About Charles

I'm a graphic artist and the author of novels such as "Fourfold"

Star Command/In the Fold: 90s Cheese

For many years I tried to find Star Command somewhere on the web.  The difficulty lay in the fact that I couldn’t actually remember the name of the damn thing.  Until recently, I had only seen it once–20 years ago.  However, thanks to the wonder of YouTube, I tracked it down and re-watched it.

I kind of liked the thing back in 1996 with the original viewing.  I feared it would become awful with two decades under my belt.  Did it?

Umm . . . yes and no.

First, a basic rundown.  Star Command is meant to be a pilot for a series on UPN.  Written by Wild Cards and Next Generation veteran Melinda M. Snodgrass, it feels a lot like a Heinlein or perhaps David Weber story.  That’s not a quality judgment, merely a thematic one.

It’s a space opera setting where humanity splinters between Terrans and colonists.  As best I can deduce, the colonies formed their own government and broke away from Terran control.  Not a new space opera concept, but not the worst I’ve seen.  Both sides claim a rare Earth-like planet while they scramble for resources and war is brewing.

The story follows the crew of a corvette named Surprise with a training crew.  The Surprise flies into the disputed system for a scouting mission but gets ambushed by the rebellious colonist government, during which the senior officers all die–and rather quickly.  The ship is crippled but managed to land on a frozen moon and fake its destruction.  This leaves the cadets to stop the five enemy cruisers with their one corvette.

The good:

The writing isn’t bad.  Plenty of time-honored science fiction novel ideas are here which rarely make it onto television or movie screens.  Cliches become cliches for good reasons.

Melinda does her best to incorporate hard science fiction elements.  The ships have lasers and missiles–instead of phasers and shields.  Radiation screws up things.  And so forth.

The acting is passable.  It won’t win any awards, but I’ve seen worse.

The setting is interesting enough I wouldn’t mind more.  It certainly feels a lot more classic sci-fi than most science fiction movies and television.

Morgan Fairchild looks pretty good in this, even though she’s in her mid-forties.

The bad:

The special effects have not aged well.  They were passable for 1996, but . . . ugh.  Computer graphics have a short shelf life and these weren’t cutting edge in 1996.

The sets look like Babylon 5 rejects.  Actually that’s unkind to Babylon 5.

The costumes are . . . well, I’m not sure what they are.  The uniforms appear to be a combination of Next Generation and something from a 1960s Heinlein space navy promotional poster.

Morgan Fairchild dies very quickly.

The ugly:

The robot in it is like Johnny 5’s retarded cousin.  I get that they were trying to have a robot that looks like a robot, as opposed to a guy in makeup, but don’t try it without a budget.  Just don’t.

Overview:

So how does it stack up with my memory?  Better in some ways but worse in others.

I’ve noticed a lot of hate in several internet spots, but I don’t quite get it.  Sure, this jalopy is rusty and clunky, but not worth the disdain.  Perhaps I enjoy it more because I can see the designs and intentions behind the flaws.  This could have been a passable series.  Suppose Babylon 5 or Next Generation had been judged solely by their pilots? (shudders)

Is it cheesy?  There’s a bit of Cheddar.

Flaws?  Goddamn right.

Bad costumes?  Yes.  However, I did enjoy the miniskirts for graduation.  However, I enjoy miniskirts for virtually any occasion.

Honestly though, I’d rather watch this than a polished turd like Independence Day or its ilk.  I’ve had worse times.

Watch it and judge for yourself.

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Warstrider Series: An Unappreciated Gem

The Warstrider series entered by consciousness way back in the early 90s.  I only became aware of it because the author, a William H. Keith Jr., wrote several Battletech books.  Those Battletech books, while game books, were so outstanding I instantly started following the Warstrider books.

They didn’t disappoint.

The series begins in the 26th century, set in a future space empire ruled by Japanese.  The empire is strongly prejudiced against non-Japanese citizens.  Despite that, the main character, Dev Cameron, joins the Imperial Military.  He does so to help the reputation of his father, who died in disgrace during Imperial service.  This death happened in connection to a war against the Xenophobes.

The Xenophobes are an alien species which dwell underground on several planets.  They tunnel easily through the earth and consume any minerals and technology they encounter.  Ignoring all attempts to communicate, the Xenophobes annihilate all other life forms.

Dev enters into battle against these foes, first as an infantryman and later as a warstrider (mech) pilot.  The series starts out as a simple military sci-fi story of rah-rah action.  It doesn’t stay that way.

First, this is the first series I read that used nanotechnology as a major plot point.  Both the humans and Xenophobes (later renamed ‘Nagas’) make extensive use of it.  The implications of nanotech are explored in war, medicine and the nature of humanity.  There is a major power creep in the series, reminiscent of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s books.  Unlike Smith’s books, however, Keith does his best to maintain a level of hard science.  He approaches nanotech, biotech, virtual reality, mental links, quantum communication and even space and time warps with scrupulous detail.

Second to that is examination of political systems and how they might work (or not work) in a space civilization.  This was my first serious encounter with the concept of classical liberalism or Libertarianism.  It was also (at the time) dealing with the U.S.’s paranoia over the growing power of Japan.  Most of the action is between the breakaway Confederation and the Hegemony/Empire, rather than against aliens.

Third, it tries to approach alien mindsets, first with the Nagas and later with other alien races encountered by humanity.  In later books it deals with the concept of humanity’s minds interlinked through technology becoming a new entity.

Finally, it’s an outstanding war story.  Keith keeps the action going even when the methods and even the concepts of warfare change beyond easy comprehension.  He also keeps the stakes personal, even when all of humanity becomes a giant “Battlemind” fighting against a robotic group mind from the center of the galaxy(!) 

Keith’s work blew me away when I read it in the 90s and hasn’t lost its punch.  The concepts are pretty crunchy, but Keith manages to give the elements to you in bite-size pieces.  The technology is also a bit prescient, I think.  The potential of nanotechnology is staggering IRL. 

Warstrider is so layered, I can’t really do it justice in a brief review.  I recommend you check it out.  It’s available on Amazon, only now it’s under another of Keith’s pen names: Ian Douglas.

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Krull: A Flawed Movie That Could Have Been Great

In the ancient days of yore (1983) I viewed a movie called Krull.  It is a strange tale.  Neither science fiction nor fantasy.  Not great, but not terrible.  I weep for the movie it could have been.

This chimera of a movie is the tale of an alien invasion of a fantasy world.  Sort of.  Details are a little fuzzy. 

Essentially, a big bad called “The Beast” invades the planet Krull with an interplanetary castle called The Black Fortress.  The fortress disgorges a bunch of (literally) faceless bad guys called “slayers” (no, not the band,) armed with one-shot blasters called “neon spears”.  The slayers run around conquering Krull for The Beast apparently has a bit of a hard-on for Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony).  I can almost see his point, as she’s a fine-looking woman, but planetary invasion seems like overkill.  The Beast apparently thinks that the way to woo her affections is by kidnapping her and slaughtering her family.  Not exactly progressive.

“Hey, could you hold onto this nuclear weapon for a bit?”

Standing in the way of The Beast’s incredibly violent nuptial plans is Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall). Slayers interrupt  their wedding ceremony when they nab Lyssa.  Their wedding is meant to unify their two kingdoms against The Beast.  Instead, we get to see pretty much every soldier they have die in one night.  Anyway, in what would be an important plot point in a better movie, the wedding ceremony involves a ceremony where Lyssa hands Colwyn a magical flame.  Or rather, she tries to before the slayer wedding crashers arrive.

Fear the Death Frisbee!

Lyssa gets abducted, Colwyn gets injured and everyone else in the castle dies.  Along comes Ynyr, the Old One (no, not Cthulhu.)  Ynyr (Freddie Jones) is a kind of Obi-Wan mentor to Colwyn, and leads him to find a magical weapon called The Glaive.  Colwyn finds this magical, edged Death Frisbee after a very boring climbing sequence which ends with him pulling The Glaive out of lava.  I think it’s meant as a “test of faith”, but I’m not sure.

Armed with the Death Frisbee, Colwyn and Ynyr set out to find The Black Fortress.  The snag is that the fortress teleports every morning to another place on the planet.  Now, how The Beast maintains any logistics with that setup, I don’t know.  I do know it makes it pretty hard to storm the evil headquarters.  Probably pretty hard to receive any mail, too.

“Fred, did you notice a black fortress there last night?”

Along the way, Colwyn and Ynyr pick up a gang of followers.  Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley) is a magical faerie-type fellow, who has a running joke of trying to transform others into animals, only to become the animal himself.  Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw) tags along with the backstory of how The Beast cheated his people of an eye to see the future–but the only thing they can see is their own deaths.  Finally, a group of outlaws led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) joins up.  Liam Neeson, in one of his early roles, plays an outlaw named Kegan.

This motley band sets out to find the Black Fortress in a series of encounters with a body count akin to a Friday the Thirteenth movie.  Torquil’s outlaws serve admirably as redshirts and have worse life expectancy than V.A. patients.  There are a couple of decent fight sequences and a memorable stop-motion giant spider with the “Widow in the Web”.  Unfortunately, slow pacing and ponderous editing neutralize a lot of the good stuff.

The actors are all very British–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  The actors are all very competent–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  Seriously, Ken isn’t strong enough to carry a movie.  The guy’s a block of wood, made worse by the solid actors around him.

My biggest complaint is probably the ending.  The Glaive/Death Frisbee finally gets used against The Beast (and why he didn’t use it in previous fights isn’t explained) only to be useless.  Then suddenly Lysette hands Colwyn that marriage flame and now Colwyn can shoot friggin’ Godzilla-sized flames!  Apparently nobody at the wedding party mentioned “Oh, by the way, you can use that marriage flame like a super-flamethrower.  I mean, if you wanted.”

(beats head into wall)

Can you foresee me in better movies?

I can’t help but wonder who decided this ending made sense.  It could have been fixed to make sense.  I can think of a half-dozen ways off the top of my head.  But no, they decided “Nah, this is good enough.”

That’s what irks me the most about this movie.  There are several moments throughout where it starts to work, only to slam into a wall.  The production values are excellent.  The acting (with one glaring exception) is solid.  The musical score by James Horner is outstanding.  With a rewrite and somebody other than Ken Marshall, this movie had a lot of potential.  Hell, even with Ken Marshall they could have muddled through.

I can still enjoy parts of this movie.  The points which rise above.  Mostly, I just mourn for the movie it could have been.  It might be why I’m an aficionado of Spelljammer and similar fanboy nonsense.

It’s worth watching once for the oddball nature of it and those moments I mentioned.  Check it out.

Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit, or as it’s known in the U.S., Five Million Years to Earth, is a Hammer Film production of a BBC serial.  The phenomenon of Quatermass is a uniquely British craze.  It has had influences on science fiction for decades, but most Americans are completely ignorant about it.

The original Quatermass series on the BBC was tremendously popular in Britain in the 1950s.  It would not be unfair to compare their popularity during their period as something akin to Star Trek in the U.S.  Only three were produced: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit.  Their influences echo, as both Stephen King and John Carpenter cite them as influences.  In fact, King’s book The Tommyknockers is nearly a remake of The Pit (or perhaps a ‘homage’.)

Hammer made the previous two serials into films, titled The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown in the U.S.) and Quatermass II (Enemy From Space in the U.S.)  The Pit is the first one in color and the first to use Andrew Keir as the main character.  The first two films are well, mediocre.  The scripts and acting are solid enough, but the production values are weak–especially with The Quatermass Xperiment.  They’re not much above the production values of the original, live serials.  They feel more like serials uncomfortably squashed into movies.  Pit, however, feels like a big screen movie, and in color to boot.

The film starts out with a discovery of humanoid fossils in a London Underground dig site at Hobb’s End.  Paleontologist Matthew Roney (James Donald) is brought into to supervise the site.  Roney discovers a buried metallic casing.  He believes  it to be an unexploded bomb from The Blitz.

Professor Quatermass is brought in, along with his new ‘compatriot’–Colonel Breen (Julian Glover.)  Quatermass loathes Breen, as the military forced the colonel into his rocketry program.  The two men investigate the supposed bomb, only to find it something else.  It appears to be an ancient spacecraft.

A workman tries to drill into it, only to have his strongest drill bounce off.  The vibration it creates causes a reaction which opens up a sealed area.  Within are the bodies of several giant, tripodal insects.  Roney and Quatermass examine the decaying bodies and decide they must have come from the Mars of five million years in the past. 

Meanwhile, the workman is struck by a kind of ‘psychic fit’ while working in the spacecraft.  He runs in fear, throwing objects around with telekinesis.  Through investigation, Quatermass finds all sorts of folklore and legends surrounding Hobb’s End.  The ship’s effects activate anytime the ship is disturbed in the ground.

Roney uses a device that can record dreams (just run with it) to try to record impressions from the ship.  His assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) has the strongest reaction to the ship and they record her dreams.  The images captured shows the Martians purging hives in a racial genocide.  They wipe out all that are ‘different’.  (This is probably the weakest part of the movie, as the special effects consist of grainy images of bugs on sticks.  It’s bad.   A bit more spending on visual effects here would have helped.)

Quatermass and Roney conclude that the Martians manipulated ancient apes to evolve into modern man.  They tried to have a ‘colony by proxy’ since they couldn’t survive on Earth.

When presented with this evidence, Breen and the government officials dismiss it.  Breen convinces them that it’s a Nazi propaganda weapon and there’s no danger.  The government allows the press in, over Quatermass’s strong objections.  A workman’s blunder accidentally gives the ship a huge burst of electricity.  It comes to life and begins manipulating all human minds in the vicinity.  A gigantic, glowing Martian face explodes out of the Pit visible over the city.  The Martian ship makes the Londoners it influences wipe out every life form that is different, including other humans.  They can do so with the psychic powers at their disposal, thanks to the ship.  The Martians want humanity to inherit all their behaviors, including the need to ‘purge the hive’ of all differences. 

Quatermass tries to kill Roney, but manages to overcome the Martian influence.  Roney is one of the few unaffected (hence ‘different’.)  The two men come up with a plan to ground the Martian image to the ground with iron, dissipating the energy.  Roney climbs a nearby crane, meaning to use it, but the energy causes the base of the crane to crack, sending it careening into the image.  Roney neutralizes the Martian ship, at the cost of his life.

The movie ends on a very quiet, introspective note, with none of the survivors speaking.  Nice, melancholy denouement.

Overall, the movie maintains a good level of tension and uneasiness, despite the odd and esoteric nature of the menace.  It’s another good example of the ‘less is more’ school of tension building.  The series and movies do a good job of merging science fiction and horror, without clubbing you over the head with either. Other series copy these themes in later years, including Doctor Who.  In fact, episodes such as Image of the Fendahl can’t be anything but direct descendants. (Although the creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale, had great distaste for Doctor Who, as he felt that the series was nothing short of a rip-off of his work.)

The themes of the movie are meant to reflect the growing racial tensions in the U.K. of the fifties, but they fail to resonate.  Perhaps it’s simply too far removed from the events surrounding the original series.

Check it out. 

Also, the entire run of the original BBC series is available online.

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Jonny Quest: The Invisible Monster & Less is More

I’ve been recently re-watching the original Jonny Quest cartoons from the sixties.  I haven’t seen many of them since I was a kid, and some hold up fairly well, while others . . . ehhh.  There are more than a few dated and embarrassing ethnic stereotypes.

Anyway, one of my favorites is “The Invisible Monster”.  A scientist on an isolated tropical island accidentally creates an invisible energy creature.  The monster seeks out all energy around it and consumes it–including the energy in living bodies.  You only know it’s around by a weird, alien cry it makes and the burning footprints in the dirt.

This creepiness, by the way, is in what was intended as a kid’s show.  Adult themes are nothing new to JQ.  The creators (most prominently Doug Wildey, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera) intended it that way.  They succeed rather admirably in several episodes, including this one. 

The episode follows a fairly standard monster movie formula.  The protagonists (Doctor Quest, Race Bannon, Jonny Quest, Hadji and Bandit the dog) are radioed by the luckless scientist.  His creation kills him before he finishes explaining.  They rush to the island and discover the invisible monster.  Dr. Quest (being the prototypical heroic scientist) figures out what happened and comes up with a way to defeat it.

Despite a run time of only 25 minutes, the episode does an excellent job of building tension.  The monster isn’t seen until near the end, with only its destruction to portray it.  When finally seen, it’s not quite as frightening.  The animators did a decent job of creating an inhuman blob of energy, but it comes across more as an angry scoop of ice cream.  Limitations of animation budget.  Plus I assume they didn’t want to scare the crap out of the little nippers.

Even with these limitations, the episode scared me as a kid.  It was my first encounter with the “less is more” approach to horror and tension.  William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, one said that “Horror is watching something approach”.  A good summation of the concept here.  Something you don’t see is much worse than what you do.  Even when I encountered this in my youth, I realized the power it possessed.  Other ‘golden age’ examples are The Thing From Another World and Forbidden Planet.  Less is more.

A concept so simple that a children’s cartoon can encapsulate it.

Here’s a link to watch it online.  Enjoy.

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Island of Terror: A Nifty Horror Movie

Island of Terror scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.  In fact, I only made it through a few scenes before running to the other side of the house and hiding.  I didn’t remember the name for years.  Only with the advent of the internet could I track it down and watch it all the way through.  Even that took a lot of keyword searches.

This doesn’t make it a great movie.  It’s decent because of some atmospheric tricks, pacing and passable acting.  Honestly, I’ll watch anything with Peter Cushing–the man turns in a solid performance in every movie.  If Peter appeared in an insurance infomercial, I’d watch it. 

Terence Fisher is a veteran director of Hammer horror movies.  He turns in a decent showing with this, even with its flaws. 

The basic plot is familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with science fiction movies of the 50s.  Scientific researchers on a remote island accidentally create monsters.  Said monsters run amok.  Heroic scientists come to the rescue.  The monsters are unstoppable, until the heroes discover that one weakness.  Monsters are defeated.  Roll credits.

A rather unpleasant and unusual form of demise helps to sell the beasts.  Bodies start turning up with no bones left.  So they look like Silly Putty in clothes.  Slow reveals also help to maintain the tension during the first half.  Nobody gets a decent look at the critters until the halfway point.  You merely see their handiwork and hear creepy sounds.  I’ve seen better movie monsters, but then again I’ve also seen worse.

Turns out these nasties are “silicates”.  They’re composed of silicon and chow down on humans for the calcium in the bones.  The special effects team did their best to make them look like single-celled animals with flagellum.  Unfortunately, they come across a bit more like tortoises with tentacle heads.  I suspect they did the best they could with a limited budget.

The silicates are slow, but unstoppable.  The island’s single boat isn’t available, trapping everyone.  (This is a bit contrived.  How many island communities only have one boat?)  Like amoebas, the silicates divide to reproduce, growing at a geometric pace.  The breakthrough occurs when a silicate is found deadpoisoned by snacking on an irradiated test dog.  Being a 50s formula, one can expect radiation as a staple.

The scientists dose up a bunch of cattle with strontium-90 and feed them to the silicates.  All of the island survivors hole up in the town hall, hoping the strontium will work.  The silicates close in, followed by much screaming and panicking.  Until the creatures succumb.

We have the obligatory denouement, where the heroes talk about the dangers of science.  Then we have a: “If it hadn’t been an island, we couldn’t have stopped them.”  As it turns out, scientists in Tokyo were cooperating and performing identical experiments.  The movie ends with a Japanese scientist entering a lab after hearing creepy sounds.  Screams follow.

The movie did leave me with one or two questions.  One is the idea that an island community only has one boat.  Another is how do cancer researches end up accidentally creating silicon monsters?  Seems a rather roundabout method of research.

Despite its flaws, it’s enjoyable enough.  Check it out.

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Moment of Coolness: Xanadu Dancin’ Scene

Xanadu is a cheesy movie.  Make no mistake, this movie is a quintessential 80s cheese movie.  It oozes–nay, fountains–with cheese.

I still love it.

However, there is one scene in particular that stood out for me.  Rose a bit above the standard cheese.  It’s the “Dancin'” scene featuring The Tubes.  First off, the inclusion of The Tubes is a weird choice because, well, they’re a friggin’ weird-ass band.  Aside from the one single “She’s a Beauty”, they aren’t what you call a mainstream band.  They mostly fit comfortably in ‘cult’ status.

The rest of the music in the movie, by contrast, is very much mainstream for the eighties.  Not that I dislike ELO and Olivia Newton-John, but they’re not exactly edgy.  The Tubes, on the other hand, skate uncomfortably on the edge of pornography from time to time.

Plus, Gene Kelly is in this movie.  Yes, that Gene Kelly.  Dancin’ in the goddamn rain Gene Kelly.  In fact, this was essentially his last movie.  Old bastard could still dance, too, as he did a dancing scene with Olivia in the movie as well, which was also kinda cool.  Gene is not an actor one usually associates with anything the slightest bit ‘edgy’.

But I digress.

Anyway, the scene goes that the two characters Danny (Michael Beck of The Warriors ‘fame’) and Sonny (Gene Kelly) are out searching for the perfect spot for his new nightclub.  They find an old wrestling arena and look around it.  The two of them have two different images of the music for the club.  Sonny wants a Big Band, bandstand and a retro-forties look.  Danny wants a rock band in spandex and leather.  The two different bands appear in the darkness of the club as they’re individually described.

Then the scenes go back and forth from the Big Band to The Tubes, each doing different numbers.  Then, the two scenes ‘bump into’ one another and ‘merge’, both musically and physically.  the two sets slide into one another and the dancers and musicians sync up their songs.  This is all done with mechanical effects and choreography, long before CGI or anything close. 

The overall effect is . . . surprisingly good.  Still dated and cheesy, but not at all bad.  A very interesting use of compare/contrast that links up nicely.  It rises above the level of the movie quite nicely. 

Check it out.

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Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction, Part Two

I received a lot of feedback on my Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction post.  The lion’s share, however, consisted of people pointing out how hopeless things are.

Sigh.

So to follow up, I thought I’d explore the genesis of this mindset.  Despite the mounting evidence that, despite travails, we are easily in the best time to be alive, all remains doom and gloom.  We can’t possibly survive.  We’ll choke ourselves in pollution, fry like eggs in global warming doom, slaughter one another in war, or all fall to starvation and disease.

Crap.  Seriously, that’s crap.

Could it happen?  Sure.  Lots of things could happen.  However, few people seem to be basing these outcomes on science or present trends.  They’re told constantly in journalism and entertainment media that The End is Nigh!  Every news outlet will give you the worst case scenario of . . . well, everything.  They’ll tell you that all the experts agree that doomsday is just a stone’s throw away.

And for the journalism industry, I know why.  Danger and doom sells.  Few people read the headline saying: Everything’s Okay.  You don’t tune into the local news and expect to see a story about how nobody got shot and nobody got roasted in a house fire.  Put up a sexy blurb about a campus rape, though, and watch the numbers go up.

It’s the nature of the journalism beast.  I don’t like it, but I do understand it.

But the entertainment industry?  Why?  Why is there so much doom and gloom?  Positive and uplifting science fiction typically outsells the hand-wringing doom.  Not always, of course, but dystopian worlds have their own appeal.  But as a rule, the science fiction with hope and heroes gets better mileage than hopelessness and anti-heroes.

Hell, even in bleak settings, you can still have hope.  You can aspire to something better.  Bleak settings make hope and heroes shine all the brighter.

Nine of the top ten highest-grossing science fiction movies are essentially positive (Avatar being the hold-out).  It’s dominated by Star Wars, and even though the science is goofy and some of the movies execrable, the message is essentially positive.  The heroes can win.  Evil can be overcome.  Even in Independence Day (which I actually loathe) the message is that humanity can overcome tremendous obstacles.  Back to the Future is an amazingly positive trilogy of movies, especially the ending.

Because here’s the secret: people like positive messages–even goofy, horribly-scripted ones (I’m looking at you, Independence Day).  They want to look towards the future with hope, not doom.

Maybe the problem is that people see it as naive, and not realistic.  To have hope for the future is quaint and old-fashioned–even if the trend is towards a better world.

Breakthroughs in genetic engineering through CRISPR technology, emerging nanotechnology, increasingly capable AIs, GMO foods, better air and water and decreasing violence are all the trends.  We are on the cusp of an amazing new world–and a lot sooner than you expect, thanks to exponential trends.

And yet . . .

And yet so many people see nothing but destruction and death in our future.  Nothing but the same in our science fiction books and movies.  Do they genuinely believe this, or does it seem foolish to say anything else?  Do they seek depth in gloom, like an Emo-obsessed teenager?

I don’t know.  I only know that despite the pall of inevitable chaos rising from mass media, the future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.

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Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction

I have noted a disturbing trend in science fiction recently.

By ‘recently’ I mean ‘the last few decades’.  Science fiction and science fiction fandom apparently has a civil war going on.  On the one hand, you have the old school hopeful science fiction.  The kind of SF that has troubling futures, but balanced by the heroes and mankind getting smarter and more capable to meet the challenge.  It still poses troubling questions, but offers up possible solutions.

Then there’s the other side.  The side in which the planet is doomed, mankind will fall and our own foibles doom us all.  Or in which humanity is the stupid, brutish and warlike idiots, saved by the kind, benevolent and wise aliens.  Woe!  We are so stupid!

I’ve seen it in all media–movies, television, books and comic books.  The trend of seeing the future as an unending bleakness isn’t new, but didn’t become a major force until the sixties and seventies.  I think at some point it became ‘trendy’ to be pessimistic in SF.  Writers are always seeking the next ‘doomsday’ to be worried about.  If it isn’t nuclear war, it’s overpopulation, ozone depletion, acid rain, global warming, etc., etc. 

I get it.  The future is uncertain and dangerous.  They miss the point, however–the future has always been uncertain and dangerous!  You think Cro-Magnons didn’t fear what the next year would bring?  You think the ancient mariners traveling across the Atlantic to find the New World weren’t fantasizing the worst?  Science fiction at its best is either a cautionary tale to avoid future pitfalls or an inspiration to illuminate the way for the next generation.  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with dystopian futures, especially when dipping into horror, but as a change of pace–not a staple.

It seems to me this disconnect is especially wide when we consider the magnitude of technological achievements and development around us.  The free market and technology has lifted over two billion people out of poverty in the last four decades.  The percentage of people living in abject poverty has dropped below 10% for the first time in history.  (The percentage of people in abject poverty in 1800?  94%!)  Violence keeps dropping, life expectancy keeps increasing, quality of life keeps improving.  And on and on.  Yet all we hear in the news is Doom! Doom! Doom!

Maybe that’s it.  The 24-hour news cycle offers us a constant barrage of everything that’s wrong.  Many writers feel wrong by not reflecting this cavalcade of misery into their writing.  Like it’s a cheat to do otherwise.  Like they’re not “keepin’ it real” or something–even if it flies in the face of reality.

This schism seems to have a political component to it as well.  The hopefuls tend to be more conservative or libertarian.  The hopeless are progressives.  What this says about the two philosophies I’ll leave to others to interpret.  However, we have recently seen the SF Cold War get hot with the advent of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies with the Hugo Awards.  I won’t say that conflict is completely about the hopeful/hopeless conflict, because it’s not.  That’s an element of it, though.

I don’t mind cautionary tales.  Hell, War of the Worlds is a cautionary tale about British colonialism.  It’s a time-honored trope.  What bothers me is that it’s now the default setting, despite positive progress on a staggering scale.  Where is the new hopeful science fiction?  Where is the next Star Trek?  The next Asimov?  Have we become so negative we find those very ideas quaint?

I haven’t.  I still think science fiction is at its best when it shines brightest.

Infra-Man: Glorious Cheese

Infra-Man hit American screens in 1976.  Known in China as either “The Super Inframan” or “Chinese Superman”.  My first viewing was as a little moppet of seven years old.  Even in a seven-year-old’s eyes, it’s a weird movie.  It’s a Chinese superhero movie with insane visuals, monsters and a lot of Kung Fu.

The Shaw Brothers cobbled this strange gem together, along with some Japanese help.  In appearance, the Infra-Man character looks a lot like Kamen Rider, which is probably intentional.  In fact, all elements of Infra-Man have a “borrowed” or imitative feel.  This doesn’t detract from the cheese vibe of the film, and in fact, enhances it.  It looks like a Japanese production, fights like a Hong Kong film, and has elements from American television.  The Six Million Dollar man was popular at the time and they shoehorned the “bionic” elements as much as possible.

As the movie begins, a Disco-Dominatrix-looking chick named Queen Dragon Mom (Terry Lau) appears from beneath the Earth with an army of monsters.  She blows up a bunch of Chinese cities to demonstrate her powers.  Dragon Mom plans on conquering the Earth (naturally).  The only thing standing in her way is a group of heroic agents wearing shiny jumpsuits.  And motorcycle helmets.  

Don’t overthink it.

Anyway, this group of intrepid agents is outmatched by Dragon Mom’s forces.  So their intrepid head scientist, Professor Liu Ying-de (Wang Hsieh) asks for a volunteer to become Infra-Man.  He apparently had plans for this project, but needed someone to go through the torturous process.  Our hero, Lei Ma (Danny Lee) volunteers to become the bug-eyed Infra-Man, no matter the cost.

The professor crafts Infra-Man with consummate care, which consists of sticking parts from Radio Shack on him.  Combined with blinking lights.  Unfortunately, while the professor works, one of the monsters attacks.  It’s called (I think) “Plant Monster” and looks like a combination of Cthulhu and one of the animated trees from “HR Pufnstuf”.  It plants itself and grows into a giant plant/tree/something and starts smashing up “Science Headquarters”.  The power is cut during the attack and Lei nearly dies on the table.  Intrepid agents restore the power, and Infra-Man is born!  He leaps to the attack and quickly prunes back the arboreal menace.  (Yes, I went there.)

Speaking of the monsters, these are some drug-trippy things.  Besides the Plant Monster, there are: The Spider Monster, which looks like a fat, humanoid spider and can grow to Kaiju size.  The Mutant Drill which is . . . umm, a green scaly guy with a drill for a hand.)  Long Hair Monster (which is like a troll doll without a face,) and lots of others.  There are also the obligatory faceless flunkies of the Skeleton Ghosts.  The Skeleton Ghosts wear black jumpsuits and motorcycle helmets painted up as skeletons.  Yes, I’m serious.

The movie is a series of excuses to have superhero Kung Fu fights and the plot, such as it is, is mostly superfluous.  It culminates in a giant brawl in the volcano headquarters of Queen Dragon Mom, with enough action for a sugar-dose ADHD child.

Infra-Man is gloriously fucking bizarre and cheesy.  It’s not all fun, as the movie drags in places, but when it’s fun, it’s pretty damn fun.  Go ingest your drug of choice and watch it.  Now.

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