A Little Inspiration: Alien Creature

Sometimes you need a little inspiration to come up with that unique and interesting alien creature for your science fiction story. Other times, inspiration just falls into you lap. Does this look like some fantastic alien critter, or what?

An Alien Creature

As you might have expected, the photo is not really that of an alien creature. It’s really a picture of a bear that, due to some ailment, has lost most of its fur. Still, what if it were an alien creature?

Could it be intelligent? Could it walk upright if it chose to? Lengthen the toes and add an opposable thumb, and you’ve got the start for a new alien species…

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Science Fiction in the Real World

My name is David Keener, and I’m a science fiction fan.

I know what you’re thinking.



“Why on Earth do you read such garbage?”

“Why do you fill your head with all of this useless, impractical information?”

Contact - by Carl Sagan It’s clear that there’s not a lot of respect for science fiction. Despite the fact that 9 of the top 10 movies at the worldwide box office are science-fiction; and 18 out of the top 20; and 26 out of the top 30 movies. And despite the fact that science-fiction-related books appear regularly on the New York Times best seller list.

You can see this disrespect in other places as well. The movie, Contact, starring Jodie Foster, is about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It’s about what happens when an alien species sends a message to Earth…but it’s not science fiction.

According to Best Buy, it’s a drama.

Avatar - Written and directed by James CameronThis is my favorite example. The movie, Avatar, directed by James Cameron, is about a native revolt on an alien planet.

It’s also not science fiction, according to Best Buy. It’s an action-adventure.

So, it’s clear that science fiction doesn’t get much respect.

Well, I think that’s wrong.

Let me give you some examples of why I think that’s wrong.

From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon - by Jules Verne In 1865, Jules Verne wrote a novel called From the Earth to the Moon (followed by a later sequel called Around the Moon). In it, a group of would-be space-farers travel to Florida, for the same reasons that Nasa is there, and they build a giant cannon in order to launch their spaceship into orbit. Where they have to deal with real technical problems, like the lack of air in space.

Now, Jules Verne got a few details wrong. It was 1865, after all.

When you see a shuttle launch, you’re seeing a lot of force applied over an extended time in order to get that ship into orbit. Using a cannon, however, all that force is applied at once. What would have arrived in orbit would have probably been a slightly crumpled ship, with something resembling red paint on the back wall.

Not good. Not good at all.

But 104 years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

2001: A Space Odyssey - by Arthur C. Clarke In 1934, an engineer turned science fiction writer named Arthur C. Clarke, wrote a paper in which he suggested that a geo-synchronous orbit would be an ideal place to put a satellite because it could function effectively as a communications hub. A geo-synchronous orbit is one in which the satellite orbits around the Earth at the same speed that the Earth is rotating, so the satellite appears to stay stationary in the sky.

He was right. Today, communication satellites are a multi-billion dollar a year business.

And, by the way, Arthur C. Clarke went on to write 2001: A Space Odyssey and to co-host the Apollo moon landing with Walter Cronkite.

I don’t think these things are coincidences. I think Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke helped to popularize space exploration and technological development. I think they influenced and inspired future scientists and engineers who helped make the things that they wrote about actually happen in the real world.

In a way, science fiction has some interesting similarities to science itself. Which is probably not really a surprise.

In science, you create a theory. Then you devise experiments to test the theory, and to prove or disprove it.

Science fiction has rules, too. With a science fiction story, an author essentially asks you to allow him certain assumptions in order to make his story plausible. Once you’ve given the author these prerequisites, however, everything in the story should flow directly and consistently from those assumptions.

Jurassic Park - by Michael Crichton Let me give you an example. How many people have seen the movie, Jurassic Park, or read the book by Michael Crichton?

In Crichton’s story, the only assumption he makes is that it’s possible to retrieve dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber 65 million years ago. If you have the DNA, then it’s not too much of a stretch to think that it would only take technology slightly beyond what we have now to clone dinosaurs. And if you can clone dinosaurs, then you can populate a park with them…and they can escape and eat people.

Now, so far, I’ve only discussed technological assumptions: space exploration, communication satellites and dinosaur DNA. But science fiction can cover non-technological assumptions as well.

Interplanetary Hunter - by Arthur K. Barnes Take this book, Interplanetary Hunter,” by Arthur K. Barnes. It was published in 1956, and (ahem!) stolen from my Dad’s science fiction collection in 1974.

It collects a group of related stories that appeared in the pulp magazines in the 30’s and 40’s. Specifically, the first story appeared in 1937.

It features a group of professional hunters who go from world to world hunting and capturing exotic alien species for zoos. One of the top hunters is Gerry Carlyle, a female.

Folks, this was written in 1937, 74 years ago. And only 17 years after women were first given the right to vote. One of Barnes’ assumptions for his story was that, in the future, women would be far more empowered than they were in his day.

In 1937, women weren’t expected to have careers, especially not a career in a male-dominated field like hunting. What a ground-breaking story. 74 years ago.

When I read science fiction, I feel like I’m part of a world-wide extended conversation with thousands and thousands of other people, many of whom are running thought experiments to determine the effects of various technologies, or extrapolating social trends into the future to try to figure out what might happen. I think that science fiction directly inspires and influences people, who go on to help shape the real world that we live in.

So, the next time that somebody disparages science fiction in front of you, I want you to tell them about Jules Verne and Arther C. Clarke. And Arthur K. Barnes 74 years ago. I want you to tell them that science fiction is the Literature of Ideas and the Engine of Innovation.

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Invasion-Themed Advertisement

I’m one of the founders of RubyNation, a technical conference for the Ruby programming language. Each year we solicit sponsors to help us make the conference happen. Code Sherpas, a local consulting firm, is responsible for creating my favorite advertisement, which appeared in the 2010 Conference Program.

Alien Invasion, compliments of Code Sherpas

The Ruby code that appears in the ad is hilarious in a “We just saw District 9 and we really liked it” way. If the graphic above is too small for you to make out the code, I’ve provided the code below:

   class EarthInvasionPlan
     include StonePath

     stoneplace_workitem do
       owned_by :extraterrestrials
       tasked_through :missions
       initial_state: :hover_over_capitol_cities
       state :awaiting_earths_surrender
       state :warned, :entry_guard => :earth_resisting?
       state :stupid_human_resilience
       state :victory, :entry_guard => :earth_defeated?

   class DemandSurender << Mission
     include StonePath

     stone_path_task do
       initial_state :demand_surrender
       state :ignore_surrender_death_to_all
       state :accepted
       state :rejected

And here's the summary text from the bottom of the ad:

Ruby Developers across the universe are using the StonePath gem to implement workflows. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Apart from futile attempts at planetary invasion, the StonePath workflow engine has been used in applications for the U.S. State Department and local public school systems. How can StonePath help your application streamline business processes, improving standardization and efficiency?

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Film Review: All About “Monsters”

I had a chance to see “Monsters” during the brief time last year when it was playing in selected indie theaters around the country. According to Box Office Mojo, it’s widest release was only 25 theaters (plus DirectTV and iTunes while it was still playing in theaters). In fact, it only grossed 237K in the United States (although it managed to rake in more than 4 million dollars world-wide). I dragged my brother to see it because I’d read about it, and we both felt privileged to have seen it at the E Street Cinema in downtown DC.

What was so exciting about it? Well, it was a great indie science fiction film written and directed by Gareth Edwards and produced on a shoestring budget. I came away extremely impressed with the film, not just as a good first film or a good low-budget indie effort, but rather, as a good film period.

Here’s the official summary of the film:

In 2009 NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A probe was launched to collect samples from Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, but it crashed upon re-entry over Central America. Soon after, new life forms began to appear there and half of Mexico was quarantined as an Infected Zone. Today, the American and Mexican military still struggle to contain the extraterrestrial “creatures.” After six years, they’re no longer aliens—they’re residents. The story begins when U.S. photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy,In Search of a Midnight Kiss) agrees to escort a shaken American tourist Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) through the Infected Zone in Mexico to the safety of the U.S. border.

Monsters - Original movie poster

Original Movie Poster

Gareth Edwards, a UK visual effects expert with a background in creating special effects for documentaries, wrote the film and shot the footage on a micro-budget in real-life locations, including Mexico, Guatemala, Galveston and other places. Footage shot in Galveston after Hurricane Katrina is used to good advantage in the film and helps provide a “big-picture” feel to the scenes of devastation caused by the alien infestation.

Critical reception to the film has been somewhat lukewarm, but my impression is that most of the critics don’t actually get the film. It’s a science fiction drama that concentrates on the human story and uses the film’s basic premise to focus a light on a current political issues. It’s slow-paced, but I felt that helped ratchet up the tension, enhanced the reality of the character experiences and heightened the impact when the alien creatures finally manifest themselves in the film.

The film is essentially a road trip, and there are some relatively clumsy plot contrivances to ensure that the intrepid heroes go traipsing through the Infected Zone in order to get back to the U.S. These flaws are more than made up for by excellent performances the writer/director extracted from various locals, none of them professional actors, which adds immeasurably to the believability and atmosphere of the film.

On another level, I like the way that the film demonstrates how a committed artist with a vision, like Gareth Edwards, can use widely available tools like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere and others to create a truly professional movie. I’m a science fiction fan, and Hollywood just isn’t making the kind of SF movies that I generally want to see. I’m heartened to see that indie producers can be this empowered. Let’s hope for more films like this in the future.

Bottom Line: It’s a genuinely good film, with a solid story, a well-imagined premise, some visually stunning cinematography and good overall execution. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Transformers 2 was a good movie, then this is not the film for you. Otherwise, I recommend the film to anybody who’s looking for a unique drama with a little bit of bite to it.

The movie deserves a much wider audience that it ever got at the theaters. It’s also available on DVD now, although I recommend the Blue-Ray format over the standard DVD. There’s a key scene, a very dark one, that just plays better on Blue-Ray.

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