Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Content not product

One of my stock phrases along with 'you get what you pay for' and 'I'll sleep when I'm dead' is 'content not product'.

I started to get a reasonable amount of disposable income at the height of the DVD/CD-era when we thought that filling our houses with shiny data-packed discs was the height of sophistication.  So I did.  Nowadays the kids know better and by putting everything on the cloud or online or wherever it lives its virtual life we've ditched the bathwater (the shiny disc) and kept the baby (the movie).

Hence I still have a mass of DVDs that I'm watching once more and recycling via the charity shop.  Latest one to stop off at my DVD player en route to Age UK was Alien.

Of course it's a stonewall classic.  Tight story, brilliant direction, lit superbly, but for me the standout is the production design.  Not so much HR Giger's alien [RIP Hans Rudolf - only just found out now when I Googled to check his spelling) but the Nostromo.  It's grimy and real.  This, to me, is what a spaceship should look like; there seems a sense that the Nostromo would exist even without the story, Parker whinging about shares, whereas I'm not sure the Millennium Falcon has any reason to exist except as a story device.

Although I've yet to get one through the quality filter of Neil Clarke and his ilk of SFWA-accredited editors, I have a series of stories set within the Galactic Merchant Marine; until I rewatched Alien I didn't realise how much of Ridley Scott's milieu had rubbed off on my efforts.

However, this isn't all hagiographic.  I do have one gripe and that's the technology.  It's not the miniaturisation that they didn't see coming - it's all big lit-up buttons and clunky green text and Tom Skerritt's captain has to go into a separate room to talk to 'mother' whereas now it'd be on a handheld.  (I briefly worked in aerospace R&D and that all looked like Flash Gordon, although it was for the company reckoned to be the last to work in imperial measurements in the UK so go figure).

No, it's the fact that they didn't seem to think that computers would work out the answers for you but instead they'd give you more raw data, quicker.  At one point Ripley stares at a screen cascading with ones and zeros as if that was what we'd be looking at in the twenty second century, having to do the mental legwork for ourselves.

Actually, I find all of that forgivable - power of hindsight and all that - but what, for me, goes off the hokum scale is the the self-destruct mechanism, although they're not the first or last to use that old chestnut.

Think about it.  You design a ship - a commercial tug vehicle, not some black-ops military vehicle carrying state secrets or bleeding edge technology - would you give it a self-destruct mechanism?  As the client would you specify that in your spec?  As the designer would you add it in as a nice-to-have?  If there wasn't a story to tell would it be there?  I vote for 'no'.

Ships can be scuttled, and I think it's this extrapolation from sea-going to space-going craft that's responsible for the modern-day equivalent to the deus ex machina.  But a) in a 2D world (which is what the surface of the sea is in effect) there is far more need to remove a counter from the board than there would be in the 3D world of space; and b) correct me, but I don't think any ship has a dedicated mechanism built-in for scuttling?

I may be wrong - in the best traditions of the interweb I have, of course, done no research whatsoever...

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