Overheated: A weak narrative undercuts the urgency of climate change

Overheated cover

Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change

Climate change is one of the most difficult subjects to tackle, and I admire any writer who attempts it. Though the reality of climate change is not in doubt—repeat, NOT in doubt—so much of its impact is speculative. Scientists can predict the rise of sea levels, the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, more powerful hurricanes, and so on, but no one can say with certainty how these will affect humanity in any detail.

In Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, Andrew Guzman takes his best shot. The University of California, Berkeley law professor tries to show how global warming will change the lives of practically everyone on the planet. Clearly worried about the power of denialists, led by President Donald Trump (though the book was written before his election), he answers each of the counter-arguments with unassailable rigor. If this were an argument before a judge and jury, he’d win going away.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem with this 2013 book, and many books like it. With a couple of notable exceptions, he offers few anecdotes or detailed speculations on climate change effects you and I might experience. The best story concerns the Chacaltaya Glacier, which disappeared from a Bolivian mountain in 2009. He also offers an alarming scenario involving disputes over water between two nuclear powers: India and Pakistan. Beyond these, however, much of the future impact of warming is theoretical. Writing about the potential for water wars, he says, “[C]limate change threatens to magnify existing risks, perhaps making the difference between an uncomfortable peace and a shooting war.” It’s hard for average folks to get excited about these unseen margins. Continue reading

Star Wars: Rogue One has a peculiar relationship with death

Grand Moff Tarkin - Peter Cushing

Star Wars: Rogue One created a digital Peter Cushing to reprise his role at Grand Moff Tarkin.

Warning: Lots of spoilers.

The movie Star Wars: Rogue One is a fun way to pass a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, especially if you’re a kid without much exposure to the Star Wars franchise. For anyone who has a bit more experience with the series, or who thinks much about storytelling, the movie can leave you scratching your head.

For one thing, viewers who know the characters and the plots starting with the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) release in 1977 will spend much of their time puzzling out the way in which the plot line of Rogue One fits with the series arc. The screenplay by a multitude of writers does a good job of meshing with the rest of the Star Wars’ canon.

You can also spend a lot of cycles looking for the two dozen or so nuggets from other Star Wars films. In the process, you might lose a line of pithy dialog or miss a well-photographed shot. These “Where’s Waldo?” moments can be fun, or they can take you out of the total immersion that makes good storytelling an almost out-of-body experience. Continue reading

I’ll remember this Black Mirror episode until I’m dead and buried.

Black Mirror still

Alex Lawther as Kenny in Black Mirror’s “Shut Up and Dance.”

Warning: Black Mirror: Season 3 spoilers ahead.

How do you measure greatness in science fiction television? Quantitative measures such as the number of positive critical reviews or the “star” ratings by viewers can set a series or individual episodes apart, but a fan can also measure quality with his or her memory. What image or scene sticks in your mind long after you’ve switched to another show? Is it the broken eyeglasses in the Twilight Zone’s “Time Enough to Last?” Is it the god-like voice of the time machine in Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever?”

Does Black Mirror have such an image or scene? The Charlie Brooker-produced series has already achieved acclaim on par with Outer Limits, Battlestar Gallactica, and others, but for a series to have historical legs, something has to stick in the collective memory. It’s a shot, a bit of dialog, a premise, or a twist ending that’s talked about twenty years later, or that writers borrow or imitate for another generation of viewers, or that makes you wake up in a cold sweat.

Season 3 of Black Mirror, available on Netflix, has several of these moments. As someone who pays attention to sound effects, the dribbling pitch of the protagonist’s falling rating in “Nosedive” is comic and heartbreaking. The benign, and ultimately murderous robot bees in “Hated in the Nation” bring to mind the moral and practical costs of environmental loss. Continue reading

Aliens, linguistics, and disruptive storytelling make Arrival must-see sci-fi

Arrival movie poster

Arrival uses disruptive storytelling techniques effectively.

We rarely think about our relationship with time. Life is just one damned thing after another. One word follows another. Cause and effect follow the arrow of history. What if you had a different relationship with time, one in which you perceived past, present and future happening at once, so that you know the future in the same instant you know the present and the past?

Science fiction writer Ted Chiang explores the idea in a 1999 short story, “Story of Your Life.” In 2016, Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve adapted the story for the motion picture Arrival, which arrived in theaters November 11. Both stories are told through the eyes of Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist brought in by the military to translate the language of aliens visiting the earth. The film builds on the short story, adding some Hollywood pizzazz and a different ending. Fortunately, the additions don’t obscure the main point; our daily experience of time is only one of many possibilities.

In both narratives, a new kind of language “rewires” Banks’ brain, and the writer and director use non-linear storytelling as a way to demonstrate Banks’ transformative encounter. Non-linear stories don’t follow most people’s experience of events in time, that is, one thing following another as you walk a path through life. Sometimes called “disruptive narratives,” these stories jump around in time, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. If handled poorly, non-linear stories leave readers confused and disoriented. Handled well, they seem more like paintings, best encountered as a whole. Continue reading

Ted Chiang’s sci-fi genius arrives with laser-like precision

cover art for Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Possible spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Arrival.

The release of the movie Arrival last month prompted my interest in Seattle science fiction writer Ted Chiang. He has published only 15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas in print, including “Story of Your Life,” the inspiration for Arrival. He’s won Nebulas, Hugos, and host of other awards, far out of proportion to his published output, judging by most other writers I know. As a writer who’s only published one short story (not counting self-publishing), I had to read more by this man.

Penguin Random House has collected eight of his stories in Stories of Your Life And Others, including “Story,” most of them the award winners. It’s a remarkable collection that may become part of the core canon of science fiction and speculative fiction in general. None of the the stories hits a weak note, though I have favorites among them.

If there’s a single word that describes them all, it’s “precise,” demonstrating Chiang’s penchant for picking only the right words and phrases, and crafting every sentence as if his writing life depended on it. Chiang’s style may reflect his training in computer science; every line of “code,” if you will, is elegant and purposeful, and the result is often mesmerizing. Continue reading

Review: Doctor Strange: It’s All Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch actor

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange dominates the eponymous film.

I’ll be honest. Movies based on comic books don’t interest me. The only reason I went to see Doctor Strange over the weekend was Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve become a major fan after his performances in the latest BBC version of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and his movies, particularly The Imitation Game, in which he played mathematician Alan Turing, and as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Doctor Strange was another chance to see him in action.

My wife, a teacher who works with autistic children, pointed out rightly that Cumberbatch has a knack for playing individuals with personalities on either end of the bell curve. Armchair diagnosticians might argue he plays characters who are “on the spectrum,” as “average” people say, sometimes with a mocking laugh. Holmes, Turing, and Assange are all high-functioning, extremely intelligent people with trouble connecting emotionally to others. They aren’t mentally ill, just so different they make others around them uncomfortable. Continue reading

Review: Augments of Change salient in a time of racial tension

Augments of Change cover

Augments of Change

America is going through another paroxysm of racially tinged violence, reminding everyone of our failure to reconcile our history with our ideals. In my own lifetime, the country has experienced urban riots (e.g, Watts in Los Angeles), violence after the Rodney King verdict, and last week, two more in a long string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by the mass murder of five Dallas policemen by a African-American assailant with a military-style assault rifle. It’s as if a murderous virus is spreading through the culture.

The news has left the country morose and pessimistic. People feel that the issues of race, as well as related issues of immigration and income inequality, will never be resolved or mitigated. As citizens of a democracy, we’ve entered a time of madness when everyone whom we don’t know and don’t agree with is The Other. We’ve lost the ability to listen to and respect other views. Demagogues such as Donald Trump say out loud what many people feel, forgetting that civilized behavior in the public sphere requires a certain suppression of thought and feeling in order to get along without fearing someone will strike back in anger. Respect and tolerance are out of style.

Speculative fiction writers have long tried to tell stories of race. In an genre dominated until recently by white men, only a few black voices have stood out, among them Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and N.K. Jemisin. Less well-known in the sci-fi mainstream is Kelvin Christopher James, whose most recent novel, Augments of Change, takes the myth of race, as well as it taboos and tropes, and turns it on its head. His unique voice brings a new clarity to race as an illusion that influences daily thought. Continue reading

The Girl in the Road: Literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay

The Girl in the Road cover image

Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road is literary fiction with a sci-fi sensibility.

As a writer who likes to look at speculative fiction through the lens of climate change, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to read Monica Byrne‘s debut novel, The Girl in the Road, published in 2014. Though its portrait of two women connected across time and space is classified as science fiction by some, the novel has few of the trappings of sci-fi, apart from some gadgets and a sea-spanning platform that generates energy. This is literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay. However, the most pleasantly shocking aspect of this amazing story is how it subverts the received view of technology and economic colonialism as strictly a north-south phenomenon. In The Girl in the Road, these phenomenon are shifted 90 degrees to show it as a universal experience.

The novel interweaves two stories of women making harrowing journeys, both set in a future a few decades from now. Mariama is a West African slave girl who escapes and hitches a ride on a truck bound for Ethiopia with a cargo that’s not what it seems. In this world, the ancient kingdom, the only one never conquered by a European power, is dominated by India (China hovers nearby), which is practicing a colonialism not far different from the British Raj, though with money, rather than guns. The other journey is made by Meena from the far side of the Indian Ocean. Her destination is also the Horn of Africa, and over an accidental road made by a sea-crossing machine that generates energy from wave action. Continue reading

Review: Science fiction exists to explore the possibilities of change

Hieroglyph cover

Hieroglyph, an anthology edited by Ed Finn and Kathyrn Cramer.

Successful science fiction and speculative fiction reflect the hopes and anxieties of their day, the same as any other narrative art. Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury were men of their times. Writing at the peak of American technological, military, and economic power after World War II, much of their work was infused with can-do optimism. Sci-fi’s tone changed in the 1970s and 80s with the end of the Vietnam War and the public recognition of the environmental and social costs of so-called “progress.” Writers turned more realistic—”dark” is the favored word—as they struggled with reconciling the post-World War II ideals with actual results.

Some influential writers miss the good old sci-fi days of the 50s and 60s, among them Neal Stephenson, the Hugo Award-winning author of Crytonomicon and Seveneves. In his preface to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, the 2015 anthology of “optimistic” sci-fi stories, Stephenson expresses disappointment in science’s failure to deliver on his dreams of space travel. “Where’s my donut-shaped space station?” he writes. “Where’s my ticket to Mars?” He blames the failure in part on the darker turn of sci-fi, which he accuses of dampening our faith in science as a positive force. “Our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” such as building a moon colony or sending humans to deep space. I find this attitude puzzling. While it’s true the American manned program is at a nadir, a near-permanent space station with American astronauts is flying overhead, NASA is landing rovers on Mars, and space-based telescopes are discovering exo-planets almost daily. How are these not “big things?” Continue reading

Review: A faux-paleo world with email stumbles on its contradictions

Knocking on Heaven's Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

A strain of environmentalism sees civilization as a mistake, a wrong turn in history taken 10,000 years ago at the invention of agriculture. The error sparked a chain of events taking us down the path to global warming and if you extend the trendline, global apocalypse. It would’ve been better if the first seeds sown by humans had fallen on rocky ground or were choked by weeds, goes the logic.

That civilization might be an intelligent adaptation to a harsh, dangerous, and above all unpredictable environment (Will I find game this week? Are enough berries ripening this season?) doesn’t figure in this thinking. The success of farming and the resulting rise of urbanization has meant a paradise lost. Fiction writers in particular are prone to view our hunter-gatherer past with envy, seeing our ancient ancestors as “in harmony” with the earth. Continue reading