Welcome to Sci-Fi and Fantasy Wednesdays

As I wrote on Monday, one of my commitments for this year to is to start writing on here on a more frequent, regular basis. Given that I literally write fantasy (in the form of my ongoing series, The Redemption of Erâth), and I have a deep love for all things science-fiction, I thought it might be an idea to start a section on this blog dedicated to discussions of all things sci-fi and fantasy-related! I’ll be putting up a new post each Wednesday with something related to these topics, and we’ll see if it catches on!

To start with some background, I owe my love of sci-fi almost wholly to Gene Roddenberry, growing up as I did on a full-fat diet of Star Trek: The Next Generation (I’m not quite old enough to have experienced the original series as it aired, though I certainly watched plenty of re-runs). I absolutely adored the adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and co. as they traveled the galaxy, exploring new worlds and fighting off Romulans and the Borg. I would re-enact episodes constantly in our back yard, and my very first ever original story was actually Star Trek fan fiction!

As I grew older, I had an uncle who also loved science fiction, and introduced me to some of the harder sci-fi stories out there, including Dune (to this day, remaining one of my favorite science-fiction franchises), and countless other books about aliens, spaceships and intergalactic travel. Oddly enough, Star Wars never really took over too much for me – although I remember the old VHS tapes of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader fondly, Star Trek was always my go-to – perhaps because it handled the ‘science’ portion of sci-fi somewhat more accurately.

I was never as much into fantasy, oddly, as a child; I don’t know if this is because there wasn’t any good fantasy on TV, or if it’s because fantasy tends to deal with the past (or fictional past, anyway) whilst I was always dreaming of the future, but it wasn’t really until Peter Jackson’s magnificent rendition of The Lord of the Rings that fantasy truly came to cross my radar as something not only enjoyable, but absolutely worth my time. I hadn’t even read the books by the time I saw the films, although I have since and enjoyed them immensely (dense as they are).

I think that, in some ways, sci-fi and fantasy are two sides of the same coin, which is perhaps why they are so often thrown together on the bookshelves. I don’t think that they necessarily mix terribly well (I suppose there are some examples, such as A Wrinkle in Time), but both – at their best – deal with human conflict in unimaginable settings. For me, the key distinction is really that sci-fi deals with what might one day be possible, whereas fantasy deals more with what might once have been. Whether it’s stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia, set in entirely alternate universes, or Harry Potter, set in an alternate version of modern-day society, fantasy often uses magic as a way of explaining things that are, to our current understanding, impossible; science fiction uses science to do exactly the same thing. And to many, magic is simply a way of describing that which we don’t yet understand – leaving science fiction to simply be rationalized magic.

Of course, the world in which the stories take place – be it galaxies far, far away or the house next door – must serve as the setting for human-driven tales. In Star Wars, despite the often-unrealistic portrayals of space travel and what essentially amounts to magic in the explanations of ‘the force’, we are really seeing a very human story of emotional manipulation, love, death, triumph and tragedy. In Harry Potter, we see … well, almost exactly the same thing.

For me, the best stories are human ones, and the removal of reality from the setting – whether by setting it in space or in Middle-Earth – in some ways simply allows us to focus more strongly on those human traits, characteristics and conflicts, detaching it from reality and giving us an opportunity to wonder – what would I do, in a similar situation?

What are your favorite sci-fi and fantasy stories, books and films? What makes them so great to you? Is it the setting, or is it the human connection? Let me know in the comments!

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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