SF That Will Change Your Life

The Science Fiction That Will Change Your Life panel is a regular highlight at San Diego Comic-Con, and will inevitably leave your wallet complaining over your latest haul at the bookstore (or on your e-reader of choice). This year’s panel, led by Annalee Newitz, featured Charlie Jane Anders, Jane Espenson, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and Ernie Cline.

Rather than stepping through the proceedings of the panel as I usually do, I’m going to provide a list of the books, films, and TV shows that came up, with some of the commentary that accompanied each. Don’t blame me for your next Amazon/B&N/local bookstore of choice shopping spree—I only report these things.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Cline, who had just finished this, said that it was “just amazing; made me rethink the way the world would react to a collective disaster” with its scientific approach to disaster stories.

Kung Fury, directed by David Sandberg
When Cline brought this up, there was a big cheer from the audience. He described it as “the most perfect parody of 80s action films that I’ve ever seen.”

Predestination, directed by Michael and Peter Spierig
Grillo-Marxuach described this as a “gender bending time travel police story” starring Sarah Snook, whose character “starts the film as a man, was a woman in flashback, ends the film as a much different man”. Made on a low budget, it has an interesting style, a great script, and an off-kilter sensibility, and Grillo-Marxuach felt it was an improvement on the Spierig’s previous film, Daybreakers, which he described as starting promisingly and falling apart in the last 20 minutes.

Unflattening, Nick Sousanis
This was an unusual recommendation from Grillo-Marxuach in that it is actually Sousanis’s dissertation for his degree at Columbia University, and which Grillo-Marxuach described as “the themes of The Matrix presented as a college dissertation in graphic novel form”. The art is in black and white, and is about using different models of perspective to change your perception of the world. Strictly speaking it’s not SF, but will appeal to “those who like their SF ‘heady’.”

Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter
Judging from the amount of related merchandise on the expo floor, Espenson may not have needed to recommend this, but she particularly likes this film for the role that Sadness is given in it and for the “flawless structure of the arc”; it’s a great example, she said, of how to structure a story.

The Temeraire series, Naomi Novik
Espenson cheated a little—the next book in the series comes out next year, and Blood of Tyrants was published in 2013—but the series was new to her this year. She praised Novik’s world building—the series begins, she said, as a Patrick O’Brian style Napoleonic-era naval story (albeit with dragons), set in a world that seems familiar, but then expands out to describe the different cultures of the world and how they’ve been affected by access to dragons, and how history has been differently shaped. Newitz noted that dragon fans can enjoy the dragons’ “really great breath weapons” too.

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
Anders described it as “a secret war between these two different groups of psychic immortals”, encompassing family drama, a writer’s revenge against a critic who gave him a bad review, and more, and praised how Mitchell brought the story together “in a really beautiful way”.

Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland
Anders also recommended the directorial debut of Alex Garland (a recommendation agreed on by much of the audience). “It’s got a lot of really interesting things to say about gender, how we relate to each other, and about who we are as people, and it has an ending that absolutely stabs you in the gut.”

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, transl. Ken Liu
Newitz recommended this Chinese bestseller, translated into English in the last year. She described it as a conspiracy novel, beginning in the middle of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. “If you’ve never read about the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of somebody from China, it’s incredible,” she said. The story encompasses the children who were raised by people who “went through this trauma of being scientists during the Cultural Revolution”, an alien conspiracy involving the Chinese government’s secret attempts to contact aliens, and a character playing a video game about an alien world that revolves around three suns. Newitz also spoke of how the novel talks about “what it means to die to make computers”, which related to current issues in Chinese computer manufacturing, where workers are literally dying as a result of the working conditions.

Sense8, directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski
Newitz acknowledged that this Netflix series is messy, but she found it “really gripping”, and noted that it “contains some of my greatest fears, which is probably why I like it”. She described it as a conspiracy story that involves godlike beings or aliens, about a group of people who become connected psychically and take on one another’s skills, and the resulting adventures as they try to figure out why they’re connected through Daryl Hannah’s character.

Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller
In bringing up this film, Newitz followed through on comments she made at the beginning of the panel, when she teased Grillo-Marxuach’s “thoughts and feelings on Mad Max.” It turns out that he is “the one human being alive who hates Mad Max.” Fighting words! He prefaced his remarks by acknowledging both his sensitivity to issues of representation and the exhilaration of seeing it happen, and also the inherent limitations on his empathy set by his status as a privileged white male. But his favorite Miller film “about an uncompromising and tough woman with a staunch male ally standing up a smug patriarchy is actually Lorenzo’s Oil” and he frankly found Mad Max: Fury Road to be “a tedious, punishing, violent slog”, full of overly simplistic binary oppositions, and so loud that he felt bad that he’d gone to see the movie with his pregnant wife—not for her sake, but for their unborn child, who, he promised, “will see Lorenzo’s Oil before she sees this film.”

Cline jokingly threatened to send Grillo-Marxuach “to Valhalla all shiny and chrome”, but the debate over the film was in fact very reasoned, with Newitz praising the ambiguity of the ending—that while it was tempting to simply say “ding-dong, the evil emperor is dead” and think of Furiosa taking over as a good thing, but you really can’t be sure—and acknowledging that yes, the film is very simplistic, but it’s nice to have a “hyper-violent apocalyptic narrative” with a female hero whose plot is about being a woman who is rescuing other women.

Twelve Monkeys, on SyFy
Anders brought this up toward the end of the Mad Max debate, noting that while she was initially dubious about how the film would translate to a TV show, she found it really compelling in its handling of the time-travel aspect, and she looks forward to seeing what happens with it in the future.

The four-act TV show vs. the six-act
For a moment, the discussion paused on the recommendations, digressing briefly into the problem as a writer of balancing a close character study with plot. Espenson talked about the advantages of having other writers in the room for TV, describing herself as better at writing characters than plotting. However, she said that it’s harder lately to “live in the scene” and explore a show’s emotional world as TV has transitioned from a 4-act structure to a 6-act structure. Grillo-Marxuach agreed, saying that the need for more commercial breaks is hurting TV storytelling.

Jupiter Ascending, directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski
Chappie, directed by Neil Blomkamp
These two were mentioned in the same breath by Cline in discussing movies where the plot is driven by character development—films he liked, he said, despite the fact that they had been critically panned. Espenson also noted that in any romantic comedy where two people fall in love, the character development is the plot.

White God, directed by Kornél Mundruzcó
Grillo-Marxuach described this Hungarian film as being “like that Planet of the Apes film from a few years back, but with dogs.” It’s about what happens to a dog after his teenage girl who owns him is forced to give him up, and how after he’s sold into dogfighting, he escapes and leads a pack of dogs back for revenge. It’s almost a silent film, and there is no CGI, which makes the film a great example of how to make characters out of beings who can’t speak. The film is essentially a prison break movie, and, Grillo-Marxuach noted, no dogs were hurt in the making of the film.

Morte, by Robert Repino
The discussion of White Dog led to Newitz citing this novel, about a cat living in a world after all the animals of the world have been uplifted and have begun trying to slaughter all the humans. It’s an imagining of an animal society—Morte is a neutered and declawed house cat “and other cats have a lot of ideas about that.” It’s also “a love story” about how Morte tries to find his lost dog friend, and Newitz noted that it will make you cry if you like animals.

The Man Who Fell To Earth, Walter Tevis
Grillo-Marxuach re-read this recently, and while he noted that there’s a lot of details you’ll find anachronistic—a newspaper for 5 cents in the mid-1990s, for example—he said it was a really good example of a character-driven plot that is driven by the main character’s alienation and despair.

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this also reminded Cline of Under the Skin. Anders seconded it, saying it was beautifully made and shot like “a weird documentary with screamy horror movie music over it,” in which Scarlett Johansson drives around Scotland in a van, picking up men and taking them back to her “swamp disco of death.” It is, Anders noted, a love-it-or-hate-it film, but she loved it.

Dystopia vs. Optimism and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Newitz noted that there has been a lot of “whining” lately about stories becoming too dystopian or depressing, with Tomorrowland as an example of that whining turned into a film. She asked if there was perhaps a turn toward more optimistic writing. Cline noted that Seveneves was, in a way, a concerted effort to be optimistic, and also added that he’d written Ready Player One during the Bush years, a time when it was really easy to be pessimistic. Espenson said that she and Brad Bell, her co-creator on Husbands, had started using the phrase “peak antihero,” and specifically mentioned Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as part of the sense of themes moving away from antihero shows like Breaking Bad. “You’ve had enough of that flavor on your tongue,” she said. “Unless it’s Mad Max!” interjected Cline.

Grillo-Marxuach talked about how he used to rail against Christian fundamentalists with “a boner for the apocalypse,” but he said the other side has the same thing—the attraction of dystopia is that it brings a kind of clarity, simplifying things into simple dualities.

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
When Espenson admitted that her first reaction to an earthquake was to think “oh my god, I get to survive something really big,” Grillo-Marxuach remembered walking his dog one night and realizing there was a blackout in his neighborhood; his own first thought was that if this was really it, then “well, I’m a TV writer, so I might as well kill myself now,” since TV writers aren’t much good except for zombie fodder. This prompted Espenson to bring up Station Eleven, about a group of performers in the post-apocalypse who perform Shakespeare. And, Grillo-Marxuach noted, their motto is a quote from Star Trek: Voyager: “Survival is insufficient.”

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, Anne Washburn
Newitz offered this stage play as something along similar lines. The story focuses on a group of people who re-enact Simpsons episodes in a post-apocalyptic world where all media has been destroyed. The players seek out people who remember lines from the episodes to reconstruct them, and by the end, the re-enactments have become the morality plays of a society 150 years in the future.

Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho
An audience member asked whether the panel thought Snowpiercer was actually good, or something that’s so bad it’s good—the general consensus seemed that it was genuinely good, though Grillo-Marxuach suggested that if you liked Snowpiercer and hadn’t seen Brazil, you should see Brazil. Annalee agreed, saying that it was a movie that did change her life, and Cline noted the Brazil tribute in the middle of Jupiter Ascending that featured Terry Gilliam himself.

Where do you get your recommendations?
When asked for sites or methods for seeking out new media, Espenson nodded to her fellow panelist Charlie Jane Anders and said that io9 was a great place. Cline also suggested the Customers Also Watched feature of Amazon Prime.

Beyond the Black Rainbow, directed by Panos Cosmatos
Enlightened
Both of these (the latter a TV show starring Laura Dern) were recommended by an audience member, the first enthusiastically endorsed by Grillo-Marxuach as a film that acts as a tone poem and homage to Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, and THX-1138 with the aesthetics of Canadian tax shelter films from the 1980s—”worth checking out if you want a really good cup of weird.”

Half Life games
Portal games
The Last of Us
EVE: Valkyrie
The next audience question asked for suggestions of video games. Cline is a big fan of Half Life and Portal and said that EVE: Valkyrie is an example of the huge leap forward coming in VR gaming. Grillo-Marxuach professed to being “afraid” of video games after playing Sonic the Hedgehog for twelve hours straight (after which he sent his console to a friend stationed on an aircraft carrier), but said that from the buzz in the TV writers’ rooms he works in, “The Last of Us is apparently the greatest narrative experience ever made,” and he’s been hearing about it for two years straight.

Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle
Southern Reach trilogy, Jeff Vandermeer
Both of these audience recommendations were hastily crammed in as the clock ran down on the panel, but not before a question asking the panelists about exactly what SF did change their lives. Cline: “Star Wars … the way that pop culture can bind you together with your friends.” Espenson: “Star Trek—the optimistic future.” Newitz: “I’ll just say Brazil, again.”

Karin Kross’s life was changed by Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dune. She is attending her seventh SDCC, and she, her husband Bruce, and her friends Shellie and John are posting about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

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