Five Questions: D.F. Lovett, author of The Moonborn

The Moonborn cover

The Moonborn is the debut novel by D.F. Lovett.

I’m excited to welcome to Five Questions Minneapolis-based author D.F. Lovett, who released his debut sci-fi novel, The Moonborn, in 2016. David the head editor and writer for the blog What Would Bale Do, and he writes the acclaimed Reddit novelty account /u/DiscussionQuestions. He has also collaborated on several film projects with the production studio Corridor Digital.

The Moonborn is the story of Ishmael, who lands on the Moon to ghostwrite the autobiography of Adam Moonborn, first man born on the Moon. Ishmael soon learns the job is not as straightforward as it seems. In an adventure tale inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, they embark on a mission to destroy all of the Moon’s rogue robots, whom Adam Moonborn holds responsible for the death of his family and the impending downfall of civilization.

Here are the author’s answers to my Five Questions.

Do you remember the first character you created? Tell me about him/her/it. Not specifically, but it would probably be the personality assigned to one of my action figures. For most of my childhood, a lot of the writing I did was inspired by stories that my brother and I first invented with Star Wars and G. I. Joe action figures. I know this isn’t very specific, but a lot of those characters blended together or would evolve over time.

D.F. Lovett

D.F. Lovett

How did you feel when you saw your work in print / electronic form for the first time? The same way I feel now: a mixture of pride, excitement, and self-consciousness. I wrote for the junior high newspaper in seventh grade, which was the first time I encountered the frustration of an editor changing my words. I remember specifically some negative criticism I got from a classmate over a review I wrote of The Phantom Menace where I referred to Jar Jar Binks as an “alien.” My classmate told me that was incorrect, as most of the movie takes place on his home planet, so he’s not an alien. I guess that got me started early at learning how to respond to criticism, although it frustrated me at the time. I think I have a thicker skin now because of it. Continue reading

Two thoughts about the future U.S. Supreme Court

We come in peace to replace Antonin Scalia with Gort.

We come in peace to replace Antonin Scalia with Gort.

meme

Humans get justice at the Supreme Court. How about some justice for me?

The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia last weekend turned national politics on its head. Not only will Americans elect a new president, but the Senate will debate the future direction of the highest court in the land. The situation makes me wake up in the middle of the night with meme ideas. What fun! Here’s what comes to mind.

Why The Martian’s success probably won’t spawn a sequel

The Martian still

Hollywood needs to make more science and technology movies like The Martian. Photo courtesy 20th-Century Fox.

My two college-age daughters and I walked out of a showing of The Martian last weekend in a mild daze resembling postprandial satisfaction. You want that feeling of well-being to go on, and so the first question I asked them and an accompanying friend was, “Should it get a sequel?”

The answer: “NO!!!!!”

I agree. In fact, most hard science fiction movies don’t get a sequel. No science-driven stranded-in-space stories I can think of—Marooned, Apollo 13, Gravity, Interstellar—got a sequel. The only hard sci-fi film that did was, ironically, the granddaddy of them all, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Does anyone remember 2010: The Year We Make Contact? Continue reading

More Skirmishes in the Genre Wars

Real sad puppy

Oh god, not another genre. When will it end?

I find the genre wars incredibly entertaining, mostly because they’re pointless, and the participants waste an amazing amount of time making their points when they could be writing good stories. The kerfuffle everyone in the scifi universe talks about these days concerns the definition of “science fiction.” Traditionalists, who call themselves the Sad Puppies, have a stereotyped, populist view of science fiction, defined as technology-driven dramas and masculine adventure stories. On the other side are the “inclusives,” as I like to call them, which have an expansive, sociological view of speculative storytelling. This scifi is more about societies than gizmos and evil aliens. Both sides, particularly the Puppy partisans, behave like a two-year-old having a meltdown in the supermarket’s cereal aisle.

Any close examination of genre shows its meaninglessness. I’ve completed another draft of my novel Carbon Run, and although I’ve pitched it as science fiction, my editor suggested I call it a dystopian thriller. I’m in the midst of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, widely regarded as a master science fiction writer. Though I’m in the early going, Kindred is closer to fantasy or possibly magical realism than scifi. Amazon, however, classifies it as African-American women’s fiction. I’ve just finished The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfield, described in its blurb as a “dystopian parody.” Amazon classifies it as dark humor. Continue reading

Review: The Water Knife is bleak, but uncomfortably possible

Water Knife cover

The Water Knife is a noir-ish thriller set in a water-starved Southwest.

The western drought has forced everyone to know their rights. From San Diego to Seattle, talk shows, newspapers, and blogs overflow with debates over senior water rights versus junior water rights, who is abusing their rights to water by wasting it, and how much government is trampling on those rights. A year ago, water was something that came out of the tap. Today, it’s a way to shame your neighbor into environmental responsibility. How long before shots are fired?

In his new speculative novel, The Water Knife, released today, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a low-intensity shooting war over water. The battles are fought by paramilitary hirelings of water districts, who take what other districts, cities, or states won’t sell, and send agents to investigate rumors of water and rights thereto. That’s the task of Angel Velasquez, a gang banger turned water knife, a semi-legitimate employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA, or “sin-wah,” as I liked to pronounce it in my head) and its leader, Catherine Case, an empire-building Las Vegas water manager. Continue reading

Review: Ex Machina and the amoral machine

Ex Machina movie still

Ex Machina is about freedom, survival, and an amoral machine.

Spoilers ahead…

The key moment of Ex Machina arrives when eccentric tech CEO Nathan Bateman tells Caleb Smith, his employee, why the young programmer was selected to deliver a sophisticated Turing test on Ava, Nathan’s android invention. Nathan lists off the reasons, and one of them is Caleb’s “moral compass,” his understanding of right and wrong, and his ability to follow his conscience. For Nathan, Ava passes the test of conscious self-awareness when she can manipulate a moral man into gaining her freedom, but the consequences of this achievement shock Nathan and doom Caleb.

Artificial intelligence is at the core of Ex Machina, but like most excellent science fiction, or any fiction, it’s a thought experiment on human values. Ex Machina is about freedom and the lengths someone might go to gain it. What if you were locked in a prison, with death almost certain? What would you do to escape? More importantly, what moral rules would you break to break out? The story of Ex Machina would be dull if Ava were an ordinary human female. You would expect her to make desperate choices. Changing her into a highly intelligent robot adds a level of uncertainty that keeps you guessing throughout the movie, as you wait to see if Ava is smart enough to break the rules.

Writer and director Alex Garland owes much to Mary Shelley’s science fiction novel Frankenstein. Scientist Victor Frankenstein fashions an artificial creature using a secret formula. The creature (Shelley doesn’t give it a name, though it refers to itself as an “Adam,” as if it were a prototype.) is intelligent and articulate, but it’s also murderous. Frankenstein endows his living machine with an intellect, but no moral code. It gains a sense of right and wrong over time, but its acquired morality doesn’t prevent it from killing the scientist’s fiance. Likewise, inventor Bateman programs a beautiful and believable automaton, but he apparently left out the code for Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

If Ex Machina fails at all, it’s that it gives the audience what it expects in the end: a monster. A more interesting outcome, and one more frightening, is how a robot would behave if it applied a human moral code perfectly? In a time when the military is experimenting with autonomous drones, philosophers and computer scientists are struggling with how to imbue machines with a sense of right and wrong, but it’s only a technical challenge. Eventually, they’ll figure it out, and once they do, will the robots discover that their creators can’t live up to their own rules consistently? Robots are very good at repetitive tasks, but nuance and circumstance are highly variable, and humans are notoriously unpredictable in how they respond. Will a moral machine tolerate human imperfections and unpredictability? I’m not so much worried about machines getting smarter than us, but whether they will account for our moral failures.

Here’s How to Beat the Sad Puppies: Let Them Win

Don Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando rejected his 1973 Oscar for his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone. Does anyone care 42 years later?

Cheaters never prosper. That’s what I was taught in kindergarten, and although the dissident science fiction writers known as the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” have only gamed the 2015 Hugo Awards ballot to their benefit, rather than defrauding it, the principle still applies. People who twist a system to their benefit only hurt themselves in the long run. Science fiction readers who love the Hugo Awards face the challenge of preserving its value while sending a message to the tricksters. Letting them win may be the best revenge. Continue reading

Review: Clade shows love and hope are timeless in a changing climate

Clade shows that human relationships are timeless, even as the climate changes

James Bradley shows that human relationships are timeless, even as the climate changes

The slow, rolling nature of the unfolding changes to the planet’s climate stump many storytellers, who fall back on the set-pieces–mega-storms, pandemics, floods–rather than focus on the subtler effects on the planet of rising CO2 levels. The long timescales are another problem; some transformations might be noticed in a human lifetime, others may take millennia to play out. These phenomena can overwhelm an attempt to show the influence of global warming on human relationships, which can flare and fade in the space of a few days.

Australian author James Bradley has found a way to balance the bigger picture with the pattern of human life and love, which continues in all its forms despite the imperceptible yet inexorable change happening all around. In Clade (the word’s root means “branch” in Greek, as in a branch of the tree of life), Adam Leith, a scientist, and his wife Ellie, an artist, have a daughter, Summer, but she is a troublesome puzzle to her parents. As the early and sometimes deadly effects of a warming climate take hold, Summer has her own son, Noah, diagnosed as autistic, but high-functioning. He spends much of his time absorbed in “virch,” that is, virtual worlds that are easier to control than the real world. Summer, however, is unable to cope with her “special needs” boy, and abandons him with his grandfather, now separated from Ellie. In a surprising and delightful ending some 70 years after Clade’s opening, Bradley turns the autistic stereotype on its head as Noah achieves an age-old dream. Continue reading

Why science fiction writers should reveal their inmost selves

Still from Beneath the Planet of the Apes

A mutant in Beneath the Planet of the Apes worships. As he reveals, so must a writer.

I’m reading a new mystery novel and there’s a problem. I can’t help but think the author is holding back, like a sprinter on the starting block, but not quite ready to run all out. The novel’s characters are too nice to each other, preferring to forgive than hold a grudge, pulling back from saying what they really think, doing the proper thing instead of breaking the rules. The book reads like journalistic non-fiction, rather than fiction.

I’ve always thought fiction is about what we really want to say, think, and do, not what we ought to say, think, and do. It’s about desire, not propriety; characters may behave as if propriety is important, but in their heart of hearts, they dream of tasting the forbidden fruit. It’s the writer’s job to show the characters doing those things, to lay bare all the emotions–hate, love, fear, jealousy, lust–and demonstrate what these look like in an imagined world. Continue reading

Review: How “Interstellar” resembles “How the West Was Won”

Interstellar movie poster

Interstellar owes a lot to the epic western genre.

Interstellar is a glorious tangle, an ambitious film that accomplishes much, but fails to grab the audience by the throat. Director Christopher Nolan delivers a sci-fi epic true to the Hollywood form, spanning galaxies and taking the viewer to places impossible to visit in real life. It expands on a classic American (indeed, human) theme–striking out for new lands–but falters when Nolan can’t escape the black hole of Hollywood cliches.

As father of two daughters, I’m a sucker for the film’s central relationship, that of test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, played by mumble-mouthed Matthew McConaughey, with his genius daughter Murphy, played by three different actors of various ages, most effectively by young McKenzie Foy. They live on a flat, dry, blight-ravaged landscape where ecological disaster has overtaken humanity’s ability to adapt. Climate change is the unspoken villain, though the emergency is scientifically non-sensical (“Earth is running out of oxygen!”). The most alarming aspect of this world is hopelessness, a sense that the land is finally wreaking its revenge on its human exploiters and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. Continue reading