Imagining Beauty

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, so said Keats. I wonder what each person sees in their mind what visions are conjured when they hear that phrase. Or perhaps, what they envision when they simply see or hear the word ‘beauty’? The mystery of the mind and its complex machinations is at the heart of all art, no matter how small or great. The child sitting at a desk at school writes what he or she sees of the small world that they know and the great universe they can imagine. The rulers of countries sit at their desk signing their name and attaching it to ideas and dreams they have about the future.

Too often people consume their day with negative worries and fears. So much more time should be given to our imaginings. So much more effort should be spent on visualisations of what we hope will be, what we wish to achieve. Especially if those dreams and wishes are of things that are good.

I was inspired just now about the concept of beauty when I was flicking through YouTube watching short animation sci-fi films. There is some outstanding work being done out there, especially by people who are funding the projects themselves. Often I get so caught up in reading current sci-fi work that I forget how immediate and blistering inspiration can come from sight and sound. How the vast landscapes of written text can so quickly be etched into mindbogglingly beautiful reality through the medium of film.

Short films in particular, need to infuse a ton of of ideas into the viewers imagination in a short window of time. Perhaps this gives the short film genre more license to be more disjointed and incomplete than feature films. They offer only fractured glimpses of another world just as short stories do, without being bogged down by the constraints of character development, story arcs and plotting that larger works depend on.

This seems like a great excuse for me to offer a plug for a sci-fi short film I worked on in 2010. I co-designed the sound for a film called Abiogenesis. As the blurb states; “In this breathtaking science fiction spectacle, a strange mechanical device lands on a desolate world and uses the planet to undergo a startling transformation, that has profound implications for an entire galaxy.”

You can buy it here on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/abiogenesis/id644210102 or preview it. There is only a trailer of it on YouTube that doesn’t feature my sound sadly, nor the actual musical sound track by Rhian Sheehan. It has won numerous festival awards that has put it in a position to be eligible for an Oscar award in 2014.

Shameless plug aside, another film I just watched that sparked my interest was one called ‘The Gift’ –

The complexity of the world building and sheer beauty of ‘The Gift’ is laced with a sense of mystery that utterly captivated me. Though it is only a few minutes in duration and barely scratches at the surface of a compelling view of a futuristic Russia, it draws me in and leaves me craving more. The key character is a creepily well animated robot butler with porcelain skin. He is chased and hunted down by police for stealing a strange metallic box containing what we are only told is a ‘unicorn.’ When the film concludes, I know I should be disappointed for not finding out what the ‘unicorn’ actually is, but instead I’m glad. The puzzle is left open for the viewers imagination to toy with. My mind twists and turns over what the ‘unicorn’ could possibly be and what the motives of the people who wanted to obtain it are. As one of my favourite film makers David Lynch once said, “The more unknowable the mystery, the more beautiful it is.”

A riddle unsolved, that is the spark of inspiration that I crave constantly. Like a book not quite completed, the painting I imagine myself creating before I start, a quiet afternoon spent pondering what I will do next year.

When I was younger I used to think endlessly about the universe and what it meant to say that it was infinite. I used to end up feeling scared, intimidated and helpless. When I thought too long about it all, I always wound up thinking that perhaps there was no meaning to life? Then one day, I had a revelation. A moment of relaxation…of letting go. I realised that if we knew the reasons, the limits, or all the answers then it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting or profound or beautiful. Though every day the sun rises and sets, everything is always changing, always fresh. Transformation of matter and energy is endless and so is my daily appreciation for everything that I see, hear, taste, smell, think and feel. Beauty is just that to me, endless mystery.

How about you? What does beauty mean to you? I’d love to hear since only through sharing our stories can new idea be born.

The Magic of Sci-fi

Carrying on from my last post about working in film and how it helps me learn about the crafting of story through my experience with the editorial process, I thought I might take a moment to look at the film I worked on last year that has just come out, Elysium.

I mean, I’m not going to review it, since I worked on it, that would be a little self-serving. No, really, I just want to talk about how difficult and yet enticing it is to write sci-fi these days.

I have always loved science, but I feel that in the last few years so many changes and advances have been made in scientific fields of study that we are really in a very open and exploratory phase of human history. Fields of study that were at one time mocked or ridiculed are now openly accepted as legitimate research subjects or at least worthy of investigating.

I feel that a resurgence of interest in sci-fi films and novels somewhat reflects this shift. It’s an exciting time to be writing sci-fi and getting to work on one of this year’s biggest sci-fi films was a real honour. It was also an amazing opportunity to work with writer/director Neil Blomkamp, who is at the forefront of modern sci-fi story telling.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/aug/17/elysium-neill-bloomkamp-interview

I loved working on this project and felt honoured to have been part of a team that was so talented and dedicated.

However, when it comes to writing my own sci-fi, I often I find myself daunted by the amount of research required to do the work justice. I find that I battle constantly with trying to…

  1. Create accurate and plausible technology and science for my universe without…
  2. Bogging down the text with too much jargon and at the same time…
  3. Keeping it fresh and exciting with ideas and concepts that perhaps haven’t been looked at before or at least are being dealt with in a new way. While…
  4. Being mindful of genre staples/ cliches/ paradigms .Knowing when to adhere to what is tradition and when to steer clear from what is old hat…and lastly
  5. Trying to figure out how a modern teen really would behave in the bizarre circumstances that they find themselves in.

 

All the while I’m conscious that sci-fi readers are among the most critical and scrutinizing of all genre fans. And they have every right to be! I know I’m critical of other sci-fi writers.

Sci-fi writers  suffer all the criticisms of ordinary fantasy. Both genres deal with forging something completely imaginary and trying to make it believable. Readers ask questions like…

  1. Is the world building seamless?
  2. Are the characters realistic for the world that they inhabit? and
  3. Is the social/economic/political structures within the world detailed and well balanced to convince the reader that its all real?

But unlike fantasty authors, sci-fi writers also have to deal with an audience who have a sophisticated understanding of modern science and technology. Every single reader/viewer has their own opinion on how they foresee humanity will fare in the future – for better or worse. This is the key to understanding the sci-fi genre…because sci-fi stories all have something in common. They deal with the concept of our use of science or technology getting out of hand. The classic Prometheus myth. Sci-fi tackles heavy issues dealing with the human thirst of conquering new horizons without taking heed of the consequences. It is a genre that is about looking to the possibilities of the future in order to take responsibility for the actions of the present.

In Blomkamp’s Elysium, for example, we see the dark side of that philosophy. Elysium offers a look at how our current world social and economic structure may lead to a future where social division between the rich and the poor are at extremes and the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. We see a scenario where sacrifices must be made on both sides of the social spectrum, in order for a balance to be re-established.

Without going into too much specific back-story about how the world ended up in this situation, Elysium makes the viewer think about the implications of our current world economic situation and do some hard evaluating.

The sci-fi author must always be looking to the horizon. I find that it is getting harder to keep up to date with the rapid advances in science. It is really difficult to stay ahead of the curb. You have to identify with modern science and project it forwards, to investigate how it may evolve and change in time and what implications it has for the future of humanity, both good and bad.

But if a book takes three years to write/publish then the modern sci-fi writer has to realise that in the time it takes to get the book out there, a whole gamut of scientific discoveries will emerge.

Two years ago when I began writing my book, the Higgs Boson particle had not been discovered…NASA’s Curiosity had not landed on Mars…numerous exo-planets hadn’t been discovered including one Earth-sized planet that orbits Alpha Centauri B. And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s been going on.

Now, having said all this, my story is heavily steeped in what can only be called magic. I worry about this at times, knowing that hard-core sci-fi readers might reject some of my more ethereal concepts. I try to reassure myself that magic is just as valid in sci-fi as physics, since at some point in our human history, they could be seen as one and the same thing.

I tend to think that only by incorporating things that seem utterly like magic to us, can I write sci-fi that is true to what I love about the mystery of science. Or perhaps, I’m just a dreamer who has my head too far up in the clouds? Sometimes I focus too hard on getting the facts right, (especially knowing that my nuclear chemist brother would not approve of my sloppy research). But sometimes, I find it particularly hard to be practical when it comes to some of the core scientific aspects of my work. I prefer to focus on a more philosophical and emotional side of things and sort of let the structural mechanics of the world fall into place around the characters. After all, it’s the character’s story that matters most to me.

So, yes, it’s a difficult and yet thrilling era to be working on sci-fi, I might even go so far as to say it’s magical.