Uncle Larry and the Thundersmurfs of Pandora

John Scalzi reviews Avatar and makes explicit what we already knew:

Cameron has enough of a track record that even without seeing this film I pretty much know how it will be: Amazing visually and technically, with a story that ranges from barely passable to moderately intriguing, with the weaknesses of the story compensated for by a better than average cast of actors and very well integrated action sequences. That’s pretty much a given at this point.

But what about that story?

The story was serviceable, and serviceable, lest we forget, is actually a positive.

No, a serviceable story is not positive, especially when we consider how much money was spent on this particular film. Cameron could have hired any number of willing screen writers, dialogue masters, sci-fi novelists or monkeys with typewriters to help him make the story as impressive as his visuals. But he didn’t. I’d bet money the idea never even crossed his mind. Because to Cameron and most movie producers, big sci-fi action films don’t need a compelling story. In fact, movie audiences have been trained to not even bother looking for one, and so the stories have become mere plot coupons to carry the audience from one exploding set piece to another without boring them too much. You see this more than most with Avatar, where many of the reviews gloss over the story and spend most of the time talking about the effects. That’s all the movie is really about. The fact that it all hangs on a shallow skeleton of a story is not even mentioned, or if it is, apologized for, as if a complex and engaging story is somehow a sin. “Heavens, let’s not irritate the mouth breathers by making them think too hard about what they’re seeing!”

And of course what they’re seeing is pure racist tripe. It’s the noble savage, wrapped up in a burrito of white guilt/anti-imperialism with a dollop of muddled racial essentialism on top. Or, as Michael Berube summarized it:

…the disabled jarhead goes into the Matrix, dances with wolves, falls in love with the princess, and (as Janet says) learns to paint with all the colors of the wind.  And people are complaining that they’ve seen this movie before?  Good grief, people, can’t you see that you’re getting at least five or six movies for the price of one?  I mean, you’ve even got some Antz in there, you’ve got Vasquez from Aliens reunited with Sigourney Weaver (hey, and some guys from the Company, too!), and you’ve got a bunch of Ursula LeGuin narratives incorporated by implication. The visuals really are stunning, and how great is it that they actually called the mineral ”unobtainium”?  It’s like calling it “macguffinite ore.”

But at least it looks pretty. (And yes, I’m “over”thinking it).

I realize I’m pissing into the wind in demanding better stories for my money.* The market for such a thing is against me. Audiences don’t demand better stories, and so directors and producers don’t make them. And until they do, we will see only thinner and thinner spectacle. Bread and circuses, chariot races around gladiators stabbing bears, noble savage myths about Thundersmurfs. It’s the same shit, warmed over again.

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* $10 13 for a 3D-induced headache is not my idea of a good time. Maybe I’m getting old and cranky, and will soon start muttering about children and lawns, but I refuse to pay money for the privilege of minor head trauma. If James Cameron wants to beat me up, fine, but I won’t let him mug me while he’s at it.

The Story Thus Far

A long, long time ago, back when I was actually writing things on this blog, instead of just posting random cat pictures and promising to write things on this blog, I was working on a novel. This was so far back in the danky, drippy mists of time, even before the great Nanowrimo fiasco.[1] So, September, October, even. I had thrown out a few random links to news items and bits of weirdness that were jangling around in my head and generally being sticky with ideas for the novel-in-progress, refereed to cryptically on twitter as Novel # 3.

Well. Now that Nanowrimo is safely behind us, smoldering in the distance,[2] I can get back to focusing my short attention span on the proper novel that, truth be told, I’ve been fiddling with off and on since May. The fiddling is done, dear reader(s). The twangy Philip-Glassian warm up music has given way to a full blown orchestra (if John Williams directed an opera by The Ventures), harrumphing and blaring away in my brain. And it’s a doozy. And I will lay all its piece sout for you here, as they stand, partially to document the creative process I’ve developed since the previosu novel, but also as a self-evaluation tool, to see if any of the funny, silly, sticky bits that I think are so wonderful aren’t in fact total shit when I try to explain them to someone else.

Novel # 3’s proper title is: The Man From Planet X. I’m borrowing the title from a little-known sci-fi movie from 1951, about a visitor to Earth from a rogue planet who is mistaken by the military for a threat when in fact, he’s jus a curious visitor who looks funny. And so they kill him. The movie offers an atypical criticism of the cold war and red-baiting era, somethig most of the sci-fi movies of the period address in purly jingoistic terms. Well-scrubbed white American men beat the ever-loving shit out of those skinny, weird looking Martians, who all look alike and want to steal our women folk, whose sole purpose in the film is to scream while wearing a bra designed by a munitions manufacturer so that an entire generation of American kids grow up associating bullets and breasts in an unhealthy Pavlovian manner that confuses sexual urges with aggression. In this movie, the military is the bad guy, shooting first and asking questions never, to the detriment of humanity in general. Same as it ever was.

My novel actually has nothing at all to do with any of this. I just like the classic B-movie ring to it. No, that’s not true either.

The main character is Major Thomas Jones, USAF, pilot of Freedom 7-II, the last Mercury-era mission.[3] Major Tom launches into orbit in 1963. And disappears. Almost 50 years later, in 2012, he falls out of the sky and lands in Uzbekistan. Due to the fragile political climate of that hollow state, the US military can’t go in after him. So they send in Salome Anaconda Divine, a Biological agent for a futurist NGO called the Geranium Appreciation society (which is sort of like if Boing Boing and Greenpeace merged and were funded by Bono and Richard Branson). Salome gets herself captured by the cannibal warlord who has Major Tom in his castle in the toxic wasteland adjacent tot her Aral Sea. Hijinks ensue. And by Hijinks, I mean the rest of the story. You see, Major Tom doesn’t belong in this world. He’s the first ever documented time traveler. Untethered from causality, he’s fallen through time and space and is free to change the future. But first, he’s got to figure out the world of 21 C and his place in it. Salome is there to help. Complicating matters are a government bureaucracy, militant Transhumanists, a secret society, madmen, monsters and other escapees from various futures that never were.

So, Major Tom is the Man From Planet X. He’s come to visit and see what this world is like and try not to get himself killed in the process. Currently, he’s just met a charismatic Investment banker who decides to be his arch enemy and a stranger who knows who Tom is and where he is really from, eaten sushi for the first time and been offered a job saving the world.

And that’s the story thus far.

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1. Some may say that ‘fiasco’ is rather harsh, considering that the half-assed attempt to write a novel in 30 days is the point of Nanowrimo, but I barely go 8K words into it before the bottom fell out. So, yeah. Not exactly a high point on my own personal commitment scale. I had intended to use it as a short-form look into the creative process, documented on the blog for all the world and posterity to ogle at and be informed, or at least interested. So much for that idea.

2. I’m not really slagging on Nanowrimo. It was great fun, as it always is and is a wonderful exercise to get the creative process moving again. Working on that ill-conceived story gave me the perspective I needed to work out some of the thornier plot issues under which Novel # 3 had stalled. And that really is the point of Nanowrimo. It’s a boot to the butt of the muse.

3. In the real world, Freedom 7-II was canceled, it’s crew (Alan Shepherd) and funding transferred to the new Apollo program. This actually points to a larger part of the world I’m building in the story, and is a cross between a spoiler and an Easter Egg.

We’re Off Again

This time to Texas, for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Probably won’t have internet access, as we’ll be out on the farm, mostly. If you’re still interested in my holiday book  discount, you can still send me an email, I just won’t be able to respond until next week.

Just a Reminder

I’ve written two books and, as it happens, books make a lovely Christmas gift. I think your mother would like a nice Gothic Fairy Tale. And your cousin would enjoy a fine story about an umbrella and an aging cosmonaut. And if you order them by Friday, they should get there just in time for the holidays. Also, if you wanted, say a 20% discount, you could email me or ask me on twitter and I might be persueded to provide you with such a thing.