content by

J.C. Hutchins

Visitors, get off my lawn! Oh wait. You’re actually cool. Never mind.

When I heard that ABC was spearheading a reboot / remake / reimagining / re-whatever of the 1980s alien invasion show V, my often-optimistic self immediately devolved into a surly SF curmudgeon. It was embarrassing: Leave my childhood alone! A Michael Ironside-less V is no V at all! Where are the white Skyfighters? You newfangled Visitors get off my lawn!

And then I watched the pilot. I was blown out of my socks. Thoroughly impressed. I do recommend you check if out, if you haven’t already. I also recommend that you stop reading here if you’re keen on a spoiler-free experience. It’s a worshipful V Spoiler-A-Thon 2009 from here on out—even the cruel 1980s Visitor leader Diana can’t stop me!

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Rejection rules! (The “7th Son” story, from podcast to print)

I love the word “no.” It is finality delivered economically. Zero wiggle room. You’re done, dude. No means no.

Unless you’re a pig-headed loon like me. Then “no” means, “figure out a way to make it a yes.”

Back in 2005, I presented 7th Son, a novel I’d spent three years writing and editing, to around 60 literary agents. Doggone, did I love this thing. Doggone, did I think it was a winner. But in hindsight, the book—a high-tech thriller about human cloning, implanted memories and seven “everymen” clones tasked with taking down a villain that’d make Cobra Commander wet the bed—had everything going against it.

It was a crazy genre-blend of sci-fi, conventional thriller, and military adventure . . . with dashes of political thriller and horror tossed in to further muddy its genre classification. There was no romance. There were seven main protagonists, all clones of one man, all with similar names. Perhaps most damning, the book was 1,200 pages long. (A typical thriller clocks in at 400 pages, max.) I hadn’t written a book. I’d written a phonebook.

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Why the best sci-fi TV and movies don’t *feel* like sci-fi

Last week, I suggested that sci-f/fantasy readers and authors could benefit from reading genres other than SFF. I contended that the quality of SFF stories can improve from exposure to mainstream genres, reduce the barrier of entry for newcomers to SFF, and create an even larger community of fans.

Today, I’d like to illustrate this by geeking out on some movies and TV shows that inject high doses of SFF elements into their stories, yet proved to be completely accessible to mainstream audiences. Some of these stories aren’t usually classified as sci-fi by norms, which is awfully cool: it shows us that SFF need not alienate audiences with a high barrier of entry, and that the surly “us vs. the world” underdog/junkyard dog attitude a vocal few SFF audiences and authors have need not exist.

I’ll then follow up with why I think these SFF-in-sheep’s-clothing stories are so successful, and what we fans (and writers) can learn from them.

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Screw CGI: Gimme old-school visual effects

I was born in the mid-1970s, and came up watching movies in what quickly became an amazing time to be a sci-fi fan. Viewers were treated to an ever-marching parade of awesome SF flicks: Alien, Aliens, Close Encounters, E.T., the original Star Wars trilogy, Blade Runner, Star Trek II . . . it goes on and on. These movies had great stories and characters. They also had great eye candy—visual effects.

Man, do I loves me some eye candy.

Of course, much of these groundbreaking VFX hailed from breakthroughs in technology: a combination of model-making artistry and computer-fueled motion control camera work, and crazy-convincing mashups of matte paintings and rotoscoping. It was tedious, expensive work; nearly all of it was meticulously crafted by hand, using real-world cameras, sets, paint, explosives and glued-together models.

This stuff was also strapped by real-world compromises and technological limitations. Those glory years were filled with real “bubblegum and chickenwire” stories; the “M” in ILM should’ve stood for MacGuyver. And yet, a hearty chunk of me still finds these effects far more convincing than the superior VFX technologies filmmakers now have at their disposal.

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What If? and What Happens Next? Two secret weapons for aspiring writers

I’m a believer that we are all storytellers—many of us are good ones. We spin tales whenever we tell a joke, or recount the day’s events at the dinner table, or roll a D20, or recap the most recent episode of V to our buddies. I’m also a SF thriller novelist and, unlike some literary snobs I read about (and give the mental middle finger to), I believe we all have at least one great story inside us, taking up space, rattling at the cage bars, hungry to be let loose. That fictional story may very well be a good one, too.

You’re a SFF fan, which means you’re extremely imaginative. That’s good. Imagination is the key ingredient to being a tale-teller. If you’ve got a novel, short story or screenplay prowling inside your guts—but have never made the attempt to set it free—I, as Ambassador For All Writers Who Claim Ridiculous Ambassadorships For These Occasions, proclaim it’s high time you stopped listening to that fretful voice in your noggin (It won’t be any good . . . You don’t have time to write . . . It’s all been said before), plant your bootie in a chair, and get typing. You’re not getting any younger, ya know—and you’ll never learn to fly if you don’t flap those wings.

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Why SF fans (and authors) can benefit from reading other genres

Man, does my heart beat for sci-fi. It’s a pity the genre rarely gets its deserved due in the mainstream. I can cite a dozen SF novels released this year that beat the pants off The Lost Symbol and other New York Times bestsellers in both content and craft…and yet, so many sci-fi and fantasy writers, myself included, scrap like pit bulls for coverage beyond the loyal—if comparatively much smaller—SFF-friendly blogosphere.

We’re a different breed. Our stories sport big ideas, social commentary and brains. We’re ferociously loyal to our favorite SFF novelists (here’s my holla to Sawyer, Scalzi and Vinge—represent!), and we’re often very loyal to the SFF genres, and their subgenres. In fact, most of my sci-fi and fantasy lovin’ friends read nothing but SFF.

I treasure that passion and loyalty, and you should too: ours is an awesome community. Yet I wonder if we—as readers and writers—can learn something from these bestsellers and the genres in which they roll. And I think the best way to learn something is to experience it.

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