Sunday, January 03, 2010

For Those Who Like to Keep Score

Avatar's worldwide grosses will top a billion dollars by the end of the weekend -- after three weeks in release.

A billion dollars.

That will soon give James Cameron the #1 and #2 box office records -- Titanic and Avatar. It's become a cultural phenomenon -- something to talk about around the water cooler.

Doesn't surprise me at all.

Note: I've been taken -- gently -- to task for flacking this movie.

Let me explain why I liked it:

First, a few observations: "Original," "science fiction," "movie," and "successful" don't belong in the same sentence. If you can point to an SF movie with all four of those in the last, oh, twenty-five or thirty years, please do. But speak carefully -- I've been reading and watching this stuff a long time and I will point out where I think we we part company on that view. Like Forbidden Planet? A direct steal from Billy Shakespeare's little play, The Tempest. The Matrix? H.G. Wells. Star Wars? Half the samurai movies ever made. Aliens? Half the monster movies ever made.

I could go on all day. Hit me with your best shot.

Second, while Cameron may have swiped the plot lock, stock, and barrel from Poul Anderson, it wasn't original with Poul, either. The uncover agent who goes native has been around a long time. They were using that term in Gunga Din, weren't they? (Rory mentions Kim, and that dates from 1901, and was a book that much influenced SF writers in the forties and fifties, when Poul was getting into the field. Not even to mention Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales, The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans Terribly-written books, these, but still.)

And we all of us who toil in the word mines of literature fantastique swipe stuff from those have gone before. Some of us are blatant about it. Some less so. Some even do it unconsciously, but do it, we certainly do.

If you want to point out a successful science fiction novel over the last, oh, twenty-five or thirty years that is totally original, successful, etc. lay it on me. Did I mention there were only three plots? Good luck finding a new one.

Those of you who lament the dialog in Avatar, let me point out that Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, et al, aren't any better, and in some cases much worse. It doesn't matter. They ain't doing Ibsen.

You need to look at this in context, which is what I do, and why I liked Avatar.

It's a few things: Taste is one. Commercially helping the field is another. Being taken some place you've never been? Big plus.

You don't go to a Cameron movie to be surprised by the story. It's not his forte. Nor is it the strength of science fiction filmmakers in general. Never has been.

Who I am and what I do and what I know, I never expect to be surprised by a genre story by any moviemaker. Only three plots, remember?

Every SF&F movie you see today is old, old stuff. They were writing it before I was born and I grew up reading and watching it.

If they write to surprise me, they are going to leave most of the rest of the audience scratching their heads and wondering what the fuck just happened?

I take that into account.

I don't expect science fiction or fantasy on a screen to knock me down with a new twist. Since it always borrows ideas that are cliches in the literature, I don't carry that one into the theater. It's not a matter of setting the bar low, but recognizing that's where it must be set to get a viable audience. If only the hardcore fans go to see it, your movie tanks.

So I see SF&F movies for the ride, and if there is a good story, that's gravy. There was enough story in Avatar for me. No surprises, but I didn't expect any. Nor would it have been smart to make it a hardcore SF picture. If you want to reach a big audience -- and you need to reach it to make your money back -- you have to slow down for the stragglers. This is why the Matadors haven't made me rich -- I don't stop and explain stuff -- if you can't keep up, go read something else. This was a conscious choice and I knew when I made it that it was gonna limit my audience.

That so many non-SF&F fans are going to come out of the theater grinning is really good for our biz. Star Wars and Star Trek opened up big opportunities for writers because people who tried those were, some of them, willing to try something else. They weren't good SF, either. If a science fiction picture blows the doors off the theaters, if Cameron makes a shitload of money, then he helps lift us all, just like Harry Potter did for fantasy and Twilight did for vampires. (When the later Harry Potter books were published, people went out at midnight and stood in lines for hours waiting to get into bookstores. I couldn't even imagine such a thing happening.)

This kind of success slops over onto everybody, at least a little. If they'll go see Trek or Avatar, maybe some of them will move on to Phil Dick or Zelazny. Or me.

I was amazed by the EFX, and that is what this picture gives to an audience. People who say, "Oh, yeah, I like the box the movie came in." are completely missing the point. You can't get this ride in a book. And nobody else has come close to what Cameron put up on the screen. It was a Holy shit! experience visually, and for an audience who had no notion of what Gaia is, it presented a concept as novel as The Matrix did for Maya. I thought The Matrix sucked, storywise, but I'm a working writer in the field. They didn't write it for me.

They didn't write Avatar for me. Or the adult you, either. "Childlike" is not the same as "childish."

Reach back into your memory to find that sense of wonder you had as a kid. Go look at it as if you were twelve years old. That's who they wrote it for -- the youngster stoked on his or her sensawunda.


Rory said...

Not Gunga Din, it was "Kim"- Rory

Bobbe Edmonds said...

>"I could go on all day. Hit me with your best shot."<

You got it, Old Man:

"Co-Ed Voluptuous Vampire Vixens from the Planet Ballgargle Vs The Fiendish Slant-Eyed Suck Maidens of Vega Prime for the Fate of All Mankind"

...Not that I don't think you can do it, I just want to see what you come up with.

Steve Perry said...

So sad. I might as well just head on down to the lion's cage now, if this is the generation that is going to be running the show. We are doomed.

Dan Gambiera said...

The science fiction movie of today is the science fiction story of forty years ago.

Stan said...

I don't know, Bobbe, but I think you can see that on "CineMax" every Friday and Saturday night.... ;~)

Stan said...

For some reason, I imagined that the "original" SF story would be an author's attempt to get readers to start thinking about something he/she either hoped for, or was was afraid of happening: Space exploration; AI and Robot development; "Alien" contact; Paranormal/Superhuman abilities, and their effect on the individual and collective psyche. One person's heaven would undoubtedly be at least one other person's hell.

Basically, as M. Perry has previously penned, life is going along as expected until somebody asks, "But, what if I do this?" and, "Shazzam!" It's SciFi!

...and we like it! ;~)

Justin said...

I won't fault you, Steve; I'll herald you. Thanks for recommending I see Avarat. It was a great experience, no question.

Mike said...

>If you want to point out a successful science fiction novel over the last, oh, twenty-five or thirty years that is totally original, successful, etc. lay it on me.<

I'd say that The Baroque Cycle probably fits all those qualifications. Successful for a Sci-fi series, and I can't think of anything comparable to it on the same scale that came before.

Steve Perry said...

Neal's books are -- sometimes -- great fun. But they are alternative history -- which has been done in the field forever: Ward's Bring the Jubilee, Dick's, The Man in the High Castle and most of Harry Turtledove's stuff.

"Bigger" and "Original" aren't the same.

if there are any plot lines that are new in these books, I didn't see them.

Point some out.

Shady_Grady said...

If you want to point out a successful science fiction novel over the last, oh, twenty-five or thirty years that is totally original, successful, etc. lay it on me. Did I mention there were only three plots? Good luck finding a new one.

I'll take a shot.. How about "The Cornelius Quartet" ?

Mike said...

> But they are alternative history<

I wouldn't call the Baroque Cycle AH. Ring the Jubilee and HT had the South to win, Dick had the Nazi's win, but the English Republic didn't last in the BC, nor did Newton go on to invent a Super-Cannon allowing the Brits to conquer all of France, or anything like that. History unfolds in them _just_ as in OTL, so it's not AH (maybe it could be called secret history though).

The story tells the story of how science and rationality came to triumph in one small corner of the globe with slight hints of some miraculous substance that ultimately doesn't effect anything seriously, all the while informing the reader of some quite fascinating things they might not have been aware of.

"The History of Science Told as an Adventure Yarn With Supernatural Elements that Don't Effect Anything" - nope. Don't recall reading that one before.

Steve Perry said...

As I recall, Moorcock's books featuring his assassin were written in the mid-sixties, which would make them forty-odd years old, so that doesn't make the last twenty-five or thirty year cutoff.

Moorcock himself claims they aren't SF or fantasy as such, and was bowing down in both Bertolt Brecht and Vonnegut's direction when he wrote them. This was part of the New Wave stuff coming out of SF during that time, and a lot of folks dabbled in it, screwing with the narratives and trying to be post-modern.

Ellison, Spinrad, Phil Farmer, Ballard, Dick, LeGuin, a bunch of others played there.

Some of it works. Some it comes across as overblown and archly pretentious: Look at me! I'm a literary writer, I am, I am!

The anti-hero concept wasn't Moorcock's -- Donald Westlake, writing as Richard Stark -- had trotted out Parker a couple years before, and had four or five of those books in print -- The Hunter went on to become Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin. And he was predated by Sam Spade and, with a little stretch, Falstaff.

So, what were the elements that were original?

Steve Perry said...

Here are the three plots, according to Heinlein:

Boy Meets Girl.
The Little Tailor
The Man Who Learned Better.

What did Neal bring that was different?

Science triumphs over magic? (Or vice-versa?) Been done out the wazoo.

Learning new things from a book is always fun and interesting, but a whole lot of novels have done that, so that isn't new, save in which new things you learn.

What makes a book unique is the writer's hit on things -- his or her filters. It's like baking a cake -- one can fiddle with the ingredients and flavoring and make it taste different from this cake or that, but in the end, it's still cake.

Neal is a good writer. There is very little in his books past his filters that hasn't been done before.

Shady_Grady said...

I think the last book in the Cornelius quartet came out in either 77 or 79. But I thought that the concept of a bisexual/pansexual/incestuous time traveling avatar of an Eternal Champion who could change form and function was sufficiently different enough from most of what was out there to be considered original.

That's a good point about LeGuin, though.

Steve Perry said...

Shady --

Bits and pieces:

Ursula's Left Hand of Darkness came out about the same time as the first in the Moorcock series, didn't it?

Zelazny's Lord of Light had folks swapping bodies and sexes as the need arose. Herb Varley dabbles in incest and interspecies sex -- centaurs and humans, parents with children. Larry NIven's concept of rishathra in his Known Space series, notably Ringworld; even Heinlein gets into kinky stuff, characters who travel back in time to sleep with their own mother.

Add in a werewolf or two -- shapeshifters -- some other old tropes, and what you get is a spicy cake, sure enough, but one put together from ingredients that have been around and not so far removed from what has been done in the field to merit a Gosh, wow! nobody ever did anything like this before!

Moorcock's take on it was, of course, unique. But he, like all the other writers in the field, stood on the shoulders of giants, who, in turn, stood on the shoulders of older giants.

Shady_Grady said...

Moorcock's first JC book came out 1 yr before "Left Hand of Darkness" but the general gist of what you write is absolutely correct and I concede the point.. =)

Todd Erven said...

I loved every minute of Avatar, although I didn't go in expecting anything amazing in terms of story or dialogue.

I got into Science Fiction and Fantasy novels when I was quite young because of the overall magical experience that it made me feel. I walked out of Avatar smiling because it made me feel like a little kid again.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

You are SUCH a suck-up, Todd. I've always hated you.

You and your thrice-damned hairline...

Todd Erven said...

Just because you had a shitty childhood and can't appreciate a good story doesn't mean you need to get nasty, Bobbe.

Those of us whose souls aren't small piles of oily debris can still appreciate a good yarn.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

I hope your death involves a deep fryer.

Dan Gambiera said...

Steve, there are twelve plots according to Aristotle. I think that only about three of them are in common use today.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

Well, sure, if you want to get technical.

There's the burial plot, the plot to assassinate Kennedy, several movie plots (Avatar notwithstanding) the list just goes on...

jks9199 said...

I read science fiction and fantasy for two reasons: too make me think -- or for pure escapism. A very few can do both at once (Robert Asprin did that for me at times...)

I go to science fiction or fantasy movies for a couple of reasons. Sometimes, I want to see what violence they've done on my image of a book. (I forget who it was that deliberately chose to have next to nothing to do with the movie version of their book...) Or to ooh and awe over the effects. (Or the hot babes...) Or just to have fun and escape for a bit... I rarely expect a movie to effect me the way a book does.