a few bucks for my writing?

I've encountered a number of fellow self-publishers in the past year. Several have attained dramatically greater success than I have, despite having prose that (in my judgment) is markedly inferior to my own. What are these folks doing right that I'm doing wrong? (Cover art in at least one case, I think.)

I'm torn between the competing notions that (A) I should pull down all my ebooks and give the traditional publishing grind at least one more chance or (B) I should replace the covers with more graphically pristine ones focused on typography and design instead of my own inadequate painting skills.

None of this turmoil is helped any by the company I'm keeping. Self-publishers are becoming notorious as under-talented spam artists who hijack forum threads with their desperate pleas for attention and readership. The desire to avoid being seen as one of those people is pretty overwhelming.

At the moment, my response has been a head-in-the-sand approach, with most of my time going into writing on my new book instead of trying to do something with the old ones. But I know that's a mistake. The new book feels pretty good so far, but if I can't break through to a readership on the strength of the four books I've written so far, I can't see how this latest one is going to make any difference.

All of which leaves me on the fence.

But which way to get down?