A phrase in William Gibson’s ‘Hinterlands’ that keeps running through my head as I binge-watch Seasons 1 and 2 of ‘Stranger Things’ in preparation for Season 3. It’s ‘schöner machine,’ or ‘beautiful machine.’ Like William Gibson’s ill-fated astronaut, I can’t help but marvel at a beautiful machine, and that’s why I’m totally in love with this amazing Netflix show.
Stranger Things, above all, is a brilliant story. The Duffer Brothers’ ability to combine Eighties zeitgeist with classic science fiction mysteries and still create a completely authentic, autonomous universe is nothing short of remarkable.
The show drips with rich, elegant visuals that invite you to travel back through all the parts of the Eighties you don’t remember. Beautiful cinematography takes you through thick pile carpets, wooden console TVs, wood-paneled walls, and goofy retro bedrooms straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. You can’t help falling in love with the series for the design elements alone.
Verisimilitude is defined as ‘the appearance of being true or real.’ From the studied detail of the film scratches in the title sequence to ST’s epic soundtrack, all you feel is the reality of the universe. But the show doesn’t stop there. No, Stranger Things is a dense, thoughtful, and action-packed journey through one of the most interesting science fiction mysteries of the past decade.
Equal parts funny, scary, touching … you feel every square inch of Joyce’s torment at losing Will. You feel the boys’ love for their stricken friend. You feel Eleven’s conflicted feelings over her captors, her powers, and her new-found family. Even after you escape the primary story arc, there are other places to go. The show explores other parts of the characters’ lives with care and precision. These things are the hallmark of great storytelling, and Stranger Things has that market cornered.
Then you have the kids. God, I hope they turn out okay. I mentioned two years ago that I admire Gaten Matarazzo for how he’s handled his cleidocranial dysplasia. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: In science fiction, there are no weaknesses … there are only strengths you haven’t discovered.
Every actor inhabits a three-dimensional character that feels like someone you know from high school, your neighborhood, or your job. I’m particularly happy about seeing Winona Ryder and Matt Modine on screen again. The growing cast of child actors are incredibly talented. I hope they have long, safe and successful careers ahead of them.
So in short, I’m a fan of Stranger Things in several ways and for several different reasons. I love sci-fi and it doesn’t get much better than this. Not only that, the production of Stranger Things is a classic underdog tale.
We’ve been on a journey since the Duffer Brothers leap-frogged from short-film producers to pro filmmakers to rubbing elbows with M. Night Shyamalan on Wayward Pines to successfully pitching Stranger Things to Netflix via 21 Laps Entertainment. Stranger Things is the answer to every person who says ‘there’s no room for the little guys anymore.’
As Season Three comes out tomorrow morning and I settle in to binge-watch , I want to take a moment and say ‘Yes!’ Stranger Things is a beautiful machine, and until I started watching I had no idea how much I needed one in my life. I’m betting you do, too.
Bummer. The company that runs the Maker Faire abruptly shut down. According to Verge, difficulties with magazines and getting corporate sponsorship contributed to the collapse. They’re still committed to trying again, and that in a nutshell is why one of the central themes of Mesh is: Makers Gonna Make.
Here’s the thing: Maker culture is something that exists outside of a magazine, or an event. Making, creating, building, doing … those are intrinsic human values.
So while Verge seems to think this is a ‘huge blow’ to the Maker culture. I disagree … the maker community still exists, with or without an event. In fact, that desire to create is something that I wanted Mesh to be about, and it’s something I spend a lot of time exploring.
This isn’t an easy path, though. For example, how do you introduce 21st Century kids to concepts like tinkering, electronics, coding? It’s not enough to throw a Youtube channel at them. How will you connect them to the artisans, journeymen, and wrights that shaped human civilization over the past few thousand years? We live in a deeply stratified, specialized world now. It focuses on making as a means to an end, and you rarely hear about the why of making.
So while I see kids being very interested in making things – and all power to them – I feel like they’re missing out on something. There’s a massive history, culture, and heritage that you can’t pick up in a how-to article. Furthermore, maker culture is getting co-opted into a commodity, when one of the central themes of maker culture is that “you are not a commodity.” That mis-alignment, that pressure to make ‘making’ your identity, is turning people off.
Makers are gonna Make. That’s what we do.
So while I’m certain Maker Faires will still be around next year, and ten years from now, I want to talk about how Makers are gonna Make. That’s what we do. It’s not the only thing we do, it’s not the only thing we are, but we are never going to stop making. Creativity brings us joy, and we want to be happy people. So we make.
Mesh, along with the action and adventure, is a celebration of that reality. Roman, our hero, travels through virtual reality to be with those artisans and craftsmen, learning how people made things in the years before the Internet, before cyberspace. He meets some of those old-school nerds, fiercely independent and thoughtful people. They teach him what it means to be someone who can make amazing things, and what that power means.
So to sum up the issue of ‘Maker culture’ and Maker Faire, the answer is pretty simple. The culture tried something, and it worked for a while but then it stopped working. They’ll look at what went wrong, how to avoid that problem in the future, and then they’ll start over. As Henry Ford said, ‘Failure is the chance to begin again, but more intelligently.’
I’m confident that Maker Media will begin again, and we’ll enjoy what the Maker culture turns into next. After all, tomorrow is another day, another chance to fill 24 hours with 1,440 minutes of imagination.
Makers gonna make.
Monday morning box office numbers are in, and they ain’t pretty. According to Buzzfeed, Variety, Vulture, and Polygon, Dark Phoenix failed to meet opening weekend expectations, falling well short of the expected $40-50M that Disney was estimating. I’m not here to crow about the loss. Rather, I think this means that ‘Dark Phoenix’ is Marvel’s ‘jump the shark’ moment, with long-term implications for the 3-5 year roadmap of science fiction. What does it mean to jump the shark anyway?
See kids, back in the olden days there was this thing called TV, and on this invention they showed shows. One of the most popular shows of all time, ‘Happy Days,’ tried to re-invigorate itself with an episode where Fonzi jumps over a shark on waterskis. The strategy backfired, and simply highlighted how ‘Happy Days’ was over. Now ‘jumping the shark‘ is our metaphor for the implosion of anything popular. (See also: Facebook games, Payless shoes, and Live/Laugh/Love signs)
So when we see something like a major X-Men franchise film fall short of expectations, that’s a clue. Some might be shocked that Marvel movies in a post-Endgame era aren’t the guaranteed cash cow they’re seen to be. To those people I say: gee, who would have seen that coming with six of them opening in the first half of 2019, alone? Please.
Like the detective genre in the thirties, westerns in the fifties, disaster movies in the seventies and action movies in the eighties, we’re in a genre glue. The era of magic punching people is destined to come to an end. Call it ‘Avenger fatigue,’ call it ‘The Superhero Glut,’ people will eventually grow sick of superhero movies and move on to something else. The change is on its way, and ‘Dark Phoenix’ is the proof.
Just once, I wish Hollywood would get the message early and learn how to make graceful exits. After all, we keep seeing genres bled white by greed. It never works out, it always turns into a joke of itself, and it ends up doing your reputation more harm than good. As Harold from Spongebob says: “How many times do we have to teach you this lesson, old man?”
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that this means a huge opportunity for Mesh. No magic punching people, no tired cliches, no boring tropes. Mesh will be ready for a fresh look by sci-fi experiencers looking for a fresh experience. No bloated corporate hype, no overpaid gasbags waxing poetic from the teleprompter. Mesh is a dive back into the old-school, cutting-edge, seat-of-your-pants world of tech, geekery, and adventure. My fingers are crossed that it’ll be hitting the bookshelves just as people become ready to read it.
I’m looking forward to that future.
Taking a moment out of the writing schedule to discuss something interesting that happened this week. Two things, actually. Both of them together bear out my prediction that science fiction itself is growing and changing into something more suitable for the universe in 2019.
Step one was this tweet courtesy John Scalzi:
Good morning! Your reminder that arguably the current best-selling science fiction series written by a single person is written by someone who isn’t thought to write science fiction, to an audience that isn’t thought to read it:https://t.co/Zl867PYk6y
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) May 14, 2019
Before you can say ‘Yeah, but Scalzi’s gonna Scalzi,’ look at the next piece of data – the ‘Not All Men’ episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ Jordan Peele picks up where Rod Serling left off by producing thoughtful, one-hour meditations on the darker side of human culture. In his case, he skewers toxic masculinity with a laser-sharp focus, reminding all of us that what we do is what defines us.
More clearly than ever, science fiction is no longer in the hands of fanboys and toxic tribalism. History will not be kind to the broken, hateful dweebs that use gatekeeping and bad-faith arguments to chase people away from science fiction. They don’t own sci-fi, they never did, and it was only a matter of time until we figured that out.
So I’m hoping that Mesh can be a happy part of that bright future. It’s never easy, taking the first step. I just think it’s important, and I hope one day we’ll all meet there together.
Happy Sci-Friday and Happy May the Fourth! This is a quick post about Star Wars, since it’s definitely part of my life as a movie / scifi geek. Since May the Fourth is tomorrow, I thought I’d answer a question that’s been bugging me for almost forty years. How *did* they make the starlines, that is, the jump into hyperspace?
On the surface, the question and the answer might not matter to most. For me, that special effect in Star Wars remains iconic and intrinsic to what made the franchise so important. Everything felt real. Everything looked real. That’s the kind of storytelling I want to practice with my scifi. So let’s find the answer: Took a bit of Google-fu to find the answer, turns out that nobody directly answers the question, a la Quora or /r/askreddit. But there is an answer when you follow this link I found on Stackexchange.
A Fantasy Film Journal interview with John Dykstra in 1978 goes into a blow-by-blow discussion of the special effects in Star Wars: A New Hope, which also turns out to be the inception of VFX itself. Here’s Dykstra’s answer (found in the PDF on page 20, if you’re curious) in a nutshell:
FFJ: What about the jump into “hyperspace”?
JD: That’s streak photography. Basically it was real simple. That was one of the few shots that was done by hand, basically. You open the shutter and you move the camera forward, thereby streaking the stars on the film. Alright, each time you advance* it a little bit further, so that on the succeeding frame, the streak is a little longer. Eventually the streak extends all the way to the edge of the film. That’s done simply by taking the camera, opening the shutter and moving it In, closing the shutter, then stopping. Then backing It up, going to the next frame, moving a little bit further this time, and then stopping, backing it up… it’s very tedious, very time consuming and very simple. It wasn’t particularly innovative, but everybody likes it for some reason.
Wow, far out. What seemed like a difficult problem turns out to be a simple camera trick. As Dykstra points out, it’s not particularly innovative, but what is important is that people love it. So, as with Star Wars and/or any other part of science fiction, sometimes the simplest tricks really are the best.
Happy May the Fourth, and for the record: I still hate Jar-Jar.
So without further ado, here’s a digital painting that I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks. Working on this while finishing Mesh, it’s teaching me that universal truth: Unlike the dictionary, ‘Suck’ Comes Before ‘Succeed’ in the process of creativity. Enjoy the painting and see below for some notes.
Even though I’m not super happy with the final product, I need to move on. Watching Bob Ross (because, Bob Ross) I realized that I wanted to paint, too. So I started working on something that I was interested in and if you’re one of my Beta Readers, you know that this is a scene from ‘Mesh.’
It took me around twenty hours to do this. Learned a lot about how to paint digitally using Photoshop and my digital drawing tablet along the way. I wish the project came out better, but I also remember that quote from Jake the Dog in Adventure Time: “Suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”
So here’s me and the painting I made. Yes, I know it sucks, but that’s how I get better. You can see some of the progress pics below in this Imgur gallery:
I ran across this and thought it was an interesting counterpoint to a question I’ve been asking myself for the past twenty years: why isn’t scifi mainstream? Why do people think science fiction begins and ends with superheroes and Star Wars? The sad reality is that scifi, real science fiction, isn’t and will never be mainstream.
That’s a bummer, to be honest. Real scifi, IMO, has some actual science in it and another instance of ‘Marvel Magic Punching People’ just isn’t my cup of tea. Why don’t people get that there’s more to science fiction? This post arrived on Reddit, and explained the reason in cogent, and logical, detail:
So what’s wrong with even the best science fiction? My theory is that science fiction is too concept dense to be communicated in the lush, multi-dimensional form that is expected from literature. Too much of science fiction demands prose that needs to be parsed abstractly and is thus flat by comparison.
So, I guess that to love science fiction is to be an institutional outlier. Tough pill to swallow on a Tuesday morning, but like Louis L’Amour said of a certain cowboy protagonist: ‘You won’t make as many friends, but the ones you make will stick by you.’
I can live with that.
The Internet blew up yesterday over a picture of what looks like a fuzzy donut. Yes, science has taken it’s first picture of a black hole and yes, it’s a really big deal. In fact, there are a number of good reasons to geek out about this. You can Google around, or you can read below for some of those nerdy details. Here’s what went into the production of this picture, according to the European Southern Observatory (ESO):
Although the telescopes making up the EHT are not physically connected, they are able to synchronize their recorded data with atomic clocks — hydrogen masers — which precisely time their observations. These observations were collected at a wavelength of 1.3 mm during a 2017 global campaign. Each telescope of the EHT produced enormous amounts of data – roughly 350 terabytes per day – which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives. These data were flown to highly specialised supercomputers — known as correlators — at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory to be combined. They were then painstakingly converted into an image using novel computational tools developed by the collaboration.
To put that in perspective, each of the eight telescopes in the EHT produced the data equivalent of 3,500 full-length movies in 4K every single day. That data was then analyzed and converted back into a viewable image. A Redditor explains how that happened and what that means: Continue reading
I found this article on Techcrunch to be interesting. The suggestion that technology has become a ‘dark forest’ is nothing new. We’ve been discussing the potential dangers of technology since we first met a guy named Doctor Frankenstein. The problem is that the article, like most everyone else, keeps ignoring the elephant in the room. If you don’t want technology to be a ‘dark forest,’ then start flashing some light in there. Remember that the future shouldn’t suck. Remember that the future is whatever you make of it, and then make it a good one.
Don’t ask me why futurology discussions continue to discuss life, the universe, and everything like they’re academic. We live here, people. We used to be the kids who said “wait until I grow up. I’ll show you!”
Well, folks. We’re here now. It’s up to us.The main thrust of the article is, that human society mistrusts new technology and disruptive business models. As well they should. I mean, duh. After fifty years of predatory capitalism, show me one major disruption where a tiny group people got rich at the cost of a lot of others. As we move on in the timestream, those disruptions get more and more sociopathic. Even Elon Musk gets some shrapnel, since he’s building this Brave New World while horror stories leak out from his current and former workers.
The point is that we’re the ones in charge … perhaps not as a whole, but at least of ourselves. Our priorities – and people prioritize what they want to – show what kind of future we want to have.
As for me, I’m want to build a future that I can be proud of. I hope you are, too.