Bob the man with a screwdriver

In the circles in which I run, Stranger Things for most people seems to fit into one of two views: (1) Hey it’s got 80’s nostalgia and creepy fun! (2) All entertainment products of the last 20 years are garbage.

While I certainly sympathize with the latter characterization of modern media and find myself avoiding most books written pre-90’s these days, I am a fan of the show. Not die-hard or anything, but I’ve had fun watching both seasons.

Kaiju really enjoyed season 1, too. Season 2…well, let’s just say he and I don’t see eye to eye. It was inferior to the first, I agree in that. But despite its failings, I still enjoyed it on the whole.

*Spoilers ahead!*

There were superfluous characters in Season 2. Many, I would even say. But the best addition was Bob, played by Sean Astin. Bob is the love interest to Winona Ryder’s character – an old high school classmate who at the time had only an icicle’s chance in hell at getting the girl, he’s now what a more mature woman would look for in a mate: responsible, stable, intelligent, good with kids. And courageous. See, Bob is the scifi man with a screwdriver (he’s not really that big, though).

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Bob demonstrates relatively early on in the shit-show that eventually unfolds in Season 2 that he can be trusted with all the insane shizola that’s going down. When he’s enlisted by Will and Joyce to make sense of some seriously creepy map that’s taken over their house, he is resistant at first. Hey, if I was dating a woman with a weird kid and I showed up one day to find the house wallpapered in black tube-like crayon sketches and they started pushing on me to help them figure out what it all means…

But he eventually plays along. Then once he realizes it’s a map and they say they’ve gotta go, he goes with. When they find a weird black hole into hell in a rotten field, he goes down into the hole. He helps save Hopper, the alpha.

Bob may not be the toughest son of a bitch on the block, but he’s no pansy.

As more of this weirdness unfolds, does he say “fuck this” and peace out? I wouldn’t blame the guy if he did, but no. Never. He sticks by Joyce and tries to be of help to her and Will. Because that’s what a real man does.

Later on when shit hits the fan at the facility, Bob is the only one who knows how to reboot the power system using BASIC. So like a man, he does what needs to be done.

In the end, Bob doesn’t make it. He almost does, but he winds up as a sacrifice. The others are able to escape and survive because of him. This pissed off some fans, I think, because the show killed off a decent guy. But I’d say his death had meaning because he was a decent guy. If he had been less of a hero, just another incompetent male, no one would have cared. Well, maybe the Samwise Gamgee fanboys.

There are some pretty good characters in Stranger Things, but Bob has been my favorite so far. It’s a shame he didn’t survive for Season 3, but he went out like a champ.

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Here’s to you, Bob!

-Bushi

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C.L. Moore’s Tree of Life

C.L. Moore is one of those unfairly obscurified SFF writers of decades past. This summer I did a little gushing about Jirel of Joiry, a terribly great series of short stories, but since then I’ve been sampling different fare. Until the other day, when I was looking for some quick train reading and remembered that I’d downloaded an e-book version of “The Tree of Life” (available for free on Amazon and at Gutenburg).

I wasn’t quite as impressed with this one, but there’s still a lot to admire and enjoy about it. First off, it makes a case that Moore was another author skilled at writing diversely.

“The Tree of Life” belongs to Moore’s Northwest Smith series of short stories. Along with Jirel, Smith was one of her trademark characters and probably represents her most recognized foray into scifi. Although we don’t learn overly much about the protagonist in this tale, we see that he’s on the run and that he’s cut from the same cloth as Conan and Eric John Stark – namely that though he’s intelligent, there’s something primal and barbarian about him.

While we’re talking about Conan, I don’t consider that note about intellect to be of small significance. The mainstream perception of our favorite barbarian has come to envision him as a dumb, muscly brute, but in fact he was no dullard. For one, Conan spoke a number of different languages, and if you’ve ever tried to pick up a second or third, you’ll know this is not an easy feat. That struck me about Northwest Smith, actually – in this story Moore flat-out tells us that our protagonist is familiar with a number of different languages, and he’s able to brokenly communicate with some alien creatures that speak a language similar to one he’s picked up to a small degree. This commonality between Smith and Conan is no surprise, really, as we know Moore and Howard were at least friendly (if not friends) and enjoyed each other’s work.

As in her Jirel stories, Moore blends in a generous dose of semi-Lovecraftian horror. Combined with the somewhat romantic science fantasy of the Smith setting, we’ve got a nice, refreshing blend of elements going here.

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Moore’s way with language is characteristically impressive:

“It was no ordinary danger. A nameless, choking, paralyzed panic was swelling in his throat as he gazed upon the perilous beauty of the Tree. Somehow the arches and curves of its branches seemed to limn a pattern so dreadful that his heart beat faster as he gazed upon it. But he could not guess why, though somehow the answer was hovering just out of reach of his conscious mind. From that first glimpse of it his instincts shuddered like a shying stallion, yet reason still looked in vain for an answer.”

Though I was put off at a certain point in the story when she reuses the word “dynamo” a little too often for my liking…

I’m loathe to really say much about the story’s plot, as it’s not really very long and the buildup is part of the fun. So if any of this sounds enticing, go check it out!.

In summation, this is a great, free little SFF romp. It might not be my suggested entry point into her works, but it works as a standalone, it’s quick, and it’s imaginative, quality writing by a top-notch old great.

-Bushi

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Dume

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A beginning is a delicate time. The most delicate and so special. To begin your study of the life of the Emperor, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 1946th year of the Christ-God, Jesus I. And take the most special care that you locate the Emperor in his place: the Union of States. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born in the province of New York and lived his first seventy years there. Washington DC, the place now known as Dume, is forever his place.

– from “Manual of the Emperor” by the Princess Ivanulan

-Bushi

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Libertarians in Space: The Burning Bridge

I had a long train ride home yesterday and so I burned through a shortish Poul Anderson story I’d picked up some time ago free for Kindle.

It’s interesting – to many of the Appendix N crowd, Anderson is probably best known for his fantasy epic the Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions. But if you do a little searching, he wrote a lot of scifi. Some of that is on display in his last Appendix N entry, the High Crusade, but genre was a lot less well-(or rigidly)-defined back then, and I’m not really sure I’d call that particular story scifi.

“The Burning Bridge,” which is a single short story from the collection Orbit Unlimited, presents us with the story of a fleet of colony ships on their way to the inhospitable-sounding world of Rustum, a planet with 1.5x Earth gravity, an alien ecology, and 20 light years of space separating it from the rest of humanity. The colonists, a group of people called Constitutionalists, are scientists and freedom-lovers (“archaists”) that have decided to leave Earth in light of its increasingly oppressive government.

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Suddenly a message reaches the fleet – the government has decided not to proceed with its “educational decree,” the last straw that set the 3,000 travelers on their exodus. Now the fleet must decide whether to proceed on their mission or to return home to Earth.

Of course, there are complications. Perhaps the most pressing is the consideration of time. Because of the workings of space travel, in two months the ships will have reached the “Point of No Return,” whereupon stopping and reversing course will actually take longer than proceeding to Rustum before the ships and their crew return to Earth. And because of the relativity principle of lightspeed, each day they continue means weeks or months more will have passed for Earth.

Admiral Coffin’s first instinct is to complete his mission, but he must wrestle with his compunction to grant the colonists and crew a say in their ultimate fate, and the practicalities and possible consequences of doing such. For one thing, it would be logistically impossible to rouse each of the 3,000 passengers in order to hold a vote. Furthermore, can Earth’s message be trusted? And can the colonists themselves, granted this perhaps false hope of returning to the comforts of their old home, be trusted to make the best decision for themselves and for humanity?

I won’t reveal what ultimately happens, but I will say that certain elements remind me of Gordon Dickson’s Mission to Universe, which would be published four years after Orbit Unlimited.

Coffin himself is a somewhat interesting character in what he represents. His name reflects his morose persona and the mournful state of his existence. A Christian in a world of heathens and pagans, he mourns for his faith and the razing of his father’s church to make way for a Buddhist temple. An aging spaceman in a time when Earth seems to be turning inward and losing its interest in the stars, he mourns his dying career.

This wasn’t the best scifi I’ve ever read, and if ACTION is thing that really gets you going, this one isn’t for you. Still, there is plenty of conflict, and the world Anderson paints draws you in and makes you want to learn more about it. It’s a nice little read, and I imagine it’s even better in the context of being one part of a larger story.

-Bushi

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Glutton for Punishment: Hard SF vs Soft SF vs Fantasy

– by Gitabushi

There is a commercial running during NFL games by a satellite TV company, with the premise that there are some people who still like cable, but there are also some people who really like things that normal people hate, like painful, frustrating, or irritating things.

Well, I like igniting arguments over literature.

Let me put it up front in black and white: THERE IS NO VALUE JUDGMENT ATTACHED TO CLASSIFYING FICTION AS HARD SF, SOFT SF, OR FANTASY.  If you attach a value judgment, your problem is you, not me.

Some may retort: Why do we need to classify literature at all?  There is no benefit in creating divisions where none need exist!

I disagree. Let me explain. No, that would take too long, let me sum up. No, wait, when have I ever cared about talking too much? I’ll explain.

There are probably many reasons to classify our literature, and perhaps there are reasons to not classify our literature.  Offhand, I can think of two major reasons to do it, and just one to not.

First, the main reason to not classify literature is because in the end, it’s a story we enjoy, or not.  If a story is good, it doesn’t matter whether it is Fantasy, Hard SF, or Soft SF.  If I hand you Dragon’s Egg, I can tell you that it is one of the hardest SF stories out there, but that tells you nothing about whether it is a good story or not (I liked the concept, but the execution did not please teenager me. I stopped reading less than a third of the way through, and it left such a poor impression I’ve never picked it up again).  So perhaps the main reason to not classify stories/books along these lines is if someone does think there is a value judgment that makes Soft SF inferior to Hard SF in some way, or if a reader thinks there is an arrogance aspect to the Hard SF mantle, since it is all Fantastic Fiction in any case.

However, I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

I think there are two main advantages to classifying speculative fiction along these lines, one for the author, and one for the reader.  I will probably repeat some concepts, but I think I have some new ideas to add.

First, I think the main benefit is to the author. As a writer, you have to use skill and discipline to tell a good story.  You need to know what kind of story you are writing, because that will help determine how you develop the story.

What I mean is, Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  FTL travel is still pretty much magic, as is youth regeneration, storing personality in an electronic matrix, time travel, etc. Yet these are still mostly in the realm of Science Fiction, not Fantasy.  Why?

With that in mind, I would like to propose a new classification system for Science Fiction vs Fantasy.  Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things.  Oh, sure, I know there are a million examples that you could use to argue with me on this, but don’t.  Just accept it for now as you encounter fiction in the future.

In fantasy, you have people that have powers that don’t exist in the current world.  They can impact reality through will alone (sometimes with a device, sometimes with innate ability). But that ability to impact reality is limited.  No one else can use that ability, or can only do so by taking the magic device away.  And while the impact may be fantastic, their goals are usually mundane. In the end, Frodo was merely walking a distance and throwing an object into a fire.  Yes, it was a special object, a special fire, it was unimaginably difficult to arrive at his destination, and it saved the world. But the actions themselves were mundane.  When you have fantastic powers, you have to make the goals more mundane so that readers can relate.  The point of Speculative Fiction is to explore what it means to be human…the point of Fantasy is to show how power doesn’t really change basic human instincts, desires, and character.  The power tempts, and corrupts, and enables, but the feelings, desires, goals, aims, flaws, weaknesses, and temptations are always that of a normal human.  And if you are writing fantasy, there must be limits on the power, usually in the form of costs of using the  power.  Otherwise, you have a boring story.  The conflict that drives the story is the limitations on the power. That’s why the best Fantasy stories have a world with complex-but-knowable rules of how power is exercised.  One exception: The Lord of the Rings…but that was a story about normal individuals caught in power struggles beyond their ken.  The viewpoint and protagonist had no magic of his own, and the only magic he had access to was cursed/poisoned…each use brought him closer to full damnation.  Those were the limits of power that drove the narrative in the Lord of the Rings, and those limits were both clear and understandable to the reader. So there is some wiggle room in the restrictions I insist exist.  But again: know what you are writing, and why, and it will help you develop your story more effectively.

So if my assertion has utility, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things, and Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, why do we need a division between Hard and Soft SF?

I think we need the division because it all goes back to the reader.  For a reader to enjoy a story, they must be able to suspend their disbelief. They must care about the characters, and must be able to relate to them in some way.

How you handle the fantastic elements in your story has a huge impact on whether your readers can suspend their disbelief or not.

In Soft SF, pretty much anything goes.  Most of the normal laws of physics are suspended.  That gives you lots of freedom to play around with all the elements of the story.  But there is a double-edged sword there: with that level of freedom, you need to address so much more about the laws of your universe. If you don’t, your readers will feel cheated and dislike the story.

To explain, I must digress. I’ve been mentally chewing on a concept for several years now. Every story is really just a variation on limited knowledge/communication.  If all your characters knew everything that was going on, they would be in the right place and do the right thing, and the story would be over.  To add conflict to the story, your characters have to encounter limits on information, they have to not know the antagonist’s plan, or location, or powers, etc.  It is the quest to gain this understanding, and the obstacles they encounter in that quest, that makes the story interesting.  Or if not communication, then distance and transportation. As has been pointed out, if the Fellowship had used the Eagles to drop the ring into the volcano, the story would have been over quickly and much less interesting.

So in Science Fiction, the first thing you need to determine is: what is your transportation technology, and what is your information technology?

Faster-than-light needs to have some sort of cost…maybe the cost is in time, maybe in damage to health, but there must be some cost to help build interest in the story. Communication has to have some limits, as well.  Perhaps information is limited to those with resources, perhaps there is false information and the cost is having to sort through it all to find the real stuff.  But you can get a great deal of conflict out of limiting communication.  That’s why cell phones ruin horror movies, and one of the first things a writer does to create suspense is find a way to take away their phone service in a plausible manner.

In Soft SF, you make things easier on yourself by suspending/ignoring the laws of physics.  But you then make it harder on yourself because you have to explain what laws do still exist, what don’t, and perhaps why. Then you have to figure out how those impact your society and what it means to be human.  And then you have to be careful to not make the resolution of your story be the discovery of some aspect of your new rules that  anyone who grew up with those rules should have known.

For example, although the resolution of the story didn’t hinge on this cheat by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was ignoble of him to make John Carter be the first person on Barsoom to realize that if you treat an animal with care, it returns loyalty to you.  The entire story didn’t hinge on that point, but it did resolve an obstacle.  The thing is, this is an obvious point to anyone who isn’t a complete psychopath.  If *no one* on Barsoom understood this, then even Dejah Thoris is an evil bitch not worthy of love. Since that is obviously not true, then it was a cheap device ERB used to get John Carter out of a jam, and it made the story worse. The inability for Martians (Barsoomians?) to recognize the value of treating animals with care never has any other impact on the story.  This is not fair to the reader.

On the other hand, Hard SF makes many things easier on the writer and reader: the reader can assume that with the exception of one or two aspects not currently within our technological grasp, the fictional world is exactly like the world the reader inhabits.  The writer doesn’t have to explain all the differences. The reader doesn’t have to consider as many changes to life and decide whether to suspend disbelief or not.  The world *is* as it *is*, and that adds verisimilitude.  One thing that makes Jumper and Wildside so enjoyable is Steven Gould changes just one *little* thing. He gives his main character one tiny resource, and then does everything he can to fully explore the impact of that ability on the character and our world. Now, the nature of those resources is never really explained, and so could be considered Soft SF or even Fantasy.  After all, in Jumper, the main character is a person with a Fantastic ability, trying to do mundane things (escape an abusive father, find love/trust…the Do Great Things comes later in the story). But I think the approach is much more Hard SF: change as little as you can about the world and laws of physics, and then play out all the impacts of that change.

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But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit: by putting Jumper and Wildside in Hard SF because of the approach, I am either destroying my thesis, or rendering the judgment fully subjective.

I want to argue for the latter.  Hard SF, Soft SF, and Fantasy might be a bookshelf categorization, but it has little utility there. In the end, they are three different approaches to writing a story, and the writer has to know what they are writing, and why, and then signal it to the reader, who will then be more able to enjoy the story on the basis of the system the writer put forth.

Because Postman by David Brin was a disappointment to me.  It started off merely as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel.  A normal guy is transformed by merely adopting the trappings of minor authority of bygone days.  That’s Hard SF, and good Hard SF: there is nothing that violates any laws of physics, the world is merely changed by the use of currently-existing weapons. But then two-thirds of the way through the book, it changes.  The author introduces technology that doesn’t currently exist.  Even worse, it seems to be technology that *can’t* exist, pushing it into the realm of Fantasy…but that’s not where Brin started the story. It feels like a betrayal, and made me stop caring how the book turned out.

Don’t do that to your readers. And if you are a reader, don’t accept that from your writers.

One final note: Based on this system, I have to consider John Carter to be Fantasy, not Soft SF.  Then again, I still insist that the classifications are subjective, so if you disagree, that is the correct classification for you.

Worth a Watch: The Babysitter (2017)

Despite my growing fondness for weird tales and Gothic fiction, I’m still not really that much of a “horror fan.” A lot of modern horror movies are too reliant on cheap scares (oh shit something popped out and there was really loud string music!) and also I like being able to sleep at night without dwelling on dark and terrifying alternate realities.

But I do make allowances, particularly for horror movies that some might not even consider real horror. Netflix’s teen horror comedy The Babysitter is such a one. The trailer looked kind of goofy in an Evil Dead kind of way and gave off a sort of late-80’s-early-90’s camp flick vibe.

I gave it a viewing last week and on the Bushi Binary Watch Scale, I give it a 1 for “Watch.” Without saying too much about the plot, it’s able to successfully build and maintain tension while scattering in plenty of humor. While there are certainly a few gaping holes should you make the mistake of taking the story too seriously and there are silly moments, I wouldn’t call it a silly movie.

A word of caution – there’s a bit of dirty language, and that girl-girl make-out scene featured in the trailer does carry on a little bit longer in the film. It doesn’t get much more graphic than that, though, with the exception of a very brief scene with a couple in bed and a rather unsexy handjob apparently going on under the covers.

Aside from that, of course there’s gratuitous blood and violence. But in a fun way.

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Pictured: Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams

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Kaiju commented that it is definitely an homage to classic slasher films like Halloween. Personally I can’t point to any of that, but it did feel like a throwback to growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. The wardrobe and the cultural references were dead-on. There’s even a “hot girl getting in the pool” scene!

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If any of this sounds up your alley and you’ve got a Netflix subscription, go check it out! There are definitely worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Like watching Mazes and Monsters.

Oh, and Bee’s SF Dream Team kind of sucks. Picard is a waste of a slot!

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-Bushi

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Frustrations with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been reading more slowly lately. Life, plus an obsession with a mobile game* as a stress reliever.

I am really trying to like Pulp. There is much to like about Pulp. But there is also much to dislike about Pulp.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) provides some good examples of both.

I’ve read enough of ERB and Robert E. Howard that I can get into a pulp mindset where I turn off my writing critic and just enjoy the story.  And *still* ERB annoys with some of his poor plotting mechanics.

I have to conclude that ERB was great at coming up with an amazing archetype of a hero, and then just writing about his bad-ass character. His fame comes from being the first to have such a bad-ass character, rather than from actual writing talent.

Maybe that’s harsh. I know it’s going to irritate some people. But look, I’ve read The Monster Men (which was one of ERB’s later works, and an attempt to be more literary), and while it still had some problems, it was actually a fairly well-written book, with some twists, some character complexity, proper foreshadowing, etc.

But I’m still in the midst of slogging through Gods of Mars, and there are just so many examples of poor writing.

I feel like nearly every 3-4 pages there’s an example of poor writing that jars me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Sometimes it is having incredible luck that saves John Carter from failure/death or otherwise continue the narrative. One would be irritating, but there have been at least 10 so far…way too many.  Examples: How was it John Carter to Barsoom returned just in time to encounter Tars Tarkas? How was it Tars Tarkas wasn’t the Green Warrior surprised by the unexpected jumping tactics of the Plant Men? How did Thuvia and Tars happen to be right at the location where the damaged air car of John Carter, Xodar, and Carthoris comes to ground?  Why does Thuvia have the ability of nearly perfect telepathy with beasts? Is this something other Barsoomians have? The answer seems to be that ERB needed something to get the characters through a nearly-impossible situation, so he just pulled something out of the air and ran with it.

Or the characters encounter an obstacle, and what do you know, they just happen to have the ability/item they need, right at that moment, but ERB just forgot to mention it before then! This is probably the most irritating, because it gives an impression of first draft writing: if your writing leads you to put your characters into a difficult situation, you go back and add the solution earlier in the work, at a time that it won’t seem unusual or significant.  Call it effective foreshadowing, call it effective preparation to  avoid a deus ex machina, I don’t really know the right way to put it. But ERB completely misses the mark for this in A Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars.

One that bothers me even more, however, is when ERB is inconsistent with the world and the rules of the world he himself set up.  In A Princess of Mars, he explains at length that the Green Men have rifles capable of amazing long distance accuracy, and the marksmanship skills to use them at incredible ranges. Yet when the Green Men would reasonably use that advantage in a way that might hurt the main characters, the Green Men conviently forget to use them.  A prime example of this (which I just read, and pushed me over the edge to needing to write this complaint) is when the Warhoons are chasing John Carter’s band after he rescued Tars Tarkas, but the Warhoons merely pursue them instead of shooting their mounts from underneath them. Another example is several pages earlier when John Carter merely follows Tars’ escorting guards through the dungeon, intead of attacking them immediately to free Tars. And immediately following when John Carter regretfully feels forced to ambush Tars’ guards, clearly feeling it was not up to his standards of fairness.  This bothers me because John Carter had not hesitated to attack far more than just four Green Men warriors previously, and he had killed one with a single blow from his fist before. Why would he hesitate in this situation, and why would he finally decide on a somewhat-dishonorable ambush? Inconsistency.

There are other things to like about the book, but this isn’t really a book review. I like it better than the Land that Time Forgot, because when I put The Gods of Mars down, I do want to pick it up again.  But it isn’t compelling me to reach the finish like The Monster Men did.

I’m not saying the book sucks.  But it does spur contemplation on the nature of successful writing. Should I sacrifice quality for speed in writing? Should I just come up with a great character and not stress plot and consistency?  Why does the best of SFF pulp have this many problems, but the best of Western and Detective Noir do not?

Okay, come at me.

* Kingdom Rush. My obsession is finishing every level without using any of the one-time use special abilities you can purchase with diamonds.  I’m almost done. I’m stressed because the new job I mentioned on Twitter as getting hired for FIVE MONTHS AGO still hasn’t given me a start date. Long story there.