Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Futility (Part 1)

There is a book — actually, there are lots of books. Got nothing but books here, y'know? There must be close to 10,000 books on this level of the house alone, so of course, there is this one particular book, and now that I want to quote it, do you think I can find it?

The book is Constructing Scientifiction, by five-time Hugo Award-winning Best Editor and founding Asimov's editor George Scithers and legendary author Darrell Schweitzer. (If you've met Darrell, you know why he's legendary. Hi, Darrell!) Since I can't find my copy of it right now — I will, of course, find it next week, when I'm no longer looking for it — I'm going to have to paraphrase.

On the subject of endings, Scithers had something like this to say. (Paraphrasing, now.) We do not buy stories that end in futility. By all means, have the hero fail. That's what makes it tragedy. Have him try, have him struggle against impossible odds, and in the end, have him lose and even die, but dammit, have him go down fighting! Stories about people who surrender meekly to their fates are inherently uninteresting and depressing.

Applying this principle to "The Cold Equations," then — sorry, I hate to keep harping on it, but it's such a good point of reference — here's the Joss Whedon rewrite. Everything proceeds about the same as in the original, right up to the point at which Marilyn seems to have accepted her fate and Barton, full of sympathy, turns his head and lowers his guard for a moment.
BAM! In a sudden and surprising blur of motion, the girl nailed Barton in the temple with a pivot-kick that hit him like a sandal-tipped bolt of lightning. Barton staggered and sagged to the deck, seeing stars, and by the time he recovered his wits she'd recovered the gun, had it pointed at him, and was screaming at the top of her lungs.


She stepped back out of Barton's reach and with the gun motioned Barton into the pilot's chair. "There is no way I am going out that frakkin' airlock! According to you I'm dead anyway, so right now I don't give a Tyderian bat's behind who else dies too! Which means you have got exactly five minutes to either teach me how to fly this crate before you go jump out the airlock yourself, or else we are going to solve this problem!"

She swallowed hard, and struggled to get control of her rapid breathing. "Now, let's think. If every blasted ounce is critical, why does this bucket have a storeroom with a door? I know, so I had someplace to hide, but never mind that; about that door. How much does it weigh? How do the hinges come apart?" Barton started to answer, but she snapped the gun into his face again.

"No, first, out of that uniform, flyboy! Don't get any happy ideas; you are way too old for me. But those boots you're wearing must be five pounds each." Barton began stripping, and while his skivvies were down around his ankles Marilyn risked another glance around the cabin.

"Next, you get on the radio, and you tell those sadistic bastards back on the Stardust what the situation is now and get 'em started on calculating a new landing trajectory for us..."
As I said, it's the Joss Whedon rewrite, and admittedly a load of shameless buffytastic dramaqueening. But this got me thinking:

Is that part of the problem with heroism these days? That as a post-literate culture we're all so imprinted with the sort over-the-top dramaqueenery the movies have been peddling for the last half-century or so that we no longer understand or remember what real heroism was like?

As a case in point, let's talk about two similar but very different book-based movies: Marooned, based on the novel by Martin Caidin, and Apollo 13, based on the non-fiction book Lost Moon, by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. be continued...