Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

I changed the “What I’m reading” widget in the sidebar; I was distracted from Howard’s “Conan” by the arrival of a collection of the best stories of Clark Ashton Smith, “The Return of the Sorcerer.”

I’m enjoying it, but not as much as I had expected. While the stories are entertaining and the imagery vivid, Smith’s florid, purple prose doesn’t wear well with me. I regularly find myself thinking “Oh, get on with it, will you?”

And that’s odd, because I love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, who also employed pretentious, magniloquent prose and greatly admired Smith. But, thinking about it, Lovecraft was my introduction to this genre of Pulp weird fiction in my teen years, so he’s always held a special place for me in my “literary heart.” Smith, on the other, hand, I’ve only just started seriously reading, so I have less patience with his endless exploration of his thesaurus.

Still, as my friend James Maliszewski has often remarked, Smith was also a source of wonderful ideas for roleplaying games. This much is undoubtedly true, based on what I’ve read so far. Should I ever run a game again, Smith may be a large influence.

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I’m a life-long fan of Fifties science-fiction films, so I was surprised when Netflix suggested Target Earth: I had never seen or even heard of it. So, I put it in my queue, didn’t really expect much, and found myself very pleasantly surprised.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way, first: the alien robot is laughable, the situation stretches credulity to the breaking point, some of the dialog is right out of a 50s Civil Defense film, and the short length of the movie creates a few forced coincidences.

Granted all that, this is a very good movie. The set-up recalls some of the best Twilight Zones in its eeriness: a few people wake up to discover they’re the only ones left in a city that’s been evacuated overnight in the wake of an alien invasion. They find themselves trapped between an American Army growing desperate enough to use atomic weapons, alien hunter-killer robots — and a murderer on the lam! In the empty concrete jungle (downtown Los Angeles), the question they face is not only one of escape, but even of survival.

This movie works because it focuses much more on the dilemma of average people caught in a terrible situation than on the science-fictional aspects. The characters could have straight from any film noir of the period: the “regular Joe” from out of town who becomes a hero; the good-hearted heroine who needs rescue; the boozy blonde and her likeable lunk of a boyfriend; the desperate gangster; and even the little weasel “who gets it.” The acting is much better than what one would expect from a low-budget alien invasion flick, but the cast was composed of many fine studio contract players from that time, notably Richard Denning and Virginia Grey.

The only real problems I have are the cutaways to the military sequences and the showing of the killer robot. The first detracts from the isolation of the characters in the abandoned city, for we know help is on the way. We see the military trying to find a way to defeat the enemy, and we just know the scientists (lead by the great Whit Bissell) will find a way to defeat the aliens before we have to break out the a-bombs. It detracts from the horror inherent in the helplessness of the main characters. It would have been better to keep the military as distant figures from the main characters’ point of view and leave them (and the audience) to wonder if they’ll be killed in a crossfire, or if the military can even stop the invaders at all.

As for the robot itself, while it’s fun to see in a campy sort of way, it would have been better if it had only been shown via its shadow and in half-glimpses, never a full shot. The audience’s imagination can conjure monsters far more horrifying; again, the robot rather detracts from what could have been a five-star science-fiction/suspense/noir film. In both cases, however, these scenes are what movie-going fans of the time and genre would have expected.

In the end, however, I highly recommend Target Earth to all fans of science fiction’s first cinematic “golden age,” and to anyone interested in good low-budget film-making in general.

(Netflix allows only 300 words in a review, so I thought I’d post full-length original here. What is a blog but a vanity press, after all?)

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Sad news: SciFi Channel has canceled Stargate: Atlantis. While never as good as Stargate SG-1, it was still a very enjoyable science-fiction adventure show that had some brilliant moments. (I challenge anyone to watch either “The Storm/The Eye” two-parter or “The Siege” parts 1-3 and tell me those aren’t superb TV) It will be allowed to finish its fifth season with 100 episodes total and the likelihood of a direct to DVD movie.

Still, I weep. SciFi Channel’s other original programming is generally horrible, and I have no faith that the producers, who seem to little understand or care for science-fiction, will replace it with something worthwhile. After all, these are geniuses who thought wrestling would be appropriate.

And, overall, it’s sad to see the Stargate “universe” slowly shut down. (The rumored third series is unlikely to come about, in my opinion.) It’s a wonderful setting, a perfect vehicle for telling all sorts of stories. And it’s ideal for roleplaying games, too. (In fact, similar ideas had occurred before, notably Frederick Pohl’s Heechee saga.)

This creates an odd situation for me and my writing partner: one of our sample scripts is a Stargate: Atlantis episode. A very good one, if I do say so myself. But, spec scripts for canceled series have a limited shelf-life of about one year after cancellation. After that, they’re obsolete and not of interest to producers. The script had been written before some major cast changes took place, and we had considered rewriting it to account for those changes, but now I suspect we should just give it a once-over to fix problems and just leave the cast as is. It isn’t as if it can get any more out of date. Sad

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(This is one of several posts I’m saving from my LiveJournal account, which is soon to be deleted. Originally written on October 22, 2004, it describes a future-history roleplaying campaign that I’d love to run someday. It’s based largely on my fondness for 50s science fiction movies and the future as they saw it. Enjoy.)

A while back, I described a couple of RPG campaigns I’ve considered running over the years. I’ve had another in mind, but it’s a bit different from the last two: a future history of humanity, but the future is that seen from 50s science fiction. Right now, I have three stages or phases in mind.

Phase One

Title: “The Aliens Have Hitler’s Brain,” or, “Saturn By 1970!”

Inspirations: “The Thing,” “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers,” “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” “This Island Earth*,” “Project Orion,” and “GURPS: Atomic Horror.” *(Among other glorious movies from that period)

Overview of part A: This campaign would begin with deception. The players would be lead to believe they are playing an espionage game set in early post-war Germany and Austria, and that their opponents are Nazi holdouts and Communist agents. Indeed, early missions would be just that. Soon, however, they would get hints that maybe Der Fuehrer didn’t die in the ruins of Berlin, that he may instead be leading a resistance (that didn’t happen in our world) from a redoubt in the Alps, near where the German, Austrian, and Swiss borders meet. Investigations would reveal two things: the Nazis made a deal late in the war with some “foreign power” (really, the aliens), and that the Soviets are hunting Hitler for their own reasons. This part of the campaign climaxes as the players realize just who Nazi’s “foreign patrons” really are and race to capture him before a) he can unleash the alien wonder-weapons and b) the Soviets capture him. In the base, they also discover that Hitler is now a disembodied brain held in a bell-jar. The Soviets attack at the same time, and the time wasted dealing with them allows Hitler and the aliens to escape in their Foo Fighters, although their immediate plans are foiled. The governments involved hush the whole matter up to prevent a panic.

Overview of part B: several years pass, and the PCs have moved on to various careers — Intelligence, Science, Investigative Reporting. The careers that always seem to pop-up in those films. The Space Race is on, pitting the US against whatever Stalin is cooking up behind the Iron Curtain. While the public knows nothing of the events in Germany and thinks the Space Race is just a nationalist competition to get into orbit, those in the know realize the danger we face and have decided that we can’t wait passively for “them” to come back. Besides, there are rumors that Moscow would like to cut its own deal with the aliens. (I need a good name for them.) Over the intervening years there have been UFO sightings and incidents, convincing some that “they” are watching us, but nothing iron-clad. That is, not until America finds the right way into space: Orion ships. The aliens decide they can’t wait any longer and attack. For the climax, think of the big battle at the end of “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” Humanity wins, but there’s no hiding the alien threat any longer.

What do the players do? They can be scientists in the space projects and those tasked to protect them from alien and Communist interference. Or they can be unaffiliated with these, but their jobs lead them into dangerous encounters, much like Gene Barry’s scientist in “War of the Worlds” or the flight crew in “The Thing.” Not all adventures would involve the Alien-Nazi plot, thus letting me work in other themes from 50s sci-fi, such as people and animals mutated by radiation (Inspirations: “Black Scorpions” and “THEM!”), or weird visitors from beyond who aren’t necessarily bad (“It came from Outer Space”).

Part B ends with the defeat of the aliens and the successful launching of the USS ORION, Earth’s first real spaceship.

Phase Two

Title: “Into the Dark”

Inspirations: “It! The Terror From Beyond Space,” Heinlein’s “Farmer in the Sky,” but I need others.

Overview: In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, mankind begins to colonize the Solar System and, thanks to the discovery of the “Atomic Star Drive” can now travel to nearby star systems in a matter of weeks or months. The aliens who so threatened us in the 50s are nowhere to be seen, though evidence of their presence is found on Mars, Titan, and in Alpha Centauri. They seem to have hastily evacuated after their defeat on Earth. There are hints, however, of a “war in the heavens,” the stars mankind cannot reach yet.

This phase allows the players to explore the wonders and dangers of space in a less military or conflict-oriented setting. Possible character types include colonists, Federal Marshals, and explorers, scientists, and archaeologists (to research the lost civilization of Mars and the abandoned alien bases). There is still conflict with the Soviet bloc, who have developed their own Orion drives and are making secretive trips of their own along with the newly-arrived Chinese. The phase ends with a devastating nuclear war between the USSR and China that grows into World War 3*. The aftermath sees the foundation of the Terran Federation.

*(Hey, I said this was inspired by 50s sci-fi, didn’t I? 🙂 )

Phase Three

Title: “Monsters, John! Monsters from the Id!” or “Star Trek the way it was meant to be”

Inspirations: “Forbidden Planet,” “Star Trek” (the original series), the Terro-Human future history of H. Beam Piper, various other old science fiction stories of “man out in space.”

Overview: It’s the year 2300 and Mankind is exploring its arm of the galaxy. Atomic power has been replaced by “anti-gravity” (or some sort of 50s hand-waving), and Earth ships now resemble the flying saucers they once fought against. We’ve found the aliens who once attacked us, and a Cold War now exists between us and their Empire. Naturally, Hitler is still alive; alien tech has kept his brain healthy. He is now the de facto ruler of their Empire, plotting his revenge. Mankind encounters new civilizations, some more advanced, some less.

Players could be explorers and scouts, sent to find new worlds for colonization, or the crew of a Federation saucer sent to find out what happened to them. They could be diplomats sent to find allies among the stars to hold off the threat of the “Stern Reich.” The major “feel” of this campaign should be that, even though we can travel the stars, space is still vast and empty. The setting should never feel crowded, nor should the PCs feel that they can just zip back to Earth or radio for help at a moment’s notice. They should feel like they are out on a limb by themselves, a limb that could break at any moment.

I’m not sure how this phase ends.

As you can see, phases two and three are less-developed than phase one. I need to fool around with the ideas some more and firm up what I want while still leaving plenty of opportunity for players to do what they want. (The eternal dilemma of the GM) Suggestions and ideas for source material that fits the “Atomic Era” view of the future would be welcome.

Oh, as for game systems, I had originally envisioned GURPS, but I haven’t bought 4th edition. Of course I could use 3rd edition, but now I’m leaning toward making it a HERO campaign with some optional rules to give it a grittier feel.

Ta for now!

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