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Why the Chance of Life on Mars Went Up

Saturday, December 20th, 2014 - by Stephen Green
(Not an actual depiction of Mars.)

(Not an actual depiction of Mars.)

The chances are still slim of there being life on the Red Planet, but they’re better than they were last year:

A year after reporting that NASA’s Curiosity rover had found no evidence of methane gas on Mars, all but dashing hopes that organisms might be living there now, scientists reversed themselves on Tuesday.

Curiosity has now recorded a burst of methane that lasted at least two months.

For now, scientists have just two possible explanations for the methane. One is that it is the waste product of certain living microbes.

“It is one of the few hypotheses that we can propose that we must consider as we go forward,” said John P. Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist.

The scientists also reported that for the first time, they had confirmed the presence of carbon-based organic molecules in a rock sample. The so-called organics are not direct signs of life, past or present, but they lend weight to the possibility that Mars had the ingredients required for life, and may even still have them.

Let the terraforming begin.

****

cross-posted from Vodkapundit

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The 10 Most Fascinating Science Fiction Worlds of All Time

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - by Pierre Comtois

World-building as an imaginative exercise has been with mankind almost from the time men discovered fire, but it was only relatively recently that fancy began to give way to logic. That began with the work of Jules Verne, who based his many novels on a strict application of the science of his time, an approach that can be seen most strikingly with The Mysterious Island.

The work of H.G. Wells quickly followed. Utilizing points of departure that were a bit more fanciful than those of Verne (alien invasion, invisibility, time travel), Wells kickstarted modern science fiction, which, in America, soon morphed into tales of interplanetary warfare and galactic empires. But the stories by such writers as Edmond Hamilton and Doc Smith concentrated more on action than social context. As a result, though they created elaborate worlds filled with planets populated by every kind of alien creature, they lacked the background and cohesion needed to create believable settings.

That approach had to wait another decade or so until John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction and himself a former writer of space opera in the Hamilton style) determined to raise the quality of science fiction from the slam-bang-action variety to more thoughtful fare. With that revolution, writers began to turn out stories with more fully realized futurescapes that explored every societal permutation that intelligent beings were capable of creating. Reaching its full flower in the mid-fifties, the movement eclipsed space opera with many authorial visions becoming so popular that they generated numberless sequels, affording the space needed to build complex universes for readers to explore.

With much of the genre landscape over the years blurring the line between science fiction and fantasy, any list of the most interesting SF futurescapes would have to meet certain criteria, including a strong basis in reality and science, and be made up of multiple stories or volumes enabling a full exploration of the futurescape. That said, check out the following list of the top ten most fascinating worlds in science fiction:

vance city of chasch

10) Tschai

Beginning with City of the Chasch, Jack Vance created the world of Tschai, a planet hundreds of light years from Earth. There, spaceman Adam Reith is stranded, forcing him to deal with Tschai’s interconnected alien races. Through the course of the books, each race is thoroughly explored, making the changes brought on their societies through Reith’s influence all the more fascinating.

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The Force Awakens Trailer Lands Without a Story

Saturday, November 29th, 2014 - by Leslie Loftis

Phenias and Ferb Lightsaber gadget battle

The new Star Wars teaser trailer for Episode VII: The Force Awakens was released yesterday. I see what they are trying to do: give people hints of the movie to whet their appetite. That’s what a teaser trailer is supposed to do, of course. But there are no hints of a story. None. The most notable element of the trailer is a new lightsaber, a lightbroadsword really. It has already inspired a meme.

 

 

As the Twitterverse also noted, Star Wars has already been mocked for gadgety lightsabers. Phineas and Ferb got there this summer. Of course, that spoof aired on the Disney Channel so they might’ve planned it for maximum social media buzz for the trailer. So either they are uncoordinated and don’t realize they are walking into a trap of mockery other Disney teams designed or they are focusing on PR gimmicks. Neither option bodes well for the story.

 

@DustinMSandoval Phineas & Ferb did it first https://t.co/Y4sz9mlSDs

— NAchow (@nachow) November 28, 2014

 

I admit there may be some pessimistic expectations at work. The weak storytelling of the prequels probably dampens most people’s hope for better movies this time, but the trailer does nothing to give us hope. The first trailer invoked a story with “a boy, a girl, and a universe.”

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The trailer for The Phantom Menace was brilliant. The fact that the movie didn’t deliver doesn’t change the excellence of the trailer, which teased the visuals and the music with the story. I watched it hundreds of times. “Every saga has a beginning…”

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The 10 Wasted Women of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014 - by Ash Freeman

TNG_warp_head

Editor’s Note: this article compiles the opening essay “Why Star Trek: The Next Generation Is Great in Spite of Being Mostly Terrible” and all 5 parts of Ash Freeman’s recent series dissecting how and why one of science fiction’s most influential shows failed to give its female characters adequate attention. Jump to your favorite neglected heroine below or dive in first with Ash’s explanation for why he still enjoys TNG even though its shortcomings now show more glaringly today.

1. Tasha Yar

2. Deanna Troi

3. Dr. Beverly Crusher

4. Dr. Katherine Pulaski

5. Guinan

6. Ro Laren

7. Lwaxana Troi

8. Alyssa Ogawa

9. K’Ehleyr

10. Sonya Gomez

Star Trek: The Next Generation is, undeniably, one of the greatest sci-fi shows in the history of the genre.

But it wasn’t perfect. So when did it start to slide in quality anyway?

It didn’t start out that good — let’s be real.

Like many productions, TNG stumbled in its early seasons, regularly. As the show found itself, it began to consistently display the storytelling and endearing characters it would be known for even today… at around Season 3. Hell, the most famous episodes of the series, “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts 1 and 2, ended said season. But before that? It was hit or miss, and often the latter.

Season 1 is especially egregious, containing the worst good-to-mediocre/terrible ratio in the entire series. Yes, that is including the often (justifiably) maligned Season 7, generally the point where most shows have definitely passed their high point anyway. What set Season 1 apart from arguably more inferior seasons is the sheer volume of crap they had to crank out before they hit their stride.

No, seriously, it was pretty terrible in the beginning

The Big Goodbye.” “Datalore.” “Conspiracy.” Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe “Skin of Evil.” Maybe.

That’s four (possibly three) episodes that could be considered great, at least by the standards of Season 1.

Out of 26.

Not off to a great start there, were they? Fans at the time certainly didn’t seem to think so, and their opinions are justified. Season 1 has its share of stinkers, and most of them appeared right out of the gate. The second episode, “The Naked Now,” was more or less a rehash of an original series episode. After that we got what is thought to be by many, including principle cast member Jonathan Frakes, as the most embarrassing episode in the entire run– “Code of Honor.”

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Lwaxana Troi: Star Trek’s Most Polarizing Woman?

Thursday, November 20th, 2014 - by Ash Freeman

Lwaxana

Editor’s Note: See Ash Freeman’s wonderful article “Why Star Trek: The Next Generation Is Great in Spite of Being Mostly Terribleand the previous installments in this series: Part 1: Tasha YarPart 2: Deanna TroiPart 3: Beverly Crusher, and Part 4: Dr. Pulaski, Guinan, and Ensign Ro

Lwaxana Troi

Lwaxana’s place in Trek fandom is as polarizing as they come; her pushy, enthusiastic nature was incredibly off-putting to some, while others were endeared by it. Her flirtations with Picard, and other suitors of the week were hit or miss, but the real depth in Lwaxana’s character came when they started to peel back the layers behind her bombastic exterior.

Lwaxana’s life comes across as tragic once more of her back-story is revealed in the episode “Dark Page.” In it, we are shown the worst moment a parent could have in their lives: the loss of a child. Lwaxana suppressed all memory of her lost daughter Kestra, refusing to speak of or think of her ever again. This, combined with the loss of her husband Ian was too much for her to bear. Eventually the strain of this began to make her erratic, forcing Lwaxanna into a coma. She recovers by the end of the episode (because of course she does), but when viewed with this information in mind, many of her exploits before and after this episode become tinted in a more heartbreaking context.

Lwaxana fussing over daughter Deanna dragging her heels to get married is her compensating for the loss of her husband and her own way of wanting what’s best for her daughter, as is her stubbornness to lose potential suitor Timicin to his culture’s suicide ritual in the episode “Half a Life”. Lwaxana’s aggressive interactions with Picard are also potentially a result of this. “Cost of Living” has her doting over Worf’s son Alexander like a grandmother, as she likely wishes she had the opportunity to do with Kestra. Lwaxana became more three-dimensional, but only insofar as one was willing to empathize with her after considering this subtext.

These themes of marriage and parenthood would continue on in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but the question of how effective they were and how well her character was integrated with that cast and setting is for another day.

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The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1920s

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014 - by Pierre Comtois

Editor’s note: see the previous installment in Pierre’s series about the history of science fiction: “The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1910s

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, science fiction had begun to take definite form as a distinct genre. Before that, fantastic stories with scientific premises were not treated much differently by publishers or critics from novels of gothic romance or exposes of modern life, or the trials and tribulations of small town folk. But Jules Verne and especially H.G. Wells triggered something in young people who had grown up with constant news of scientific progress and a steady stream of inventions from Thomas Edison’s laboratory.

Indeed, it was Edison’s example, as well as those by Alexander Graham Bell and Wilbur and Orville Wright, that promoted the notion that anyone might come up with the next great invention from their basement workshops. Imaginations that had been grounded by Horace Greeley’s admonition to “Go West, young man! Go West!” had slowly begun to be freed from such limited and earthbound goals and released into a universe of possibilities. Jack Williamson banged out stories of far worlds and interstellar warfare from a shed on his family’s New Mexico farmstead. H.P. Lovecraft scrawled ornate and awful visions of alien intelligences far beyond what mortal minds could comprehend all while never leaving the confines of his second story walk-up in Providence, Rhode Island. And the same thing was beginning to happen everywhere in the United States and, in some cases, elsewhere in the world.

The 1920s were an important transition period in SF from the literary tradition of Wells to the Wild West-style action of what would become known as space opera. And even as Wells’ ability to fascinate faded, new writers, championed primarily in the United States by the likes of Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, pioneered a growing market for pulp magazine-based science fiction.

That movement began in 1926 with Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine devoted completely to stories of science fiction. The magazine was published by Hugo Gernsback with the intention of using its stories to promote science and invention, but the SF movement proved more popular than the publisher anticipated and quickly escaped his control. To satisfy the demand for such stories, other magazines soon followed with editors eagerly cultivating American talent that soon enough eclipsed the few foreign writers working in the genre. Proceeding at a dizzy pace, 1920s SF quickly saw the birth of major trends that would dominate the field for decades to come including extra sensory powers, alien contact, time police, and robots. One of the most enduring was “space opera” that covered the rise and fall of star-faring empires and the fate of whole galaxies and dimensions in time and space. The form lost favor in the 1960s but made a comeback of sorts as the new century approached, spurred in part by the worldwide success of the Star Wars films proving the enduring nature of SF’s basic tropes.

The very newness of science fiction (or “scientifiction” as it was called then) invited excitement in readers primed for a literature that mixed science with romantic adventure while inspiring writers to unleash the wildest of their imaginings in stories that challenged a society whose adult population was unused to flights of fantasy. In the shadow of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fantasies of the 1910s, the following top 10 trend setting SF stories of the 1920s laid the groundwork for the coming golden age of science fiction.

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10 Films that Tell the Future of War

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - by James Jay Carafano

Most Hollywood science fiction isn’t really all that “out there.” Take the computers on the original Star Trek. They operated a lot more like creaky 1960s IBM mainframes than 21st century iPads. Nevertheless, Hollywood has often been the inspiration for how militaries think about future wars. Here are 10 films that impress by their ability to presage the next weapons of war.

1. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1961)

The 19th century novelist pretty much single-handedly invented science fiction—and in the process he forecast military weapons from submarines to super bombs. The single best effort to bring his imagination to the screen was a 1958 Czech film, later released in the U.S. and dubbed in English. What makes this film so engaging is a unique visual style called “Mystimation” which combined flats that looked like Victorian engravings with live actors.

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The 10 Coolest Sci-Fi Technologies and How Close They Are to Reality

Friday, October 17th, 2014 - by Walter Hudson

The cell phone. The tablet. The touchscreen interface. All were once figments of imagination portrayed in science fiction. But for every imagined sci-fi technology that becomes realized, many more remain outside our grasp. Some are peaking over the horizon, while their most promising applications remain untold years away. Here are the 10 coolest sci-fi technologies, and how close they are to reality.

10. Terraforming

What It Is: While scientists have located planets with characteristics essential to supporting life, to date, the search for a habitable planet has confirmed nothing. If human beings hope to survive on a planet other than Earth without remaining confined to artificial structures, we will have to engineer methods to transform alien planets into Earth-like ones. That process is called terraforming.

Why It’s Cool: We live in a time when no real frontier remains. With the exception of the ocean’s most obscure depths, human beings have been everywhere on Earth. The ability to successfully terraform, combined with interstellar travel, would open up the galaxy to human colonization. That would provide those with the necessary means and pioneer spirit to seek new worlds where human freedom could be explored anew.

How Close to Reality: Pretty far. Terraforming Mars, the only planet in our solar system which stands as a reasonable candidate for the process, would take “several millennia” utilizing currently hypothesized methods. Giant orbital mirrors would reflect sunlight to the surface, and greenhouse gas-producing factories would work to heat and sustain the atmosphere. Basically, it’s Al Gore’s worst nightmare.

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The Wasted Women of Star Trek, Part 1: Tasha Yar

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - by Ash Freeman

Editor’s Note: This is the beginning of a series exploring the portrayal of women in the Star Trek franchise. Ash Freeman will focus on Star Trek: The Next Generation, April Bey will explore Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager. Those interested in contributing to analyzing the original series, the rebooted films, and other installments in the franchise are invited to submit their ideas for articles.

Star Trek as a whole is host to a vast array of characters, some more memorable than others. Loved or reviled, there are some characters that just stick with you. Female characters, however, seem to get the short end of the stick more often than not when it comes to depth and development.

1. Tasha Yar

Tasha’s character had her roots in the space marine Vasquez, from Aliens. Yar was originally conceived as “Mancha Hernandez,” and read for by Marina Sirtis. The character was renamed to Tasha Yar when Sirtis and Denise Crosby switched roles. Crosby had initially auditioned for the part of Deanna Troi. The effect this could have had on the show had they kept the characters they auditioned for is unknown. As it happened, the death of Tasha in the Season 1 episode “Skin of Evil” would greatly influence the development of Lieutenant Worf. Ironically, it was largely a lack of development for Yar that would cause Crosby to leave the show in the first place.

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The 10 Best Science Fiction Titles in Comics

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - by Pierre Comtois

By most accounts, modern science fiction had its start with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells but didn’t really take hold in the public consciousness until it filtered down from hard cover books into more popular media affordable to a mass audience. At that point, stories by Verne and Wells, but especially Wells, began to be reprinted in cheaply produced pulp magazines until new stories by other authors inspired by their example began to explore the genre as well and eventually pushed out the reprints in favor of their own material.

The original catalyst for the rise of what was first known as “scientifiction” and then science fiction, was Amazing Stories, first published by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Interested in invention and electronics, Gernsback conceived of the magazine as a place where inventors and what a later age would call engineers could publish fictional tales centered around a technological gadget or machine… as if today’s Popular Mechanics were to publish its articles as fiction.

Gernsback’s idea proved so successful that it inspired a host of imitators in the following decades until science fiction magazines became a staple of newsstands in years of rapid invention leading into the atomic age and the rise of transistors and integrated circuits.

But alongside the pulp magazines, beginning in the late 1930s, was the comic book which in many ways might have been considered illustrated pulp stories, as indeed many were. Magazines such as Planet Comics and Exciting Comics either took their names and subjects directly from pulp antecedents or simply transferred characters lock, stock, and barrel from the pulps.

But there began the rub.

In the pulps, science fiction didn’t stand still. It began to evolve almost from the start with space opera by the likes of Doc Smith, Jack Williamson, and Edmond Hamilton soon supplanting Verne and Wells and later, more serious hard SF replacing space opera with the Astounding Science Fiction generation of writers. Later, the Astounding writers themselves would fade to be replaced by soft SF concentrating on the social sciences, psychology, and the drug culture.

Meanwhile, many SF elements were adopted as a natural fit by the rising super-heroes of the 1940s with characters like Superman given a spacefaring background and rocket ships and death rays figuring mightily in many stories. Later, in the ’50s, such elements would prove even more integral to super-heroes as former SF fans, writers, and agents working for DC Comics used them as the basis for revamping a number of the company’s characters including Green Lantern and the Flash. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics would adapt SF elements with a vengeance in such titles as Thor and Fantastic Four.

But stories of purely a science fictional bent were often told in short 6-8 page formats usually with an unexpected or ironic twist ending. A format that fell out of favor in SF magazines but sharpened to a point by EC Comics; a format that climaxed in the justifiably famous “Judgment Day” which appeared in Weird Fantasy #18 (1956). And as fun and entertaining though the format could be, it also froze in place, with few exceptions, the presentation of science fiction in comics until the genre vanished along with westerns, romance, and funny animals in a rising tide of super-heroes.

That said, even with its failure to evolve, there was still a lot to be said about science fiction in comics as the following list will prove!

10) Magnus Robot Fighter

The twist in Gold Key’s Magnus Robot Fighter (1963) is that the people living in the year 4,000 AD think that they’re living in a paradise when they’re actually trapped in a dystopia where many of their individual freedoms have been traded away for easy living and few personal responsibilities. Ironically, the world’s only free man has been trained by a robot to swim against the tide and attack the problem at the point where reality met hardware: the millions of robots who actually run the day-to-day affairs of Earth, some of whom have begun to acquire self-awareness and a sense of superiority over their hapless human masters. Created by artist Russ Manning, the Magnus strip, like many of the publisher’s titles, moved forward in fits and starts (read: original material alternating with reprints) over many years until eventually canceled. It was licensed to Valiant Comics in the 1990s and given new life by writer Jim Shooter who pursued the themes inherent in the original comic but ended up reversing the premise with Magnus fighting instead for robot rights!

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Why Star Trek: The Next Generation Is Great in Spite of Being Mostly Terrible

Saturday, September 27th, 2014 - by Ash Freeman

TNG_warp_head

Star Trek: The Next Generation is, undeniably, one of the greatest sci-fi shows in the history of the genre.

But it wasn’t perfect.

So when did it start to slide in quality anyway?

It didn’t start out that good — let’s be real.

Like many productions, TNG stumbled in its early seasons, regularly. As the show found itself, it began to consistently display the storytelling and endearing characters it would be known for even today…at around Season 3. Hell, the most famous episodes of the series, “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts 1 and 2, ended said season. But before that? It was hit or miss, and often the latter.

Season 1 is especially egregious, containing the worst good-to-mediocre/terrible ratio in the entire series. Yes, that is including the often (justifiably) maligned Season 7, generally the point where most shows have definitely passed their high point anyway. What set Season 1 apart from arguably more inferior seasons is the sheer volume of crap they had to crank out before they hit their stride.

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The 10 Most Underrated Classic Science Fiction Films

Monday, August 4th, 2014 - by Pierre Comtois

In these days of seemingly weekly science fiction blockbusters (which are usually SF in name only… they’re actually just big gun actioners that take place in the future) and the hype that surrounds them, it’s easy to forget that once such films were the low man on the totem pole. Stuff fit for kids and juveniles but not serious adult audiences. Thus, in past decades, except for a few A list films like Them and The Day the Earth Stood Still in the 1950s and Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Logan’s Run in the ’60s and ’70s, many SF movies slipped under the radar or were simply shrugged off by the critics.

But in our more enlightened age, as the serious adult film has given way to the tastes of teenagers and young adults, the science fiction film has come to be accepted as just another genre, even worthy of professional criticism. Ironic in that as such films have become more accepted, their intellectual content has shriveled. As a result, SF fans have been forced to search through back catalogs in hopes of finding lost gems that, if nowhere as sharp-looking as 21st century fare, at least offer ideas to think about and to ponder.

We all know the standards that no one questions: 2001, Forbidden Planet, Things to Come. But what about the less well known films? Are there any worthy entries from BCGI (Before CGI) that may not have received their proper share of recognition when they were first released? And if so, how have they fared in the decades since as the magic of VHS and then DVD and now Netflix have placed them at viewers’ fingertips? Have they been rediscovered? Reevaluated? Newly appreciated?

Answer: Many of the best still haven’t.

But how to discern the good but underrated SF films from those deserving oblivion? First, any solid science fiction movie must be driven by one or more science fiction concepts such as a new invention, social novelty, or exploration of other worlds, times, or dimensions. In that regard, some films such as Forbidden Planet or Logan’s Run are chock full of many such concepts while others like Colossus: The Forbin Project or The Andromeda Strain concentrate on only one.

Another thing that’s needed are filmmakers who take the subject matter seriously no matter the size of the budget. If that happens, then a film that cost a few hundred thousand dollars with cheesy FX can still top one of today’s hundred million dollar blockbusters.

With the foregoing in mind, we come to our list of the 10 most underrated classic science fiction films which will be rated not strictly from least underrated to most underrated, but from good to best of the bunch. All of them, in any case, are films that never really took the screen world by storm, nor the SF community for that matter, but that offer elements that deserve the attention of any SF film fan. All are solid little films each with surprising angles that will reward the patient viewer willing to look past production values and embrace the singular worlds they bring to life.

10) The Twonky

Included here because you can never go wrong when you adapt a classic SF story…well, almost never! Loose and whimsical adaptation of the story by Henry Kuttner produced and directed by Arch Oboler, this 1953 film follows a college professor who finds himself in possession of a new TV set that not only displays intelligence but proceeds to control his life apparently for his own good! Much of the entertaining short story is preserved in this film except for the ending. In the story, the Twonky disposes of the college professor while the movie version has the contraption destroyed in an auto accident. Extremely low budget and not very well acted, the film updates the story’s radio/twonky to a television set but is worth viewing due to its unique concept as well as its sheer audacity!

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The 5 Greatest Things About Sharknado 2: The Second One

Thursday, July 31st, 2014 - by Bryan Preston

I watched the universal premiere of Sharkado 2: The Second One on SyFy Wednesday night.

Don’t judge, especially if you watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Or any of those bachelor, bachelorette or dating shows. Or any reality TV, really. You’re in no position to judge anything that anyone else watches.

S2TS1 might not be the greatest movie ever. It might even be two hours of my life that to my regret I’ll never get back. If SyFy follows its usual pattern, even if you missed the premiere you still have 17 trillion chances to see it. SyFy will air the thing on a loop until the end of all time and space, when the Big Bang falls into a Big Crunch and we start all over again.

When you watch Sharknado 2, and you inevitably will, here are the five greatest things to look out for in S2TS1.

1. S2TS1 wastes absolutely no time on story.

Literally seconds into the film, star Ian Ziering (whose character’s name is still “Fin”) sees a shark in a cloud backlit by lightning. What follows is a fun riff on the old Twilight Zone episode in which a young William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing of an airliner, but nobody believes him. Ziering has his own Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, then, because of all the sharks, has to reprise Robert Hayes’ role in Airplane! I’m not even kidding.

SPOILER ALERT: New York’s anti-gun policies end up helping the sharks. But as they say, only criminals have guns under strict gun control. That turns out to be a minor side plot in S2TS1. I’m not kidding.

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Did the Cold War’s End Transform Star Trek: The Next Generation?

Monday, July 14th, 2014 - by PJ Lifestyle Comment of the Day

A very thoughtful, enlightening comment from Terrekain on The 10 Most Obnoxious, Overrated Alien Cultures in Star Trek:

None of these series were created in a vacuum.

The writers originally imagined an “introspective” series with episodic “lesson learning” (America-bashing), using alien races as props. Herb Wright, for example, was a socialist, college Vietnam protestor, and apologist for the Soviet Union, who created the Ferengi to represent an evil capitalistic race to be Star Trek’s new primary villain.

Needless to say, Wright frequently had confrontations with the lead writer who created the Borg, Maurice Hurley, proving the adage that “A man is defined by the character and nature of his enemies”.

This was why so many of the early alien races in TNG were written, as many have complained, like “cartoon caricatures”; transparently insulting to the intelligence of its American audience. The fatal flaw of TNG’s early writing (and therefore writers) is why the show was in real trouble in its first two seasons.

Basically, TNG was swimming against the tide back in the late 1980s, although it should be noted that many socialists in the United States and Hollywood still regarded World Socialism as the “winning side” even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

America’s “cultural zeitgeist” wasn’t buying TNG’s villains, in the same vein that many anti-war movies in the 2001-2008 era were losers, more badly-written propaganda than profit-driven endeavors to sell to an American audience.

Things came to a head, however, with a slate of anti-Left events in 1988-1989: The election of Bush, the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan, and uprisings against Communist Parties all over the from Asia to Europe. By the time the Berlin Wall was breached in late 1989, TNG’s executives realized they didn’t just risk being criticized for being naive or incompetent or even apologists;

They were at risk of being branded evil.

While that might seem strange to some Millennials today, for the sake of illustration: imagine branding Christians and Jews as religious terrorist bombers right after 9/11.

In hindsight, things like that are cheesy and laughable.

In the moment of the times and for the people living though them, it’s outrageous.

The result was a major shakeup that led to the release/re-assignment/firing of TNG’s writers and the hiring of writers who were less susceptible to showing contempt to their audience (especially in their major market, the United States).

One of those writers was the creator of the Borg’s understudy and friend, Michael Piller, who became the narrative driving force of the TNG series as well as its spinoffs like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Piller used open hiring to circumvent Hollywood’s closed-socialist hiring circles, discovering some of TNG’s best writers including Ron D. Moore and Rene Echeverria.

The Borg were not originally meant to be the primary villains of Star Trek TNG, but with Piller, they became the most recognizable and menacing villains of the 90s. The Ferengi, by contrast, were fleshed out in Deep Space Nine and received something of a more balanced narrative.

Stories inevitably tell you more about the authors than about the subjects. This was true for the producers and writing staff of TNG just before the Cold War ended, and the new staff inducted into TNG right after the people in Hollywood realized the jig was up.

Star Trek is not to be hailed as some sort of important creation on par with the combustion engine, the transistor, or even the Hoola Hoop.

But TNG does represent a case study, like a capsule in time, reflecting Hollywood’s response to prevailing attitudes in America during some interesting times.

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The 10 Most Obnoxious, Overrated Alien Cultures in Star Trek

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - by Dave Swindle

10. The Romulans

What exactly do the Romulans have that justifies their defining quality, their arrogance? They’re among the most boring species in all of Trek, the kind of evil twin to the Vulcans, known for their deceitful and warlike nature.

Their only redeeming feature seems to be how cool and genuinely intimidating their warbird ships are:

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Who Are the Best Characters in the Star Trek Universe?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - by PJ Lifestyle Pop Culture Debates!

In partnership with the new fiction publishing platform Liberty Island, PJ Lifestyle is going to begin promoting and co-hosting a series of debates and discussions about popular culture. The goal is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that in the future we can promote and create better fiction and culture of our own. These are public brainstorming sessions for writers and culture advocates interested in developing a more vibrant popular culture. You’re invited to submit your answers to any of these questions — or a related one of your own! — that interests you:

A) in the comments

B) Via email to PJ Lifestyle editor Dave Swindle.

C) at your blog, then let us know in the comments or via email. 

The most interesting answers may be linked, cross-posted, or published at PJ Lifestyle. 

Earlier this week we started a discussion about Star Trek: How Would You Rank the Star Trek Movies?

Who’s up for a continuation? What Trek-themed debates should PJ Lifestyle explore?

Here are some character-based questions for today:

1. Which of the Captains is the most dynamic, well-written, emotionally engaging character?

(Editor’s Note: I’m a Benjamin Sisko and Deep Space Nine partisan and will explain why in a future list post… Any others in my Trek tribe out there? Exhibit A for Sisko’s supremacy in the Trek pantheon below…)

2. Who are the most interesting characters on Star Trek: Voyager?

3. Is Worf a strong enough character to warrant his own spin-off show?

4. What about villains and bad guys? Q? Khan? Gul Dukat? The Borg? Have any of the series’ enemies really hit the mark?

5. What are some new Star Trek shows you’d like to see? Here are some great ideas from one of PJ Lifestyle’s strongest contributors, Walter Hudson: 7 Ways to Reboot Star Trek With a New TV Show

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How Would You Rank the Star Trek Movies?

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014 - by PJ Lifestyle Pop Culture Debates!

In partnership with the new fiction publishing platform Liberty Island, PJ Lifestyle is going to begin promoting and co-hosting a series of debates and discussions about popular culture. The goal is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that in the future we can promote and create better fiction and culture of our own. These are public brainstorming sessions for writers and culture advocates interested in developing a more vibrant popular culture. You’re invited to submit your answers to any of these questions — or a related one of your own! — that interests you:

A) in the comments

B) Via email to PJ Lifestyle editor Dave Swindle.

C) at your blog, then let us know in the comments or via email. 

The most interesting answers may be linked, cross-posted, or published at PJ Lifestyle. 

A very thoughtful email from Richard B. to get the discussion going:

Hi Dave!

When you said that you were going to start ranking the films, I said “YES!”.

The interesting thing is that you have to use multiple groups to rank them:

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home    This would be the best of the original series. But it’s really the third film of a trilogy

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn      Just sheer fun that revitalized the series. Beside, Ricardo walked off with that movie.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock     Had to come up with a way to bring back Spock and besides, it helped Nimoy learn to direct a major motion picture, setting the stage for IV.

I put Star Trek The Motion Picture equal to Star trek VI: The Undiscovered Country       Both were good for opening and closing the original series movies. (Besides, you had Jerry Goldsmith for music here. Say “Patton”? Another list for you, Best movie composers. Goldsmith was original while John Williams is derivative.)

Star Trek V…….(I don’t even remember the title. Please be aware that I’ve seen every movie on opening night and that was the only time I saw this one. I keep the unopened DVD in my collection, but I won’t update to Blu-ray.)

Next Group:

Next Generation Movies

Star Trek: First Contact   Could be the best of all the movies. Good use of two simultaneous stories. Besides, I like how they brought in continuity from the Original series. (Goldsmith hits a grand slam with his soundtrack. It might the best of any movie.)

Star Trek: Generations   I think this was actually a pretty good movie, aside from killing Kirk. (I hate the speed of light error.)

Star Trek: Insurrection

Star Trek: Nemesis (I’ve seen both of these twice in the theater, just to “insure” that they make more.)

Alternate Timeline Movies:

Star Trek  A very good movie, great action, nice way to reimagine the series. (I did like the way they mentioned Admiral Archer.) (Why do they have the speed of light error again?)

Star Trek Into Darkness  Another good movie, Cumberbatch did a good job of being the new Kahn.

Well, that’s all I can think of.

Thanks!

What do you think?

Also: what are some Star Trek and science fiction-themed lists and articles you’d like to see at PJ Lifestyle? Your thoughtful comments are appreciated.

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Mexico’s Best and Brightest Celebrate Cinco de Mayo in America

Monday, May 5th, 2014 - by Bonnie Ramthun

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Imagine a new country suddenly emerging somewhere in the world, a country based on America’s old Constitution and nothing more. This new country has no taxes, a strong military, a free and open press, and a limited government.

Would you pack your bags? Let’s head out for the Atlantis of Atlas Shrugged, or Sarah Hoyt’s Eden colony in Darkship Thieves, or Heinlein’s lunar base in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. We’d miss our old home and feel sorrow over leaving our old country, but to be free of the increasing weight of totalitarian government? Color me gone, and my family too. We did it once, generations ago, when we got on a boat and headed to America. We could do it again.

This is why Mexico is a failed state. Rebels who object to a government unwilling to preserve individual liberty and protect private property have an Atlantis shimmering and beckoning on the horizon. They’ve packed their bags and moved here, some legally and some illegally. Some have died in the deserts of the American Southwest, murdered by coyotes or succumbing to thirst, willing to die to gain freedom.

Left behind are the people who either engage in corruption themselves or have no energy to fight it. Consider Michoacan, Mexico. Almost half the state’s population lives in the United States. Those left behind endure passively as corrupt government officials make deals with drug cartels and refuse to protect people’s safety or private property. Their rebel for liberty, their Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin, isn’t around. He’s moved to America.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory in 1862 of a small, ill-equipped Mexican force over the powerful French army at the Battle of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. It took another five years before Mexico gained independence, but the 5th of May is celebrated as the symbol of Mexican freedom. Today’s rebels should fight to free Mexico and turn her back into a vibrant and wonderful country, but I can understand how the lure of freedom in their neighbor to the North is too much.

Because if you had a free country to emigrate to, would you stick around here and fight it out, or would you pack your bags?

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Images courtesy of Shutterstock:  Bilha Golan, Iurii

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Lucasfilm to Partially Reboot Star Wars

Saturday, April 26th, 2014 - by Walter Hudson

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While growing up, I had the good fortune to live in two consecutive homes that were each a block away from their town’s respective libraries. From fourth grade through junior high, I had easy access to books, tapes, videos, and even video games available for check out. I spent a lot of time in the library, browsing and grazing, checking out volumes piled higher than I could ever read in the time allotted.

Among those many books were the Star Wars novels of Timothy Zahn. Now known as “the Thrawn trilogy,” they began with 1991′s Heir to the Empire. Set several years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy continued the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo as they fought the remnant of a collapsing Empire and confronted a new disturbance in the Force.

Zahn’s novels triggered an explosion of new Star Wars fiction spanning books, comics, video games, and more. In 1996, collaborators went so far as to develop a “movie without the movie” called Shadows of the Empire. The idea was to create merchandise around a story as if promoting a film. There was a Shadows novel, a video game, and even a fully orchestrated soundtrack for a film which was never actually produced. The story connected the events of The Empire Strikes Back with Return of the Jedi.

In later years, the timeline of this Expanded Universe became jam packed with stories detailing the fates of “the Big Three” along with their friends and offspring. Jacen and Jaina Solo, twin children of Han and Leia, joined their brother Anakin and their nephew Ben Skywalker on perilous and transformative adventures which spanned several stories across many mediums.

So when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand in 2012 and announced plans to produce Episodes VII, VIII, and IX set in a time period well covered by the Expanded Universe, obvious questions emerged. How would they work around the existing stories? How would they present the offspring of Luke, Han, and Leia? How would they tell consequential new stories without trampling upon established lore?

Lucasfilm has finally provided an answer, and it comes in the form of a soft-reboot. Precedent can be found (perhaps not coincidentally) in J.J. Abrams previous major sci-fi refurbish – Star Trek.

With Trek, Abrams and his writing team devised a way to have their cake and eat it too. They used the plot devices of time-travel and parallel universes to effectively reset the Star Trek universe, enabling future stories to take creative new directions without adhering religiously to established canon.

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The Rise of the Robot Employee

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - by Bonnie Ramthun

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President Obama’s new initiative is a higher minimum wage, and if he is successful the result will not be higher-paid employees heading off to work every day. Instead their jobs will be filled by an entirely new sort of worker: Robots.

Robots, unlike humans, don’t require pay or sick time or vacations. If they break they’re thrown out and recycled. Robots are expensive, but the threat of a higher minimum wage is now making a robotic worker more cost-effective than hiring a real person.

Across Japan the noodle-making chefs are now made of metal, and when you order a Big Mac at a MacDonald’s in Europe you do it by touch screen. A company called Momentum Machines in southern California has developed a robot that cranks out 400 perfectly-prepared burgers every hour. (Note: Robots do not sneeze. Ever. Think about that for a bit.)

Where is this going? Are we heading for a future where slinky femme fatale robots plot the destruction of mankind while wearing the perfect red dress?

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Give Me Back My Spaceships and Dinosaurs

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - by Sarah Hoyt

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Lately I’ve been going through books I’ve been lugging around for 30 years and putting some of them up for sale. Part of this is because we plan to move as soon as possible to a place that’s easier for me to manage and clean while running a fully-time job in writing (and indie publishing.)

Part of it is that I’m allergic to household dust, and paper books are paper magnets.

Notwithstanding which, you couldn’t have pried my books out of my hands save for the Kindle paperwhite, which makes it easy and fun to read books in a format other than paper.

Anyway, I’m digging through a 30 year accumulation of books, some of which I’ve read multiple times, and some I might have read once, twenty three years ago, while on bed-rest with my first pregnancy – a time when I got so desperate for entertainment I sent my husband to the local library/remaindered sales with the largest suitcases we owned and told him ”Just fill it to the top.”

Then there are books I don’t remember having bought at any time and no one in the house admits to having bought. No, not that kind of book. Though one of the sets is a complete series of engineering manuals, and it had a similar effect on my younger son as those other books you were thinking of. He has absconded with them into his bedroom and I expect we’ll see him again when he’s digested the contents and not a minute before.

And then there are other books which, presumably, I bought, but have completely forgotten.

One of these: The Shores of Kansas by Robert Chilson made me stop. The cover shows a man battling two dinosaurs and it says “the mind-boggling epic adventure of a time-traveler torn between two nightmare worlds.”

I have no memory of having read – or bought – this book. And perhaps it is really bad. Don’t care. It’s going to be my bedtime read tonight.

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Robert A. Heinlein

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014 - by Sarah Hoyt

Editor’s Note: This articles was first serialized in four parts here, here, here, and here. What other authors and subjects would you like to see explored in list format in future articles? Let us know in the comments.

Part 1: His Maculate Origin

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1. When Robert A. Heinlein was a child, his family was so poor that “[H]e slept on a pallet on the floor for years, in a constant state of amiable warfare with baby sister Louise, ‘A notorious pillow swiper.’”

Most of the writers who, in later years, would apostrophize Heinlein as “too optimistic” and turn their stories into “poverty porn” could probably have benefited from having some idea what true poverty was. Even those of us who were poor as children for some time were never so poor as to have rationed pillows.

Heinlein wrote rags to riches stories, of which those who believe the individual is powerless before his fate disapprove. But Heinlein’s own life is a refutation of their theories, so they can go suck an egg, as far as I’m concerned.

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Robert A. Heinlein, Part 4: His Happy Destiny

Saturday, March 15th, 2014 - by Sarah Hoyt

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Click Here for Part I: “His Maculate Origin”

Click Here for Part 2: “His Preposterous Heritage”

Click Here for Part 3: “His Eccentric Education”

16. A lot of people nurtured on Heinlein juveniles went on to make a difference in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.

This effect is still going on with my sons’ generation. (Or at least Have Space Suit Will Travel was a great part of second son’s decision to study Aerospace Engineering.)

Some of the others of us just went on to dye our hair a shade of red and keep too many cats. In my defense, however, the only juvenile I read before my thirties was Have Space Suit Will Travel. I became a fan with The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and never looked back. (Interestingly, by the way, I discovered Heinlein among a welter of seventies New Wave books. I still liked Heinlein better. Now that I’m older and know the history of print runs in my field, I know that this is true for most people. New Wave, on the other hand, is much preferred by the intelligentsia.)

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Robert A. Heinlein, Part 3: His Eccentric Education

Saturday, March 8th, 2014 - by Sarah Hoyt

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Click Here for Part I: “His Maculate Origin”

Click Here for Part 2: “His Preposterous Heritage”

11. Heinlein was married three times.

His first wife was named Elinor Curry. Not much is known about her, and their marriage lasted only about a year. Before leaving the Navy, Heinlein married Leslyn MacDonald. She was intelligent, well read and very liberal. Their marriage was ultimately unsuccessful, but it lasted for well over a decade. He was married to his third wife, Virginia, (nee Gerstenfeld), until he died in 1988.

It is believed many of his early heroines resemble Leslyn. Perhaps so, but perhaps Heinlein just liked multi-competent females. Having been privileged to speak to the third Mrs. Heinlein, I can attest she was intimidatingly intelligent and well read, and that I found her echo in many of his female characters. So much for everyone who claims that his women are men with breasts. (Whether he had a male’s naïve view of female sexuality is a wholly different matter. To a certain extent, try as we might, we are all prisoners of that space behind our eyes, and no matter how much talented individuals try to escape it, they’re prone to believing what others wish them to believe.)

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