Worlds: Stupid Sci-Fi Film Tricks, The Expanse Edition

SPOILER ALERT for Season 1 of The Expanse if it’s on your “to watch” list.

Are you effing kidding me, The Expanse? I mean, are you effing kidding me?

Here we have a show that most people I know in SF have been raving about, I mean, absolutely raving about for the last couple of years. So I finally decided to use my Amazon Free Prime trial and binge-watch a few episodes.

And it looks good. Man does it look good. Really, the only problem I have with it from a science perspective is I think that it VASTLY underestimates what happens to things and people when a hole is knocked into an Earth-pressure cabin in hard vacuum, but I’m pretty willing to let that slide, on the large scale of things. That’s like complaining about lasers being visible in space combat. Of course they wouldn’t be, but the Rule Of Cool, well, rules.

So, for the first six episodes, I just sat back and enjoyed the SFX, the dialogue, the action, and the whole ride. So, the Earth UN controls Ceres, capital of the Asteroid Belt, by rationing its air and water. Mars, an independent state, also hungers to control Ceres, and the Belters just want to breathe and drink and not die. There’s a Free the Belt movement, headed up by a freedom-fighter/terrorist organization called the OPA, and of course Earth Cops on Ceres try to keep these terrorists down.
As our story opens, one of our protagonists is an Earth Cop chasing an Earth heiress who sympathized with the OPA and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. We find she has something to do with a freighter set up as bait to lure in an innocent rescue ship that is then attacked by parties unknown with evidence pointing to Mars, apparently with the goal of starting a war. Earth Cop finds more and more evidence tying missing heiress to a raid on a supersecret Martian research base.

And then, episode 7. Oh, gods….

So Earth Cop figures out that heiress was an agent of the OPA Maximum Leader, and assembles the evidence, bringing it straight to his boss… who promptly wipes his files, revokes his access codes and fires him. He figures out she’s in Maximum Leader’s pocket, and as he storms out, the camera focuses in on boss’s neck, where she is sporting an OPA tattoo.

Get that? The OPA’s paid agent, the chief of the Earth Cops in the Belt, is wearing a terrorist tattoo in plain sight, advertising her allegiance. Among detectives. And we’re supposed to believe that somehow, no one noticed this. I mean, this is like a U.S. Naval officer showing up for duty on his ballistic missile submarine in 1985 sporting a hammer-and-sickle tattoo on his wrist. You think someone might ask questions?

And the hell of it is, it’s completely unnecessary. I mean, I believed she could have been a mole. But no one in the solar system would be such a stupid mole and survive more than a month. It drives me nuts when filmmakers feel obligated to underline visually what’s happening for us as though we are too dumb to understand words and to imagine likely consequences of such actions. Stop it.

From Somewhere In Orbit


The Word: The Dark Side Of The Force

This blog post was written for the online magazine Sci Phi Journal.

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

Yes, Star Wars Fans, It Was Always Possible To Track Ships Traveling In Hyperspace: The Evidence

In The Last Jedi, the plot hinges on the idea that it is impossible to track ships through a hyperspace jump without cutting-edge First Order technology. I am going to make my case that it was always possible to track ships through hyperspace, and that this plot oint is an example of bad continuity.

Now at first glance, it seems that I am just wrong. After all, the Millennium Falcon always escapes Imperial pursuers by going to lightspeed. However, we need to examine the circumstances, here. Plainly, hyperspace jumps are not instantaneous, just very, very fast. Also, ships do not seem to be able to interact with each other physically (e.g. to fight battles) while in hyoerspace. Our first encounter with hyperspace is with the Falcon jumping away from Tatooine. Let’s look at that scene:

We have seen the Falcon jump to hyperspace. Then much later, at least long enough for Luke to start lightsaber training and R2-D2 to get involved in a board game with Chewbacca, Han comes in and says, “Well, you can forget your troubles with those Imperial slugs. I told you I’d outrun ’em!”
At the total lack of reaction he then says, “Don’t everybody thank me at once.”
Now, why this announcement, if the jump to lightspeed in itself meant they were untrackable? The clear implication is that the Empire was (or may have been) following them, and Han has spent the intervening time making sure of their escape. Of course Han was rather confident of his ability to do this: he’s flying the ship that “made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs” after all (whatever that means) and believes himself to be one of the best star pilots in the galaxy.

Later, upon emergence in the Alderaan system, they encounter a TIE fighter. The exchange that follows is revealing:
LUKE: “It followed us!”
BEN: “No, it’s a short range fighter.”
The implication is that a longer-range craft could potentially have followed them. Ben isn’t just speculating about how it got there, because he doesn’t start that until his next line: “A fighter that small couldn’t have gotten this far into space on its own…”

Additionally, how is it possible that the Empire is chasing down Princess Leia’s ship at all at the beginning of the movie if there is no way to track ships through hyperspace? Rogue One clearly establishes that this has happened. Remember, Obi-Wan Kenobi, last of the Jedi Knights, is hiding out on Tatooine. There is nothing else of importance there and the Empire does not know he is there.

Now, in Empire we seem to see some of the strongest evidence that hyperspace tracking is impossible, because the Falcon’s final getaway is by jumping to lightspeed, and the whole plot of the film hinges on the Falcon’s broken hyperdrive. However, it seems reasonable that by this time the Empire has simply learned that the Falcon is uniquely able to elude pursuit by jumping to hyperspace because of its speed. If the Falcon can complete a jump and start a new one before Imperial forces arrive, then of course it cannot be tracked.

Now, when Han Solo pulls his disappearing act by charging the Star Destroyer, Darth Vader orders the Falcon’s trajectory extrapolated from “its last known trajectory,” after killing the Star Destroyer’s captain for incompetence. Clearly, Vader expected better. Perhaps that he could have tracked them through hyperspace? After all, how would Vader have known the hyperdrive was malfunctioning? That Han Solo pulled off a gutsy and complex maneuver that foiled the Empire’s ability to track them does not imply that no such tracking ability exists.

Finally, in Return of the Jedi, we have our strongest piece of evidence that prior that tracking a ship through hyperspace is possible. It can be seen in this video at about 2:26-2:30.

There is a screen showing the Death Star II, and a cloud of rapidly approaching dots, just as Leia says, “Han, the fleet will be here any second.” Occam’s Razor suggests, “Hey look, the Imperials are tracking the Rebel fleet in hyperspace as it approaches.”

Now, none of this makes The Last Jedi a crappy movie. As stated earlier, I quite liked it. But it’s not in line with earlier continuity, and to my mind, that’s just a bit of lazy writing. I invite all arguments, but they’re going to have to explain away all of these incidents, not just one of them.

From Somewhere In Orbit

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Why Pacific Rim Was Awful

I have friends who love the concept of giant, armored robots. I, personally, dislike the concept. For one thing, most of them are simply too big to be even halfway believable without incredibly advanced materials, but even with those, the truth is that for the money and maintenance you would expend on one giant humanoid mech, you could build a tank battalion with a fighter squadron for close air support that would a) take down a comparable mech and b) not be rendered useless by a single malfunctioning joint.

However, during the discussion, I realized that the reasons I hated Pacific Rim had nothing to do with its blatant mech fanboyism.

First, it violated what, to me, is a cardinal rule of good science-fiction storytelling. It’s a variant of something the Russian playwright Chekhov said: If a gun is on the stage in Act I, it has to be used by Act III. My variant on this for SF is this: If you’re going to tell us that some piece of machinery or battleship or whatever is incredibly super badass, you have to show it being badass. Not just tell us this, and then have it crumple like toilet paper. We were told that there was this super awesome Chinese mech, and this super awesome Australian mech, and they serve no purpose other than to be kaiju chew toys in the climactic battle. This was not necessary. Each mech could have been shown taking a kaiju down easily, and then being battered into scrap by more (or more dangerous) kaiju than had been previously encountered, exactly as we see the Death Star detonate Alderaan and then get taken down by the Rebels.

Second, and most ridiculous, they use a nuclear weapon to close the rift the kaiju are coming through, and yet no one ever thinks to use nuclear weapons on the kaiju themselves, despite the fact that the kaiju mostly materialize in the Pacific and then start heading toward cities? Someone should at least have tried this. And before anyone says that this would have been dangerous to the planet, just stop before you embarrass yourselves. Where do you think the vast majority of US nuclear weapons tests happened during the Cold War? Literally thousands of nuclear weapons have been detonated in the Pacific, with few to zero ill effects on the planet.

Pacific Rim is a blatant attempt to use a terrible, but cool-looking solution to a problem. It’s like having mounted knights go fight ISIS in 2018. I grant you that the actual solution, having satellites warning uniformed men in bunkers that it was time to launch nuclear air or sea strikes against kaiju, would not have been anything like as cool to watch. But it would have been far less stupid.

From Somewhere in Orbit

I Have No Enemies…

There’s an old story about Josef Stalin that alleges that the Communist leader and mass murderer called for a priest on his deathbed. Seeing as Stalin had been a terror to the Church, the priest tasked with this duty was frightened, but determined to tell the truth. In a shaking voice, he told Stalin that he must forgive his enemies. To his surprise, the dictator smiled and said, “That will be quite unnecessary, Father. I have no enemies.” Finding this impossible to believe, the priest summoned his courage and asked how that was possible. Stalin replied, “I’ve had them all executed.”

I watched the James Bond film, SPECTRE last night. It was pretty much a uniformly awful movie, with a predictable plot and nothing in it that hasn’t been done before and better by earlier Bond movies, notably the superb From Russia With Love, which the screenwriter had obviously seen approximately 472 times, but had failed to understand.

One of the worst features of the film was its depressing predictability: James comes home to find that “C” a new politician, is considering dropping the 00 program entirely in favor of electronic assets. It is clear within 5 minutes of his appearance that C is either the ultimate bad guy of the film, or in direct cahoots with him, and C is indeed unmasked as a traitor in the service of Blofeld (whose motivation was apparently to dominate the world because he was jealous that he had to share a few hours of his daddy’s attention with James when they were both teenagers, which makes him the most ridiculous temper-tantrum thrower of a world-dominating villain since Anakin Skywalker in Episode II, but I digress).

The reason I bring it up is because it really highlights the feature of what seems like a lot of movies these days: anyone troubling the hero must be the worst villain imaginable. It seems as if it is no longer possible for the hero to be saddled with someone who is (even temporarily) perhaps an asshole, but on the same side. For C to consider dismantling the 00 program, he does not have to be a traitor. He can still be a problem James has to solve, of course. In fact, he’s a much more challenging problem if he is loyal, because then James can’t simply kill him.

Movies weren’t always this way. As recently as Pirates of the Caribbean it was perfectly possible for the heroes to have an opponent, in this case, Captain Norrington, who are kind of assholes and who have to be circumvented, but who are, when it comes down to it, on the same side against the pirate-zombies and who are reasonably brave and not traitors.

One of the most extreme examples of the decline in this sort of thing is the mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America. A much better film than SPECTRE, it imagines a Ken Burns-style alternate history in which the United States was defeated and wholly assimilated into the Confederate States in a short Civil War, after which slavery was legal up to the present day. That this is a dystopia is obvious, but the screenwriters take it to such extremes as to imagine the United States being sympathetic to Hitler in the 1930s while at the same time going to war with Japan in the 1940s. How this bit of political gymnastics works out is never explained. The film even goes so far as to have the Confederate States sneak attack the Imperial Japanese Navy in Tokyo Bay on December 7th, 1941.

You can see what they have done here: the Confederate States of 1941 must not only be evil, (as, granted, they surely would have been), they must be so evil that they cannot experience the injustice of a sneak attack themselves. They are literally incapable of being wronged. If the Japanese had launched the war as they did historically, and bombed a Confederate fleet at Pearl Harbor, then we might, horror of horrors, be forced to imagine that something even worse than a Confederacy might exist. Like people who might, say, perpetrate the Rape of Nanking, which of course, the Japanese did.

I see in these films a symptom of something I find to be ugly and dangerous. The idea that being challenged in our preconceptions and beliefs about what is best (or worst) is equivalent to an attack that must be met with lethal force and no shred of mercy. And that is indeed frightening.

From Somewhere In Orbit