Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Yelling at the Sky

I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 after it arrived on Netflix. Watching it vividly brought to mind all the things that annoy me with science fiction. And so, with all those annoying things in the movie in mind, I thought it might be fun to rage at the sky, and list some of the things that annoy me when reading.

I should start by stating that the flaws I’m going to highlight are my issues. You can never please everyone, and shouldn’t try, so if I don’t like something, it’s my problem, not the author’s. I’m not saying anyone should do anything differently. Indeed, all the stories I’ll cite are highly rated and very popular, far more popular than any of my stories will ever be, so clearly the problems I encounter are of my own making. I’ve just become too narrow and inflexible in my old age, I guess.

The fundamental problem with so many science fiction stories is that they fail to engage me so I can’t simply roll over the flaws that I notice along the way. If you like something enough you can overlook plot holes and all sorts of little errors. But if you don’t and don’t expect to like it any better if you continue reading, the flaws turn into deal breakers. I’ve never been shy about quitting a book I'm not into once I determine that it’s not going to get better, which is why library books (or free books on Amazon) are my usual choice of books. To find those books I will often read the free sample from Amazon. I usually quit reading most stories without ever getting to the end of Amazon’s free preview.

So what discourages me from reading further? First, there's a sense of “been there, done that.” The stories sound too familiar – minor variations of ones I’ve read before. Now I’ve certainly borrow old ideas for my stories, so it isn’t just that they they’re not completely original, it’s that they seem to be generic examples of every other story of their kind. There’s no promise of originality. The deck chairs have simply been rearranged. This may well be by design, since most readers know what they like, like what they know, and avid readers seem to enjoy familiar stories that they can slip right into – hence the many, many series books. Indeed, new writers are often encouraged to write series after reading the best of their chosen genre and then imitate those books right down to their covers.

A second sticking point for me is what I see is carelessness in constructing the story. For example using plots that are no more coherent or logical than what’s used in the movies or TV show – stories that are basically used to stitch together visual scenes and only work if you don’t think too much about them. Another thing that annoys me is laziness in imagining the future. Often the future – or what little glimpse we are given of it in the story – seems very superficial, often it’s just like today, except for a few futuristic items.

I’ll cite some specific examples below, without naming the books or authors since I’m not really reviewing their stories, and have read only the first chapter or two for most, so it's hardly fair to judge them on what I have read. And well, they may have grown into their craft by now, so I’ll leave them and their stories unnamed.

The first category of stories that annoy me are thinly disguised fan fiction. Stories that were clearly inspired by movies or TV show.

One such story opened with ship emerging from a hyper-space gate of some sort. It describes the ship appearing through the game growing ever bigger as it emerges -- one vast ship. I could easily picture the scene – I’d seen it as the opening sequence of the first Star Wars movie. To make the connection even clearer, on the bridge of this ship was a great hulking guy dressed in full space armor giving the orders. And when one of the officers questioned the legality of the great hulking guy’s orders, the great hulking guy went over and broke his neck. Within a page or two, the story is both familiar and so over the top that I couldn’t read it any further. I  mean, who goes around breaking subordinate's necks on a whim? (Except in the movies.) No wonder he has to wear space armor all the time…

And then there are the Star Trek knock-offs, which usually have the captain of the warship seated on the bridge with his XO and other officers standing around at their post waiting for him to bark out orders to them. Sometimes, just to shake things up, the captain is an alcoholic, and hung over, while facing the inevitable first crisis that the story opens with as a hook.

And then there are what I call the “UPS trucks in space” stories. Stories based on the Millennium Falcon/Serenity type of ship. Beat up, down and out, and yet they somehow eke out a living hauling a few boxes or crates from planet to planet, star system to star system. Oh, maybe their "smugglers." The economics of the premise boggle me. I read one story that had just such a ship (owned by two down and out ex-military personal from the “Alliance” of course) with its ramp down in a space port, waiting for a few passengers to show. One passenger shows up, a doctor of some sort, with a suitcase that he won’t let anyone else touch. Deja vu! No, wait a moment… Ah yes… a scene lifted almost directly from Firefly.

Apparently avid readers, don’t mind these similarities. Indeed, it might well be plus for readers since they can fill in all the blank spaces in the story with images from the source materials. I really don’t need bad imitations of TV shows and movies which never fail to annoy me in the first place with all their plot holes and stupidity needed to set up the cool scene they want to shoot. One example comes quickly to mind from Firefly: a gun battle siege of a whore house in which people get killed, when they could’ve used the Serenity to chase away the bad guys, which they did in the end, anyway.

Speaking of stupidity, the Firefly clone story I mentioned above has an opening scene set in a space ship junk yard. This space ship junkyard was, for reasons that I can not for the life of me imagine, located in a pitch black cave! A cave, mind you, inhabited by cannibal-rapist walking around with flash lights. I don’t know how these cannibal-rapists make their living in a pitch black space ship junkyard cave – maybe it was a popular make-out place or something, but there they were. Even more baffling is how they got all the space ships into the cave – they had to fly them in (and out), I guess, which would seem to suggest that the entrance to the cave would be rather large and let a lot of light in, but WTF, maybe they’re all the size of UPS trucks. Who knows? I guess the author just wanted a “scary” scene to begin the story and didn’t care if it make sense or not. After all, that’s what they do in the movies. And well, many thousands of readers apparently didn’t care either. The very next scene in the book is the space port scene I mentioned above. There is no mention of how they got the ship out, nor any description of the space port itself. World building not even on the scale of the original Star Trek series plywood sets. Maybe that’s were Firefly comes in. Just fill in the scene from the TV show.

Now, not all stories could be traced back to their TV and Movie origins. Some just bugged me because of their stereotyped heroes. Square jawed, six feet plus, chick magnets. devil may care, contemptuous of authority. Jerks. Now I might have enjoyed this type of story when I was 15, but not now. Being old sucks. And some seemed to have been written by grouchy old men with a chip on their shoulder. I don’t like those either.

Next up in list of peeves is laziness in imaging the future.

For example, having the hero going to a recruitment office in the local strip mall to sign up to serve in the interstellar army. Really? Strip malls will survive into the age of interstellar travel?

Or going to the flying car rental agency to rent a flying car (and being turned down as "looking" too young to be able to drive). The hero then had to rent a ground car to drive around town to all the space ship junkyards to find a space ship to buy. It seems that the distant future on distant worlds isn’t all that much different than here and now.

Or cracking a joke involving shag carpets and rec rooms (ca. 1981) in the distant future on a distant planet. Or having your “brown-skinned man” say “… just wait until you taste my barbecue...” Yikes. He makes his own sauces and everything as well. Or having the “Mafia” as your interstellar criminal organization.

Or having a story line about a character getting to taste a real meat steak (or was it a hamburger?) from a real cow when they arrived on a planet named… Well, you guessed it, “New Texas”.

Or how likely is earth to have a nuclear war, invent faster-than-light ships, colonize 70 planets, and fight a war with them in the next 140 years? Why would anyone set a story like this in 2147? Or mention that “they’re in a box traveling several times the speed of light...” and later say that they’ve traveled 20 light years in 20 days, which, if my math is correct, means that they would have to travel at 365 times the speed of light.

Or have as story where a strange ship (likely a pirate, but I didn’t read that far) was sighted 10 miles away(!). When it closed to 7 miles, the captain turned out all the guards to defend the ship. Those are sailing ships on the ocean distances, for Jupiter’s sake!

And then there are issues that simply revolve around writing style. I like first person narratives, or if third person, a narration that follows only one character closely. I don’t care to view the story from a god-like height, following the characters that the author has set on their collision course with destiny or death. I dislike stories that jump back and forth in time or points of view. These seem to be very popular these days, but for me, they raise a red flag – it’s as if the author suspects the story would be boring if told straight, so they slice and dice it to make it into a puzzle, and hopefully more interesting. An extreme example of this was a story about a ship’s representatives meeting some natives – but the author, like a bee in a garden, flirts hither and yon, about the town, the marshes, with perhaps some history thrown in, looking in on the meeting just every now and again for a few words before flirting away again. Made me dizzy.

Or starting every story with a violent action scene, even it it comes from the middle or end of the book, or is not even part of the story, just to have an action “hook” to get the reader into the story. But what the heck, I guess it works.

You get the idea. If the book engages you, you’d roll over these things without noticing them. But since I’ve not bought into the story, they stick out like sore thumbs. And since these thoughtless, clueless, or careless mistakes are in the first couple of pages, they don’t seem to bode well for the rest of the story. Oh, well. I’m not out any money, so nothing’s lost.

As I said at the beginning, it’s all my problem. My tastes in books have evolved and grown too narrow, or too demanding, to enjoy wide swaths of contemporary science fiction, despite the fact that there is an order of magnitude more to read than there was in my youth. The upside of this dilemma is that instead of reading, I spend my time daydreaming stories of my own, which have none of these annoying features ;)