Help Me – I Need to Read

I have a terrible, dreadful confession to make: as a writer, I don’t read.

Isn’t that horrible? It seems I’ve fallen into the same fate as so many adults, who make excuses and come up with priorities, but who ultimately just don’t read. As a child, as a teenager, even as a young adult, I read voraciously. Not necessarily widely—although I definitely read the classics, my passion was for Star Trek, Star Wars and later Stephen King. Oh, I’ve read countless of those stories, but I haven’t read any Neil Gaiman; I haven’t read any Anne McCaffrey; I haven’t even read … well, I can’t even think of another author.

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Thought of the Week: The Real Final Frontier

Shot from 1953's The War of the Worlds.

Shot from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Having recently watched Star Trek Into Darkness (and thoroughly enjoyed it), it nonetheless brought to mind the nature of the universe at large, and how stunningly wrong science fiction gets it all the time. I’m not talking about warp drives and ion engines, but some of the less obvious, background kind of stuff. Lately (actually, for some time, come to think of it) science fiction movies have been bombarding us with spectacular visual effects. The War of the Worlds from 1953 showed us groundbreaking special effects, combining matt painting, models and live action footage. Independence Day marked one of the first mass uses of CGI to create the majority of the movie’s special effects. Green Lantern was essentially computer animation with a face in it.

But in striving to wow us with ever more impressive visual effects, the writers and filmmakers have had to take liberties with the truths of the universe. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (still of the best Star Trek movies in my opinion), the Enterprise manages to ambush Khan by entering a nebula, whose gaseous particles block all of their sensors. Nebulae, of course, are real. Here’s one:

The Crab Nebula, about 6,500 light years away.

The Crab Nebula, about 6,500 light years away.

And Star Trek‘s:

The Mutara Nebula from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The Mutara Nebula from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The ships enter the nebula as though it’s a kind of cloud in space. Here’s the problem: the individual particles in a nebula are kind of far apart: about 100 or so in each cubic centimeter (air, by contrast, has around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 particles per cubic centimeter). A nebula wouldn’t really look like a nebula; it would look sort of…empty. They’re also somewhat large for a spaceship to ‘duck’ into; the Crab Nebula above is about 11 lightyears across.

What strikes me about these images, however, is their visual impressiveness. For all the technical wizardry of ILM and Weta and all the other companies out there, nothing quite compares to the unimaginable marvels of the natural universe. Here’s Saturn:

An incredible image of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan.

An incredible image of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan.

It is one of the most stunning and awe-inspiring images I’ve ever seen. It almost doesn’t look real, and its reality is therein. Nothing we could imagine or invent could compare. What you’re seeing is hundreds of millions of miles away from us, and thousands of miles from the camera that took the picture. Nothing can even come close to encompassing the incredible scale of these stellar objects.

Here’s a shot of Enceladus, another of Saturn’s moons:

Water geysers erupting from Enceladus's south pole.

Water geysers erupting from Enceladus’s south pole.

Those small, gassy bursts are actually jets of water (yes, water – on another freaking planet!). Each one is nearly three hundred miles high. There is significant evidence that Enceladus hosts liquid water beneath its surface, which is one of the primary, basic requirements for life. Traces of potential organic matter have also been detected, increasing the possibilities. Wouldn’t it be simply astounding if there was actually life – real life – on another planet in our solar system?

And to finish, here is one of the most spectacular sights you’ll ever see:

The stellar spire inside the Eagle Nebula. I've rotated it on its side, but would be seen vertically from Earth.

The stellar spire inside the Eagle Nebula. I’ve rotated it on its side, but would be seen vertically from Earth.

These are not paintings, or computer graphics; these are real, genuine photographs of the absolutely insane and indescribably beautiful things that fill our universe. Their size is incomprehensible, galaxies that span trillions of miles, stars whose light has travelled for a billion years to reach us, and even evidence of real, genuine plants orbiting other stars. I will continue to enjoy my Star Trek, but I will never be satisfied with their tenuous links to reality, or their inability to even come close to mimicking the wonders of the universe.

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Thought of the Week (Late): They Ruined the Movie

star-trek-2-into-darkness-posterI just went to see Star Trek Into Darkness today. I will say that I still don’t particularly understand the title reference unless it’s purely poetic, but it was a good movie. Full of action, laughs and tears, with a near overload of Star Trek references for the geeks (myself included).

There’s a lot about the movie that I won’t talk about because I don’t want to spoil it, but there are some scenes and things that occur that were genuinely shocking to me. And not because of their import in the world of Star Trek (although that, too, is a factor), but because I genuinely didn’t expect it. I had not been prepared beforehand; it had not been in the trailer.

And I loved it.

Take a moment to watch the trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s riveting, as of course all good trailers are. It introduces our characters: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and the gang, and the bad guy – that guy from Sherlock. It sets the tone (dark, obviously) and features back-to-back sequences of explosions and stunts, interspersed with the slow-downs of momentary reflection. Ultimately, here’s what we know: a madman is on the loose and Kirk et al. are off to stop him. Along the way buildings get blown up, people get hurt, there’s a shot with a giant shadow-Enterprise, and a tantalizing shot of a spaceship crashing headlong into the ocean.

I can now safely tell you that you don’t know half of the movie.

Sadly, not all movies are like that these days. As we waited for the feature to begin, we quite naturally sat through some trailers for new, up-and-coming movies. Among them were World War ZAnchorman: The Legend ContinuesThe Lone RangerEnder’s Game (yeah, did you know they’re making a movie out of that?) and Elysium. Of those, the one I know the least about – and am therefore the most excited to see – is Anchorman.

Compare that to The Lone Ranger.

Now let me tell you about it. A city man returns to his home in the West, where his brother is a sheriff. He’s soon deputized, only to be ambushed by bad guys and witness his brother’s death. Rescued by a very odd native american, he learns to hide his identity to seek revenge for his brother’s murder, only to find the bad guys aren’t quite what they seem. It turns out it wasn’t a random ambush, but the very lawmakers themselves that killed his brother, in a conspiracy to smuggle some kind of valuable ore (coal, maybe?) and make a fortune out of it.

All of that, from the trailer. I didn’t look at IMDb, honest. I’ll ignore that it’s based on a previous premise, because I haven’t seen that either.

The days of the trailer as a medium of art is nigh at an end. Once, movie trailers were like this:

What a masterpiece. Every element of the story is in there, from the characters to the plot and the inevitable deaths to the tone and style set by the dark lighting and high, atonal strings. But it’s structured in a seemingly random sequence so that so one part can be associated with another. It’s not linear. It hints at a story, without actually telling it.

Here’s another fantastic trailer from the past:

What do I know? Nothing, except it’s about aliens and I’m going to crap my pants.

I’m well aware of the dangers of cross-comparison. The Lone Ranger isn’t Alien. It isn’t Psycho. It isn’t even Wild Wild West (actually, it is, but at least …Wild West‘s trailer didn’t give the entire story away). It isn’t a horror movie. It isn’t sci-fi. To be honest, it probably isn’t even a western. From the trailer, it pretty much looks like another excuse for Johnny Depp to do his thing (though I will admit that I find his thing rather enjoyable).

Here’s the thing. Every movie – every story, for that matter – needs to have a ‘reveal’: a moment in the plot where you say, “Wow – I wasn’t expecting that!” I got that with Star Trek Into Darkness. Several times. I got that with Psycho when I first watched it. Hell, I even got it with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But I very much doubt I’m going to get it with The Lone Ranger. Much like I didn’t get it with the plethora of sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. Nor did I with Captain America: The First Avenger. Or with (I hate to admit it ’cause I really liked the movie) Juno. And a score of others.

It’s in the nature of storytelling: you don’t give it all away, or no one will come to watch the damn thing in the first place! Actually they probably will, but that’s just even worse.

Sigh. Here’s to movies I don’t know everything about before I go to see it.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on movies that are based on absolutely anything but original ideas. Can you believe they made a movie out of rock ’em sock ’em robots?

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