The 5 Best and Worst Movie Robots.

Where would science fiction be without robots? Surrogates would be a lot shorter, Isaac Asimov would be less famous and Star Wars would have to find another source of comic relief. In honour of our great movie robots, here are a few of the best and worst synthetic life-forms to hit the silver screen.

The Best:

Bishop AliensBishop

James Cameron’s Aliens is widely regarded as one of the finest sequels ever made, and rightly so. Cameron’s biggest strength is building a solid, stand alone sequel that still totally inhabits the world created by its predecessor. Both Alien and Aliens feature lifelike androids in pivotal roles. Lance Henriksen’s Bishop is one of the most intriguing movie androids, looking perfectly human and yet adopting mannerisms and speech patterns that set him well apart from his human co-stars. It’s a great piece of acting, and an atypical role for the genre.

The TerminatorThe Terminator

No discussion of movie robots would be complete without a trip to the Terminator series. The killer cyborgs from the future have survived four successful trips to the box office now without losing the audience’s favour. This is probably due, in part, to their timeless skeletal design, but is helped by the excellent time-bending plots of the first two films.

Red Planet AMEEAMEE

A more obscure entry, but a personal favourite. AMEE is the robot antagonist of the massively underrated Red Planet. Taking place during mankind’s first manned trip to Mars, AMEE is a military robot re-purposed for exploration that has a bit of a mishap after a crash landing. Produced with some really remarkable CGI, AMEE had a real dynamic, tactile quality that sets her apart from the crowd.

Data Star Trek MovieData

The Next Generation movies were something of a mixed batch, but Data was a prominent bright spot throughout all four. Each entry takes the opportunity to develop the character in ways that were never really explored on the TV series. Over the course of the films, Data explores emotion, temptation, learns how to play and finally sacrifice, in the otherwise mediocre Star Trek: Nemesis. Not all characters transition well from the small screen, but Data works perfectly. Now if only we could say the same about his grease-paint makeup.

Number 5

Number 5 has not seen an outing since the 80s, but the star of the Short Circuit movies should be turning up in a remake sometime soon. Originally designed as a military robot, Number 5 is brought to life after being struck by lightning. This is one of the best movie robots in terms of design and puppetry; Number 5 features no human features but still manages to be emotive and sympathetic. No doubt the design will be changed when the remake does come along, but hopefully it will still retain some of its charm.

Not all movie mechanoids are so inspiring though, here are a few of the more mundane attempts. 

The Worst:

The Terminatrix Terminator 3The T-X

I feel a little bad picking on Terminator 3, surely it’s had its bumps by now, but I could not leave the T-X off the list. Pitched as “A Terminator to kill Terminators,” the T-X just doesn’t work. Never does the  T-X provide the same level of threat as the liquid metal T-1000 of Terminator 2, and it lacks the same purity of concept. It’s never quite clear how the T-X really works. It has an endoskeleton, covered in liquid metal, presumably to give it a best of both worlds gimmick, but it just seems to hinder both philosophies. Where the T-1000 had rules governing its function, the T-X has none. In the end, Terminator 3 resorts to giving the T-X an endless list of gimmicky superpowers to get it out of any situation which kills any real tension.

Mechani-Kong King KongMechani-Kong

About the only good thing that can be said about Mechani-Kong is that it was created by a character named Dr. Hu, not to be confused with a certain Time-Lord with a British accent. An absolutely awful opponent from King Kong Escapes, one of the Japanese King Kong spinoffs. Mechani-Kong’s place on this list is secured by having perhaps the most ludicrous origin story in cinematic history. Dr. Hu creates Mechani-Kong to dig out a substance known as Element-X from the Earth’s core. His custom made giant gorilla robot proves inadequate for the task, however, and Dr. Hu decides to hypnotise and kidnap the real King Kong to dig for it instead. When King Kong breaks free of his trance, Mechani-Kong is sent to take him down, despite previously being judged incapable of digging through dirt. A movie so bad is has to be seen to be believed.

Robot

Sure, the Lost in Space movie was no classic, but it did have a pretty big budget. Perhaps that’s why the robot design is a such a disappointment. This remote control weapon is lacking in character that when the goofy 60s style design is reintroduced towards the end, it actually looks cooler. It just goes to show you, all the money in the world can’t buy charm.

B-4 Star Trek NemesisB-4

Data’s older, older brother. Another bad decision from Star Trek: Nemesis. It’s hard to know what to hate the most about B-4. Perhaps it’s because the character’s introduction manages to completely ignore the existence of the character Lore, or perhaps it’s because B-4 just fills the typical idiot sidekick role. However, I think what bothers me the most is that the inclusion serves mainly as a back door exit from the film’s climax should it prove unpopular.

Call Alien ResurrectionCall

And here it is, my least favourite movie robot of all time. This is another of the Alien androids and one of the few elements of Alien Resurrection that seems to call back to the well established world of the first film. However, the character is just so thoroughly awful. I have nothing against Winona Ryder, I wouldn’t even say she was miscast, simply that Call is completely at odds with the rest of the film. Alien Resurrection is a dirty, slightly surreal film that has more in common with Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element that Ridley Scott’s Alien, but Call is such a flavourless character that her very presence grates with every second of screen time.

As usual, feel free to disagree in the comments, or check out my take on the best and worst Sci-Fi sitcoms. 

Free Science Fiction Short Story on the Kindle Store Now.

Christmas Past Book CoverThe Time Travel story with a dark side.

A man died while the snow fell. His body would be hidden until summer, but there are strangers in the woods today. During a long forgotten Christmas, three time travellers come to town; is their presence just a coincidence or are there darker secrets hidden beneath the ice.

Christmas Past is the first book in the Timewasters series. It is a spooky time travel story with a Victorian flavour, and is free until Thursday.

Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk

The Avengers: Science Fiction’s Domination of the Mainstream.

As you might have gathered from my discussion of the narrative problems in The Dark Knight Rises, I’m a bit of a comic book fan. However, Batman was not the only highly anticipated superhero on the big screen this year. We were also treated to Marvel’s Avengers movie, the culmination of a lot of planning and around five very successful establishing films. I have been following the franchise, I saw The Avengers and I liked it, and though some of the supporting films haven’t been great, I would say it has largely been a successful experiment. But, what interests me most as a Science Fiction author is the way the franchise has found so much success with a general audience. This is not unusual for big-budget action flicks, but it is unusual that Sci-Fi is still seen to be a niche genre.

I know what you’re going to say. The Avengers movies aren’t science fiction, they’re comic books movies. They are flights of adolescent fantasy, not our beloved speculative fiction! 

Nonsense.

The mainstream acceptance of “superhero” as a genre seems to have blinded people to the Sci-Fi origins of the these characters. In fact, with a few (magical or supernatural) exceptions, most successful superheroes owe their creation to science fiction. Many were born out from our paranoia about nuclear power: Spider-man is the result of an irradiated Spider, The Fantastic Four were astronauts hit by cosmic radiation, The Hulk was caught in the blast of a bomb powered by Gamma radiation. Others are more conceptual Science Fiction, the X-Men are the products or our natural evolutionary process. And then there’s Superman, the grandfather of all modern superheroes. He’s an alien.

While so many of these characters have become bigger than their origins over the years, The Avengers movies have positively played up this side of the franchise. Take Thor, for example. While opinion has been divided over the years as to whether Thor actually is a god or not, Kenneth Branagh’s excellent film establishes quite clearly that Asgard is a physical realm. Character cross from one realm to the next, not by magical powers, but by technology that utilises a very sophisticated understanding of theoretical physics. A Science Fiction story in which Asgard is a real place in time and space, and can be reached only by a giant bridge made of energy? It sounds almost like one of Asimov’s.

The connection is even clearer for the other characters. The story of the Incredible Hulk is essentially a combination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two classics of Gothic Science Fiction. Captain America is about a government’s quest to create the perfect soldier. In the Avengers, his story is about a man displaced from his time. Finally, Iron Man is about a man with a robotic suit of armour powered by a revolutionary form of alternate energy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Marvel’s Avengers franchise represents a rebirth of intelligent Science Fiction, but that they represent a growing acceptance of Science Fiction and its themes from a mainstream audience. While the priority will always be action and special effects in these films, they still tell thought provoking, speculative stories that get people thinking. More than that, however, they entertain, and that is the more important trait of all.

Time Trial: A short science fiction eBook – On Sale Now!

Celebrations are in order because my new short story, Time Trial has just been published to the Kindle store.

time trail book cover“Harbour is the nicest place to live in the known universe. Unless you’re a time traveller. 

It has been weeks since Annie left Earth and all she wants to do is go home, but first she and her friends must stand trial.

Unfortunately, they are all guilty.”

This story is a 9000 word adventure. Set on an Earth colony in the far future, it explores a society where time travel is illegal. It is part of my Timewasters series and follows the same characters from Christmas Past. I had a lot of fun writing it and I will be returning to this series for my next short story.

If you’d like to read this story, it’s only 99c/77p and available from Amazon.

Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk

The 5 Best and Worst Science Fiction Sitcoms

They say that Sci-Fi and comedy don’t go together. This is usually true, but there are still those rare gems that make TV worth watching. For your viewing pleasure, here is my list of the five finest Science Fiction sitcoms, along with a quick look at five bad ones to balance things out.

The Best: 

Goodnight Sweetheart

This excellent BBC series is actually more of a historical show, but uses Time Travel as a plot device to get the job done. Gary Sparrow is a TV repairman from London who happens to wander down the wrong side street one day and turn up in the middle of World War II. While there he meets Phoebe, the pub landlord, and builds a second life in the past.

This is a tremendously funny show that puts a new spin on the old double-life farce. It’s a bold idea that really works and the writing is so good that it even survives a few cast changes in its later years.

Invader Zim

I was a late arrival to Invader Zim, only discovering it many years after its untimely cancellation after it had been recommended to me by nearly everyone I had met. Created by Johnen Vasquez, the brain behind the Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee comics, Invader Zim is a weird and wonderful animated series that aired on Nickelodeon. The show follows the misadventures of Zim, an alien who believes he has been sent to Earth to take over, but is actually only there to get him out of the way. His plans are foiled by Dib, a local boy who has an obsession with the paranormal.

This show is not only brilliantly funny, but it has a beautiful art style that is all its own. Animated shows aren’t for everybody, but if they’re your thing then this is a must see.

Alf

If any show sums up the 80s perfectly for me, it must be Alf. This goofy family show about a pop-culture literate alien that goes to live with the typical sitcom family was the perfect balance between overacted drama and endearing kitsch. The show’s biggest strength comes not from its ability to poke fun at the clichéd family sitcom while exploiting the same format. However, it hasn’t aged too well these days and so is probably only worth re-watching if you have a strong nostalgic streak.

Futurama

I’m sure this will be at the top of many people’s lists; it was a very close second. Since it arrived back in the year 1999, Futurama has gone from being Matt Groening’s red-headed stepchild to one of the most entertaining shows on TV. As The Simpsons becomes more and more like the embarrassingly drunken older sibling, Futurama has really had chance to shine. Packed full of cultural and scientific references, a single episode of Futurama appeals to a wide audience, with humour that reaches from the insanely intelligent to the ridiculously dumb. True, it hasn’t been the same since its cancellation and return, but at its peak this is still a great show for sci-fi fans.

And finally…

Red Dwarf

Here it is. The King of the Science Fiction sitcom. Running for eight years before cancellation, Red Dwarf has since returned for specials (and an upcoming new series) on digital channel, Dave. Still hugely popular, the series takes place 3 million years in the future and follows Dave Lister, the last human being alive. With him are Rimmer, Kryten and the Cat; a hologram, robot and humanoid cat. Amazingly funny, and exploring many of the same themes are some of the more “serious” science fiction shows out there. Red Dwarf went where no sitcom had gone before.

So, what about the duds?

The Worst:

3rd Rock from the Sun

I will never understand how this series lasted for six seasons. The day to day adventures of a group of aliens hiding out on Earth, pretending to be a typical American family. Six years and not a single good joke.

Caveman

Here’s a tip for the future. Always have low expectations when it comes to TV shows based on adverts. Geico’s cavemen is freed from his massively overrated commercials to star in this astonishingly bad series.

Lost in Space

Yes, I know. It’s a classic. But it’s not a particularly good classic. Science Fiction is a genre in which the sky is the limit, Lost in Space gave us one 60s TV family in the same building week after week. Oh, and the only alien was a chimp wearing fake ears.

The Strangerers

Created  by Rob Grant, one half of the two-man team behind Red Dwarf, a lot of people thought The Strangerers would be at least half good. While the show had a couple of good ideas here and there, the budget was tiny and the acting came off like it had escaped from a sketch show.

My Hero

Another astonishing six year success. In fact, My Hero was only cancelled when original star Ardal O’Hanlon left and was replaced by the increasingly awful James Dreyfus. A British superhero spoof in which every joke was groan worthy, every plot was predictable and every moment was agony.

The End. 

(Feel free to argue with me in the comments.)

Why I Write Science Fiction.

I am a science fiction author.

I’m not sure I’ve ever written that before, the conclusion is still new to me. It finally dawned on me a few days ago when I was playing with the categories for Christmas Past, making sure they were the appropriate for the book. I was thinking how interesting it would be to write other stories, in other genres, and see which categories are easiest to top. That wouldn’t be for a while, of course. For the time being I am writing my Timewasters short stories. The series follows a group of strangers who become reluctant time travellers after an accident and have a multitude of adventures across all time and space. A light, easy read series that I write mostly for pleasure and to build up my writing chops.

I have other books I’m working on. My most developed project is about a ghost working for the police department (I hear snickering at the back, stoppit!) but I suppose that is borderline science fiction too. So I looked through all my ideas, developed and undeveloped. They weren’t all outright science fiction, but each and every one tiptoed around the edge at least. This was a surprise. You see, I have never thought of myself explicitly as a genre author, despite writing little else. That might seem strange, or blind even, but I think it comes from a wide taste in reading material. The revelation made me a little uncomfortable. Genre fiction might be consumed by the mass market, but it rarely finds the respect it deserves. Furthermore, science fiction can be a competitive niche and breaking through might be a lifelong challenge. However, the more I thought about it, the happier I became with my new pigeonhole.

Starship EnterpriseThe strength of science fiction has not changed over the years. Its appeal still comes from its ability to combine the fantastic with the possible. Fantasy, in comparison, deals with entertaining impossibilities. We can search every inch of the globe and we will never find a genuine wizard or elf, this is part of what makes the concept so appealing. Fantasy creates a world with its own rules from our myths and legends. Science Fiction is usually more grounded that this. While it sometimes deals in impossibilities, it arrives there from realistic speculation. It proposes what is impossible now, but might not be in years to come; in some cases, it proposes the likely. Take Star Trek, for example. While the concept of Warp Drive or Matter Transportation might never become a reality, the idea of manned exploration vessels is now almost a certainty.

In my Timewasters stories, I use the impossible as a narrative tool. My time travellers jump from place to place via a web of tunnels the span all of time and space. (To the best of my knowledge, no such web exists.) However, each individual destination allows me to explore different, more grounded, possibilities. Christmas Past, for example, explores the consequences of time travellers from the future upon an isolated community in the past. Time Trial goes in quite the opposite direction and looks at a future where time travel is mundane, how does that society legislate such technology? Where fantasy creates a new reality, Science Fiction uses small impossibilities to break down a few boundaries and explore our own reality. My favourite example of this is Back to the Future, which introduces Time Travel as a means to explore the relationship between teenagers and their parents. Science fiction offers what no other genre does, the escapism of the impossible and the emotional appeal of reality.

However, there is another reason to delve into writing Science Fiction. It might be a tough niche to break, but when you win you usually win big. Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate; some of the most successful franchises in Film and TV and they are all science fiction. In literature, Dune, Ender’s Game, I, Robot, Starship Troopers; all have survived the test of time. Many have also gone on to be successful in Film and TV. Science Fiction does not just succeed, it endures and it spreads ideas to other genres.

At the end of the day though, none of these reasons are my own. When I first decided to take my writing seriously, I stared at a blank screen and pulled out any idea I had. The ones I liked the most, the ideas I felt best able to write, were science fiction. Time travel, spaceships, dystopian futures and apocalyptic wars aren’t just fanciful escapism or entertainment, they are the building blocks that make up my narrative vocabulary. They are the key components of the stories I consume, and the stories that I tell. When all is said and done, I write science fiction because I could communicated as effectively by writing anything else. A common piece of advice given to writers is to write what you know. I’d like to suggest that this is incomplete, you should not just write what you know but also write what you love. Write what comes most comfortably and you will communicate yourself the most accurately. That’s what writing is all about.

Should writers market?

I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s fascinating book Permission Marketing today and it got me thinking about how I, and other writers, seem to approach promotion. Right of the bat I have to say that I have never liked marketing. While I recognise its necessity, self promotion has never come easily to me. I find it awkward and unpleasant, but reading Permission Marketing has really lifted a weight of my shoulders and got me looking at things differently?

So, what is permission marketing? Basically, Godin outlines too kinds of marketing inhis book. The first is interruption marketing. This is the basic form of marketing that we’re all familiar with in which you attempt to draw your prospective customer’s eye away from what their doing long enough to talk them into buying your product. I’ve always hated this kind of marketing and I’m pretty sure that this is why talking about advertising makes me so uncomfortable.

Permission Marketing, Godin tells us, is the exact opposite of this. Rather than intruding upon your prospective customer, you get permission to contact them and then work to build a relationship with them over time that gradually turns them into a loyal customer. The only drawback appears to be that getting the initial permission to contact them necessitates a little of that old fashioned interruption. However, I must admit that this sits a lot better with me. I feel much more comfortable talking to people who are a little bit interested in what I have to say and going from there than standing in the middle of the street shouting “buy my book.”

I’m still in the early days of my writing career and I don’t really have a marketing strategy to speak of, but it has always been my intention to avoid becoming a spammer.  Unfortunately seems to be one of the pitfalls of the internet, you’re only a few short clicks away from the deadly Affiliate Marketing machine that seems to suck in so many good people and absorb them.

But are any of these concerns really necessary? Should self published authors really worry about marketing?

One of the great advantages to Amazon’s KDP service is that a small bit of luck can go a long way. This is partly because you are publishing to one of the most visible and reliable online stores in the world, and partly because it doesn’t take much to get Amazon working for you. While they seem to be a little more effective at sorting out the chaff than they used to be, Amazon’s algorithms are still very favourable to authors. When you combine the bestseller lists, popular lists and also-boughts, Amazon actually does a lot to generate exposure for your book once you get your feet off the ground.

A spike in sales and good reviews seem to be the only events that reliably generate more sales, with advertising and agressive marketing remaining a defunct option. One of self publishing’s biggest success stories, J.A Konrath, said not long ago that he doesn’t believe that many of his sales come from his reputation in the self publishing world. Rather, he attributes his success to writing and publishing a large number of books and giving them professional covers. This is the same advice we see repeated over and over in the self publishing community; the best promotional tool is another book. Over time the writer should seek to develop of platform of multiple books and good reputation, eventually this will create enough momentum and sales increase across the board. Sounds nice.

So, what can I contribute to this discussion?

At the moment I only have one book to my name, I’ll be sure to tell you what happens when I have a second. What I can tell you is that selling a single short story is no small job. In fact, just about the only thing that ever shifted copies was the faithful KDP Select free day that I talked about previously.

Should writers market? I’m inclined to say no. At least, not in the traditional sense. I tried marketing a short story. Though my efforts were meagre, the time I spent should have generated a few sales. That was not the case and all the self promotion in the world only seemed to count when the book was going for free. Admittedly, a short story by an unknown author is at a disavantage, but one only gets known by selling books and had it been a novel the improvements could not be huge. Writers marketing online seem to get a very small benefit compared to the effort they put in, and the success stories come, not from those who marketed, but from those who wrote the most.

The Craftsman or the Factory Line.

Finishing a piece of writing is harder than it sounds.

I know it probably shouldn’t be. I mean, as writers we should be well versed with the entire process of writing, right? We should know each and every step of a project start to finish. After all, we’re writers? We’re the people who do the writing, who else is going to know?

This doesn’t seem to be the case.

Perhaps the most common complaint I hear from other writers, and from myself, is that it’s a hassle to get projects finished. I know this was my problem. I was calling myself a writer for years, but I didn’t actually sit down and bring a story to something I could call completion until the end of last year. That was the first, and only time, I’ve turned the last page on a manuscript and said “it’s done.” Hopefully that will change soon. My deadline for Time Trial is the fifteenth and I’m probably going to meet it, but those near-deadline doubts and anxieties are creeping in. It has me thinking about how I ever made myself finish that first story, and the approach I take to my work.

I used to take The Craftsman approach. I think everyone probably does at first. The Craftsman approach is one of perfection. You start writing your story at the beginning and every time you write something you don’t like, you stop and fix it. The problem with The Craftsman approach is that it is unbearably slow. Seeking out perfection at each and every stage is impossible and this is probably the reason that so few writers actually finish projects. The other problem with this approach is that you need experience with all aspects of writing to really develop as a writer. After years of calling myself a writer, I learnt that I had no experience with anything beyond writing the first draft. I had to change the way I was doing things.

So, I moved on to the Factory Line approach. I had grown so frustrated with never finishing anything that when I wrote Christmas Past, I wrote it to a strict deadline. Too strict in fact. I started in the first week of December and told myself to be done by Christmas. It was published on the 4th of January. It has its problems, but to this day I am amazed how well that little story turned out. From there, I made a few stumbles. Firstly, I told myself that I would adopt a similar deadline approach. However, instead of working on the next story, I decided I would write a short story collection. The mistake was obvious. I had gone from setting myself a small (almost) manageable goal, to giving myself a much larger project with a much more distant deadline. The goal might have been clearly set, but the workload was too high and the date so distant that I was no better off than I had been without a deadline. It took me until June to realise this.

So, I went back to the drawing board. I gave myself a basic plan for a series of six stories, with a timeslot of six weeks to bring each to completion. This was my Factory Line. Producing a single product in a concentrated space of time, publishing and  moving on the next. The results have been satsifactory so far. The first draft of Time Trial was produced quickly and I was happy with it. After that, I have had much more time to go back and revise and edit it. However, now I’m running into some of the flaws with this approach, and I can’t decide if I’m just having reasonable doubts or I’m sniffing out major wounds in my work.

My biggest problem is that, like most writers, I get too close to my work while I’m writing it. This makes it much harder to view the work objectively, and I find I trust my judgement less and less. My Factory Line approach says I should work to get the story as perfect as I can, publish and then move on. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad idea, at this stage in my development as a writer I am probably better served moving on to the next piece than deliberating over an old one. But, I worry that if my doubts are justified, I run the risk of publishing a terrible piece and doing real damage to my reputation.

I have always said that I want to learn as I do. Not just learning about the business side, but learning more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I like using KDP and self-publishing as a ladder, allowing writers to start small and work their way up in a way that traditional publishing no longer allows. Unfortunately, it often leaves me second guessing my actions. Wondering if I have the right to publish my early steps into professional writing. A publisher would probably reject them, therefore I have no place publishing them. But isn’t this the attitude that self-publishing exists in opposition to? At the end of the day, I’ve set myself a deadline and I intend to meet it. I try not to let my worries change my behaviour. If being too close means that I can’t trust my judgement, the best approach is probably just to stick to the plan and look back to see how I did later. I have little reputation to tarnish at the moment, and so long as I’m honest and I only publish a work that I really feel reflect my best abilities, I have no reason to feel badly.

Time Trial – Book Cover

Another quick update today, I just thought I’d share the basic cover I’m working on for my new short story.

time trail book cover

I’m not sure if I’m going to make any changes yet. It looks neat and tidy as it is and I not exactly a professional artist so I don’t want to try and out-clever myself and mess it all up.