Sci-Fi Is Stupid

Thoughts On: Sci-Fi

This isn’t an essay on a particular movie, but a genre that expands past film.

        

I’d have to start by saying I love science fiction. It’s, artistically, the most intricate, complex, open and expanding genre of all. You could argue that this is all opinion based, but I disagree. Sci-fi being the best genre doesn’t mean it produces the best films. My argument here is based on the beauty of the natural world, of the universe around us – all of it incomprehensible, too vast to fathom. Science, our minute understanding of everything that is, inspires science fiction. The possibilities of the genre are in turn equally vast, equally incomprehensible as its essence – nature, reality, the universe.

But, um…. hold on… no, it’s not.

Art is a human thing. It is confined to the minds of artists, of people. This means that science fiction’s true essence is imagination. But, not really. Fantasy’s true essence is human imagination. There’s a very thin line between sci-fi and fantasy though. And that’s what I want to put forth for us to then blur.

Science fiction is fantasy made believable. In other words, make whatever you want, just ground it, imply physical truth, some kind of mathematics or science. This is quite obvious. At worst, this idea will manifest itself in the form of: ‘Zoreq, plasmodiate the fuels cells and neutralise the Boson inhibitor so we can electrobisphate the z-line booster, up the quanta factor of the graviton bithform, extraddidate the worm hole excretor and get the hell out of here!!’. That’s a gross exaggeration, but you get the point. Sci-fi is fantasy made believable – or so confusing you can get away with seeming intelligent. This all means that sci-fi’s essence is pragmatic imagination.

What does this all mean? It means that to write sci-fi you firstly need an idea. Let’s give an example: the world ends. This is a very basic, common premise. But, that’s all right. Next in the stages of writing sci-fi you need research or some kind of scientific knowledge to figure out how the world could end. There’s a plethora of things we could do. A comet. A super-virus. Zombies. War. Pollution. Social breakdown. A.I. We’ve all seen this many times over:

      

This is the first thing that makes sci-fi stupid. We love to use basic scientific ideas that everyone else has used. The hope of writers trying to create the next big sci-fi book or film is to imbue a simple premise and common science with nuance, with good writing, character, plotting and so on. Firstly, this is in no way a bad plan. It makes a lot of sense in terms of marketing and selling a product. But, maybe there’s a more interesting way to write…

Let’s say we take the simple premise of the world ends, and complicate the science. Before we get into that, let’s look at a film that done just this:

What I really should have put up is the first and original Ice Age, but we’ll use number 2 because the world is ending. Believe it or not, Ice Age was (to my understanding) the first film ever to be set in the ice age. These are simple enough films, but have a more complex, original scientific premise – a new setting no one has ever been. And, yes, Ice Age is fantasy, but it has a strong basis in reality. What this film implies is a successful means of creating new sci-fi – complicate the premise.

So, back to our premise of the world ending. We could take the Ice Age route and change the setting. We could go prehistoric. We could go back to Earth 500 millions years ago. Better still we could go billions of years into the future. With that, we could not just make a film about the world ending, but the universe – when it all goes dark. There’s our premise. The universe ends. Now, there’s many theories on how and why this would happen – things like everything coming to equilibrium, stars, galaxies dying out, everything going cold. That’s the easy part. The real task comes with putting a character in the situation. Easy fix: time travel. Let’s take that and run. Hey, we can even break the walls here. The world is about to be hit by a commit. Scientists figure out a way to time travel – through space and time. They aim to preserve the human species by throwing them out into space (in a space ship) and forward in time. But the technology isn’t great, the time travelling technology isn’t perfected.

Time’s running short though. They risk it and go.

Uh-oh, they’re sent hundreds of billions of years into the future where the universe is ending. They now have to figure out how to fix things. How are they going to do this? Well, the greatest humans of the time were chosen to live on. They have to figure out a way to give them time to fix things. They could suspend their bodies in time (with existing time traveling technology) but keep their imagination alive. They could think over millions of years with the aid of computers. In doing so, they create A.I that can help. But, in that there’s trouble…

I won’t go too deep in to the rest of the film, but, in short, we have Sunshine meets Armageddon meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Terminator. This sounds like a great idea that you’re ready to steal from me (please do, I’m excited to see what you produce). But, wait for the next step and the crux of this essay. You need to zoom in on everything and figure out how things happen to make it science fiction. You can choose to take liberties or use hard science, producing hard science fiction. But, stop. You could delve into hours, days, weeks of research into Einstein, relativity, time travel, A.I, such and so on. But, stop.

This is quite possibly the most insane thing you could do as a sci-fi writer. To understand why just imagine yourself in the mid-1800s. Einstein’s theories don’t exist. You have no grounded understanding of electrons or photons as waves or particles, of gravity of space time. Could you imagine today? Spoilers: NOO!! You have absolutely no chance. If you look at the progress of today, you’re not likely to predict the sate of society, the state of the world, in 10 or even 5 years. Why are we trying so hard to do this!? Art is a reflection of self and of your time and place in the world. Sci-fi is a reflection of self in a different time and place. It’s the latter specification that makes sci-fi nonsensical.

What has this got to do with creating better books or films? Well, simple. Technology and science is evolving too fast, in ways too complex for you to sensically use today’s knowledge to build a future. This means it makes absolutely no sense to do the last step as discussed. Hard science fiction is stupid when you are going 100 of years in the future – even mere decades. As a writer, you should be using imagination, that fiction on the end of sci-fi, to inform details. This means you could take an idea such as a black hole, such as an electron, and distort it – make up some random, imaginative stuff to justify how time travel could work, how physics, nature functions.

How do you justify this? Simple, the man from the 1800s predicting today idea. You are a caveman in respect to a society hundreds, thousands of years in the future. Use that fact to produce intricately imaginative, through-and-through science fiction. In other words, produce pure sci-fi not hard sci-fi because scientifically, historically, philosophically this makes so much more sense to do.

Why should you do this? Well, what everyone is after is originality. When you think of sci-fi in this manner, you are taking away all short cuts, you are taking away all chances to use easy fixes, things others could use, come up with. This is so important because when you have an original basis to a film, a strong original basis with a myriad of even partially original ideas, you are setting yourself up to win. Like I made clear with Silent Running, stories should tell themselves. To make them talk, to communicate with your skills as a writer, you need to create these original premises.

This is what all great sci-fi films do. They have big ideas (like the world ends) but the deeper they get into details, the more complex, more original they become. Look at 2001. It’s because Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark had the bigger idea of evolution that they had an idea of structure, of extreme pasts and then extreme futures. They then used solid, cutting edge research and knowledge of their time (directly from NASA as an example) to form smaller ideas – like the way the spaceships work. But, get down into the details of the monolith and things get convoluted. However, instead of explaining how it worked Kubrick and Clark left things ambiguous. This produced a classic, a masterpiece, but what if they did explain the who, what, when, where, whys? This is what I implore we do.

Dive into the details of your premise, explain them – you’re writing sci-fi aren’t you? But, don’t use strict science, use you’re imagination that has been inspired (to varying degrees) by scientific theory. This is why I say sci-fi is stupid. The biggest reason is: you don’t see this happen very often, despite this being an unfathomably intriguing way of doing things – possibly an effective, newer, better methodology.

So, in the end, I don’t mean that sci-fi is bad, that every piece of sci-fi should be produced in this manner. In truth, film, all genres, all art, is a little silly, but when we embrace absurdity, take away boundaries, well…

… it’s an exciting thought is all.

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Breakfast At Tiffany’s – Commentary With Rats, Cats And Dogs

Thoughts On: Breakfast At Tiffany’s

A money obsessed young woman, befriends a young writer amidst a world of hidden crime, lies and pretence.

Breakfast At Tiffany's

This is often cited as Audrey Hepburn’s best film. I can concede that, for the most part, the writing, structure and character-based conflict presented in this film are superior to the rest of her filmography. However, for me, Roman Holiday will always be number one. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a great film. I said this a few post ago in Pulp Fiction – Writing What You Know. In the post, however, I was discussing apparent racism due to bad writing, acting, makeup and so on – and all surrounding the infamous image of Mick Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi…

  

As I’ve covered that aspect of the film already, we’ll leave as is. Instead, what we’ll be looking at today is the main focus of the story and what it teaches. Before that though, let’s stay with characters a moment and, um… make a quick comparison…

  

What this all means, I’ll leave to you. All I’m saying is I smell a conspiracy. Who, what, when, why? I don’t know… let’s not fall into a wormhole, instead move along as if nothing happened and this is all a joke. (It’s probably not).

Ok, so Breakfast At Tiffany’s is quite the allusive film. The first time I watched it, I didn’t care much for what it had to say. Seemingly, it was talking about being young, dumb and nothing more than at a loss – with some needless promotion injected into the mix. This is partly true, but is the mere foundation of what the film explores. Within Breakfast At Tiffany’s is an exploration of humanity in terms of relationships, and so is a nice follow up to the Quick Thoughts on the 1956 Marilyn Monroe classic, Bus Stop. Bus Stop is a simpler narrative about finding yourself via realising your place in society. Breakfast At Tiffany’s revels in an existential reprieve of responsibility and character. That means that Holly Golightly, otherwise known as Lula-May, never finds out just who she is – why this is will be made all the clearer with the ending. To get to that point we have to break the film down into two writers’ devices – character and place. The key characters we’ll need will be Holly/Lula and Paul/Fred, with peripheral additions from 2-E/The Decorator and José. The key places would simply be Holly’s apartment and Tiffany’s. The culmination of character and place in this film demonstrates how to intricately portray a narrative message through an idea of context, of situation. In other words, Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a great example of a social commentary. To understand what makes it great, it’s easiest to look at other films that also serve poignant social commentary:

All of these films manipulate characters and their settings in absurd ways that reflect aspects of society, blowing them up, holding them right in front of our faces. Zootopia would be the most obvious portrayal of human society in terms of race and culture. The Lobster is probably the greatest absurdist film I’ve ever seen with a powerful consideration of human bonds and the individual. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has a strong sense of morale to push a political viewpoint – The Great Dictator too, but in a different style. Fight Club is probably the best social commentary that utilises character as a primary, weaving an existential, nihilistic, chaotic idea of self and of standard. On the other hand, we have Brazil which is probably the best example (along with The Matrix) of utilising setting to comment on society. Each of these films provide respective examples of how to socially commentate in a precise and explicit manner – and for this they are great. However, Breakfast At Tiffany’s mutes character and setting to imply an emptier, more ambiguous commentary, ultimately left in the hands of the viewer. Whereas Chaplin screams and shouts nonsense as Hynkel, Tyler asserts 1st and 2nd rules made to be broken, McCarthy runs from the commy zombies, Holly munches on croissants, gazing into shop windows with a cat called Cat waiting to be fed at home. This is all designed in object to archetype. In other words, social commentary’s use of caricatures, clear symbols, obvious manipulation of reality, usually allows writers/filmmakers to make concise points. However, how do you talk about the individual with broad strokes? This is the question Breakfast At Tiffany’s faces. So, in short, this is a film about possession, it asks the common questions of where do I belong, and, who am I?

To get into things, let’s look at straight to Holly. She describes herself as wild, and enforces this by acting impulsive, living by emotion – but what is revealed to be underlying fear. She courts men so often, burns through money, yet brings it in in high volumes, because she’s scared. Her money issues are connected to her brother, Fred, who is away at war. She needs money to ensure financial security. However, she burns through it all because she’s afraid of responsibility. we see this represented with her apartment – it’s a dump, bland, as if she’s not moved in yet (despite living there for a year). Why she is this way, we’ll come to soon. But, suffice to say it lies in her alter ego – Lula-May. Holly escaped an early, yet apparently loving, marriage at the age of 14 in search of independence. The film’s core conflict centres around this and to break into this idea we need to turn to Paul – or, as named by Holly, Fred. Paul is much like Holly in that he finds security in using others. However, the key difference between Holly and Paul is of comfort. Paul is comfortable to be 2-Es prostitute, on the other hand Holly doesn’t seem to sleep with any of the men she uses. This implies that Paul is set in his ways, set deep into his compulsion to use others. Holly is not. In seeing this we can understand why Holly runs all the time, but we’re still left with a question of why. To dig deeper we need to look at two things: Tiffany’s and José. Holly wants two things in life, and both are represented by character and setting. José represents long-term security. He is quite possibly the means by which Holly may indulge in her compulsion to rely on others, to exploit in a certain sense. Tiffany’s on the other hand is where we can see Holly as a ‘real phony’. This is probably the best way to describe her. She is a very bland person who merely uses people for personal gain, with no capacity for social exchange. However, this isn’t a calculated persona – which would make her a phony. Holly is, to her core, a phony – a real phony. To understand this in depth, I think it’s best to look at a film like Silent Running or even 8 Mile. Both films provide an idea of character and truth in being nothing but you. In other words, true character can be good or bad, but it must always have a sense of continuity, of truth, of essential basis. Without defining character people are shells. By providing true character a writer can do many things, but in real life, showcasing true character, you become a figure that you can’t really hate – everyone just accepts you as you.

Next, we come to Tiffany’s, which is a very interesting setting that I could probably spend hours writing about, but in the interest of keeping things succinct, let’s not do that. The core concept of Tiffany’s in relation to Holly is of facade. Jewellery makes you feel good in other words. What this does is allow Holly to make fantasy a tangible concept – make dreams realities. This is why the film is called Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Holly wakes up from dreams, but surrounds herself with hopes and fantasy to stretch the dreams of sleep into waking hours. This is what imbues her character with pretence – all she wants is to look good. This isn’t a through and through bad thing though. Looking good for others is easily perceived as vanity, but in some circumstances is utterly understandable. Others make us feel good, looking good makes others pay more attention, even like us more – making us feel all the better. This is what Holly is addicted to, what she craves. She wants the facade other facades interact with in favourable ways, that, to an extent, make her feel all the better internally. However, this isn’t a sound way to live your life. We’ll get to why though after wrapping up just what Tiffany’s represents. To see this, we need to look at the scene with the library, Tiffany’s and then the shop Holly and Paul rob. The library is a public space that is not willing to massage Paul’s or Holly’s ego. This idea is captured by the book signing. The librarian doesn’t care if Paul’s an author, merely wants him to shhh as other people are reading. When we compare this to Tiffany’s, where, despite only having $10, the two get good service, it’s easy to say that the library is the worst of the places – that, that which represents facades and pretence is better than a communal space. This, as any 6 year old could tell you, isn’t entirely right though. To see why, we firstly need to consider Pretty Woman (not a great thing to follow up 6 year old logic, but what can you do?). If Holly went into Tiffany’s dressed like this…

… which, by the way… wow… well, she may have been turned away. But, ideas in this we’ll save for a later talk, or soon, maybe even on Pretty Woman (???). Anyways, what’s important is to understand that the teller at Tiffany’s is a real phony – just like Holly. This is why she gets good service. This is a man that is most probably unconditionally polite. This is exactly what Holly wants from life. Unconditional, irrational care, attention, love – the world at no cost. This juxtaposed with a library where you have to consider others before yourself, well, it’s not so great (as the 6 year old was telling us). But, it’s not too bad either (more on that in a second). The last setting we have to look at is the store that Paul and Holly rob. They do this for a thrill – and rather pointlessly. They steal cheap toys, begging the question: why? Would it not have made more sense to rob Tiffany’s? Well, no, they would have been caught. And it’s here that we have the core of the film exposed. Both characters do what they want as long as they can get away with it. The two must always have a safety net beneath them.

It’s now that we can dive into why Holly is the way she is. She firstly needs security, but is scared of responsibility. This is not a financial issue. This has nothing to do with tangible loss. This is all to do with personal rejection. She keeps distance between herself and the people she uses because she doesn’t want to be used her self. The crux of the film is thus an idea of possession. Holly is impulsive, and has a compulsion toward collecting, yet losing things so she can cage herself. This is an idea given to us perfectly by Fred near the end. But, the real question here pertains to how he knows this. Well, it’s simple, he cages himself too. To pull this all apart, we need three symbols – we need to split people into three main groups. There’s rats, dogs and cats. Paul is a dog. He needs others (like 2-E) but is comfortable in serving them – just like a do will happily eat the food you give him, but also protect your house or play fetch. Holly is a cat. Again, she’s very much like Paul in that she’s a pet, but she’s stuck up, she has an air of pretense, of higher authority, like she doesn’t need others. Everyone else is thus a rat. Rats are communal hordes that are absolutely everywhere, that take all they can. Holly feeds on these ‘rodents’, Paul is more or less indifferent. But, in the end, ‘rats’ has nothing to do with people (with all of us). What’s important is that Holly and Paul see themselves as pets. It’s now that it becomes very obvious as to why Holly doesn’t name her cat. She doesn’t want to own anything – including herself. Her internal conflict stems from everything discussed. She knows she’s fake, she knows she can’t trust people, that she uses them, that she’s afraid, but she doesn’t know how to solve the problem. And so, she locks it away. she refuses to accept an idea that she knows herself, that she is anything, that anyone can label, can own her. This is why she tries to get rid of the cat in the end of the film. She wants to be numb, to completely let go of the idea of marrying someone, of loving. She decides to float in a pessimistic, nihilist vacuum for the rest of her life. But, it’s here that Paul steps in and reassures her that possession, and idea symbolised by Tiffany’s, an idea that being owned by someone (on an emotional level) isn’t that traumatic. Sure, it sounds scary, but to love is to be owned and to own, without one or the other you remain a shell and a relationships can’t function. This is the same for all human bonds. If you find yourself giving without receiving, or receiving without giving, it’s clear that there’s something wrong – that you are precariously pony, on the cusp of destruction.

And so, it’s with this ending that we are left with possibility. Does Holly ever discover herself?  Do Holly and Paul live happily ever after? Who’s to know, but, I think that’s quite clearly not the point. This is why its so important to see this film as a social commentary, but with muted devices. The ideas given by the symbols and characters are hard to directly see in ourselves. But when you stare long, peer past the surface, something universal emerges. This is why the end is ambiguous, it’s not just a question of our own pessimism or optimism, but a question of our own emotional balance. It’s a question to us of possession. Do we have control over who exactly we are? Is love ownership? Are relationships about exchange? Is this a bad thing? Does it scare you? Do you want any part of it?

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Sci-Fi Is Stupid

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