Realistic Science Fiction: District 9

Scene-from-District-9-200-001This is an amazing film, both for what it sets out to do, and for what it accomplishes.  Taking the form of a documentary, it brings science fiction as close to real as I’ve ever seen it.  It is the documentary form, I think, that convinces a viewer that this is happening, or has happened.  

The film is about what would happen if aliens came to Earth powerless and malnourished.  Human kindness would collide with our own aversion to aliens and suddenly you have camps where the aliens are kept.  It’s a brilliant stroke to make this set in South Africa and not New York or LA or London.  

This film will surprise you at every moment.  I found myself, a film junkie, a sci-fi enthusiast, completely unprepared for where the movie would take me until it took me there.  The writing is superb.  You can’t find a traditional plot here anywhere.  

Certainly we’ve come to an age where we can make special effects seem real—Peter Jackson, the producer and Neill Blomkamp, the director, have gone out of their way to make you see the special effects as realistically as possible.  Yes, the insectoid aliens are CGI, but there’s not a lot of special effects here that are obvious.  God bless ’em, effects are being smoothed into a film now.  

This is not a mockumentary, whose job it is to make you laugh; it is filmed as a documentary to trick your brain into accepting its premise.  And it works.  I remember reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, as a kid.  And I hated the diary parts—but it is the story in letters that make that novel all the more horrifying because the author didn’t want it to seem like fiction.  They wanted you scared because these were actual letters.  It was more creepy to do it that way.  And this film, using documentary style–down to the archived tapes, the dates at the bottom, the steadycam moments–makes you think that someone pieced this together from twenty years of real footage.  Some of it is grainy, some of it is blurry.  

If you want realistic science fiction, you blend the techniques and technology we have now with the strange and possible technology; you bring in recognizable cultural reactions (the Nigerians scamming the aliens), historical patterns of behavior (Nazi experimentation), all without winking at the audience.  Letting them react.  They will think it’s real–because you have torn away what they expect in a movie.  

You expect a hero.  The main character is an idiot, really.  So, he’s not Bruce Willis.  He’s not super-intelligent, and rarely does the right thing.  But what an interesting character!   Again, if you are going for realistic science fiction, your main character may not be the best man or woman on the planet–but they are pivotal and they can learn.  A learning character is all you need.  

The movie is brilliant on many levels.  It works as a science fiction thriller, yes.  But it also works as a metaphor for immigration, for refugees, and for the slums that are in South Africa.  Anytime a people are empowered over another people, stupid things happen to us.  The main character of the movie really is us–as we treat other people as alien.  That shift of power is the focus of the film, I think, and makes the most poignant statement.  Given the right circumstances, human kindness can become dispassionate, cold power.

And what it takes to regain a sense of humanity, perhaps, is to lose it altogether.  But I won’t spoil any of the movie.  I’m so thrilled with the movie, I know that sci-fi junkies will love it and I know people who prefer realism and a smart script will love it.  

I also know that if you have a passion for oppressed people in the world, and the injustice present in nations around the world who have subjugated another race, then you will also find the reflection of that, and the reflection, maybe, of hope.

Live Words: Yukon Writers Festival, April 28-May 8

In conjunction with the Young Authors Conference, Live Words brings five authors up to the Yukon, and this year they are offering a few more appearances in Whitehorse and the communities for readings and workshops.  Yay!   I applaud Joyce Sward and other organizers for their efforts to bring these writers to the community.

Schedule as follows:


YUKON WRITERS’ FESTIVAL: Tues Apr 28 – Fri May 8
with writers:
Shelley Hrdlitschka, Celia McBride, Arthur Slade, Shyam Selvadurai, Candace Savage, Kenneth T. Williams

Reading: Kenneth T. Williams, Tues Apr 28, 7 pm, Blue Feather Youth Centre, free
Reading & Reception: Guest writers, Wed Apr 29, 7 pm, Beringia Centre, free
Young Authors’ Conference: Thurs Apr 30 & Fri May 1, 8:45 – 3:15, FH Collins
Lecture: Bird Brains: Inside the Lives of Ravens and Crows, Candace Savage & Sun May 3, 7:30 pm, Beringia Centre, free
Writing Workshop: Shyam Selvadurai, Mon May 4, 7 – 9 pm, Whitehorse Public Library. 667-5239 to register (limited space), free.

Readings & Music: Guest writers & music, Sat May 2, 7 pm, St. Elias Convention Centre, Haines Junction, $10 adults, $5 students, children 12 & under/seniors free.
Readings: Shyam Selvadurai -Tues May 5, 7 pm, Teslin Library; Wed May 6, 7 pm, Carcross Library; Thurs May 7, 7 pm; Carmacks Library; Fri May 8, 11am,
Faro Library, free
Lecture: Bird Brains: Inside the Lives of Ravens and Crows, Candace Savage, Mon May 4, 7:30 pm, Northern Lights Centre, Watson Lake, free

For more information call 667-5239.

And the Young Authors Conference website:

Yukon Fantasy/Science Fiction Writer Profiles: Marcelle Dubé

Marcelle DubéThe Yukon is home to more than just one science fiction/fantasy writer. In fact, there’s quite a few, so I’d like to profile them. These will be based on my experiences with them, not just interviews, though I’ve linked and excerpted sections of an interview Marcelle did with Joanna Lilley in What’s Up Yukon.

I first met Marcelle during the first Yukon Writer’s Conference in 2002. She was instrumental in bringing up Canadian sci-fi guru, Robert Sawyer, and for co-organizing a writer’s conference here that would do any university proud. We had six major writers, across genres, editors and agents, each giving multiple seminars. It was a three day event, complete with contests, one-on-one sessions with editors and agents, and food. I remember how shocked I was that this major operation was run by two people. Marcelle was stuffing bags full of free On Spec magazines, pens and pads of paper, in the Westmark when I ran into her for the first time. She didn’t seem like she was running amok–so I had no idea that she didn’t have a staff of twenty with her somewhere in the hotel.

We became friends, writing colleagues. She was part of the growing science fiction/fantasy community here in Whitehorse. And she wanted to provide writers here with the same advantages that writers down south would have. Not to mention, i think, that she wanted to bring up some people that she wanted to meet too!

Marcelle describes her work in this interview with Joanna Lilley:

I always like a plucky heroine who finds herself in a situation and needs her brains and her courage to get herself out.

Her stories often have well-conceived, elaborate cultures. I remember one of my favorite stories of hers, “Jhyoti“, that concerned how women prepared the dead for burial. Vividly detailed, well written, the story ended up in Challenging Destiny. Richard Horton, of Locus, recalls her story and two others (out of 14) in his end of the year review of Challenging Destiny:

From #25 I really enjoyed a rather traditional story — but very well done — by Marcelle Dubé: “Jhyoti”. The heroine is a low-caste woman trying to make it in the Academy. Doing some research, she finds evidence of terrible abuse and murder of a low-caste woman by a higher-caste person — can she risk her career, and disappoint her patrons, by investigating this? There are no surprises here, but it was quite satisfying.

Marcelle also got her work published in Julie Czerneda’s anthology of Polar Science called Polaris. She is just starting to sell, like me, and she has an excellent critical eye for story. I value her critique on my work. She attended World Fantasy with me and Claire Eamer (another writer you will get to meet on this blog soon) and made several more contacts. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from Marcelle in short stories to come. She has attended a Master Class workshop in the short story from Dean Wesley Smith on the Oregon Coast, and will be attending another this year.

But Marcelle is not satisfied with just growing her own career. She wants to help all of us. This generosity of spirit has made her invaluable to the writing community. Since 2002, she has helped host two other conferences, that I can think of, and one coming up in 2009. She and Barb Dunlop invite writers, editors and agents that span every genre–romance, literary, mystery, science fiction–so that everyone gets helped up here. Because of these conferences I have met more science fiction writers than I ever did in Texas (cause none of them came to Lubbock, Texas ) and all the writer’s conferences were done by AWP or MLA or SWPCA and had hundreds or thousands of attendees, which meant that authors, agents and editors were swarmed by people, who had much higher clearance than some refugee from Texas Tech. (I met Ray Bradbury in Lubbock–which is another story.)

Because of Marcelle and Barb–and the moneys granted to them by the Advanced Artist Awards and other Yukon agencies for the growth of the Arts–I was able to meet, dine with, and learn from Robert Sawyer, Matt Hughes, Candas Jane Dorsey, Terrence Green, and editor, Diane Walton of On Spec–as well as authors, agents and editors in othe genres. Yes, in the Yukon. Taking classes from Terrence Green moved my story “Lemmings in the Third Year” to publishable quality and his suggestions on places to send it helped it get published quickly in Tesseracts Nine.

See, we are never alone as writers. We are always beholden on the community around us to lift us up, connect us, encourage us, critique us, kick our asses. I’m glad Marcelle is up here; she’s a great colleague and friend and I hope to see more of her unique vision in all the fantasy and science fiction magazines. I also hope, for the Yukon’s sake, she and Barb continue to organize these conferences which bring the world of Publishing to the Yukon.

See you all in April for the 2009 Yukon Writer’s Conference!

Clarion 2009 open for submission Jan 2-Mar 1

Announcing the

2009 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop

@ UC San Diego

June 28 to August 8, 2009

The Clarion Workshop is widely recognized as the premier training ground for aspiring writers of fantasy and science fiction short stories. Many graduates have become well-known writers, and a large number have won major awards. Instructors are among the most respected writers and editors working in the field today. The 2009 writers in residence are Holly Black, Larissa Lai, Robert Crais, Kim Stanley Robinson, Elizabeth Hand, and Paul Park. The six-week workshop is held on the beautiful beachside campus of the University of California at San Diego .

Since its inception in 1968, Clarion has been known as the “boot camp” for writers of speculative fiction. Each year 18-20 students, ranging in age from late teens to those in mid-career, are selected from applicants who have the potential for highly successful writing careers. Students are expected to write several new short stories during the six-week workshop, and to give and receive constructive criticism. Instructors and students reside together in campus apartments throughout the intensive six-week program.

The application period for the 2009 workshop is January 2 – March 1. Applicants must submit two short stories with their application. Scholarships are available. Additional information can be found here.

For my testimonial, click on Clarion Page above.

New Star Trek movie and the Power of Myth

What I love about what seems to be Abrams’ vision is that he is turning this story into myth. He’s taken Kirk and made him into a man who is dissatisfied with his current state and yearning for a destiny, and taken Spock and made him into a conflicted man who must choose between two paths. While Abrams will no doubt rewrite some of the canon, by escaping the usual players (Shatner, Nimoy–though Nimoy does have a role in the film, Nichols, Takei), he allows these “characters” to be interpreted much like –and on the scale of–Shakespeare. Now hold with me. I ain’t saying that Roddenberry’s original show was Shakespearean, or certainly that the original episodes were on par with the Bard, only that the design of archetypal characters was hidden there all along.

Kirk as a man who leads with his gut; Spock a man who thinks with his brain; McCoy a man who decides with his heart. All three of them make up the primary triad of most every episode where a concept or idea must be batted around between these three polarities—does the gut, the brain or the heart win out?

Abrams looks as if he has captured that archetypal quality in at least the main two characters. I’m hoping McCoy is fleshed out a bit (he should have been quite a bit older than Kirk).

When Peter Jackson remade King Kong, he turned it into myth, and I loved that movie. Myth is where you know the basic gist of what will happen–what has to happen–the Empire State building throws its shadow on the whole film–which makes Kong into a tragic figure, lurching towards that building no matter what. But it gives Jackson a chance to play with the inbetween scenes–which he does.

Now Abrams is getting a chance to interpret character, much as an actor like Branaugh or Gibson or Olivier interprets Hamlet. By gutting the Nimoy from Spock, and the Shatner from Kirk, we’re left with the essence of the character—these two torn, universal, archetypal men. And I think you will see that Star Trek will move–as it has always been moving–into American Myth.

Yep, America has myths–just as profound as the Greek ones. We’re starting to see those myths coalesce. You can tell a myth–it keeps being referred to, being reinterpreted, having something new to say, becomes universal. In my opinion, American myths include: The Wizard of Oz, Batman, Superman, Star Wars, Star Trek, King Kong, Spiderman. Nearly all of them started as Art in one way or another. The Oz books got the promotion into mythos when Judy Garland put on the red slippers–but all the reincarnations of that story have mythologized it. Certainly, though, the books were illustrated and this helped.

There are other broader myths too: the cowboy, Western expansion, the American Dream–but in the fictional ones I mentioned, America gets stories. They get strong characters that can be played and played again.

I am glad that Star Trek is entering the realm of Myth, even as we come closer to the days of space exploration. I look forward to Abrams’ rendering of the characters–not the show–of the ways these men and women represent the American story, and how they keep reflecting us back to ourselves in the mirror of Science Fiction and Myth.