Star Trek

Everybody loves the new Star Trek but me. Well, me and George RR Martin. And possibly several other people, except I can't remember who they are just now. Like the embarrassing relative at a wedding party who keeps following you around and bugging you, I'm here to tell you just how shit I think the new movie really is.

For a start, it's basically Dubya: The Trek Years. Seriously. Wayward kid with daddy issues who aspires to his daddy's job, but instead of applying himself spends his time getting drunk, hanging out in bars and getting beat up until a father-figure stand-in turns up to give him a stiff telling-to. Next thing you know there's a major terrorist event, he grabs the reigns of power and leads a space-posse to find the bad guys and drop them down a very deep hole.

Let me be clear. I have a soft spot for JJ Abrams, mainly because he gave me Lost and Fringe. Neither is flawless, but in the greater scheme of things, they've given me something to mildly obsess over. But Abrams' Star Trek isn't a movie. It's a Republican Party broadcast.

For what it's worth, the actors generally do a decent enough job with the material they're given. Chris Pine did pretty much the best he could under the circumstances, and the same could be said for the rest. Quinto was always pretty much a shoe-in to play Spock. If you watch the movie in complete neutral, brain off and floating on a sea of caffeinated sugar drink and sweetened popcorn, critical faculties firmly booted out of the room to sulk, you kind of enjoy it. It's CGI as pornography, money shot after gratuitous money shot: big spiky spaceships, shit blowing up, skydiving from space; such things are there not to support the story so much as to replace it. Every five minutes, when you start to think 'just hang on a minute, that doesn't make sense', something goes BOOM and you're staring at the pretty, pretty lights. It's Kurt Vonnegut's 'Harrison Bergeron' as deliberate corporate entertainment strategy.

Now the negatives, and spoilers abound, naturally.

Look, I'm not asking for rigid adherence to the boundaries of Einsteinian physics here, but ... come on. A singularity that eats planets, but handily sucks Romulan mining ships into the past? Bollocks. Are you going to build a mining ship with flimsy awkward platforms hanging over enormous drops? No, I don't fucking think so.

And while we're at it ... Kirk gets dumped on a random planet, chased by a monster, then just happens to wander into the cave where Future Spock's been sitting around on his arse? There just happens to be a Federation base nearby, which just happens to have Scotty in it? And, guess what; Spock just happens to know the means by which the transwarp drive operates, which Scotty handily knows how to program in order to beam our heroes back onto the Enterprise.

Get. To. Fuck.

The same stupefying lack of sanity applies to the Romulans: apparently they decided to just hang about for all this time without traveling back to Romulus in their great big fuck-off so-advanced-it-must-be-from-the-future starship and warn somebody? Tell me, if the Earth was destroyed and you went back in time to before the destruction, what would you do? Float around in space looking moody OR DO SOMETHING? (and don't give me that 'emotionally compromised' line from the film. By that point, I was actually muttering 'oh, come on' out loud in the cinema.)

And that's before we even get to the Red Matter. As at least one internet commenter has pointed out - I think it was Mike Brotherton - apparently this miracle substance, once transformed into a singularity, doesn't work unless you drill a big hole in a planet first. People, if a singularity hit Earth right now, the lack of a big hole conveniently drilled into the ground for it to fall into really isn't going to make one bit of difference.

The destruction of Romulus actually had me swearing at the screen. Apparently there's a supernova endangering the whole galaxy - well, okay; I used the idea of a gamma-ray burster as the central threat in my first novel, Angel Stations. They're threatening because of the amount of radiation they put out. The levels of energy involved are beyond stupendous. But in the movie, we see a planet going all kerflooie when a big wave of dust hits it.

Er, no. Once, twice, thrice, no.

I'm a writer, not a scientist (dammit). But I do at least try to enough research that I can have at least some kind of tenuous grasp on what the hell I'm talking about, even when I wind up breaking the laws of physics with glee. Making shit up is part and parcel of a writer's job. Matter transporters? Sure, why not. It's called suspension of disbelief. But that suspension of disbelief - essential when dealing with this kind of subject matter - goes out the window in the first five minutes when you discover that kids in the twenty-third century like stealing open-top roadsters and listening to the Beastie Boys. Really?

The problem here is essentially that of an idiot plot designed to fit around a series of 'cool' set-pieces designed by people who, if you actually asked them what a star is would, I assure you, have to think about it. A surprising number of people - otherwise entirely intelligent people who tie their own shoelaces and do their own taxes - don't actually know what those twinkly lights in the sky even are. And if you tell them, they'll have a vague sense that they're sort of ... floating around out there, like random billiard balls bouncing around an infinitely large pool table. It isn't because they're stupid. It's just that they're merely insufficiently interested to ever, ever bother finding out. And if they did, they wouldn't care. That's how we wound up with TV shows in the Seventies like Space: 1999. Even then, I knew the idea of the Moon just floating around and randomly bumping into alien planets in that same perpetual game of interstellar billiards was complete dribble, but a lot of people - primarily those that created the show - didn't know, and cared less.

The complete lack of sense or logic in almost every scene of Abrams' reboot can be easily explained by a desire to make the images on the screen look good, regardless of whether or not they contain a single iota of rationality. A starship with a series of platforms strung over the top of an enormous drop and no railings to stop people falling off? But it looks so cool. Check out that artist's rendition of the Romulan ship, guys. How about they have a big drill? They're miners, right? Yeah, and then we can have them jump off the spaceship and parachute down to the drill platform. Well, yeah, sure they have transporters that can get them down to where they need to be in seconds (I seem to recall they're certainly used to get them back off the drill platorm), but on the other hand if they skydive down to it it'll look really cool.

As others have said, Chris Pine sure does spend a lot of time hanging off of things by his hands. On a quick mental recount, there's a cliff at the start, then the drill platform, one of those dodgy hanging-over-a-void platforms in the Romulan ship ... did I miss any? There are scenes shot in what is meant to be the Enterprise's engineering section, but is so obviously the interior of a chemical plant that I was immediately jolted out of any sense they were taking place on board a starship.

All right, I admit it. Star Trek movies by and large, aren't hard to shoot down. I've ignored the more well-known idiocies, like Spock being half-human and half-alien. If you really want to understand beyond even the obvious reasons why this is so startlingly idiotic, I recommend a book called 'What Does A Martian Look Like,' by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, a series of carefully informed speculations about what form alien life might actually take, starting with the observed rules of evolution and the more extreme life-forms occupying some fairly radical ecological niches right here on Earth. Their general conclusion is that such life would probably be so remarkably different from anything we understand as 'life', we might not even recognise it. In other words, it probably wouldn't look just the same as us bar a pair of pointy ears and a habit of making sarcastic remarks about Earthmen. But we can forgive that - somewhat - for the sake of those long-ago episodes that made the series as long-lived as it's proven to be.

Now, I grew up with Star Trek - the original Star Trek, anyway. For all its problems, there were times when it made for outstanding television. And then, unfortunately, there were times when you got see Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan duking it out on an alien planet. Or some girl in a silver wig and a desperately unflattering loincloth churning out lines like: 'Captain Kirk, what is this ... love, that you speak of?' I've never been fond at all of the subsequent reboots like Next Generation or Deep Space 9 or any of the rest, since by and large they were so bad they made me cringe. So why am I picking on this movie out of everything else?

Perhaps because of the praise it's been given that I feel is far from deserved; perhaps because I have fond childhood memories of episodes like Space Seed or City on the Edge of Forever. These are the benchmarks by which the movie - all the movies, all the shows - must be judged, and they rarely if ever reached it. If people say this is the best Star Trek movie they've seen since, say, Wrath of Khan, then I must say (with the caveat I didn't see the last couple of films) that it is instead the worst. Chris Pine's Kirk is a wayward kid you wouldn't put in charge of a hot dog stand let alone a starship. Think I'm wrong? Here's a challenge. Go back to the original series of Star Trek, something like Space Seed, which introduced Ricardo Montalban's Khan. Watch it and just try and tell me Shatner's Kirk wouldn't have Chris Pine crying in his milk in a hundred seconds flat.

For all the hamfistedness sometimes evinced in the original series and to a greater extent in those later reboots, the show had one redeeming quality that has been named again and again by commentators and critics over the years: a certain sense of optimism. The show even began with a mission statement of exploration, discovery, and split infinitives. And yet, none of this spirit is evident in this new film. It is, instead, a tale of almost medieval revenge; you kill my planet, I kill your planet, and in turn I kill you.

Gene Rodenberry this is not.

In a way, it's the fault of all of us that such inept, cruddy, irredeemably stupid and downright cynical films are being made, because we all troop off to the cinema to see them, myself included. But there are times when I think, no: I've had enough. Enough of seeing my genre denigrated by people who literally have no idea what they're talking about. Enough of giving my money to charlatans who've reduced movie-making to a kind of visual pornography of set-pieces and special effects. I won't be going to see Wolverine, or Terminator: Yet Again, or whichever episode of Franchise: The Quickening is being churned out to the local cinema this month. Instead I'll be spending my money on the little-known genre movies with big hearts made by directors I've never heard of. Films like Let The Right One In, or perhaps Cold Souls, starring Paul Giamatti, about which I've heard good things. Because in my experience, it's the smaller movies - like Pi, or Primer, or Pan's Labyrinth - that dare to not treat their audience like morons.



Back home, dental offices have front desks with all the nasty needles and drills and stuff tucked away in rooms at the back. In Taiwan, you're practically on display. You walk in, there's a desk ... and the dentist's chair right behind, with some poor woman lying there staring up into the bright light.

Mind you, the service is excellent. Even if you end up feeling a bit on display as upwards of HALF A DOZEN PEOPLE including your other half stand around you once you're in the chair yourself, chatting casually in Chinese, while whirring pointy things are lowered into your gaping mouth.

Note to my teeth, particularly the crown on the left-hand side; in the future, try to fall out a few weeks AFTER my medical insurance comes through, not before.


Making things up

I read this article in The Guardian in which PD James explains why she made up the location of her new book, an imaginary island off the British coast. The article's an interesting enough explication of the creative process of worldbuilding, but I still felt a bit confused; why did she need to 'explain' why she made up an imaginary island? Granted the 'explanation' is related to the fact that up until now everything she's written has been set in some real location, but something still rankled about it; 'explain' making a place up? Isn't making things up a fundamental description of what any writer does?

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but the first thing that came to my mind was a TV interview with Iain Banks - it might have been Late Review, and the interviewer might have been Kirsty Wark - and I recall she made reference to a passage in one of his (non-sf) novels where he describes a particular setting - a cliffside, maybe, next to the sea. She seemed genuinely taken aback when Banks explained he'd made it up and there was no such sea-side cliff, pointing out that 'that's what writers do'.

It got me wondering if there some aspect of mainstream literary culture that demands every setting for a story must exist in the real world. Did I miss a memo somewhere when I decided I'd rather just make shit up?



Boredom, I find, can sometimes be a useful creative tool. The more hours stretch out, the more the mind wanders, and if you're a writer, that can actually turn out to be a good thing. It not only allows you to get some distance from the story you're working on, it's during those distracted moments when some of our best ideas can come to us via the subconscious.

I'm in the final stretch of the third, as yet still untitled, Dakota Merrick book (some working titles - Killing Light, Ghosts of the Magi - if you can come up with a seriously good title without knowing what the book's about, I'll send you a copy of everything I've ever published. And I'll also be eternally grateful). I didn't write the end of the book during the first draft, not because I didn't know what happened, but because it needed something 'more'. For the kind of fiction I write, which is strongly plot-driven, I want to surprise the reader, to come up with twists or unexpected ideas that spin the last stage of the story in interesting new directions. What I had for an ending in that first draft was good enough, but that - if you follow me - isn't always good enough. I needed something more.

At times like this I might get inspiration just by randomly typing any idiot idea into Scrivener's notepad until something emerges, and sometimes I've been surprised by the ideas that have come to me this way. Writing out the already-familiar details of the story or scribbling randomly about the relationships of the characters to each other can lead to unexpected connections becoming suddenly apparent. Or new ideas can appear that require me to go back into the text and rejig the story in order to foreshadow it. This can allow the plot to go in unexpected new directions that themselves prove to be springboards for yet more new ideas.

Another approach is to do anything but write, and this is where carefully cultivated boredom comes in, the only drawback being the conviction I'm not actually doing anything productive if I don't have my fingers permanently glued to the keyboard. Today I've deliberately done no writing, having reached a point where I know I want to develop the end of the book to include new themes and events that should eventually pop into my head. I could tinker endlessly with the existing text, but in my own experience that doesn't get me where I need to be. So instead of doing anything at all I'm watching tv, or youtube, and getting that jittery feeling I get when I haven't really done any writing all day.

At some point - today, or the day after, or the day after that - the ideas I need will come, as they've always come.

Other stuff; it hit me recently I've written pretty much nothing about life here in Taiwan. I may need to do something about that, but if so it's going to have to wait until book three is finished - the deadline is July 1st, or slightly less than sixty days. Nova War, the sequel to Stealing Light, is due out at the beginning of September, in hardback. It's currently available on Amazon UK for pre-order.

Someone pointed out in the comments recently that the Angel Stations link at the top of the page doesn't work. Yeah, sorry about that. Authorial laziness, I'm afraid. I really need to do something about it. I also need to take the other online book samples and make them into downloadable formats - epub, Sony, Kindle format etc. Lots of things to be done. I could do them while I'm thinking about the book, but that kind of displacement activity, I frequently find, rarely results in the genuine ideas that result from the kind of mind-numbing tedium I'm after.

I've been informed by a friend in the banking industry (Chris! Pizza!) that he believes the economy will be back on track by this time next year. I tend to pay attention to Chris's opinion on financial matters because he saw the credit crunch coming and gave me some very useful financial advice during the year I was half-paralysed with an injured spine.

If Chris is right, an improving economy would be good news for me, since I'd like to be back in the UK by this time next year and I'll need to get some kind of day job. I won't - unfortunately - be able to live entirely off my writing income the way I can over here (and even that isn't so straightforward anymore since my money is worth a good bit less than it was before the financial crisis).

I have a couple of practical work ideas in mind, but I must admit the idea of teaching creative writing does appeal, although it may not prove to be practical. A random browse through the websites of various local colleges and further education establishments back home shows they all have creative writing courses, but whether or not they pay enough to be at all worthwhile doing is another matter; I know little about how these things work, and I have a dark suspicion any income generated from such efforts wouldn't really amount to much more than pocket money in the greater scheme of things. But it's something at least worth investigating, especially now Edinburgh's Napier College is now running year-long courses in genre writing. Clearly a lot of people want to be writers.