Archive for October, 2011

World Fantasy Convention

We’re winging off to San Diego this afternoon for the World Fantasy Convention. Hope to see some of you there! I’ll be hanging out in the bar, trying to remember to chat up agents and editors, helping out Tina Connolly with a dramatic reading on Thursday night, and appearing on one panel:

Friday 4:00 PM, Pacific 2/3: A Sea of Stars

Is the sea to fantasy what space is to science fiction? Are they both the uncharted territory that leads somewhere unexpected? Are they the habitat for unfamiliar aliens? Stories like Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Godfall’s Chemsong” and Helen Keeble’s “A Journal of Certain Events…” seem parallel in many ways, even though the former is science fiction and the latter is fantasy. Why use one over the other — can your settings be interchangeable if the plot is good?

David Brin, Michael Cassutt, David Levine(M), Courtney Schafer, Rachel Swirsky

Yes, I am moderating David Brin. Hah! He don’t scare me.

I wonder if there will be a group viewing of the Grimm premiere at 9:00 Friday night? I have seen the pilot episode and it is good.

Grimm Portland premiere

Just saw the pilot of Grimm, at the Portland Art Museum with a rowdy crowd and the producers and cast in attendance. Awesome! I think this show is going to be dynamite. Silas Weir Mitchell as Eddie Monroe — the “Spike” character — will be everyone’s favorite.

Grimm premieres Friday, October 28, but you can watch a 20-minute preview clip now.

Margin Call

I can’t say that Margin Call is exactly an enjoyable film, but it’s absolutely frickin’ brilliant.

This is a film where everything happens in the spaces between words, between lines, between scenes. It’s a… what’s holier than a Swiss cheese? A ciabatta of a film, but tasty nonetheless.

This is a film about the Wall Street collapse of 2008 that barely attempts to explain the insanely complex financial shenanigans that caused the crisis. It feels as though the filmmakers decided that the audience is never going to understand it anyway, so let’s go ahead without explaining it at all. Though there is some explanation late in the film, and as one critic said they play the “explain this to me in words of one syllable” card a bit too often, the key here is that you don’t need to understand the finances. All you need to understand is how important they are to the characters, and the top-notch cast makes that abundantly clear through a variety of understated techniques.

Another way in which this film takes place in the gaps between lines is that it depends a whole heck of a lot on the audience’s understanding of the characters’ world. If this film somehow fell through a time warp to the year 2000, no one would understand it. You need to have at least some understanding of the 2008 financial crisis to understand the plot. You need to know that when one character flips another character a small black object (which barely even appears on screen), and later that second character pulls the top off of something that looks like a lipstick, that it is a USB thumb drive… and what a thumb drive is, and how it is used, and what it can contain. When two characters are sitting at a bar, and you hear a buzz, and one of them glances down at his lap, and they both leave the bar without a word, you have to know what text messages look and sound like and what they can mean.

When I was in high school I took an acting class in which we memorized a very simple, meaningless dialogue1 and then had to present a brief scene using that simple script to express a relationship between two characters (first date, estranged lovers, father and son who’s going off to college, etc.) — it’s all in the intonation, the body language, the pauses, the subtext. Practically this entire movie is like that. Much of the dialogue is banal, and the action restrained, yet the actors manage to convey the emotion and importance of the situation.

And the situation is important, dramatically important. There’s a lot of tension in this movie, even though we know how the 2008 financial crisis ended up.

I commented to Kate on the way home that “this is a science fiction movie, and the science is economics.” But, as she pointed out, that isn’t really true; it’s not SF because there’s nothing in it that didn’t actually happen. This is, nonetheless, a fabulous example of how you can take a plot that is made up of technobabble and mathematics and turn it into a story about people and emotions. I’d love to do something like this in SF, but as I mentioned above it depends so much on the audience’s understanding of the history and technology that you would have a real tough time writing an SF or fantasy story that still worked if you left out as much as Margin Call leaves out.

So, in summary: not a fun movie, but one that’s worth studying.


1 I still remember every word: “Hi.” “Hello.” “It’s been a long time.” “Yes it has.” “How’ve you been?” “Do you have to ask?” “No, I suppose not.” “Did you walk?” “No, I got a ride.” “Oh.”

Thinking way too hard about Mr. Potato Head

I’ve been thinking about the consciousness of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.

His limbs are capable of independent action when detached, and Mrs. Potato Head can see through a detached eye. One can imagine that if Mr. Potato Head were dropped and every single piece fell off except for one arm, he would reassemble himself. What if all the pieces fell out? I believe that his detached lips would call for help. This gedankenexperiment implies that Mr. Potato Head’s consciousness is housed in his plastic body but somehow extends to his pieces wherever they may be.

Yet he can replace one set of eyes with another (e.g. “angry eyes”), and the new eyes can be seen through once plugged in. How does this work? Is it the plugging in that activates the new eyes and deactivates the old, and they remain active (even if detached) until a new set of eyes is plugged in? Or does he continue to see through all his eyes whether attached or detached (as a potato, he should be comfortable with any number of eyes)? If so, what defines which eyes are “his”? Could he see through one of Mrs. Potato Head’s eyes if plugged into his head?

And then there’s the scene in which he replaces his body with a tortilla. So somehow his consciousness can inhabit other, non-Mr.-Potato-Head objects if his pieces are plugged into it. What happens to his plastic potato body while the tortilla with his eyes, arms, and legs is walking around? If the plastic potato were smashed, would Mr. Tortilla Head die? What would happen if you put one eye, one ear, one arm, and one leg into, say, a zucchini? Would both Mr. Potato Head and Mr. Zucchini Head be capable of (limited) perception and action? Would they share a consciousness, or would they become two separate beings?

If any random object can become Mr. Potato Head’s body, what about his other pieces? Could he see through a plain wooden peg if it were plugged into his eye hole? If so… we’ve seen that he can still use his pieces properly if they are plugged into the wrong holes. Could he still see through a wooden peg if it were plugged into his arm hole? What, then, makes it an “eye”? Consider an ambiguous peg with a vaguely ear-like shape and an eye spot. Could he see through it? Hear with it? Would it depend on where it was plugged in? What if it were plugged into an arm hole? Does its shape matter? For that matter, could he see through one of his own feet if it were plugged into an eye hole? Or any hole? Does the effect depend on the intent of the child who plugged it in, if any? (No, let’s not go there. The epistemological relationship between toys and humans in the Toy Story universe is a whole separate essay. Or book.)

If Mr. Potato Head can see through his eyes wherever they are, and if any random object can become part of Mr. Potato Head, that implies that Mr. Potato Head’s consciousness could theoretically extend to any object.

What would happen if you plugged an eye, or a shoe, into the Earth? What are the odds that this has already happened?

Is Mr. Potato Head God?