Sci-Friday #97 – Lightsaber Sound Design – Fun Scifi Stuff

For this Friday, please enjoy the charmingly low-tech origins of the Star Wars lightsaber sound design. It actually comes from two places (movie projector motors and TV tube interference). For any budding foley artists out there, this is a masterclass in using low tech to achieve high tech sounds:

I’ll post more ‘how did they make that sound’ videos. And if you like Sci-Friday, you can go down the rabbit hole of every other Sci-Friday I’ve published in the past couple years. Happy Friday and enjoy your weekend!

No, Seriously: Stop With the Dystopian Science Fiction – Part II

Continuing from Monday, I believe very strongly that we need to stop with dystopian science fiction. Like, yesterday. I don’t have the data to prove a direct causal link between dystopian SF and what happened last week. Yet, the parallels between Hitler’s fascination with Old Shatterhands and last week’s rioters dressed as post-apoc NPCs is impossible to ignore. In fact, some have suggested that participants are unwittingly part of an ‘alternate reality game’ – creating a self-sustaining narrative as part of gameplay.

So again – this isn’t about politics – this is about my responsibility as a storyteller. The last twenty years of dystopian fiction may have some responsibility to bear in terms of how people perceive mass insurrections, popular uprisings. Would you, would I, want to be responsible for helping people think it’s okay to put themselves in harm’s way? You already know the answer to that question. Let’s now conclude with some reality checks for what life will be like in a true dystopian scenario:

Everyone You Care About Will be Gone

No, Seriously: Stop With the Dystopian Science FictionStop for a minute and look at this picture on the right. It’s the photo of a German prisoner of war returning to his home town of Frankfurt to discover his house bombed and his family gone. Not evacuated, not homeless, gone. They died in the bombings of Frankfurt. Likely, he thought of his family time and time again as he drove himself to get home safe.

Now, let’s talk about you. Let’s remember that heroes become victims in the blink of an eye. War kills innocent victims far more than enemy combatants. Consider what will probably be waiting for you on the day you, by some miracle of chance, survive this coming dystopia. You’ll probably be injured, suffering from PTSD. Watch those old videos of war victims. Imagine realizing that those bodies aren’t strangers, they’re friends and family.

Imagine coming home to the smoking crater of your home.  Your parents, kids, siblings? They’re all gone, now. If you’re very lucky, you won’t have to see their dead bodies or dig their graves.

But again, let’s say that’s not enough. Maybe you think surviving the end of the world is a good thing, or you plan on prospering in a dystopia. You might be looking forward to being Mad Max or Maxine in the upcoming nitro-fueled wasteland. Well before you get there, sport, let’s keep going. Here’s why all that cool stuff isn’t going to happen to you:

You Will Not Survive the End of the World

Yes, dystopian fiction is ‘escapist fantasy.’ But not because the end of the world is a fantasy. The actual fantasy is that you will escape; that you will survive. You probably won’t, and here’s why.

Think about this: the Soviet Union lost 14% of its population during WWII. Europe lost 22% of its population during the Black Death. COVID has taught us that, even with modern technology, human infrastructure can fall apart fast under the wrong circumstances.

So, reality check: in a real dystopia, you will likely die. Pick a reason: War, from violence, disease, starvation, easily-treatable injuries that become lethal because hospitals don’t exist anymore. Remember that moment in the Postman where the protagonist takes care of his teeth because he remembers people dying of dental infections. It still happens, even in the 21st Century. Let that sink in the next time you decide to skip flossing.

Why I’m Telling You This

Make no mistake, I take no joy in writing any of this. This piece is designed to help explain my thoughts as a writer and human being. I think it’s important to use art to light the way to better places for mankind.

I also decided to say ‘please, stop and think’ to my fellow authors. We can write the most exciting stories, ever. If we’re not using our creative energy to make life better than others, then this may serve as an important inflection point. If we can imagine the end of the world, we can also imagine the start of a better one.



No, Seriously: Stop With the Dystopian Science Fiction

No, Seriously: Stop With the Dystopian Science FictionLike many of you, I’m shocked and horrified by what I saw last week on television. Don’t worry, this isn’t yet-another political treatise – I’m politically neutral. Taking a page from Jon Stewart, I don’t want to present another ‘overwrought speech.’ My job is to make you forget reality for a little while, and that’s what I will continue to do. But considering my storytelling responsibility, last week’s events reiterate what I’ve been saying for a few years now: Stop with the Dystopian Fiction.

Now you can read what I said for yourself, but for the sake of simplicity let’s cover some important reasons why we need to hit the Universal Pause button on Dystopian Fiction:

Dystopia Will Not Be Fun

Let’s be clear: I don’t hang complete or even direct responsibility for last week’s events on dystopian scifi. I love trashy old dystopian movies (Looking at you, Logan’s Run) like anyone else. What I noticed several years ago was a shift in how dystopian SF was being viewed. It stopped being about a future we wanted to avoid, and started treating the end of the world like a sexy Tough Mudder competition.

After watching the news last week, it occurred to me that many of those storming the Capitol were trapped in a roleplay with lethal stakes. They saw themselves as the heroes, here to liberate the oppressed. ‘Starting the revolution’ was exciting: you get to dress up in costumes, shout slogans and take selfies!

In a way, the events last week reminded me how Hitler was inspired by the insanity of Karl May novels. May was a nutcase, but he made a lot of money in the late 1800s by writing ‘Aryanized’ cowboy novels for German readers. Captivated by how May could whitewash the genocidal horrors of the American West, Hitler adopted those concepts and integrated them into his war plans. I’m not kidding, either. He sent 300K copies of May novels to officers near the Eastern front to inspire them, too. I’m sure you know the rest of the story.

Real dystopia isn’t that fun. That’s why dystopian and post-apoc SF can be called ‘escapist fantasy.’ Not because the end of the world is itself a fantasy but because another fantasy is involved. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute. For now, let’s consider what dystopia feels like:

At this point, viewing dystopia as a fun, entertaining experience says more about you than anything else. The only way you can be entertained by it is by having zero empathy for others’ suffering. But, say that’s not enough for you. Let’s raise the stakes a little …

Part II Publishes on Wednesday …

Sci-Friday #96 – George Lucas’ Greatest Performance

Fun fact: when George Lucas isn’t making movies, he makes a living as a background extra. Here he is in his greatest performance ever, “Average dad walking through the background of the narrator:”

I’m just kidding, George Lucas isn’t a background extra – it was just a random ‘what are the odds’ moment on a random street corner. Happy Friday, and enjoy your weekend!

Star Wars: Turns Out, There Is a Wrong Way…

Star Wars: Turns Out, There Is a Wrong Way...Know how they say ‘there’s no wrong way to eat a Reeese’s peanut butter cup?” Yeah, when it comes to Star Wars it turns out, there is a wrong way. I’ll explain:

A news article caught my attention last week, but I held off on commenting about it here. At first I thought it was a ‘toxic fan’ issue but I was wrong. Later, I saw another article and everything made sense. When it comes to Star Wars, there’s a wrong way do things. Lucasfilm exec Pablo Hidalgo did Star Wars proved that point. But then our hero Mark “Luke Skywalker Hamill showed us how to ‘Star Wars right.’ Let’s discuss what that means for scifi in general.

The Details

[Spoiler Alert] Luke Skywalker shows up at the end of The Mandalorian Season 2. NGL, I screamed like a little kid when this happened. Other fans, like Youtuber ‘Toos,’ got a little emotional. Online, Lucasfilm exec Pablo Hidalgo was less than sympathetic and an online backlash ensued.

The hero of the story, like the hero of the last episode of Mandalorian Season 2, was Mark Hamill. Rather than publicly siding with Toos or Hidalgo, Hamill simply expressed his appreciation for the fan love of his digital appearance in the show. On Twitter, he had a reaction to the episode that not only encompassed the moment but also his feelings for his relationship with the Star Wars universe itself:

The Takeaway

I’m sure Lucasfilm and Disney had a ‘Monday morning meeting,’ about the whole experience. What it (hopefully) taught them is that Star Wars is much more than a franchise to some people. Is that right? Is that wrong? That’s not for me to say.

What I can say is this: “Know what you’re messing with when you mess with it.” Hidalgo certainly didn’t expect the reaction he got, but if he thought it through a bit maybe he should have. If you can make a career out of loving something, it stands to reason that people have very strong opinions about it. Dropping a verbal hand grenade into the chat, shaming people for acting like it shouldn’t matter after they built their life around how much it matters, was a bad idea. Now, everyone should know it.

Why does this matter?

Now look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you can love Star Wars, but remember that Star Wars does not love you. Some people are content with loving something that doesn’t love them back, but that’s their trip. For the rest of us, I want to use this as a teachable moment and here’s what it is:

In the grand scheme of things, I look at the Star Wars universe as a template for whatever happens to my books in the future. I’d love that level of success, but I don’t want it if it comes with snark. I’d hate to think that success would strip me of the wonder and joy of the universes I build. That’s what happened here – P.H. lost sight of the joy and the emotions. This why I’m watching how to ‘do Star Wars right’ when it comes to Mesh or any other project.

After all, you as the reader deserve it.

The Future Starts Today

“Be like a duck,” they say. “Look calm on the surface while kicking furiously underneath.” I’ve been following that advice for the past couple of weeks, in stealth mode. We’re four days into the new year, so it’s time to tell you what is going on in the Inkican universe. The future starts today.

My author mentor advised me in the second half of November to start preparing for 2021. “By January 1,” she said, “I want you to give me four things: Your latest draft of Mesh and three fully-developed novel ideas … three-page synopses.” It took me the next forty-five days to complete the task, and I’m pleased to say that you can see the novels in development by clicking here. 

I’m still committed to writing MG/YA scifi stories for kids – the kinds that I read growing up that are both innocent and insightful. I’d love to be an author that inspires the next generation of young people, just as Beverly Cleary, Ivy Ruckman, and Louis Sachar did for me.

But Wait, There’s More!

I also worked on grinding out some short stories. I re-drafted Search and Rescue and sent it around for rejection consideration. Escape Pod was one of them, but they had some helpful feedback about the voice of the protagonist. We had a lively discussion about it over at /r/scifiwriting.

At the same time, I decided to self-publish ‘The Conquered’ and started work on a cover. It took ten or twelve days, but I’m pleased to share this result:

Not being a professional artist, I go through several rounds of feedback before the final result. You think your first try gets you to 100% but guess what? It only got you to 40%. I hate rejecting work I spent hours to create, but it’s the right move. Art is about carving out what is not beautiful, to find the beauty underneath.

So stay tuned: I’ll publish ‘The Conquered’ in a few days. In the meantime, please know this: I appreciate your support and encouragement. The past is yesterday, 2021 is now. We live in the future and it belongs to us.

Adorably Terrifying: Boston Dynamics Robots Dance

I get it, BD wants to demonstrate their bot’s physical capabilities. And yet, like other examples of the uncanny valley, I find this adorably terrifying. Like, do we want to go to sleep tonight knowing that when the robots come to kill us, they’ll be able to do a little dance over our graves?

As for me, I see this as the weirdest sequel to ‘Dirty Dancing’ ever. Have a good Tuesday.

Sci-Friday #95 – Jamming with Baby Yoda / Grogu

For your daily dose of ‘aww,’ I present this video of Robert Rodriguez jamming with Baby Yoda / Grogu on the set of the Mandalorian. Watch him close to see how organic and life-like the puppetry feels:

Now, here’s an important question: is it okay to still call him ‘Baby Yoda?’ I think the answer is yes, and here’s why.

‘Baby Yoda’ is a gesture of affection. We’re not making fun of him. After all, we call Chewbacca ‘Chewie, C3-PO ‘Threepio,’ and R2-D2 ‘Artoo,’ right? Just like the nicknames kids get from their older siblings, it’s Baby Yoda. Hopefully, Grogu can live with that.

I hope this discussion, along with the video jamming with Baby Yoda / Grogu, can hold you over until Season 3 and The Book of Boba Fett come out on Disney+. Have a great weekend!

Five Reasons Why Tenet Is An Action Scifi Triumph

Five Reasons Why Tenet Is An Action Scifi Triumph“Tenet is horrible!” “Tenet is amazing!” I walked into my viewing of Christopher Nolan’s latest film wondering which side of the fence I’d fall on. Three hours later, I have a solid answer and it’s time to share it. I’m going to give you five reasons Tenet is an action scifi triumph.

First, let’s take a step back. You must admit, it’s gotta be hard to be Christopher Nolan these days. Living in that self-induced pressure cooker, making movies in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone’s expecting him to top all of his previous movies. It’s a hard life for a good storyteller, every new story has to be better than the last one.

Nolan to his credit doesn’t seem worried about what that future holds. Based on the premise of Tenet, he’s already living there. If you’re looking for a simple answer to whether you should see Tenet, here it is: Ignore the bad reviews. You’re going to love this action scifi triumph and here’s five reasons why:

Five Reasons Why Tenet Is An Action Scifi TriumphThey crash a real 747 into a real hangar

One thing about Christopher Nolan: he uses practical effects wherever possible. That’s why we love scenes like the flipping semi truck in Dark Knight or the zero-gee fight scene in Inception. They look real because they are real. Tenet took that to a new level by crashing a real 747 into a real hanger. Just like the train in The Fugitive, Tenet’s production team didn’t rely on SFX or CGI. They did it for real. Continue reading