Topics Not Generally Relating to Me, Part Two

I asked for topics, you gave them to me, and they’re not about me! Go, not me.

Alan Kellogg: What is it about skiffy flicks and crappy scripts?

I should probably save this for an AMC column, because then I would get paid to answer it, but I’ll give a short answer here: when the movies are cheap SF, as they often are, they can’t afford a good script, and if they had a good script they couldn’t afford to do it right. When the movies are expensive, the script often bows to studio imperatives, production values and star egos. When the movie is a Star Wars flick, it’s because George Lucas can’t script his way out of a paper bag, but there’s no one around to stop him. It should be noted that excepting the Star Wars angle, these problems are problems for movie making in general. This is why people are happy when any movie gets made with a good script.

Anny Mouse: How about a post on your favorite element (like on the periodic table)???

Well, my favorite is oxygen, actually, since I would be dead in ten minutes without it. I’m also a big fan of hydrogen and carbon, since along with oxygen I’m mostly made of that stuff. But what tips it to oxygen is that it’s kind of a psychotic element: essential for life, yet the element is corrosive and causes all sorts of destruction through rust and combustion and what have you. It’s like the lover you can’t do without, but who you always worry is going to stab you while you sleep. I like that in an element (not so much in actual, real-life lovers, however).

Jeff C.: What are your thoughts on the direction the Wheel of Time series has taken since Robert Jordan has died? I would appreciate any comments you have on Brandon Sanderson in relation to his authorship of the 12th book; or of Universal’s acquisition of the rights to make movies of the series, or of the Dabel Brothers announced graphic novel renditions of the series.

I’m personally not a huge fan of the series and never have been; that said, I think Brandon Sanderson is an excellent choice to finish the series, because he is a fan (and thus wants to see it finish well) and he has the writing chops to make all the other fans happy. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather see finish the series, personally. As toward Universal and Dabel: Well, we’ll see, won’t we. I have nothing bad to say about either idea, but as with so many things, execution matters.

Dave Garrett: I am curious about the new Watchmen movie coming in I believe February 2009. Do you see it becoming a smash hit or just so-so?

Unless it is a genuine debacle, and it doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction, it’ll do $100 million domestic without a problem. The real question is whether it makes it to $200 million or beyond, and that depends on several factors, including length, critical reception, movie rating, fan reception (and repeat business), weather and whether audiences in general have superhero fatigue by the point or not. Remember that masses of fanboys aside, the Watchmen (the characters) are not actually well-known, and Watchmen (the movie) has to trade on the interest in and affection for the superhero genre in general.

Swampmaster: Isaac Asimov. He is one of my all-time favorite SF authors (I think his books introduced me to the genre). You often mention Heinlein (which I barely knew before I started reading you, but will be looking forward to reading now) and sometimes Bradbury, but I don’t think I ever saw you comment Asimov’s work. I’m curious to have your take on it.

Generally I like Asimov’s work quite a bit and fully acknowledge its (and his) importance to the genre, but speaking from a writerly point of view I don’t find his fiction writing skills hugely impressive. He is probably one of the best examples of a “classic” sort of SF storytelling that is heavy on very cool ideas but weak on things like character development — his writing is a vehicle to tell the story rather than adding to the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with it (I lean more toward that direction of things myself, after all), but on balance I wish there was more there there when it came to the writing itself. Asimov’s non-fiction, on the other hand, I think is great. Clear, easy-to-read, and full of information. I know a lot of SF fans were sad there’s a hole in Asimov’s fiction writing career where he largely decided to write nonfic full-time, but personally speaking I’m not complaining.

EricH: Oh great and masterful alpha fan – I attended a panel at the last Balticon that bemoaned the death of the Fanzine. The panelist to audience ratio was aprox. 1:1. Is the fanzine dead?

No, although I think as time goes on they’ll go online more than they already are and to some respects will become indistinguishable from blogs in terms of formatting. Fanzines were a good and simple way for fans to talk to each other about the genre they loved; these days there are simpler ways that reach larger audiences, and that poses challenges for the format. But the fundamental impulse that created fanzines in the first place — a love of SF and the desire to communicate about it — isn’t going away. The format may change, but fanzines one way or another will stick.

Range: Your perspective on microwaveable bacon.

That’s just sick.

Fiona: Obama and McCain veep choices—how much does a veep choice matter today compared with 50 yrs ago and who would be your choice of veep if you were running for president?

Since I don’t really think about being president I don’t really have my VP pick top of mind, so I can’t help you there. As for how important the VP is, I think it’s become more important since Clinton and Bush divested quite a lot of responsibility to their VPs, which is historically unusual, and in the case of Cheney somewhat problematic, but which has become a template since. So I expect whomever McCain or Obama pick will want to have a significant portfolio of their own. As to whom the two men will pick, I don’t know, although at this point I wouldn’t in fact be entirely surprised if they went to their primary rivals, specifically Clinton and Romney. We’ll know soon enough.

Thanks, everyone!

20 thoughts on “Topics Not Generally Relating to Me, Part Two

  1. Just a question: Why is Watchmen a lock for $100 million. It seems to have a lot going against it. A February release, unknown superheroes, no big stars. I would expect it to have a fate more like Hellboy II and have a big opening weekend but never top $100 million. Of course, there’s a significant chance that the movie will be awesome. In which case, the sky is the limit. I would be very surprised to see it end up between $100 million and $200 million.

  2. Skiffy flicks: there’s also the fact that skiffy is regarded as “risky,” so the studios, all too often, decide to go cheap on writers and (sometimes) actors, and the resultant dreck is cited as further evidence that skiffy is risky.

    Elements: My favorite element is probably Earth. Oh, wait, you said on the periodic table. Hey, teach the controversy! But seriously…oxygen fan here, like John.

    Asimov: Nice, succinct description of what’s good and bad about him, John. The more I got into language, the less I liked Asimov…though his story “The Ugly Little Boy” still makes me cry, to cite just one example.

    Veep Choice: I’d go with Gandalf, or John Crichton. Yes, they’re fictional, but no more so than the idea that I’d be the Presidential nominee of a major party!

  3. Asimov: I can certainly understand when you say Asimov’s writing isn’t the most extravagant. He indeed does use it simply as a vehicle for the story he is telling. About character development though, I just can’t agree: a lot of Asimov’s characters have deep and complex characters. One of the things that fascinates me in his work is how he uses the psychology and motivation of his characters in his stories. From Bailey’s agoraphobia and distrust of robots to the implications of the three laws in the thought processes of robots, by way of Calvin’s relationship to robots vs. humans, I think Asimov develops his characters’ personalities quite a bit. But heh, opinions.

  4. One issue with skiffy flick scripts is that they tend to have a big line-item for special effects in the budget, which makes it difficult for a scriptwriter to come up with a great script and just get it filmed.

  5. Personally, I’m a huge carbon fan. In elemental or hydrogen bonded form, it has such wildly different properties depending on physical structure… In oxygen bonded form its an essential part of respiration AND keeps planets toasty (yes, even if we’re getting too much warming right now, we’d be sorrier if it was gone entirely).

    Nanostructured carbon, going forward, is our most promising stuff for everything from massively strong and light structural elements (like enough to build a space elevator), to super-effective lubricants, to even weirder stuff like semi- and super- conductors AND highly effective insulators.

    It’s like the swiss army knife Leatherman Tool of elements.

  6. Remember that masses of fanboys aside, the Watchmen (the characters) are not actually well-known, and Watchmen (the movie) has to trade on the interest in and affection for the superhero genre in general.

    This is exactly what happened to me recently after I saw The Dark Knight. The trailer for Watchmen played, the friend I went with was agog with glee, and I was sitting there thinking, “Hmm, that looks sort of cool, but I don’t seem to quite get it.” I honestly felt like the only geek who isn’t foaming at the mouth about this movie, because up until I read the hullabaloo about the trailer, I’d never heard of the graphic novel. If a geek like me has a hard time mustering enthusiasm for the film, it’s going to be VERY hard to get the general public to go. It may need a trailer that gives the non-fans something to look forward to other than fancy special effects.

    As an example, my mother knows very little about comic books/superheroes aside from the big ones. She wasn’t even really aware of Iron Man until I showed her the second trailer for the movie, but after seeing that she said, “If you can’t get someone else to see that movie, I’ll go!” I took her for a Mother’s Day present, and she absolutely loved it. The Watchmen needs to be able to get that kind of response from the non-fans to be a commercial success in theatres.

  7. That’s about what I expected. And I tend to agree. Though a part of me thought you might say, “there’s no bad bacon, only better bacon.”

  8. I’m confused.

    Microwavable bacon? Isn’t all bacon microwavable, in a pinch? I know I have. It’s not as good as pan fried, but it’ll do.

  9. The question about Asimov makes me wonder the following:

    How do you feel about Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc.

    Which leads to another question:

    who were your favorites other than Heinlein (making an assumption here) during your youth back when you were easily influenced (another assumption here) ?

    I recall reading LSprague De Camp, Norman Spinrad, the previously mentioned authors in this post, Eric Frank Russell, Alexsei Panshin, Keith Laumer, John Brunner, Frederick Brown, EE Doc Smith, CJ Cherryh, and Tanith Lee

  10. Judging from the trailer, the Watchmen movie looks spectacular. I wish it all the best but I have no idea if it will succeed or not. On the plus side, it has a great story that works almost as well today as it did when it was written, interesting, multidimensional characters and what looks like an excellent production team. On the minus side, most people don’t know the characters or the setting, there are very few “good guys”, and it has an extremely grim conclusion. It’ll be interesting how it’s received by the moviegoing audience.

  11. re: Asimov and characterization, the man himself commented on (the lack of) it in his works. I seem to remember Asimov once joking that he was too lazy to write that many words, but I can’t find a cite.

  12. I think that, aside from nonfiction, Asimov really shone as a short-story writer, where his virtues were most apparent–an SF short story can be (though it does not have to be) mostly plot and ideas, with characters and settings roughed in with broad strokes.

    His novels were never quite as good, nor were the longish pieces that were collected as the Foundation Trilogy.

    But Asimov’s short stories were a huge part of my personal childhood introduction to science fiction, which might be biasing me. I read Heinlein’s “The Rolling Stones” and loved it dearly, but for some reason I can’t explain, I didn’t seek out other Heinlein juvies to any great degree, whereas I was hooked on Asimov story collections. I think there was something about Asimov’s unornamented, professorial, rationalistic style that my fourth-grade self found comforting, though as writing it doesn’t stir the blood.

  13. Regular bacon cooked in the microwave is just fine. That’s how my mom always made it when I was a kid, and I still like it that way as much as any other way. I mean, it’s bacon.

  14. All bacon is microwavable, I think… I know I do that when I don’t have time to cook it in a pan.

    Pan cooked > microwave, though. But isn’t that always the case?

  15. I’ve got a feeling that Watchmen’s curve is going to be hourglass shaped. All the geeks will go see it right away, then it’ll taper off until word of mouth and critical praise gets around and Joe Sixpack goes along to see what the fuss is about. Assuming it actually is a really good film, of course – with Mr.300 at the helm there’s an equal chance it could be meh.

    What I want to know is whether the Max Payne flick will be any good. The writer’s good, the actors are all solid choices, the trailer looks good, but the source material is unflinchingly poker-faced self-parody and the director’s a steadily mediocre Hollywood jobber who’s never done anything good, per se.

    Also, what about grilled bacon?

  16. How does it feel to be a vitually recognized authority on bacon?

    The only thing more sick, wrong, and all around disgusting than microwaveable bacon (the kind you buy in the store expressly for said purpose) – is microwaveable eggs.

    EW. *shudder*

  17. Two quibbles: just as much money can be spent on scripts for a genre film as for a non-genre, big budget film. Since the development process keeps rafts of executives and producers employed, a lot of money has to be wasted there so they can keep their houses.

    Also, genre films aren’t bad because the studios can’t afford a good script. A good script can cost nothing. How much you spend is never indicative of the quality of the material. The problem with genre films has more to do with a lack of point of view. Most of these big action/sci-fi films have layers of producers and executives. If you have eighty people weighing in equally on the script, it detracts from the point of view of the film and makes the whole thing generic. Sci-fi is generally a niche market but a sci-fi movie can’t be. It has to appeal to a much broader base. World-building doesn’t work when you have a buncha people with different agendas and ideas giving notes.

  18. More good SF would get made if there were more directors/producers with the power, guts and vision — and proven box office credentials — of a Ridley Scott. It’s interesting to note that Phil Dick’s stuff is “high concept” and therefore attractive to movie makers. Blade Runner and in a very different vein A Scanner Darkly are both worthy companions to the novels. Total Recall not so much, mainly due to Arnie’s production clout, I reckon.
    Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is another that seems true to the genre. Of course, these days Gilliam’s name induces fear and trembling among studio execs, and it’s a shame he just doesn’t know where or when to stop.

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