The joy of short fiction and Star Trek film reviews

 

Autumn is here in deep pooling shadows and icy-fanged mornings.

Some quick doses of news:

Nature Futures’ podcast selected my story “Interdimensional Trade Benefits” as their favorite sci-fi tale published in August, and gave it a classy recital on the show; host Kerri Smith does the audio honors. I’d happily listen to her read any of my stories, any day, ever.

I was also notified that I sold my humorous sci-fi whodunit story “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates” to Galaxy’s Edge. This will be my fourth sale to the magazine. Looking back, I’m pleased with the variety of fiction that I’ve published with them. My first sale to its pages was with “Through the Eons, Darkly”, a very grim time travel story set in Colombia. I followed this up with “I, Arachnobot”, a poignant tale about a little robot trying to protect an elderly senile patient in a nursing home from a diabolical murder plot. My third sale is one of the stories I’m most proud of, “Hic Sunt Monstra”, a chiller set on an ice-world.

One of the joys of short story writing is that they become literary laboratories. You get to explore with mixtures and avenues of investigation in a single-serving meal to readers. Having seen enough European-centric time travel stories, I set “Through the Eons, Darkly” in South America and made it a tale about viewing the past (rather than visiting it.) I wanted to steer away from velvet-cushioned time machines and speeding DeLoreans, and so I envisioned the dank, jungle-shrouded lab of Project Alicanto. Instead of uppercrusty scientists, I chose the middle-aged and underprivileged Beatriz de Lagarda as my POV.

“I, Arachnobot” was a story I almost didn’t write. My style of hard SF is not especially Asimovian, a fact I was reflecting on while walking on my lunch break. I grew up reading Asimov (my first experience was reading Pebble in the Sky) and I have the highest respect for his contributions to the genre. I wondered if I would ever consider playing in his universe. If so, what might I do? A Foundation story? That prospect didn’t exactly stir my imagination. A robot story? That was better, since a robot story would allow me to try “breaking” the Three Laws, which could be a fun challenge to undertake. However, I didn’t want to go the humaniform route; there are entirely too many bipedal humanoid robots in science-fiction (hell, even the liquid metal Terminator chases Sarah Conner in human form, even when no one’s around to witness.) Why wouldn’t a robot have more than two legs? Like, EIGHT legs…

The first line of “Hic Sunt Monstra” is verbatim something I would imagine as a kid. Growing up in New England, I’d often pretend that the tusk-like icicles forming off the house gutters was the materialization of an actual creature. The winter I wrote the story was also one of the worst I’d ever experienced. A particularly nasty blizzard hit on a weekend I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in shoreline-hugging Niantic (hey — there were no blizzards forecast when I booked the stay) and at checkout time I discovered that ice had formed an eerie casting of the port-side of my Toyota. I spent a half hour with frozen and bleeding fingers trying to dislodge the ice, pulling away huge sheaves of the stuff from my hubcaps and door and windows, while snow whipped past me like a white sandstorm and warm blood slimed my hands.

“Breaking News Involving Space Pirates” is a different animal entirely.

I’m a fan of mystery fiction, and I’ve often wanted to contribute something of my own to that narrow little subgenre known as the SF Mystery. This story is a playful, locked-room, Hercule Poirot in space piece. It features one of my recurring characters, Jolene Fort, former space pirate, who always finds herself at the heart of truly unusual mysteries. The story will open the November/December issue of Galaxy’s Edge, so next month I’ll do something I’ve never done here: a debrief on the inspiration and writing process behind it.

 

*

 

For Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary, I decided to rewatch all the films. Well, almost all the films.

Here are my thoughts and reviews of the Star Trek film legacy, submitted for your perusal, enjoyment, and argument.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – Big, flashy, and eager to show off its then-cutting-edge effects. It’s also plodding and ponderous, like a TV episode (I’m looking at you, “The Changeling”) stretched like butter scraped over too much bread. The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey is obvious, but I have a blasphemous confession: I’m not a fan of this approach to science fiction storytelling. While there’s nothing wrong with trying to evoke awe and wonder (Close Encounters of the Third Kind was rooted in this theme) I don’t like it being done at the expense of story and pacing. As a viewer, I don’t need to spend tedious minutes exploring a gigantic spaceship to comprehend that it’s a gigantic spaceship. Interestingly, what stood out to me most was not the visuals but the sound: Star Trek’s first film has a hell of a soundtrack, with so many wonderful leitmotifs and themes unveiled here, to be reused in later Trek installments.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – The cinematic series’ shining star. This is a great film by any reasonable measure, improving on every single aspect of its predecessor. Lean, mean, and riveting, it tells a more personal and contained story. Khan himself is the real star, played with scene-stealing, Ahab-like gusto by Ricardo Mantalban. It’s a performance that later Trek villains try but fail to emulate; Khan’s motivations are clear, and his every action, no matter how irrational by sane standards, is believable. The script is snappy, and that ending is still the high watermark for emotion among the series.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – The middle chapter of a trilogy, it fluidly continues the story, anticipating the connected universe mania that is so popular today. The crew is still licking their wounds from the previous film, only to get involved in another adventure that grows naturally out of the preceding events. There’s some silliness here and there, but it’s a solid enough movie with rewarding moments and a satisfying adventure. It also has some of the best acting from Shatner in the series, from obvious (“You Klingon bastards…”) to subtle (the look on his face when he’s told via com that: “You do this, you’ll never sit in the captain’s chair again.”) Christopher Lloyd works out just fine in the Klingon captain role; the people who criticize him here seem to… er… cling on to the fact that he is Christopher Lloyd rather than focus on the performance. “Unfortunate.”

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) –  The cinematic series’ second shining star (I do so love alliteration.) The concluding chapter of the Star Trek film trilogy, we pick right up after III and take a voyage home and to the 1980s. What’s so surprising about this film is that it is genuinely funny; humor often evades Star Trek, but the fish-out-water script is witty, sharp, and effective. It’s also refreshing in that it allows other cast members to shine as well: Kirk and Spock are the stars, sure, but McCoy’s visit to the hospital is priceless and true to his abrasive bedside manner (“What’s the matter with YOU?”) and Scotty’s improbable typing skills on an 80’s-era computer is wonderful. Yet it’s Chekov, of all people, who steals the show when he’s captured aboard the present-day U.S.S. Enterprise and is being interrogated:

“Name?”

“My name?”

“No, MY name!”

“I do not KNOW your name!”

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) – A steaming pile of literally godawful crap. Rather than picking up with a new movie-spanning epic, this wretched film with a wretched script resulted in a movie that attempts to continue the lighter notes of its predecessor… and fails in spectacular ways. It attempts to ask profound questions, but nosedives into absurdity. Its story is so illogical that it has to literally brainwash its characters to get them to go along.  Bad, bad, bad.

Star Trek VI (1991) – And now I’m going to get controversial. I’m well aware that criticizing this movie is like bad-mouthing the local hero, but really… THINK about this for a moment. Better yet, WATCH it again without focusing on the nostalgic adieu. There are plenty of good moments throughout, and the message is swell. I appreciated the whodunit narrative, a first for the film series. And sure, there are some genuinely funny moments.

Yet…

Taken as a whole, it’s really NOT that great a picture. Whereas IV let its jokes come naturally, there’s too much forced corniness here. Uhura and company rapidly flipping through Klingon vocab books is amusing, but makes no goddam sense in either the props, execution, or results. And General Chang, played by the ordinarily excellent Christopher Plummer, manifests as an over-the-top adversary for the sake of being over-the-top; his Shakespeare-spouting, chair-spinning lunacy is trying to channel Khan but failing in both motivation and effectiveness. One look in Khan’s wild eyes and you BELIEVED his outrage; Chang, by contrast, never comes together as a character. He’s quietly menacing one moment, casual and chatty the next, and suddenly erupts into full-blown insanity because… space madness?

Star Trek Generations (1994) – A reeking pile of crap that should be scrubbed from the universe.

Star Trek First Contact (1996) – The last good Trek film, and the only good TNG film. Dipping back into the series for a noteworthy villain, First Contact serves up the Borg and perfects the recipe. I always found the Borg a bit too “clean” on the series (due to budgetary considerations.) Here, they emerge as a force of nightmare: greasy, rotting, space zombie cyborgs that produce chills. The time travel story is interesting on its own, but also in how it fleshes out a necessary part of Trek’s backstory. Alfre Woodard is a standout as a humanizing foil to Picard, and James Cromwell is just fine as the flawed and ever-reluctant Zefram Cochrane. We’re also treated to the last great Trek villain: Alice Krige’s sinister, breathy, oddly seductive Borg Queen. Her presence is simply dynamite.

Star Trek Insurrection (1998) – A story that would have served a mediocre and forgettable episode of the series, stretched into a pointless feature film.

Star Trek Nemesis (2002) – Absolutely fantastic. I’m kidding. It should be scrubbed from the universe.

Star Trek (2009) – My friend Damian has argued that this is the film that made Trek relevant again to another generation. My counter-argument is that this could have been accomplished with, you know, a good movie.

I’ll start nice: Star Trek nailed the casting.

I’m done being nice.

There’s a disrespect in this film that is evident from the opening moments when the entire franchise is shunted into an alternate reality so the creators don’t have to, you know, think carefully about how to tell a good prequel. I recognize that this is a matter of preference, but it’s just lazy writing. And while people were so obsessed with J.J. Abrams’ lens-flares, I was more focused on J.J.’s unrelenting obsession with alternate history. (Seriously, dude, you covered this in Fringe. Move on.)

But the movie really falls apart when it unveils a connected series of coincidences that in a truly just society would have the screenwriters sentenced to exile in the desert. You know this by now: Spock jettisons Kirk to an icy planet, and the landing pod HAPPENS to arrive next to a CGI monster that HAPPENS to chase Kirk into a cave that HAPPENS to be occupied by future-Spock, after which Kirk walks to a nearby base which HAPPENS to employ a guy who knows how to transport people onto starships at warp. This is some of the laziest screenwriting I’ve ever seen, and I can just imagine the writers sitting around, saying “How do we get Kirk back aboard the Enterprise if… wait, I’ve got it! Transport him there. Who cares if this destroys the Trek universe… we’ve already destroyed Vulcan!”

Sorry. It’s not a good film, and an even worse Trek film.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) – Scrub. From the universe. There’s an underwhelming Khan (played by the ordinarily superb Benedict Cumberbatch), and a continued lack of knowing what to do with its cast. Yet nothing showcases what’s wrong with the rebooted franchise better than the reversal of Spock being the one to shout “Khan!”  This wasn’t merely a groan-worthy moment. It shone a great lens-flaring light on how the rebooted universe fails so spectacularly. There’s no genuine emotion here, just a wink wink, nudge nudge attempt at self-aware fanboy service.

I have no idea how Star Trek: Beyond is. Please, feel free to tell me, because given how the films have regressed, I refuse to watch it.

 

 

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