Interstellar, A Refreshing Change of Tone

I finally had a chance to see Interstellar this past weekend. Despite some glaring flaws, despite its unwarranted length, I enjoyed the movie thoroughly and found its plot to be a refreshing change from what passes for science fiction these days. Spoilers follow, so stop reading now if you don’t wish to read anymore.


I assume if you’ve scrolled this far then you’ve seen the film, so there’s no need to rehash the plot. There are also dozens of sites that either (a) praise the science in the film or (b) criticize the science, and I don’t plan on doing that again. What struck me most about this film, however, is its refreshing change of tone. Here’s a few things that stood out for me, in no particular order:

  • There is a global catastrophe taking place, yet no one panics. Things don’t degenerate into Walking Dead-like anarchy. Maybe humanity is just the proverbial frog in a pot of heating water, but I respect that Christopher Nolan shows how humanity doesn’t freak out in mass hysteria, as directors depict us doing with alarming regularity, but instead humanity adjusts to the new reality. We are the most adaptable species on the planet, and Nolan showed this.
  • Despite its questionable mathematics, this is the first mainstream movie, to my knowledge, that has ever shown the effects of relativistic time dilation. A few years of subjective time might be decades to those whom you love back home. Joe Haldeman showed this best in his The Forever War, but never has this been shown so well in a film.
  • Astronauts behave as professionals. I am so tired of watching films where the astronauts are presented as whiny, teenagers with hormonal imbalances. With one absurd exception (did we really need the Matt Damon subplot?) the astronauts are (a) cool under pressure, (b) work well together, and (c) understand advanced science. In other words, they are trained professionals.
  • The film explored an interesting idea. What if a future version of humanity has evolved so far that we don’t recognize ourselves anymore? Since 2001: A Space Odyssey, has there been a film that explored the evolution of humanity in such a profound way? The default future for science fiction films has been dystopia, militarism, feudalism, and scarcity. I greatly appreciated an alternative view, one that postulated a grand and optimistic future for us, and one so far beyond our ken that we struggle to understand it.
  • The film showed visions of a future humanity that NASA has been envisioning for decades. Spinning, cylindrical space colonies. Space travel between planets. Everyday humans, not astronauts, living in space, living middle-class lives. Not under some tyrannical government, not for the elites only. A universe available to all.
  • Interstellar ended with an optimistic view of humanity, one that showed future humans working together on a unified goal. Granted, that goal was an enormous one, the perpetuation of the species, but it showed that humankind is capable of moving past its current rut of short-term thinking. To colonize and terraform those planets will take centuries. The current generation will die before the results of their efforts will be seen. And yet, the humans are shown working as hard as ever. They feel they are part of something greater than themselves, and that is a superior motivation.

Interstellar is not a perfect film. It could use a good haircut, shaving off 40 minutes or more. I didn’t need the endless info-dumping and sixth-grade science lessons. There are better and more subtle ways to explain to the audience what we are witnessing. Yet still I believe Interstellar is one of the best science fiction films made in the past decade.

Consider this: The blight that ravages the Earth in Interstellar is humanity’s pessimistic nihilism. It slowly eats away at the planet, destroying everything we hold dear, despite the best attempts of the intelligentsia to stop it. Director Christopher Nolan posits another way. A bigger and brighter way that will take heaps of imagination and will power and action to bring about. But another future — one that is not bleak and dystopian, but full of promise — this future is possible for us.

Cooper never considers not going into space. He never once pauses and considers staying home, even though he knows it will mean leaving his loved ones behind. It’s only the viewer that doubts. Nolan is cleverly pointing out the limits we put on ourselves without realizing it. Just as Cooper has to go into space, so shall humankind.

Remember this: the blight didn’t travel with them into space.



Visions of the Future

Ask most people what they think the future will bring in the next 10, 20, 50 years, and you’re likely to encounter pessimism. Drought, famine, war, disease, scarce resources. The planet is warming up, we’re killing of species by the hundred-fold, destroying this one and only planet we’ve been given. Right now we have Ebola, Global Warming, ISIS, and a newly elected American Congress that has promised to roll back much-needed health reforms. The future does indeed look bleak.

Few people you will meet will expound the optimistic views of the 70s and 80s. Colonies in space. Environmentally friendly cities. Famine, disease, war rendered obsolete simply by the fact that we have moved from a society of scarcity to one of plenty.

Our optimistic visions of this:

Orbital Space Station

Have been replaced with this:

951023 - Elysium

Our defining vision for the 21st century is dystopia, at least so far. Part of this is fueled by the media we consume. Film, video games, television. But they are not to blame. Art echoes stark realities, casts a mirror on our inner psyche. While some live in utter luxury, others on this planet must scour garbage of others to survive. While we send probes to the planets and beyond, loft massive ships into Earth orbit, a ten year old boy dies of Ebola, alone, suffering, without adequate care, to be forgotten.

It’s easy to be bleak, pessimistic. Our politicians like clockwork fail to live up to their promises, or fall into scandal and shame. Instead of propping up the forward-thinking, most intelligent, philosophical and artistic among us, we praise those who have the prettiest face, or are the most obnoxious, or who, by nature of their birth, simply have more money than we do.

Some called Gene Roddenberry a utopianist, but I think he had it right: humanity needs a vision of the future that is grand instead of bleak, optimistic instead of dire. And he was wise enough to know that a post-scarcity world does not mean that all suffering will be eradicated. It simply means that, barring exceptional circumstances, all individuals will have the opportunity to pursue whatever they can imagine.

But this is not the world we live in. If you are lucky enough to be born into a class or society where you have access to healthcare, food, education, you are already ahead of the game. But even so, most in the Western world struggle with crushing debt, an economy that favors the top as it exploits the lowest among us.

We do have plenty, as William Gibson said, it’s just not evenly distributed.

I think our problem — and I want to say up front that it’s a solvable one — is that we — we as in humanity as a whole — have no singular vision for the 21st century. And so, because we choose not to strive for an ideal humanity, or because all the billions of shouting voices just devolve into noise, we revert to the stock image of the future that we’ve been fed via media for the past several decades: dystopia.

Stop for a second. Name one film, book, video game, or other media you’ve encountered in the past five years that presented a view of the future that wasn’t bleak. Can you name ten? Five? One?

Now, how many of the dystopian variety can you think of? Fifty? A hundred? More?

Part of our problem is a lack of foresight. Unless we plan for a different future, unless we actively strive for a future that we all can embrace, we will instead receive that which our subconscious automatically creates, and that will be fueled by our default vision of the future. Instead of this default vision, can we imagine a future in which:

  • Everyone on the planet has affordable or free access to food, water, clothing, shelter, and healthcare
  • Everyone on the planet has access to affordable or free education up to any level their minds desire
  • A massive reduction in fossil fuel use to be replaced with sustainable resources
  • A slowing of population growth to sustainable levels
  • Reduction and eventual elimination of war and the reasons for it, which are typically: land, religion, resources
  • A massive ramping up of the search for life in the Cosmos
  • A massive slowdown of resource depletion concomitant with renewed efforts to preserve and protect all living species
  • A commercial, private space program with an intent to expand humanity’s presence beyond Earth

I’m sure we can think of more, but these would be a good start. And the most important thing is that all of them are very much possible, especially if each of us, individually, work towards one or more of those goals each day. Even if only a small percentage of humanity’s billions took up these goals, think of the change that might be possible. The mode we are living in now: scarcity, debt, war, poverty, a surveillance state…this inevitable slide into dystopia is but one mode of many. And all we have to do is shift our consciousness a bit to realize that another mode is possible. And that can just as easily be inevitable too, so long as we make it happen, so long as we consciously act to bring it into the world.

“Cameron Rhyder’s Legs” out in Clarkesworld

This week, I have a new story out in Clarkesworld Magazine called “Cameron Rhyder’s Legs.” It’s an admittedly unusual title, and one based on a true experience. My friend, let’s call him Arthur C, and I went to a Foo Fighters concert at Roseland about 1000 years ago. It was general admission, and being drunk and a little crazy, we decided to move as close to the stage as possible. Back in those days people used to mosh, i.e. slam their bodies together at high velocity, if the music was high-energy enough. (I’m dating myself: do they still mosh today? I haven’t been to a loud concert in a while.) So Arthur C. and I are up front, but off to the side, near stage right. And to our right, a few feet off the floor, is a VIP dais where a bunch of well-heeled folks are sitting at these small tables. And we’re dancing and singing along, when we notice that the young, attractive woman sitting at the VIP table immediately to our right is none other than Winona Ryder. At this point Arthur C. and I are quite drunk. I’m also pretty sure I was a wee bit more than drunk too, which amplified my reaction, when Arthur C. says, pointing over my shoulder, “Dude, that’s Winona Ryder’s legs!”

Now, it was loud and people were jumping around like crazy, but I’m pretty sure Ms. Ryder heard him. I nodded and pretended not to notice them, i.e. her legs. Nevertheless, he said it again and again, as if making sure I understood the ramifications of what he was suggesting. “But, dude, those are Winona Ryder’s legs!” Her legs were in fact mere inches from my face, and after a while his words became like a mantra, hypnotizing me. Those are Winona Ryder’s legs. Once this happened, I found it impossible to divert my attention from her legs, even though my eyes were on Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. It was as if her legs had some Cosmic significance I had yet to discern. These were not mere prosaic legs, but the key to an entire dimension of thought and time I was not yet privy to.

So the concert ends and Arthur C. and I are walking home, through Times Square, when we look up and see David Bowie and Trent Reznor in a cab together. Or I should say, Trent Reznor driving David Bowie through the streets in a cab. Except this wasn’t an ordinary cab. It was on the back of a truck bed, and there was a camera mounted on the hood pointed inside. The front windshield was missing. As it turns out, they were shooting this video:

My suspicion that the night had some Cosmic significance was amplified even more. I remember telling Arthur C. that very night, “One day I’m going to write about this.” Dreams of the night bothered me for years, niggling at my subconscious. Well, it took me over a decade, but “Cameron Rhyder’s Legs” is my interpretation of that evening. I’m not sure if Winona Ryder’s legs had the same Cosmic significance as Cameron Rhyder’s legs do in my story, but I do know my story wouldn’t exist had not Arthur C. made such a show to point them out.

Here’s a teaser paragraph:

Five thousand young men and women crowd this music hall tonight, and one of them is the soul I must erase from existence. How many she has killed I cannot say. To suggest a number is a sin. How can we count those who no longer exist? I once had a family, a husband, eight children. A life and a future. But all this has been timelost, expunged from history. And so I will expunge her. Except I’ve no idea who she is. Or he, for that matter. In this Now, gender and dress make a difference.

Keep reading “Cameron Rhyder’s Legs.”

“The Suffering Gallery” BCS Audio Vault podcast

Just in time for Halloween, Scott H. Andrews over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies has re-released a podcast of “The Suffering Gallery,” my story of demons and torture, now with a new intro by me. You can have a listen here.

“The History Within Us” in Czech

XB-1 November 2014My story “The History Within Us” is out now in the Czech magazine XB-1, edited by Martin Šust, and translated by Daniela Orlando. In my theme of positive topics, it’s about the end of humanity and the last two human survivors in a hostile universe. Plus fedoras. Link here.






World Fantasy Convention

terratantra_cosmic_treeI’ll be attending the World Fantasy Convention in Arlington, VA from November 6-9. I’m scheduled to do a reading on Thursday, November 6th, at 4:30pm in the “Arlington” room. I may read from one of two stories. The first is about farmers of universes and generational abuse. The second is about ghosts after the Holocaust coming back to their shtetl to find the town and themselves forever changed. So as you can see, positive topics! I hope you’ll join me.

Reading: Matthew Kressel
Time: 4:30pm-5pm, Nov. 6, Arlington

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