Archive for Rambling

My Problem With Graphic Novels (Part 2 of 2)

The following is part two of a two-part piece on graphic novels. It contains spoilers for several graphic novel series… serieses… whatever. The most recent one is Buffy Season 8, but many older ones are included as well. Read at your own risk.


Death reflects upon the death of Dream. Click to enlarge.

Now, let’s move on from action to emotional turmoil. While I will say that many artists are more than capable of giving us a character’s full emotional range via posture and facial expression, somehow I just don’t get the same emotional impact when I read it in a graphic novel as when I see it on TV or read it in a book. In fact, the only time I was truly moved by something I read in a graphic novel was in The Wake, the tenth and final collection of the original Vertigo run of Sandman. In it*, we hear Dream’s siblings pay tribute to him. Perhaps because I’ve always loved Death**, when she talked about Dream I actually was brought nearly to tears.

Compare that to other graphic novels I’ve read:

  • V for Vendetta — I wasn’t really moved by Valerie’s story. Maybe because I’d already seen it done in the film (which I saw first). But I know I was supposed to be touched by it, and even now when I see certain things on TV or read them in books I’m again touched by them. It just didn’t compute.
  • Watchmen — There’s a lot of sadness and betrayal in these books, and I think I was really supposed to feel for Dr. Manhattan when he retreats to Mars to figure out things between himself and Laurie. Didn’t happen.
  • Star Trek TNG: The Worst of Both Worlds — I’ll admit that I read this when I was young and stupid, but I totally missed out on all the painful subplots between Data and Geordi, and all the stuff that went on with O’Brien.
  • Star Trek: Mirror Universe — Published just after Star Trek III was released, these books are an alternate to the whole thing with the whales. I will say that I enjoyed the action sequences, and definitely felt the moment of triumph as Kirk takes the Excelsior from Styles, but the scene where Kirk reunites with Mirror-David just didn’t resonate.

That whole sequence is leading me up to what I really wanted to talk about, and here’s where the spoilers come in.

The death of Giles. (Click to enlarge.)

In issue 39 of Buffy Season 8, Angel kills Giles.

I remember reading about this — perhaps on IO9; I checked their archives but couldn’t find the original article — and I believe I saw some things about how unceremoniously it was done. Now, I know that Whedon is all about the killing of characters with no warning, but there’s a big difference between “I am a leaf on the wind” and Anya getting chopped in half and left for dead. I’m not saying that I disagree with the writing choice, or with Whedon for killing the character, but I have issue with the way it was done.

I already rewrote one of the scenes from Season 8 in text, and I’m not going to rewrite this one too, but let’s imagine if this had happened on screen. In fact, let’s contrast it with another famous Buffy death: Tara’s. With Tara’s death, we had reaction, we had plot movement (Willow becomes Dark Willow), we had a moment for them to be together, one last time. Very visual and visceral, very much a film thing. In the comic, Angel — possessed by the villain/universe spirit called Twilight — simply kills Giles. Now, right afterward, Buffy does kick him through a wall or something, but I just didn’t get the same emotional impact as I have with other big deaths — Data in Nemesis, Dax in Deep Space Nine, George in Grey’s Anatomy, Bobby in Supernatural***. To me it just didn’t seem real.

Some of that might come from what’s been hammered into my head about canon vs non-canon for so long: for years, stuff in comics and books hasn’t really been considered canon when held up alongside television or film properties. Star Trek specifically comes to mind. But Season 8 is canon, and this particular series of issues was written by Joss Whedon — the equivalent of Shonda Rhimes penning a 300-page Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice novel and releasing it in the summer between seasons. When Giles died, it counted.

But in my head, it wasn’t the same.

Lest you think I’m only about the Vampire Slayers****, I also recently read the first volume of Kick-Ass. Comparing the death scenes of Big Daddy in film and comic form, I have to side with the film yet again.

Now, let me say this: I have been moved by things happening in comics, but only in one medium. That medium is webcomics. Could it be because I only knew the characters in that format? Could I be so thrilled that Ozy’s dad and Millie’s mom finally got together because I’d spent years with these characters? Could I be so devastated by Faye’s death in Something Positive that even rereading the “Just Today” strips still makes me cry because, for years before, I’d gotten to know them as comic characters?

Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t really know.

But I do know this: I have a problem with graphic novels. Especially ones that are alongside other forms of media, as tie-ins or sequels, but even if there isn’t a tie-in (when I first read Watchmen, the film wasn’t even in production) a lot of the emotional nuance still misses me completely. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to use my imagination as much (since there’s visual art to compensate for that). Maybe it’s because I expect to see the characters in a different light and it just doesn’t seem real to me when I experience them in graphic novel form. Or, hell, maybe I’m just one of those people who doesn’t get the same satisfaction out of comics that I do out of video, audio, or straight-up textual media.

This doesn't even come CLOSE to what I imagined when I read the novelization of Superman's death.

I’m not saying “don’t read comics”; I think they have a lot to offer. But for someone like me, someone for whom the words are the most important thing, I’d rather skip them and wait until they’re novelized. I got so much more out of The Death and Life of Superman when it was novelized by Roger Stern than I ever would have out of reading it in serialized issue format, or even as a graphic novel. Comics just don’t engage my brain enough, because they give me too much information. They show me the pictures, instead of letting me create them myself.

And, really, that’s what I want.


* I haven’t read this one in a while, so I’m going on memory. Forgive my lapses.

** She sits on my desk. She’s always the last to be packed up and the first to be set out whenever I get a new job. Here she is.

*** As awesome as Bobby’s final word was — “Idjits!” — do we have to see it in every single “Then” segment before the show starts? Talk about over-trading on your emotional moments…

**** Okay, okay, I’ve been on a Buffy kick lately, I admit it. But it’s like a person who’s never bothered to try pork suddenly discovering the existence of bacon — even six months later, you’re still ecstatic over the awesomeness of its every aspect. Yeah, that’s right, I just compared Buffy the Vampire Slayer to bacon. Deal with it.

My Problem With Graphic Novels (Part 1 of 2)

The following is part one of a two-part piece on graphic novels. It contains spoilers for several graphic novel series… serieses… whatever. The most recent one is Buffy Season 8, but many older ones are included as well. Read at your own risk.


The cover for the Star Trek: Mirror Universe graphic novel.

I have a problem with graphic novels.

When I was a kid, I read a lot of comics — some superhero stuff, some Archie stuff, whatever looked cool at the comic shop, and of course a bit of Star Trek because, you know, it’s me. Later, as comics started to cost more and more*, I got out of the habit of reading them. I’d pick up an occasional collection, such as the Star Trek Mirror Universe saga, or I’d get a multi-issue run such as “The Worst of Both Worlds”, but for the most part… no more comics for me. I was too busy spending my pocket money on books.

I preferred books. Books were $6 (for a mass-market paperback), and they had hundreds of pages, and if there were no pictures… well… that was fine with me, because I could use my imagination. I could fill in the visual blanks using cover images and my own experiences**. And books took longer to read, too — a 350-page novel would last me a week or two, whereas a 32-page comic book took all of fifteen minutes to read.

Now, a lot of my friends who are comic readers say it’s not just about the story. They tell me the art is important. And yeah, they’re right, the art is important. But not to me.

Let me explain.

I'm specifically referring to the top-right panel. (Click to enlarge.)

When I read a graphic novel, I rarely notice the nuances of the artwork. I’m far more interested in reading the story and finding out what happens next. Often that does happen via artwork, especially in sequences void of dialogue or narration. But for the most part, there’s text. As a short-story/novella writer, what I care about is the storyline. While I totally appreciate great artwork, if it’s just there as a reaction shot, I’m less appreciative.

Let’s take a panel from “Twilight, Part 1”***, issue 32 of Buffy Season 8, written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Georges Jeanty, Andy Owens, and Michelle Madsen****. Specifically, the panel that references the iconic scene in Superman where Lois says “You’ve got me? But who’s got you?” At this point in the story, Buffy has gained superpowers and she and Xander are trying to figure out just how powerful she is. At the bottom of a cliff in Tibet, Buffy throws Xander into the air as he calls back to that line, then zips to the top of the cliff to catch him. The panel itself depicts the cliff, a temple at the top where Oz lives, and Xander in the sky with “YOOOOOOoooooooooou?!” breaking vertically out of his word bubble.

Yeah. Really.

Maybe that sort of thing works for some people, but for me it was just silly. For me, I might have better appreciated something like this:

Without warning, Xander jumped into Buffy’s arms. He recognized the mischievous look in her eye and, honestly, it worried him a little bit.

More than a little bit.

“What are you doing?” she asked him, smiling.

Xander didn’t really like the smile — he had a sinking feeling she was going to do something Slayer-like. But he’d committed to the part, and he had to say the line now. “You’ve got me?” he quoted. “Then who’s got you–!”

The last word was a howl as Buffy flung him into the air. He watched the cliff go past, then Oz’s temple — was someone waving at him? — then the treetops, and then he was more stories up than he’d care to count.

As his ascent slowed, something from Geometry class popped into the back of Xander’s mind. Something about parabolas.

He stopped rising.

He started falling.

Well, he thought, at this point, screaming will do me absolutely no good.

He screamed anyway.

The ground was looking awfully close.

And so was Buffy. Who caught him easily in her arms, bounced a little, and smiled. “Hat trick,” she said.

Now, to me that’s got far more impact than actually seeing it happen on the page. Maybe if Season 8 had been televised, and they’d done this on screen, I would’ve appreciated the visual impact, but to my mind action sequences really don’t work in comic form. Plus they have all those Adam West-era Batman sound effects. Like my personal favorite, KPOK!, which some Klingon somewhere will someday read and be pretty ticked off about the misuse of his name.

Admittedly, writing action sequences can be tough; I’ve struggled with fight scenes from time to time — I recently wrote one about two martial artists trying to see who’s better, and I inevitably found myself getting sucked into the witty dialogue at the expense of the ass-kicking — but they can be done well. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s latest Anita novel, Hit List (click the link for my review), I mentioned that the action sequences were well-written and well-paced. Sean McMullen pulls it off admirably in the battle sequences in his Moonworlds saga. And of course we’ve heard it on the various Escape Artists casts — anyone remember the squid combat of Ferrett Steinmetz’s “As Below, So Above”? But when you’re writing an action sequence, you only have to concentrate on transcribing what you see in your mind. When you’re writing the action sequence in a graphic novel (or comic), you have to pick specific points in the action to depict.

I don’t want to see specific points. I want to see the whole thing. And, for me, comics just can’t pull it off.

A battle between the Rebels and the Death Star. Even in 1977, it looked better on film.

Plus, action sequences in comics are sometimes… well… boring. Who needs to see two or three pages of your main characters fighting each other? There’s no story there. There’s no real advancement of the plot. Maybe there’s some “scuffling for the superweapon-of-doom” that you might also see on TV when the good guy kicks the bad guy’s gun away but then has to get to it in order to kill the bad guy… but otherwise, to me it’s just meh. If I’m watching a fight scene on TV or in a movie, it’s maybe two minutes of moves before the plot moves along and someone wins. Occasionally it goes longer — especially if it’s a Boss Fight, or we’re seeing a space battle. But jeez… compared to the video version of a space battle, even if you’re only watching it on a four-inch phone screen, a comic just can’t stand up to that kind of action. You can just do so much more.

I realize it’s a limitation of the medium, one that the artists and writers work valiantly to overcome, but really… there’s a lot more to Kirk blasting the Reliant than a bright orange line and the words ZZZZZAP!!! in bold, colorful letters somewhere on the panel.


In the second part of this article, I will move from action sequences and general discussion about art to the way comics make me feel… or don’t.


* I picked up some older comics to read on my iPad, and all the covers say $2.99. That’s for a 32-page book. My friend Chrome, who reads a lot more comics than I do, says prices these days are still the same, but that some books go up to $4.99. Too rich for my blood.

** Someone remind me later to write an article about how we perceive fictional characters we’ve never seen before. I’m on a roll right now and can’t stop to make notes.

*** The episode is rather-cleverly subtitled “Buffy Has F#©$ing Superpowers”. It’s one of the best issues in the entire run of the comic.

**** Letterers: Richard Starkings and Albert Deschesne. Never let it be said that I don’t credit everyone.

“The Gift” of Choice… Unless You’re a Borg

When Star Trek: Voyager first aired in Orlando, where I was living during most of its run, it was on the local UPN affiliate, which also was the flagship television station for the Orlando Magic. As a result, I missed a lot of episodes, especially starting in 1996 (season three). Now, thanks to Netflix, I’m catching up on them, watching one or two a night before I go to bed.

I’ve just gotten to Season Four, which is when Seven of Nine joins the crew. And, at the time of this writing, I’ve just watched “The Gift”, episode two of that season and Jennifer Lien’s final appearance as a series regular. (She played Kes, in case the name is unfamiliar.)

I remember seeing “The Gift” in 1997 and thinking, “wow, that was a pretty decent episode. Janeway stuck to her guns and saved this woman from life as a Borg, who had brainwashed her into thinking she belonged with them. I can totally draw parallels to other fiction I have read/seen/enjoyed.”

Yeah. Fourteen years later, not so much.

To recap, “The Gift” begins shortly after Voyager and the Borg work together to defeat Species 8472, who are so powerful and so alien that even the Borg cannot assimilate them. At the end of the previous episode, the Borg liaison, Seven of Nine, attempted to assimilate the ship and crew, but was stopped thanks to a little foresight on the part of Janeway and company. They disconnected her from the Borg and planned to rehabilitate her as a human.

Seven of Nine, still a Borg.

The problem is this: Seven doesn’t want to be human. She wants to be a Borg. It’s all she’s ever known.

My 1997 self watched Janeway try to break through Seven’s shell and convince her that the Borg had damaged her, taken her away from her humanity and turned her into something she should never have been. I thought it was a noble effort, and at the end, during the “let’s show off the sexy new crewmember” scene, I figured that Janeway had broken through to Seven and convinced her she should be a human now.

And everyone goes home happy.

But my 2011 self doesn’t see it that way.

Throughout the entire episode, Seven made it very clear that she was a Borg, that she wanted to remain a Borg, and that she wanted to be returned to her people — the Borg, not humanity.

Janeway pretty much ignored that at every turn.

In Act One, when Seven is woken up to be told that her human immune systems are going to make her body reject her Borg implants, she tells Janeway she wants a subspace transceiver (probably something they can replicate quickly) and to be left on a habitable planet to await pickup by her people. Janeway, despite Seven’s loud and very clear protestations, says no.

Act Two is mostly about Kes’s growing telepathic abilities*, but is notable for Janeway saying that she believes Seven isn’t capable of making rational decisions for herself, so as ship’s captain Janeway is going to do it. Very alarming, and the expression on Janeway’s face echoes some of the expressions I’ve seen on television talking heads claiming that they want to remove choice to protect a group they don’t think can protect themselves. Case in point: the “opt-in to see adult websites” list coming soon to the U.K.. I was quite disturbed at this whole exchange, and the fact that the Doctor — a technological being himself, albeit one who Janeway continues to fight for the existence of — didn’t say anything. I could tell from his face that he wanted to, and Robert Picardo played the scene wonderfully.

Seven regards her newly-human parts.

In Act Three, Seven wakes up from surgery to find that she’s becoming more human, and that the Doctor has performed medical procedures to make sure this doesn’t kill her. She argues with Janeway, who again disregards Seven’s desire to remain a Borg and to return to her people, and then agrees to help Voyager remove some of the Borg technology she installed because… well… she’s stuck here.

But then she sees a subspace transceiver in a Jefferies Tube and makes an attempt to escape what, to her, is an untenable situation. She doesn’t try to destroy the ship; she doesn’t try to assimilate anyone. All she does is try to signal her people so they can rescue her from captivity — and how many episodes of Voyager did that happen in over the past three years? Kes’s new telepathic abilities assist the crew in stopping Seven, and the Borg is sent to the brig.

Act Four, however, is the worst of it. Seven is now in the brig, and Janeway tells her she’s met other Borg who were de-assimilated, and they all came to accept their new situation. She does make reference to the fact that Seven was assimilated while still a child, so she doesn’t have as many memories of being a human. Seven considers Janeway’s argument and, once again, says she would rather remain a Borg, that she doesn’t wish to become human, and that Janeway herself is removing from Seven the fundamental right of choosing her own destiny.

In Act Five, one really hopes that Janeway gets the idea. Seven — a Borg, a member of a species who isn’t supposed to show emotion, who is programmed not to show emotion — actually breaks down in tears and expresses her distaste at being forced to live as an individual, without the voices of the collective. Now, remember, only a few episodes ago Chakotay worked with some ex-Borg who formed their own collective and used it to serve the greater good — including saving his life. He knows what it feels like to be part of a group like that, and how beneficial it can be. But even he doesn’t stand up to Janeway and make her at least consider that she’s making a mistake. No, all that happens is we set up this series’s Picard/Data dynamic: Janeway tutoring Seven in humanity, the source of many, many heavy-handed episodes to come.

Seven, as human as she gets.Finally, in Act Six, as I said earlier, we end up seeing that Seven has come to terms with being a human. So, in the end, Janeway’s actions — which today I see at the very least as being misguided and at worst reprehensible (I believe all people should have a choice, as long as they harm no one else in making that choice) — turn out to be “right”. I did feel like another scene, where Seven maybe decompresses with the Doctor while getting her new eye put in or something, would’ve been very helpful in bridging the gap from tearful Borg to stoic-and-somewhat-willing human. Oh well. Janeway gets away with it again, and we warp on home.

It’s amazing just how much 14 years can change a person’s impression of a piece of art. What was a noble gesture in 1997 is now something to be viewed with suspicion, and it’s going to color every interaction Janeway has with Seven over the rest of the series. I realize that, over time, Seven comes to accept her humanity, and I realize that the chord being struck was supposed to be “kidnapped child is raised by the ‘evil’ parents, comes to love them, and is returned to her ‘real’ parents but doesn’t want to go because she loves the ‘evil’ ones”. It’s just… Seven wasn’t a child when she was turned back into a human. She was in her twenties. She had the ability to make the choice for herself.

She chose Borg. Janeway took her choice away. Not an action worthy of Star Trek, I should think.


* I was also not very impressed with the way Kes suddenly jumped in power from “some telepathic stuff” to “uber-telepathic being”. That should’ve been handled more smoothly, and over a somewhat-longer arc. As with the Seven storyline, it felt like there was a big jump in the middle. And Jennifer Lien’s 80s hair did not help matters much — she was much more believable with the short hair than the feathered ‘do.

Speculative Fiction and Engagement Marketing

I think it’s fair to say that speculative fiction has been hitting the “convincing people to vote for stuff using futuristic means” trope for a few decades now. From stories about voting how to kill people (or whether or not they should be killed) to more contemporary pieces about putting oneself up on the internet and taking votes and commentary on one’s entire day, the very concept isn’t exactly new.

However, as often happens, reality is outstripping fiction at an alarming rate. How long can you go without someone on your Twitter stream or in your Facebook friends list asking you to click something, retweet something, or vote for something?

The real question is: how often do you actually do it?

I VotedCase in point: about a week ago, I submitted an entry to the American Gods contest, whereby regular people like you and me can audition for a role in an upcoming audio version of the book. (If you’d like to hear my entry, here it is.) The first round is open to anyone, and the winners of that round must garner the most votes from friends, family, and other folks they can convince either of (a) their narrative awesomeness or (b) their vote-worthiness. The 20 top vote-getters move on to round two, which I believe means that Neil Gaiman himself listens to their auditions and selects an indeterminate number of winners to actually appear in the publication.

One might think that, with my nearly-300 Twitter followers and 430-ish Facebook friends, I’d have at least 100 votes by now.

As of this writing, I have 23. I’m about 310 votes behind the #20 person (according to the 4/20/11 leaderboard). The odds of me overcoming that deficit aren’t all that great unless I manage to get retweeted by someone with about 10,000 followers*. I mean, my mom can only vote once a day, and the first round ends May 2.

So why isn’t this working like it does in fiction? Why can’t I just blast out a message and have people flocking to my URL to log in?

Let’s look at engagement marketing (what people sometimes call “viral marketing”). Engagement marketing is the concept of getting people to participate in the marketing of a brand. Thing is, I don’t really have a brand. If you’ve read my fiction or heard me perform an audio story, or you enjoy my articles and reviews here on the Escape Pod blog, you may have some passing knowledge of who I am**. Otherwise, my personal brand, as far as you know, is just this guy asking for you to vote for him.

Sometimes that’s enough — every now and then a co-worker says “oh, by the way, I voted for you”. To them, my personal brand is “the guy who gets the work done fastest and most accurately”, and I’m trading on that as hard as I can. I can engage my co-workers using that brand. But beyond that, yeah… just “that guy”.

There are more than six billion “that guy”s*** on the planet. “That guy” simply isn’t enough.

And that, I think, is one of the major reason people don’t vote for their friends or people they see posting calls to action on Facebook and Twitter. There’s just not enough engagement.

On a macro scale, my day job is in digital advertising, and I see this a lot: companies ask potential customers to engage with their brand by liking them on Facebook. The thing is, more and more articles like this one are saying that that doesn’t really create brand engagement. I mean, I like plenty of things, but I don’t Like them on Facebook because, to be honest, all a Like means to me is more spam in my feed. There’s no value.

Just like there’s really no value to being “that guy” and asking someone to vote for you for some random contest. I don’t bring anything to the table for you, and you don’t benefit. I’m not going to give you money or free gifts for voting. You’d be doing it out of the goodness of your heart.

Some social media short-stories (including one I can’t remember the title of right now, but may have been by LaShawn Wanak) focus on people who do have something else that benefits the voter. And of course there are those stories that are about sex, where sex is the benefit — seeing it, experiencing it, etc.

Much to my regret, I am not sexy and cannot offer that as a benefit.

While speculative fiction gets a lot of things right, I believe that “getting people to vote for stuff” trope will continue to live on in the fictional realm. As we become more and more social online, the concept of engagement marketing will continue to evolve, and if Moore’s Law is any sort of a predictor, the concept of clicking the Like button being what marketers consider the be-all and end-all of brand engagement will fall by the wayside****.

But because it won’t actually have happened, the stories will continue to be written. And I’ll keep on reading them.

* Posit 23 individual votes out of 700 friends/followers = 3%. To get 300 more votes, I divided 300 by .03 and came up with 10,000 people being exposed to my message. I’m sure my math isn’t accurate, so please don’t call me on it. I’m just spitballing. And that’s kind of a disgusting phrase, if you think about it.

** And if you’ve heard how effusive Tony C. Smith is in his praise on Starship Sofa, my name might stick a little more. Every time he introduces me, I blush a little — I’ve never been good at taking compliments.

*** For the purposes of this example, a girl can be “that guy” too.

**** So, how did I do? Did I successfully camouflage a “please vote for me” message in a piece about speculative fiction and present-day marketing? Did my brand engage you enough to get you to cast a vote? Or am I going to have to write an article about site registrations and barriers to entry? Because I totally can. Don’t think I can’t. Hey, maybe that’s my next story idea — vote for me to prevent me from doing something. Might be something to that…

It can’t beam me up. Yet.

About a month ago, a mishap at the gym resulted in my iPhone being broken beyond repair. I was out of contract, so the field was wide open, and after some short deliberations I decided on a HTC Evo. My justifications were this:

  1. Everything I did via jailbreak on my iPhone is done natively on the Evo.
  2. If I buy an iPhone 4 now, I’m going to be kicking myself when the iPhone 5 (or iPhone 4S) is announced in April, or May, or whenever His Steveness decides it’s time to drum up media support again.
  3. My company offered a pretty deep discount on accessories and plans if I chose the Evo over, say, the Droid or iPhone.

I’m pretty happy with my purchase. My phone does… well… almost everything a Star Trek communicator* can do. And more besides.


Communicator: Calls the ship, or other people in the landing party, at the touch of a button. Just say what you want. With the appropriate relays (ships, subspace substations, etc), you can call anyone. However, if you really want to talk to someone on Dytallix-B, you have to be on the ship and using a more powerful comm system.
Evo: Calls anyone I want. I can use voice-dial if I really want to, but I don’t. I still type in the phone numbers or pick people off the contact list. But I can call anyone in the world (since we haven’t gotten to the rest of the galaxy yet, I’m going with world here) via direct-dial, as long as I’m willing to pay roaming charges.
Advantage: Evo


Communicator: Attached to a Starfleet Officer’s shirt, a commbadge can be easily removed or even knocked away. They’re relatively hard to destroy just by dropping or stomping upon, but you can certainly lose it pretty easily. At least you can just get a new one from ship’s stores without having to worry about your contract, or who your carrier is.
Evo: If I drop the Evo, it’ll probably break (I have a case, but it’s not a hard case; it just protects the glass screen and camera). If I stomp on the Evo, it’ll probably break. But unless I’m really careless, it won’t fall out of my pocket or get lost if a giant alien throws me through the wall. Plus, no one knows I have it unless it rings in my pocket.
Advantage: Tie


Communicator: The only sounds it makes are: nothing (when it’s dead), a repeated busy-signal-like bipping when it’s jammed, or the high-pitched squiggly noise of a connection being opened. I’m not sure how to change the ringtones, or how to set it on silent, and if your mom calls while you’re in the middle of delicate treaty negotiations to ask if you can pick up some more Astro-roid Cream, there’s no ignore function.
Evo: Unlimited (except by SD card space) ringtones and messaging tones, an ignore button, easily drops to silent mode, and voicemail. Plus, if an agent of the Tal Shiar is approaching, you can hide it and set it on silent with a couple of touches. Or call for someone to beam you up. Either way.
Advantage: Evo

Non-Verbal Communication:

Communicator: I don’t think they have Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare in the 24th Century, but maybe it’s just because communicators can’t handle text updates. You could use your tricorder, but who wants to carry around multiple devices? And texting? Sometimes Ensign D’Sora doesn’t need to call Worf to tell him that the new torpedo launcher is ready, but if Worf wants to get the message she keyed into the console, he can’t do it on his commbadge, now can he?
Evo: If there’s a form of texting or social communication that this thing can’t do, I haven’t found it yet. And when my wife texts to let me know she’s ten minutes away, so put on my shoes and we’ll go out to eat, I don’t have to log into my computer to get the message.
Advantage: Evo


Communicator: Okay, look, I know it’s part of a uniform and you really don’t get a choice (unless you’re Captain Picard and you like wearing a gray shirt with a red jacket). But if you want an official Starfleet communicator, it has to look like everyone else’s. Sounds kind of iPhone-y, doesn’t it?
Evo: While all Evos also look the same, there’s a myriad of cases you can use to personalize the device. You can also change the wallpaper, install any apps you like, and even reprogram the device to behave in ways the creators certainly didn’t intend. Even if your company says “welcome aboard. Here’s an Evo. It’s your official work phone,” you can still go to Amazon or wherever and buy a cool case, or an extended battery, or one of those little cellphone fob thingies, or a Bluetooth headset.
Advantage: Evo


Communicator: That little thing’s got a pretty powerful speaker on it, and you can’t really adjust the volume (unless there’s a dial I’m not seeing, or a voice command no one’s used). When you’re on it, everyone knows you’re on it. At least it’s not a Zach Morris communicator (which is probably so big you have to strap it to your chest with a harness).
Evo: Incoming calls are heard through the device, or a headset of your choosing. It also has a fairly loud speakerphone, but you don’t have to use it to take calls.
Advantage: Evo

Battery Life:

Communicator: Pretty much infinite, as far as I know. I’ve never seen one die due to lack of battery power.
Evo: Mine runs out by 2pm. I have chargers everywhere, and a few spare batteries. If I want a stronger battery, I have to buy one.
Advantage: Communicator


Communicator: None. Well, except for voice commands, but I think you have to tell your shuttlecraft that you want to use voice control beforehand. You can’t take pictures or video, you can’t use it as a GPS, you can’t scan for life-forms or see what other holoplays K’Chargan Son Of Krimazon has been in. You can translate any language in the universal translator’s language banks, which is a pretty big selling point… but most people don’t even leave the ship or the starbase. I mean, sure, Ensign Ricky in Maintenance has a communicator too, but how many away teams does Commander Riker invite him on?
Evo: The Evo does everything a 21st-century cell phone should be able to do, and the apps are limitless — if a programmer can code it, it can be done. Plus, Google has an on-the-fly translator app that handles pictures; it’s only a matter of time until they have one for audio as well.
Advantage: Evo

Face-to-Face Communication:

Communicator: Nope. Where would you point it, anyway? I’m pretty sure a tricorder can do it, in conjunction with a communicator, but that’s like carrying an iPad and a 3G hotspot and a phone all at the same time. That’s an awful lot for Keiko and Molly to carry on their camping trip to Andor just so Miles can see his daughter before bedtime.
Evo: I haven’t really gotten Qik to work well yet — I think it requires 4G-like speeds to be at its best — but I have facetimed with my dad using it. It’s not like when the captain is talking to Admiral Nechayev in the ready room, but we’re getting there.
Advantage: Evo


Communicator: When you’re wearing it, the ship knows exactly where you are. But you can’t ask it to give you directions to the nearest Jumja Hut.
Evo: Turn-by-turn directions, multiple mapping applications, and you can be tracked by the internal GPS chip.
Advantage: Evo

So, in ten total categories, the Evo wins in eight, the Communicator in one, and they tied in one. The commbadge isn’t looking so great now, is it?

Look, I know that most of the stuff I’m talking about in this article didn’t exist in the 80s and 90s — cameraphones, social networking, texting, personalized GPS units, and apps. And I’ve written about how fast sci-fi has to change because actual technology is changing faster than ever these days. But I found it pretty amusing that, with only a couple of exceptions, my new cellphone (and, for the record, my old one, which was just an iPhone 3G that I’d had for more than two years) is a far better device than the Star Trek communicators of the TNG era.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell it to call the Enterprise and beam me up, but as Shatner once said, “I’m working on that.

For the record, I really wanted to call this post “I Beep My Communicator Back and Forth”, but it didn’t make any sense. Oh well. Also: no monetary compensation was received by anyone from Sprint or HTC. I just wrote this because I thought it was funny.

* For the sake of argument, I’m going with the TNG/DS9/VOY combadge units, rather than the pocket-comms of the TOS/ENT era. Also, except where noted, I’m sticking to what was shown on TV, because if you believe the novels, the little arrowheads can do almost anything.

Love’s Labours Won

So I haven’t posted here as much as I should, and hope to alter that in the next few weeks. There are things I know I should be writing about (Like, for example, Fringe. Which is a great, great SciFi show. It has heart and a parallel universe and an ancient and mysterious machine.)

But I’m breaking my silence today to relate onto thee, treasured listener, of a really cool thing I was able to facilitate the weekend before last.

A little bit back I got an email from Susan (aka Georgia), who lives in Washington, D.C. with her boyfriend Christie (aka Xie). (Yes, boyfriend. As Susan explained in an early email, “Australians have flexible ideas on what counts as a dude’s name.”)

Like many people who email me, she is a fan of Escape Pod. Unlike many¹ people who email me, she wanted Escape Pod’s help asking her boyfriend, Christie, to marry her.

They listen to Escape Pod together, and apparently Steve Eley fills a void in Christie’s life that others of us fill with Dan Savage or Dear Prudence. The relationship advice columnist void. Get your mind out of the gutter treasured listener.

So we did it, and awoke Steve from his deep slumber. And I spliced it quickly into a copy of EP278 Written On the Wind and sent our favorite robot speeding her way with it.

The text is below, but I’m sure many of you would prefer listening to Steve read it, so click here.

Hi, this is Steve Eley.  Rising from the deep for a special announcement.  There’s a lot going on in the world, but some things are more important than others.  Some of the most important things involve just two people.  Could be any two people, but let’s say two people from the United States and Australia.  Let’s say these two people are in love.  There’s almost nothing more important than that.

They’d have a lot of challenges, these two people.  They’d spend a lot of time on planes.  They’re in love, so it’s worth it.  And maybe they listen to Escape Pod on the plane.  Maybe when they’re together, they listen to Escape Pod together, too.  Making dinner, or walking the kitten.  It’s clearly not the most important thing, but anything two people do together can be special.  And if one of those two people asks us to help, with the most important question — that’s VERY special.  It’s special enough to bring me up out of retirement.  But what’s special is what you two have.

So.  Christie.  I’m talking to you.  Georgia wants to know: will you marry her?

We now return you to your regularly scheduled outro.  Have Fun — and I _hope_ you say yes.

And as Susan emailed me soon after:

He said yes. :) (Or rather… “Well if Steve Eley thinks I should, then of course I will!”)

Thank you so much. And give my thanks to every else too!

And Xie say thanks as well. He didn’t see it coming… He kept saying “that’s just like us!” until, finally, he realized it was us.

And we’re very happy for them both. Best of luck you pair of really hoopy froods.

¹Really, everyone else. So far.

Superheroes II: Metropolis, we have a problem

Hello 2011! I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday and are ready for a kick-ass year… wait, it’s halfway through January already? Oh boy. But hey, this year is an odd number, and a prime one at that. That’s got to be a good sign. Right? Right.

My last post about superhero prose fiction seemed to generate a few comments, not only here but also over at io9 who were kind enough to reblog it. I made a lot of omissions, some glaring, and I knew I would. I’ll return to the subject of superhero prose fiction later on where we can talk properly about examples of the genre. In that post I missed a lot of titles (Playing for Keeps, Brave Men Run, George RR Martin’s Wild Cards, Union Dues, In Hero Years, I’m Dead, to name just a few), but only because I don’t think these are (or were) signs particularly of a forthcoming movement towards superhero prose fiction. As I said last time, superhero prose fiction has been around almost as long as superhero comic fiction has been, possibly starting with The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther from 1942 (the plot of which, involving ghost ships and Nazis, sounds awesome). While it’s probably impossible (and foolish) to try and generate a comprehensive list of superhero prose fiction, we can at least take a gander at some prime examples of the genre a bit later. As it happens, my prediction might have been right up the wazoo anyway, as it looks like the YA dystopia is shaping up to be the Next Big Thing. I might be wrong but it seems to me that the vampire/werewolf trend originated in YA books too, before influencing more adult-oriented works. Although I’m not quite sure where the fashion for zombie originated – is there a YA zombie series that I don’t know about?

Anyway, I wanted to touch on superheros again for a moment as there is something that has been bugging me recently. NBC’s new superhero TV series The Cape has started, as has the Cartoon Network’s latest DC universe animated series, Young Justice. The fact that they both debuted at more or less the same time is just coincidence and not particularly relevant, but it does serve to illustrate a little problem I – a comics fan and superhero write –  have with the genre.

Live-action superheroes just don’t work.

Uh-uh. Hold the hate mail and move the mouse away from the comment button. Let me explain.

The Cape is attempt – one of the first, I think – at creating an original, made-for-television costumed superhero. Costumed is the key here, although it’s probably unfair to single out this one particular issue with The Cape given that it really is the least of the show’s problems (which, off the top of my head, include the title, the premise, the cast, the characters, the plot and the writing… but other than that it’s pretty great, no?), but it does illustrate my point. Vince Faraday, aka The Cape, looks immensely silly when dressed up as the superhero. Okay, the suit is assembled from bits and bobs from the Carnival of Crime (yes, the Carnival of Crime) and based on a comic book character beloved by his son (although not a comic book written like I have ever read, although I suppose Vince was adding in the exposition and description himself when he read an issue to his son in the first episode). But… no. It’s impractical and is looks silly.

So what’s new? This is comic book stuff, right?

Actually, yes it is. The Cape would work fine as a comic book, assuming it was written by someone who knew what a comic book was (unlike the writer of the TV series it seems). The bits we see of the actual (fictional) comic in the TV show looks okay. And superheroes in cloaks and hoods are a dime-a-dozen, and there’s plenty of scope for dramatic flowing fabrics.

It’s perhaps telling that other, more successful television superhero shows have neatly avoided the problem of silly costumes by not featuring them at all. Everyone in Heroes was in civvies. The other currently screening superhero TV series, No Ordinary Family, likewise has avoided comic book cliche, visually at least, even if the central premise of the story is as old as the hills. Misfits, that UK subversion of televisual superheroics clad our anti-heroes in the orange jumpsuits required by their community service, and even cracked a joke about traditional superhero costumes in one memorable scene from the second series. Notably, when a costumed superhero does appear, things start to get creaky, because it’s a guy in a silly suit (although they didn’t do that bad a job). Looking at earlier examples, The Flash was stuck in a bizarre muscle suit in 1990, and the less said about the 1997 attempt at a live-action Justice League of America, the better.

The prime example is The Dark Knight. I’m a Batman fan and I love this film… but Batman himself is a bit silly. When he sticks to the shadows like he should, no problem. But there is one surprising scene where he terrorises The Joker in a police interview room. A brightly lit police interview room. The Joker here looks amazing, as tailor-made purple suit aside, he is just wearing clothes. But in the glare of the fluorescent strips, Batman looks very, very silly. An interesting experiment in creating a more comic book-like Batman is the fan film Batman: Dead End, which features a Batman in grey spandex fighting… erm, aliens (as in Aliens aliens). Okay, so the story is a little odd, but Batman looks pretty good. However, sticking an actor in skintight lycra causes all sorts of problems with movement, result in the need for careful choreography to avoid unsightly creases and bulges. The forthcoming Green Lantern film is avoiding this by using an entirely CG costume, but from the trailer it looks a bit peculiar (although it would help if the eyes of the mask were whited out, like in the comic).

Of course, I’m generalising. There are exceptions. Marvel seem to be doing a better job. Iron Man looks amazing, by virtue of the fact that the suit is hard, metallic, robotic. The best example of successful live-action superhero costuming might be seen in the X-Men films. Here, brightly coloured spandex is swapped for dark leather which looks great and, importantly, moves well, despite Logan’s initial dismissal of the rack of jumpsuits. Spider-man likewise is pretty slick, if a little CG-friendly. Back in DC land, Watchmen too manages it admirably, with the current crop of heroes looking pretty cool while their predecessors, very cleverly, were clad in rather more home-spun costumes. Jonah Hex might have been a train wreck of a film but it looked pretty good, but then Hollywood has a long and glorious history of Westerns and, like the Joker in Batman and everyone in Heroes, the people in Jonah’s world just wear normal, if customised, clothes.

But what’s this got to do with The Cape and Young Justice? Well, Young Justice is better than The Cape in all respects, and is shaping up to be one of the best DC animated series in a long while. But visually, it is just so much better than The Cape. Superheroes just work in animation, which is perhaps not surprising given the ease of transition from static comic book pages to moving animated scenes. The inhabitants of the DCU, at least, have never looked better than in Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Any impracticalities or craziness in superhero costume design that just fail in the real world fit perfectly into animation, just as they do on the comic book page. It’s the same when you’re reading prose superhero fiction – as a reader you’re in control of the action, and everything looks just tickety-boo.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as applicable) I’d say The Cape is set for cancellation before the season is out. Hopefully Young Justice will settle in for a long run, but on the basis of the double-length pilot episode, its well deserved. Looks aren’t everything – far from it, in fact – but certainly The Cape is not a great example of live-action superhero design.

Now if NBC were looking for a circus-themed superhero, why didn’t they just commission a live-action series of Deadman?

We live in the future

My science-fiction-loving friends have often heard me claim that, if Robert Heinlein was alive today, he would be very upset with us for not having colonized the moon or other planets. I’m still pretty upset about it myself. Only a few hundred living humans have ever been in space, and the American media still looks disdainfully upon anyone willing to spend the time and money to go up with another country’s space shuttle.

Even the term itself is un-futuristic. “Space shuttle.” It sounds like a fancy name for the tram that takes you to the different parking lots at Disney.

But this week, I realized that we really do live in the future.

I personally live in the greater Atlanta, Ga., area, and we recently were held in the icy grip of a winter storm that cancelled school for a full week, left thousands stuck on their couches and not at work, and generally made people ecstatic for one day and morose for the next four.

Welcome to HothLanta

I happen to work for a company that provided me with a brand-new Macbook (as of November) and a way to access all the programs I need to do my job from literally anywhere with an internet connection. So, while thousands of my co-workers were stuck at home doing nothing, I got work done all week. I worked in my kitchen, I worked in my basement, I worked in my living room with my feet up. I stayed in contact with co-workers via instant messages, I took conference calls at my house, and I fulfilled dozens of work orders.

I couldn’t have done this ten years ago. But now, I live in the future.

For days, meteorologists used computer models to warn me the storm was coming. I got information from television, radio, and the internet. I was able to entertain my child using video games, movies, recorded television, and her very own computer (my four-year-old daughter has a laptop with a Linux install; that amazes me from time to time). I kept up on what other people were doing using Twitter and Facebook, and even got on board with the hashtag #hothlanta, creating a community amid a paralyzing storm system.

A century ago, if a storm had hit, I might not have known about it until it was too late, and I certainly wouldn’t have kept as busy as I did. But now, I live in the future.

Despite being trapped in my house, a prisoner to unsafe driving conditions, I still managed to cook and eat meals, stay in contact with my extended family, keep up with the latest news, complete my assigned work tasks, and even watch three full seasons of “The IT Crowd”.

When Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida (I lived there at the time), the only information we got was from the radio. After it passed, we had no idea when the power would be back on or if it was safe to leave our neighborhood. But this week I found out all those things before even putting on my jacket. Because I live in the future.

What really sealed it for me was this: on Thursday, I was working in my kitchen and wanted to listen to some music. Normally I’d put on or iTunes radio, but I only have a limited amount of bandwidth in the house. So I took out my iPad, activated the Remote app, and started playing music from my personal library. Without getting up off my ass, I controlled my personal laptop in the next room, told it what music to play and how loud, and within moments was enjoying, among other things, the London Symphony Orchestra performing the soundtrack to “Superman: the Movie”.

I live in the future. And as much as I complain, I kind of like it here.

I wonder what I’m going to do tomorrow.

Sauropod Dinosaurs Had Weird Feet

As a science fiction writer, one of my hobbies is comparative anatomy. It is important for me to know how various organisms on Earth have solved the problems of moving, eating, seeing, and so on in order to build plausible aliens (or modifications for human beings). Evolution is constantly throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, and that churn produces some really interesting solutions to mundane-seeming problems.

Take walking, for example. Most of our familiar walking creatures (except bugs) are based on the tetrapod body plan. Four limbs, two on a pelvis and two up near a head. As evolutionary pressures drive a species to be bigger and bigger, their limbs become more robust to support the extra weight. Evolution is not an intelligent process, and so every solution is quick and dirty, thrown together from preexisting parts and driven as much by chance as by natural selection. Thus, animals with superficially similar body plans may, on closer examination, have wildly different anatomies.

Everyone’s favorite cuddly megafauna, the elephant, walks on its toes. Its weight is carried on an enormous shock absorber made of fat and connective tissue that sits behind its toes. This system works so well for the elephant that they can move almost silently. From a human point of view, elephant feet look right. They bend in the right places, and the idea of walking along on one’s splayed fingertips isn’t too alien.

It’s easy to assume that elephantine dinosaurs had feet like elephants, especially when they are so often illustrated that way. The first clue that this isn’t the case is in the tracks: some sauropods leave crescent-shaped tracks. Next, there’s the skeleton. Except for the thumb, the toes of Eusauropoda are blunt, clawless nubs. These multi-ton dinosaurs walked on the ends of their metacarpal bones — the bones which, in humans, form the back of the hand.

How strange this must have looked! As a writer, imagining the motion of such an animal and then translating that movement onto the page is a glorious challenge. I can look at reconstructions, or I can press my hands into odd shapes and imagine what it would be like to walk on a column of hand-bones. Where the animal’s wrist would be, and how it would bend… All the things I must keep in mind if I write such a creature into a story.

For more detailed information and pictures, see the Tetrapod Zoologist. I highly recommend that blog as a resource for cool animal facts and analysis.

For further examples of strange creatures that have lived on our planet at one time or another, see Mark Witton’s Flickr gallery.

The Speed of Sci-Fi

In the Star Trek novel Doctor’s Orders — which you really ought to read if you like Trek — there’s an offhanded remark made about how an additional 80 terabytes of data storage were added to the Enterprise computers in advance of their science mission to 1212 Muscae V.

I first read this novel in 1990, when it was released — I’d been reading adult-targeted SF (mostly Trek novels) since 1987*, but it wasn’t until I reread DO earlier this year (for about the 25th time) that I noticed there’s five percent of that in my living room alone.

The whole point of futuristic sci-fi is to look ahead, extrapolate what might happen, and write stories about it. Well, Diane Duane either extrapolated hard drive space based upon what she had in her personal computer*** and how much space it took to store various files or — more likely — did some research on computing and extended it to the future.

By the time I was selling computers, in 1995, 40GB was de rigeur (IIRC). This little factoid tells you just how far we came in the five years after the book was published.

If you really want to see how fast the speed of sci-fi moves, read some Robert Heinlein novels. It seems to me like, in each decade, Heinlein readjusted his expectations of where we would be in 30, 40, or 50 years. In Stranger in a Strange Land, which to the best of my knowledge takes place in the late 20th century but was written in 1961, Jubal Harshaw stores data on reels of tape. By the late 20th century, I was using disks, although we still sold tapes in the store. Contrast that to Friday, written 21 years later and occurring in the mid 21st century — data and other material can be stored in tiny cases of sorts, such as the one Friday has implanted behind her navel. Well, on my desk right now I have two sticks of data no bigger than my index finger, each of which hold 16 gigabytes — eight hundred times more storage than on my first computer’s hard drive, and it’s only been 20 years.

As a writer of science fiction, I often find it difficult to predict exactly what’s going to change, and when. In 2004, I had a Motorola v600 which was, at the time, a pretty awesome cellphone. Also in 2004, I started writing a novel in which everyone carried an ID card that you could “run” through a “comp”. The ID contained your credit information, your rank and position (if you were in the military), and various other data. The book takes place in the 2900s, and the technology is not human-based (for reasons I won’t get into), so I suppose I can get away with it for that reason, but by the time we hit… oh, I don’t know, 2025… the concept of needing a physical card will probably have gone the way of the dinosaur, in favor of keeping everything on your cell phone or implanted in a chip under your skin.

The point of that paragraph is this: by the time I had written the first 10,000 words of that (as yet unpublished — and incomplete) novel, the technology was already dated. Imagine how authors feel when they finish a book, get it edited, get it on the publication schedule… and then, two months before it’s released, something new is invented that makes the book obsolete.

That’s the speed of sci-fi.

Oh, there are more glaring examples — 45 years ago, we thought the Enterprise bridge was totally futuristic, but when the show Enterprise came out, somehow there was more technology on Archer’s bridge than on Kirk’s. Somehow, communicators and tricorders — and the engine room — looked way cooler in 2151 than 2266. I know, I know, we can make cooler-looking stuff now, so why don’t we, right? But even then, Archer and T’Pol didn’t have anything like an iPhone, and the closest thing Kirk got to an iPad was that electronic slate thingy Yeoman Rand brought him every episode.

And don’t even get me started on Babylon 5. If you thought the speed of sci-fi was fast, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the crazy throw pillows and patterns on that show. Londo has a pillow in the first season**** that looks like it was made from one of Bill Cosby’s more cubist sweaters.

I think this is why so many authors are writing sci-fi after some sort of watershed event — the earth being flooded or the oceans drying up, a nuclear holocaust or other extinction-level event — and why they’ve always done so. If there’s a fundamental shift in the world itself, technology doesn’t matter so much. Sure, in the 2100s, humanity had space technology (according to Sean McMullen’s amazing Souls in the Great Machine, which I’ll be reviewing soon), but after Greatwinter, all sorts of old-technology-that-is-new-again was developed because we didn’t have spaceships and laser guns and computers anymore. It provides a clean slate.

Compare that to Section 3A, a recent story of mine in which everyone has a lawyer. According to a lawyer friend of mine, that could be coming sooner than we think.

I’ll end this article by appropriating a page from Alasdair Stuart‘s playbook and slightly modify a well-known quote: sci-fi moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

* In 1987, my mom picked me up from summer camp and told me and my sister that my dad had seriously injured his foot, and we were going to see him at the hospital. On the way, we stopped at Bookstop** because, as my mom put it, we’d be at the hospital for a while and she didn’t want us to be bored. I went to the sci-fi section and found a whole shelf of *gasp* STAR TREK BOOKS!!! I made my mom buy me three, and that was it. I was hooked on genre literature.

** There was a computer store right next to Bookstop. It was a CompuAdd dealership. I got my first “personal” computer — that is, one I didn’t have to share — from that store.

*** In 1990, I had a 20MB hard drive, a processor slower than 25mHz — probably an 8086 or 80286 — a 5.25-inch hard drive, and a dot matrix printer that I could make print in color if I swapped out the ribbons by hand. Oh, and a 13-inch 256-color EGA monitor. We had a mouse and a joystick, but neither worked very well, so we mostly used the keyboard. My OS was MS-DOS 3.something, and I used XTree Gold as my file manager.

**** I just watched the first season last month, so that’s why it’s in my head. I don’t memorize the decor of every show I watch. Really.

The futuristic city image in this post comes from Click the image to view it on their site.

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