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...

Thursday, 15 May 2014

It's my birthday and I'll cry if I want to...

Yes, it's my birthday, but I'm want to keep this as narcissism-free as possible.

As anybody with opposable thumbs living in the twenty-first century will know birthdays bring congratulatory messages generated by dates saved into Facebook and the like from friends and corporate behemoths wanting your business alike.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

Actually, my point isn't about the corporate behemoths; I know I'm not really in the thoughts of Pizza Express.  It's the rarely-seen friends and acquaintances who ping off a message based on an automated prod from their digital manservant.  It feels so... contractual obligation.

But wasn't it ever thus?  When a card arrived through the post (if you're under twenty-five ask a grown-up) from anybody other than immediate family I never thought that that was all their own work.  No, of course the date was written down in a diary and without that the card would never have arrived.  So what's changed?  Other than the fact that we no longer have to remember to look at the diary, it reminds us...

But is that what I'm objecting to?  The fact that the burden of having to remember to check is taken off our shoulders?  That you'll no longer be able to tell those who remembered to check from those that didn't (maybe because I'd always be in the latter camp).  Is this one reason more why life feels ever-more diluted, downgraded, made greyer and blander?

But shouldn't it sound like progress, never having to remember to check?  Where else could we apply this principle?  I could really do with bins that put themselves out.  And (being male) I'm hugely reluctant to go to the doctor - could my body decide for me?  From where I'm sitting I can see shelves of books, a pile of DVDs, and a PVR that always has about 30 hours for me to catch up with.  There must be a better way than going through them line by line, frame by frame?  Can technology distill them, give me the impression of having read and watched them?

But isn't that it?  Am I not wishing somebody to live my life for me?  Given life's inherent pointlessness (feel free to argue teleology if you like, but I've never bought it) it's absurd to try to create a short-cut to a non-event.  I may as well be a Cartesian brain in a vat...

Which, on your birthday, sounds like not a bad idea...

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Spam, spam, spam, spam

Should have spent the weekend humming the Pythons' ode to spam - but, as I have an eight-year old rendering the Disney-saccharine songs of Frozen to burrow into my brain, that isn't my current earworm of somebody else's choice  - I didn't.

Why?  Well, taking an occasional - very, very occasional, probably the first time in two or three years - look at my email spam for a completely unrelated reason, I found that Daily Science Fiction had picked up my story 'My Avatar has an Avatar' more than a month before.

Naturally chuffed as, having chosen to target only SFWA-accredited markets, this was my first sci-fi short story acceptance in, oh, about two years.  Also provides a marker against the growing evidence that I can't actually write.  Of course, I like to believe that it's more a question of editors signing up to my particular and singular vision but, nevertheless, it was looking a bit bleak.  So regards to Jonathan an Michele at Daily Science Fiction; toffs, scholars and gents both.

But it did get me thinking.  What if spam filters weren't just on email?  What if you had them on your brain?  How would you set them?  What would be the effects?  How would it impact on your daily life?  There's a story there.

Maybe the mental firewalls are there already.  It would explain why I don't retain everything the good lady wife says to me (or, perhaps that's the early onset dementia).  Is there a whole layer of reality which we're missing?  Matrix-like, is there more to the world than we're aware of, a cross-cognitive equivalent of the visual blind spot?

I'll dwell on such thoughts and see if a story emerges...