Category Archives: Sci-Fi Literature

The Art of Writing: Brainstorming

So, you want to write your next big novel or short story. The first step (at least it is for me) is to brainstorm your story. Jot down all you can about your story. Start with the characters: the people around which the story revolves. Who is the main character? What characteristics define them? What are their goals? Is there a love interest? Do the same for him or her. Flesh them out. Once you have your characters straight, you can work on the plot of the story. What’s the conflict? What drives the tension? What is the story arc? Every story must have a beginning, middle, and end. Differentiate between such things here while you’re brainstorming. Don’t get upset if it’s still a little muddled, or even if you have more than one exclusive storyline in mind. You’ll straighten it out by the time you’re done. Brainstorming, as we were all taught in school, is just about stirring the pot of ideas. Write down everything you can think of. Every little detail. It doesn’t matter how small, nor does it even matter if it contradicts something you’ve already written down. Just get ideas on paper.

 

When are you done? Well, it depends on the length of the work in question. If it’s just a short story, you’re probably done when you have delineated the main characters and fleshed out the plotline. Then, you can start writing. If it’s a novel, you have to do the same type of work, but the details can be a little less clear. Many novelists change things or add things halfway through their work. Don’t feel boxed in because you’ve already brainstormed a path for your novel. Leave yourself some flexibility; it’s all part of the creative process.

 

Once you are done brainstorming your ideas, the next step is to outline your story. Of course, all of this is moot if you are a “pantser.” That is, a writer that writes by the seat of their pants. They kind of brainstorm as they go along. I used to be like that, but no more. Now I plot things out. Must be my old age, I guess. 🙂

 

Book Review: Firefight (2015: Brandon Sanderson) (4 ½ *’s)

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson is the second book in his series The Reckoners. It is a young adult novel. In a nutshell, the series is about evil super-heroes (called Epics) and the attempts of common humans to take them down. Basically, it’s set in an alternate Earth where a strange cosmic occurrence happens—a burning red star-like object appears in the sky—and a small sub-population of the humans inhabiting Earth are granted supernatural abilities. The first book in the series was entitled Steelheart (click to see my review) and it dealt with the destruction of the powerful Epic of the same name. The main character in both that tale and this one is a common human named David who has joined the underground resistance known as “The Reckoners.” They are led by a mysterious man referred to as Prof (for professor) who unbeknownst to many (although not David) is a powerful Epic himself who has sworn off using his abilities.

In the book Firefight, David leaves his home of Newcago (Chicago) and travels with his group of Reckoners to Babylon Restored (a borough of Manhattan). Although the Reckoners have a purpose there—to take down the ruling Epic and all other Epics in her service—David has plans of his own. He wants to find another powerful Epic—Firefight—an illusionist Epic who served in the Prof’s command undercover for Steelheart in the preceding novel. Basically, David has a crush on her, or perhaps is even in love with her, and he believes he can save her and convince to keep from using her powers so she will be normal. This sets up conflict with the Reckoners, because Prof wants her dead as he wants all the Epics dead.

Strengths: this is Brandon Sanderson’s work, so the strengths are many. The writing, of course, was excellent. It also had good, believable characters with well-developed personalities and emotions. Lots of conflict and tension. An interesting, convoluted plot (but not too much); I could follow everything without getting too confused. The twists and turns of the story were clever: some I saw coming, others I did not. It was a very enjoyable read. Weaknesses: maybe the fact that I saw some of the twists coming could count against it, but not by me. I prefer a novel I can follow that doesn’t become so convoluted everything seems forced.

Ultimately, I’ll give Brandon Sanderson’s Firefight four and a half stars out of five.

Movie Review: Interstellar (4 *’s) (2014)

Interstellar is the latest film directed by Christopher Nolan, the man who brought us the most recent Batman trilogy. It is a long film (nearly three hours) that tackles the realities of interstellar travel, actually intergalactic travel to be more precise. It stars a number of big names: Matthew McConaughey (as Cooper), Anne Hathaway (as Brand), and Michael Cain (as the elder Brand). Cooper’s daughter, Murph, is played by three actresses: Mackenzie Foy (10 years old), Jessica Chastain (adult), and Ellen Burstyn (old woman).

The story begins on Earth in the not-too-distant future. A terrible blight has struck wiping out entire crops at a time. The only thing that grows is corn, and its future is uncertain as well. The situation is desperate. The elder Professor Brand works at a secret NASA station on a secret project. As a result of an apparent paranormal event (which is explained later in the film and which is probably the film’s biggest weakness), Cooper is given the coordinates where the NASA station is located. He sets off with his daughter, Murph, in tow and finds the station; whereupon he is captured by a robot. After a brief interrogation, Professor Brand actually offers Cooper a spot on the upcoming mission that NASA is preparing for. The goal is to find a suitable planet where humanity can start over. Cooper and four other astronauts (including Professor Brand’s daughter) are to be sent to the outer reaches of the solar system to where a wormhole has opened leading to another galaxy. The explanation for the wormhole is somewhat mysterious: “they” are responsible—a mysterious alien race that has taken an interest in the Earth’s plight. So, Cooper and the others pass through the wormhole in search of a habitable planet. Will they find one? I’m not tellin’!

Strengths: the acting was superb, the plot was … stellar (just kidding)—the plot was really good, the special effects were great and always appropriate, and the music score was exceptional as well, kind of a mix of haunting melancholy at times and adventurous derring-do. The fact that they tackled relativistic time distortions effectively was a big plus. Weaknesses: I think the film’s biggest weak point was the explanation of the paranormal event I referred to earlier. It did succeed in tying everything back together again, but it struck me as a little cheesy. Other than that, I don’t think there were many big weaknesses. Although it was long; this film is definitely a major time commitment.

Overall, I enjoyed Interstellar quite a bit. I’ll give it four stars out of five.

Movie Review: Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay Part I (4 *’s)(2014)

Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay Part I is the latest instalment in the Hunger Games series, the best-selling books by Suzanne Collins that have been made into movies. It brings back the usual cast of characters: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, and Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin. A lot of big names for a big movie.
The story continues where the preceding Hunger Games movie left off. Katniss has destroyed the Hunger Games and has escaped the wrath of President Snow by taking refuge with the resistance housed in District 13. Her home, District 12, has been destroyed. She finds herself in the midst of a love triangle, torn between Peeta Mellark, her companion for the Hunger Games, and Gale Hawthorne, a young man she has known since childhood. At this moment in the story, she seems to be favoring Peeta. But there is more to her than budding romance. She finds herself the center of attention for a burgeoning rebellion against the Capitol and President Snow. With some reluctance, she agrees to be the symbol of this growing rebellion. Death and destruction are both becoming more prevalent throughout the Districts as sparks of unrest flare. President Alma Coin—the freely chosen democratic leader of District 12—knows that the rebellion needs a unifying figure. Katniss may be just what she is looking for, yet she has doubts. Katniss must first prove herself to this woman. Can they learn to work together and bring down President Snow? Or is Katniss destined to lose all she holds dear including both Peeta and Gale? Find out and see the movie.
Strengths: the acting was good, the plot was good, and the special effects were well done and realistic. The characters were well-developed; you really learned about the evil and ruthlessness of President Snow while admiring the tenacity of Katniss. It was a good flick. Weaknesses: there were a couple of points where I thought Katniss was kind of childish, but those were rare, and they may have been deliberate. She was a complex character (maybe). I thought a couple scenes and some of the dialogue was too predictable. For example, there was a scene with Katniss, Coin, and Plutarch where Katniss shows her spine that I thought was somewhat cheesy. But perhaps that is just me.
Anyway, I’ll give Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay Part I four stars out of five.

Old Movie Review: Transformers 4: Age of Extinction (4 *’s) (2014)

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction is the latest installment in the Transformers series. It stars a number of big names: Mark Wahlberg (as the gifted mechanic Cade Yeager), Stanley Tucci (as the corrupt, in-over-his-head business tycoon, Joshua Joyce), and Kelsey Grammer (as CIA agent Harold Attinger). I was never a big Transformers fan as a kid—I think they came out about a year too late for me: I thought they were kind of pedorky. Nowadays, I kind of rate them as neutral. They generally don’t get me excited, but neither do I run fleeing from them in disdain. I went to see this movie to hang out with a friend who is a much bigger fan of the Transformers. And I have to say, I really liked this movie.

There are several story threads going at the same time throughout the movie; each thread is related to the others and they weave in and out to tell a complete tale. On the one hand, there is Cade Yeager, a brilliant mechanic who enjoys turning junk into technology. One day he brings an old beat-up truck home to work on. Surprise! It turns out to be Optimus Prime. Unbeknowst to Yeager, there is a corrupt CIA agent named Harold Attinger who, in conjunction with an alien Transformer bounty hunter, is seeking out Autobots in general, and Optimus Prime in particular. Attinger has formed a special unit called Cemetery Wind to do the dirty work. Finally, there is business tycoon Joshua Joyce who has made a deal with Attinger to acquire transformium (the material Transformers are made from), study it, and develop new technologies from it. Little does he know that he’s being manipulated by Megatron. It is up to Cade Yeager, Optimus Prime, and the remaining handful of Autobots to once again save the world. Pitted against them is Megatron, who has been upgraded to a more advanced robot, and he has an army of new decepticons, also upgraded, to aid him.

Strengths: the special effects were great. The acting was good, although with Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, and Stanley Tucci it’s hard to go wrong. The dialogue was good and the plot was engaging. I was engrossed in the movie the whole time. And, of course, the Dinobots were really cool. Weaknesses: I can’t really think of any weaknesses. There was action, excitement, and everything flowed from one moment to the next. Everything held together and made a cohesive whole. If you like Transformers, I’m sure you’ll like this movie.

I’ll give Transformers 4: Age of Extinction a total of four stars out of five.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (4 *’s) (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxyis the latest film adapted from Marvel Comics. I thought this movie was going to be horrible going by the trailer which did not impress me at all. Originally, I had no intention of seeing it. But I heard a few good things about it, so I figured I would give it a gander. It tells the story of a motley group of galactic heroes who, through happenstance and conscious choice, find themselves working together to save the Galaxy. It stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (aka Starlord), Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, and Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket (the genetically modified raccoon).

 

The main character is, of course, Peter Quill, aka Starlord, a half-human, half-alien (although he looks completely human) who was abducted from Earth shortly after his mother’s death when he was about 10 years old. The story begins as Peter Quill is recovering an orb for a galactic outlaw. What is in the orb, he doesn’t know. But soon, he’s caught up in a chaotic struggle as the orb is stolen, re-stolen, and re-stolen again. Everyone wants the orb, but he doesn’t know why. The struggle brings him into contact with Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket. They are a motley collection of miscreants who eventually decide to work together—but only after they have beaten each other senseless in their own efforts to get the orb. They wind up in prison together and must learn to trust each other in order to escape.

 

Strengths: the acting was good, the plot coherent, the special effects well done and well placed, and the characters were memorable. My favorite character turned out to be Rocket the Raccoon. Going by the trailer, I thought he’d just be stupid; but I was pleasantly surprised. That said, I liked all the characters and enjoyed the action and intrigue in the film. Weaknesses: this was a PG-13 movie—I’m not sure it had to be, but it was. There was some mild profanity which was fine by the PG-13 rating, but which really didn’t fit the overall tone of the movie. It’s like they put the profanity in as an afterthought to earn that type of rating, maybe. I don’t know. But it just didn’t seem to fit the characters, because for the bulk of the movie, the dialogue was clean. Anyway, it was still a good movie.

 

I’ll give Guardians of the Galaxyfour stars out of five.

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow: (3 ½ stars) (2014)

The Edge of Tomorrow is the latest sci-fi action film starring Tom Cruise. He plays the role of Officer Cage, a military newsman who gets on the bad side of a certain general, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), when he refuses a direct order and then tries to blackmail the general. He quickly finds himself arrested and deposited on the front lines of a war with the rank of private. There he encounters the other star of the film, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Together they must join forces to defeat a ruthless army of aliens who are slowly, methodically conquering the earth. By the beginning of the film, the aliens have already conquered most of Europe.

 

Completely out of his depth, Officer Cage finds himself in the midst of a horrible military assault on a beach. There, after a brief encounter with an even stranger alien, he dies, only to wake up back in time at the beginning of his bad day. He finds his day repeating. The same events occur as before. He is not sure how to deal with this. He finds that he still has an active will and that he can change things to a limited extent; but the outcome of the battle seems to be inevitable: the annihilation of the human forces. However, he has joined forces with Rita Vrataski, a female soldier who went through a similar experience in a prior battle. Together, perhaps, they will be able to unlock the secrets of Cage’s repeating experiences and devise a means of defeating this nearly invincible enemy.

 

Strengths: if you can accept the basic premise of the movie (time travel), this is a remarkably fun movie: lots of action, explosions, and bizarre aliens. The acting was good; the special effects were excellent, and the storyline held together well. This film effectively avoided the “I’ve seen it before so it’s boring” pitfall that can sometimes infiltrate films where time travel leading to repetitive experiences is involved. Different segments of the same day were repeated, but they were spiced up a bit with different actions and events, and then entirely new experiences were shown based on completely unique choices that Cage made. Weaknesses: I can’t really specify a particular weakness, but the overall film, while good, was not excellent. It’s nothing I can nail down in words, I just don’t think it’s worth a full five stars.

 

I’ll give The Edge of Tomorrow three and a half, or maybe even four, stars out of five.

 

Movie Review: Robocop (2014) (3 1/2 *’s)

Robocop is a remake of the 1987 film of the same name. I don’t remember enough of the original movie to compare the two. All I remember was that it was pretty gory. This one wasn’t as gory, I think; it went the way of action-packed instead. Joel Kinnamon plays the lead character, Alex Murphy, a cop mangled by a car bomb and placed in a mechanical suit to survive. The film also stars Samuel Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Michael Keaton. Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, the evil exec of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars. Gary Oldman plays Sellars’ brilliant scientist/henchman, Dr. Dennett Norton, who is constantly at odds with the Robocop program on moral grounds. And Samuel Jackson plays a newsman, Pat Novak, host of the program “The Novak Element” (I heard that the Novak Element was supposed to poke fun at The O’Reilly Factor of Fox News … if so, it did a poor job, but it was fine for the purposes of the movie).

 

Anyway, Alex Murphy is mauled by a car bomb and placed in the Robocop suit. Well, it’s really not a suit; it’s everything but his lungs, heart, and head, just about. Murphy has some difficulty adapting (imagine that!), but soon he settles into his new role as the Robocop; a marriage between man and machine in the pursuit of justice. Also of interest is the growing tension between Dr. Dennett Norton and Raymond Sellars. Sellars keeps making demands of Norton that push him just a little farther down the road to corruption, and each time Norton bends, until finally, he will bend no more. It makes for an interesting development. The Robocop character doesn’t really develop any more beyond the point of accepting his new role in life, but he does change (he kind of goes through a loop). Due to electrochemical manipulation, he becomes more robotic, but that, too, in time changes, although we are left to guess at the mechanism behind that (it is suggested that it is the soul or something not understood behind the change). Regardless, the movie roughly follows the same trajectory as the original with a similar climax. It is different because it explores in more depth the way that Alex Murphy deals with his new life as Robocop.

 

Strengths: the acting was fine, the plot was decent, and the action was good. Also, the special effects were superb, but that’s Hollywood these days. Weaknesses: I can’t think of any major weaknesses, although I kind of get tired of the big bad business exec motif that Hollywood keeps putting out. At least in the original, if I recall correctly, the bad guy was #2 and the #1 guy was not a villain. Anyway, that’s a tiny complaint, hardly worthy of mention.

 

In the end, I’ll give Robocop three and a half out of five stars.

Movie Review: Robocop (2014) (3 1/2 *’s)

Robocop is a remake of the 1987 film of the same name. I don’t remember enough of the original movie to compare the two. All I remember was that it was pretty gory. This one wasn’t as gory, I think; it went the way of action-packed instead. Joel Kinnamon plays the lead character, Alex Murphy, a cop mangled by a car bomb and placed in a mechanical suit to survive. The film also stars Samuel Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Michael Keaton. Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, the evil exec of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars. Gary Oldman plays Sellars’ brilliant scientist/henchman, Dr. Dennett Norton, who is constantly at odds with the Robocop program on moral grounds. And Samuel Jackson plays a newsman, Pat Novak, host of the program “The Novak Element” (I heard that the Novak Element was supposed to poke fun at The O’Reilly Factor of Fox News … if so, it did a poor job, but it was fine for the purposes of the movie).

 

Anyway, Alex Murphy is mauled by a car bomb and placed in the Robocop suit. Well, it’s really not a suit; it’s everything but his lungs, heart, and head, just about. Murphy has some difficulty adapting (imagine that!), but soon he settles into his new role as the Robocop; a marriage between man and machine in the pursuit of justice. Also of interest is the growing tension between Dr. Dennett Norton and Raymond Sellars. Sellars keeps making demands of Norton that push him just a little farther down the road to corruption, and each time Norton bends, until finally, he will bend no more. It makes for an interesting development. The Robocop character doesn’t really develop any more beyond the point of accepting his new role in life, but he does change (he kind of goes through a loop). Due to electrochemical manipulation, he becomes more robotic, but that, too, in time changes, although we are left to guess at the mechanism behind that (it is suggested that it is the soul or something not understood behind the change). Regardless, the movie roughly follows the same trajectory as the original with a similar climax. It is different because it explores in more depth the way that Alex Murphy deals with his new life as Robocop.

 

Strengths: the acting was fine, the plot was decent, and the action was good. Also, the special effects were superb, but that’s Hollywood these days. Weaknesses: I can’t think of any major weaknesses, although I kind of get tired of the big bad business exec motif that Hollywood keeps putting out. At least in the original, if I recall correctly, the bad guy was #2 and the #1 guy was not a villain. Anyway, that’s a tiny complaint, hardly worthy of mention.

 

In the end, I’ll give Robocop three and a half out of five stars.

Old Movie Review: The Colony (2013) (3 *’s)

The Colony is a film directed by Jeff Renfroe and starring Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton. I don’t remember it ever hitting the theatres; it may have just been a made for Sy fy (I don’t believe they spell it like that!) or something like that. The lead role is played by Kevin Zegers, an actor I know nothing about. Anyway, Kevin plays a young man named Sam living in a colony (I think it’s Colony 7 or Colony 5), one of only several such places that humans can still live. The setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth, one brought on by a new Ice Age that came about after humanity developed the technology to manipulate weather and things got out of control.

 

The story is fairly linear. From the beginning it is clear that the colony is in a rough spot and the measures they have taken to ensure their survival are nearly draconian by our soft cushy standards. For them, disease is a terrible threat. Anyone who comes down with something must be quarantined; if they don’t get better in the allotted time they are given a test. If it comes back positive, they are given a choice: be shot or walk. Walking means leaving the colony and trying to make it on your own in the arctic wasteland around it. Basically, walking is a death sentence as well. Laurence Fishburne plays Briggs the leader of the colony. Bill Paxton plays Mason, the colony’s increasingly draconian bad guy.

 

There are other colonies in the area. The story really takes off when Sam’s colony loses contact with one of the other neighboring ones. Sam, Briggs, and one other colony member set off to investigate. What has silenced their neighbor? Is it simply mechanical error? Or something more sinister.

 

Strengths: I think the acting was fine. The storyline held together well enough. I don’t think there were any parts were you wanted to berate the characters for doing something really stupid. The premise was interesting … a little bit of a twist on the standard post-apocalyptic setting. Weaknesses: Bill Paxton plays the standard jerk/bad guy who everybody wants to see die. He did fine in the role, it’s just that that character-type has been done to death. Also, although the storyline held together, there really weren’t any twists to make it really intriguing. It was okay, but unexceptional. Finally, the movie did not end well. The conclusion wasn’t a conclusion. It left you with a sense of hope, but still unsure whether or not the colony survives. I wanted a stronger sense of closure.

 

Anyway, I’ll give The Colony three stars out of five.