back to article Are meta, self-referential or recursive science-fiction films doomed?

The hype machine has been tuned to 11 for Steven Spielberg's metafest Ready Player One, which opened in time for Easter. Ernest Cline's novel shot to the top of bestseller lists in 2011 so inevitably there would be options on a movie. The only surprise is it took seven years. The book follows a kid – Wade Owen Watts – growing …

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  1. K Silver badge

    There's another series, that rides on the back on Seveneves, the Field Trilogy by Simon Winstanley, which I'd love to see made into a film. The way its written is frustratingly clever..

    1. psychonaut

      With you on winstanley. Waiting for the new one.

  2. Dr Scrum Master

    Wade Owen Watts

    I thought only the Chinese and American women were habitually known by a triple of names.

    1. Ralph the Wonder Llama

      Re: Wade Owen Watts

      I think perhaps the initials are relevant here. Maybe.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wade Owen Watts

      In some European names it is a middle one for disambiguation with other members of their lineage. In others it is non-hyphenated family names from some point in their genealogical tree.

      Johann Sebastian Bach. Frank Lloyd Wright.

      There was a time in the 20th century when people were often referred to informally by their initials - like "C.J".

      The most confusing to an outsider can be the English public school suffix to indicate age ranking of overlapping pupils from the same family eg "major", "minor".

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Wade Owen Watts

        Using just initials has been a way for writers to avoid their sex getting in the way of their work, for example the crime writer P.D James.

        If you read P.G Wodehouse, where a slushy romantic novelists called Rosie M Banks is central to a few plots, you'll know why Iain (M.) Banks dropped his middle initial initially. He was keen to keep the M out of respect for a relative (IIRC) and writing in a 'genre' (sci-fi) gave him the opportunity to reinstate it. The use of the M or otherwise was consistent, except for his book Transitions where the M was used in some territories but not others. The treatment if the M was a bit meta, given that the book itself was essentially his contempory 20th/21st century fiction with a dose of sci-fi.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Wade Owen Watts

          " Iain (M.) Banks dropped his middle initial initially. "

          IIRC Robert X. Cringely - author of "Accidental Empires" about Silicon valley - added the middle initial X just to make his name look more distinctive.

          1. fishman

            Re: Wade Owen Watts

            Cringely's name is the pen name of Mark Stephens.

    3. Anonymous Blowhard

      Re: Wade Owen Watts

      "I thought only the Chinese and American women were habitually known by a triple of names."

      I thought it was mainly assassins of US Presidents...

  3. israel_hands

    What fuck is this "meta" shit? Do you just mean a film adaption? Is that not just called an adaptation?

    The entire article just seems to mention the fact that sometimes books are made into films, some of those are sci-fi books/films and some of the are good while others are shit.

    Not exactly keen insight.

    Oh and I really hope they don't bother turning SevenEves into a film. That was the most interminable piece of shit I've had the misfortune to try and read. A pity as Stephenson used to be quite good before he disappeared up his own arse.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      He was great up until the first book of the Baroque Cycle which was utter bilge and I haven’t bothered with him since. Still love Cryptonomicon, Diamond Age and Snow Crash.

      1. Clockworkseer

        I always liked his work, but I can see the logic behind my exes criticism when I tried to introduce her to Snow Crash (which between babylonian mythology and poltiical sarcasm should have been right up her street) that he's a little too much in love with the sound of his own vocabulary.

        The whole meta situation gets even more confusing when you ask the question of whether the material you are referencing exists in-universe. Characters in sci-fi movies directly referncing things like Star Trek and Star Wars as media that exist/existed.

        1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

          Sheldon Cooper wearing The Flash t-shirts, and Cisco Ramon wearing Bazinga t-shirts.

        2. Daniel 18

          Language in SF

          Snow Crash was brilliant, and I loved the expressive language.

          Though his style was different, Zelazny was another author who could make the language sing.

      2. Philip Stott

        The Baroque Cycle is a work of genius.

        I admit that two thirds of the way in to the first book I started skipping ahead as it just seemed to be a bunch of disconnected events, however I persevered, and I’m very glad I did.

        Starting with the second book and continuing to the end of the third, Stephenson brings all those seemingly endless threads together in a way that almost had me giddy with his attention to detail. So much so, that I reread the first book completely to ensure I didn’t miss any of it.

        I’ve met several people who share your opinion, and I’ve persuaded a few of them to give it another go, all of whom have thanked me after doing so. I hope you will give it another go too.

    2. Milton Silver badge

      "meta"

      israel_hands: 'What fuck is this "meta" shit? Do you just mean a film adaption? Is that not just called an adaptation?'

      No, the author doesn't; no, it isn't; and yes, you could simply have looked up a word you don't understand before suggesting that others are talking shit. They weren't.

      Wikipedia starts by explaining: "Meta (from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-) meaning "after", or "beyond") is a prefix used in English to indicate a concept which is an abstraction behind another concept, used to complete or add to the latter." —and I'm sure you can take it from there.

      That said, you're not entirely wrong about Seveneves

      'Oh and I really hope they don't bother turning SevenEves into a film. That was the most interminable piece of shit I've had the misfortune to try and read. A pity as Stephenson used to be quite good before he disappeared up his own arse'

      —yeah, it is nearly as bad as Anathem for the self-indulgence of a writer who's had enough success to publish whatever he likes. Stephenson is one of those rare writers who can be entertainingly verbose, but Anathem was a deeply unedifying and ultimately boring spectacle of intellectual wanking.

      Seveneves was apparently the first novel in history hidden under an endless lecture about orbital mechanics and genetics, and worse, Stephenson's writing betrayed inauthentic characters and shoddy contrivance. Whereas Anathem was unsalvageable, Seveneves might have been rescued with ruthless editing ... as for the idea that either one of them should be filmed: for heaven's sake, put down the camera and run—don't walk, run—for the chopper.

      Stephenson's latest effort, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, might have done well to attract the phrase "welcome return to form" from a kind reviewer, except it was only about 25% of a "welcome return". The concept and basic plot are bursting with potential for a writer with Stephenson's intelligence, who could have turned out one of his signature meaty 1,000-plus-page monsters of wit, insight, humour, commentary, smarts, reflection, wry observation and all the good stuff that we've seen from Diamond Age through Cryptonomicon to Reamde ... instead he outsourced a sizeable chunk of the prose to someone called Nicole Galland, and it is almost embarassingly weak. The whole thing is just one big, fat, tragically missed opportunity: "Hey, I got this idea—here's a napkin with some notes—I can't be arsed to write it ... hey you, over there! Why don't you have a go."

      I mean: damn.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: "meta"

        Meta in this context is taken to mean referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

        It can be subtle. Duncan Jones' film Moon plays on the viewers potential mistrust of the moon base's AI - informed by the knowledge that the viewer has seen HAL in 2001. As Christopher Nolan said of Interstellar "it's impossible to make a movie on these themes without having a conservation with 2001"

        Cronenburgh's version of The Naked Lunch is meta - it's not a direct adaptation, but partly tells the story of the book's writing.

        Strangely enough, one of the few brilliant bits of Scott's Prometheus (amongst much frustrating stupidity) is when Micheal Fassbinder's android David watching David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. It's meta (Ridley Scott nodding to an undisputed masterpiece of cinematography, itself an adaptation of a very self aware and deliberately idiosyncratic book that was rewritten many times), but carries hints at the plot ahead (an android watching a cinematic depiction of a man who in his own words felt angst over 'serving two masters'.)

        The other brilliant part of Prometheus is of course Idris Elba playing a concertina. The rest was a mess.

        1. Daniel 18

          Re: "meta"

          Personally, I thought the best part of Prometheus was the mapping drones... that made perfect sense rather than old tropes of trudging through mysterious tunnels getting lost.

          The rest was unremarkable.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "meta"

        "[...] Seveneves might have been rescued with ruthless editing [...]"

        Publishers used to employ editors to help authors tighten up their offerings.

        The biography of William Golding by John Carey explains that, after 21 rejections, his first novel "Lord of the Flies" was gradually whittled down on the advice of his Faber editor Charles Monteith. What apparently started off as a heavily religious work - was transformed into an analogy of the nature of human society.

      3. israel_hands

        Re: "meta"

        you could simply have looked up a word you don't understand before suggesting that others are talking shit. They weren't.

        I understand what the word means. It's the context I was questioning. Particularly when talking about fiction "meta" is typically used to describe specific plot elements that reference other works, over (or under) shadow the overall themes or otherwise play around with the "reality" of the fiction. Not simply referring to an adaptation, for which we already have a perfectly useful word. As an example of what I'm talking about, Ready Player One has some fairly "meta" elements, in that it's about a computer game that's about a computer game. And lots of stuff about Rush, obviously. By contrast, Lynch's adaptation of Dune is just an adaptation with lots of the plot cut out for time/convenience, etc.

        As to Stephenson, it's not the size of his books I don't like, it's how shit some of them are. I'm sat in my living room with 4 bookshelves holding about 500 books total, another 10 or so plastic crates of books currently stored in the loft. This includes a LOT of sci-fi including pretty much everything the likes of Peter F Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds have put out. So it's not as though I'm scared of reading massive tomes, or dealing with hard-SF (Peter Watts' Blindsight is so hard he provides a bibliography and footnotes at the end explaining the science and is one of the most interesting books I've ever read).

        I loved Snow Crash and, to a lesser extent, Diamond Age. Zodiac and Interface were both great and Cryptonomicon was brilliant in a good many places. The Baroque Cycle annoyed me about halfway through the first book and I didn't bother reading anything else of his until I picked up SevenEves on a whim and sincerely fucking wished I hadn't. Terribly written, massively expositional in an incredibly boring manner. I didn't get more than 2 or 3 chapters in before I was burned out on watching him describe the entire history of a plant pot and then history of everyone who had ever interacted with it or so much as fucking glanced at it. Which is a pity because from the cover blurb I really, really wanted to see what happened when they got back to Earth and found how it had been changed.

        Part of my problem with Stephenson is that I read an article he wrote in which he railed against the "Cult of Brevity" which basically consisted of him slagging off people who writer shorter novels. It just came off as him being a giant cock-womble because he writes huge novels. Characterising other writers as members of a cult just because their books come in at least than 1200 pages is monumental arrogance and ignorance on his part. Borges could, in 6 pages, extrapolate a more interesting idea than Stephenson's ever managed. There's nothing wrong with long or short works, there's nothing inherently right with them either. They all depend on the story itself and the teller of said story. To accuse someone of failing simply because they write novels under or over a certain length is a ridiculous position for a writer to take.

        Also, he was behind the Kickstarter for Klang which is is one of the most monumentally stupid ideas I've ever seen. For him to claim to understand swordplay and then suggest that waving a plastic controller in the air (with nothing stopping you moving your "blade" even though in the game it's been blocked by your opponent) is more realistic than just mashing buttons shows a massive failure of logic and/or imagination. Oh, and you were supposed to fight at 2/3rd speed in order for the game to remain synched to your movement.

        1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

          Re: "meta"

          Meta Smeta

          As long as Joe 'Attack the Block' Cornish and Amazon don't fubar the TV adaptation of Snow Crash I'll be a happy bunny.

    3. phuzz Silver badge
      Boffin

      I enjoyed Seveneves, but I've played enough Kerbal Space Program that I could gloss over most of the orbital mechanics because they it was pretty intuitive. Personally I like Stephenson's verbosity, but I can see why others wouldn't. Perhaps you'd enjoy some of his earlier stuff like Zodiac?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Small correction. Children of Dune.

    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0287839/

    I also enjoyed the 1984 version of Dune after I read the book before that I didn't have a clue what the heck was going on.

  5. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

    Dune (1984)

    Lynch passed on the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi so he could make Dune. Somewhere, there's a parallel universe where Lynch directed RotJ. I think it's a better universe.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Dune (1984)

      Let's just say it's the same parallel universe as the one in which Jodorowsky made Dune. Although in this universe it's unlikely that Ridley Scott would have had Dan O'Bannon and H.R. Giger available (amongst others) to make Alien.

      Hmmm, what we're doing Mr Sane is meta alternative history!

      1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

        Re: Dune (1984)

        He's getting on, but Alejandro Jodorowsky is still alive so there's still a chance!

  6. tiggity Silver badge

    Films - meh

    I thought the Dune film was OK when I saw it, given what it had to squeeze into a small amount of time (though I had the advantage of having previously read the books)

    As a fair chunk of SF audiences mainly seem to like "space opera" type of films (hence the success of Star Wars, which (IMHO) is the film equivalent of pulp SF) then I hold out little hope of a SF film being made that allows for the philosophical questions found in the best SF literature. (Though plenty of scope for mass audience appeal films of lightweight "fun" SF such as stainless steel rat etc)

    There is far more scope for someone risking a series based on decent SF, as the best works typically need plenty off time to tell the story well

    .. happily plenty of decent written SF out there to keep me interested so I'm not bothered how bad Hollywood SF "visions" are.

    1. defiler Silver badge

      Re: Films - meh

      I thought the Dune film was OK when I saw it, given what it had to squeeze into a small amount of time (though I had the advantage of having previously read the books)

      That's the thing, though. The movies acts as a great illustration to the book, but without having read the book it's very confusing. I remember it came on telly a day or two after I finished the book, and suddenly everything slotted into place. And you could see which bits had been shuffled around just to shift the narrative along quickly.

      The SciFi Channel did a mini-series some time ago, but the cardboard they used for the sets was too wobbly even for Doctor Who. I seem to recall the acting was stiffer and more wooden than the sets.

      1. tony72

        Re: Films - meh

        That's the thing, though. The movies acts as a great illustration to the book, but without having read the book it's very confusing. I remember it came on telly a day or two after I finished the book, and suddenly everything slotted into place. And you could see which bits had been shuffled around just to shift the narrative along quickly.

        Dune is a truly epic tale, and IMHO much too big to fit in a single movie, or even a mini-series. I would love to see it given a full Game of Thrones level TV series treatment, then you might get something worthy of the books. Not likely to happen, but a man can dream.

        I read The Expanse in parallel with watching the TV series, and doing that it was really obvious how much you lose even with many hours of serialisation, although I still found the series pretty enjoyable (there was that aspect of it providing a visualisation of key parts of the story). But trying to squeeze an epic tale like Dune down into a single two hour movie, to my mind it just can't work.

      2. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: Films - meh

        thought the Dune film was OK when I saw it, given what it had to squeeze into a small amount of time (though I had the advantage of having previously read the books)

        That's the thing, though. The movies acts as a great illustration to the book, but without having read the book it's very confusing.

        That's the way we felt about the Harry Potter films - well, from the second one onwards anyway. The first book was (apparently) very heavily edited, and as a result more of it ended up in the film. The children read the books before the films (in the case of two of them, because they read the books before the films had come out) and agree that they understood a lot more of what is going on as a result. I think the same is true of many film adaptations of books.

        Not read any recent Neal Stephenson, though I did like Zodiac, Snow Crash etc.

        M.

      3. Teiwaz Silver badge

        Re: Films - meh

        Sci-Fi channel mini-series

        It was mostly ok (IMO) - apart from what they did to Gurney Halleck - totally gutted the character and replaced it with some one dimensional 'faithful man at arms'

        The whining Paul in the opening scene was a poor intro as well.

        The only cardboard was the soggy leftovers once the writers had gutted most of the uniqueness of some chracters and left cut-outs in place - the filming was mostly green-screen jobs

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Films - meh

      Some sci-fi short stories are compact enough to transfer to the small screen without losing the essence of their plot. UK TV had at least one series that did that quite successfully. The plots I remember are: misuse of a time-travelling surgical knife; robots on a space station getting "god" and evicting their human overseers.

      1. LenG

        Re: Films - meh

        I think you are referring to Out of the Unknown on BBC2 which ran for 4 seasons, the first two in black & white. The first three seasons features a lot of adaptations of works by major sci-fi authors. The fourth moved away from sci-fi into psychological horror, partly because the producers were having difficulties finding suitable material to adapt and partially because they didn't have the budget to compete with new shows like Star Trek. Unfortunately many of the episodes (including some of the best) have been lost in the mists of time. Those that survive are available on DVD.

        I think your "time travelling surgical knife" was probably Little Black Bag by C.M. Kornbluth, one of the stars of season 3. It is a "partial" survivor.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Films - meh

        "robots on a space station getting "god" and evicting their human overseers."

        That was an Asimov "Powell and Donovan" robot story. Reason?

    3. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Films - meh

      For me, it was the other way round, I watched Dune, found it fascinating and then read the books. After that, I couldn't watch the film again.

      I also tried watching the mini-series, but I just couldn't get into it.

      My problem is, I sit there and just keep going, "but they didn't say that," "he didn't do that, the other one did..." I can't help picking at the plot holes introduced by shortening the runtime and putting words in other characters mouths etc. And the vocal weapons? WTF? Voice is a much subtler, much more interesting concept than the silly sonic guns that the film came up with.

      Still it wasn't as bad as the Harry Potter films, I still haven't been able to sit through a single one.

      1. Alistair Silver badge

        Re: Films - meh

        Still it wasn't as bad as the Harry Potter films, I still haven't been able to sit through a single one.

        You and me both. But then, I attempted to *read* one of the Harry Potter books. I pretty much figure my 12 year old could come up with a better plot.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Films - meh

          "I pretty much figure my 12 year old could come up with a better plot."

          Well, your 12 year old was the upper limit of the target audience, certainly for the first book.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Films - meh

            Well, your 12 year old was the upper limit of the target audience, certainly for the first [hharry Potter] book.

            That's a weak excuse. There's a great deal of good children's and young-adult fantasy which remains entertaining and interesting for older readers.

            I don't begrudge Rowling any of her success. The books aren't pernicious, just lousy. Rowling gave people something they wanted, and she got lots of folks reading for pleasure who otherwise might not have.

            But, man, those books are bad - at least the first, second, and fourth, which were the only ones I managed to read (and I read a lot of children's fantasy). Simplistic characters, uninspired prose, and plots that depend on the unimaginative use of magical devices which if employed properly or consistently would have overwhelming consequences. The whole Harry Potter world is inherently broken.

            (Some months back I read Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and was amused to note that the protagonist's fanfic, for a fictional HP-style series, was considerably better written than the actual Potter books.)

            I hope at least some of the hordes of HP fans eventually go on to better children's / YA fantasy. Like, say, Turnbull's The Frightened Forest. Or McKillip's Riddle Master trilogy. Or Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring. Le Guin's Earthsea books. Mieville's Un Lun Dun. Okorafor's Binti. Moriarti's Colors of Madeleine series. Bacigaluipi's Shipbreaker. Gaiman's Stardust, Neverwhere, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (Those are published as adult novels but are perfectly accessible for children.) Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which deserves to be read on the strength of its title alone. Pratchet's YA books, particularly the Tiffany Aching ones. There are so very many examples of terrific fantasy novels for children.

      2. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

        Re: Films - meh

        I did it the other way round (book then film) and thought the film was a travesty of the book, especially some of the effects. The sandworms and ornithopters were especially crap. But Herbert was an very inconsistent writer. I tried to read the second Dune novel but slung it on discovering that the Face Dancers were such a powerful group that they could not have existed without being a visible part of society in Dune. I read quite a few of his other books and disliked a lot, quite apart from Dune II onwards. Eyes of Heisenberg, Santaroga Barrier and Hellstrom's Hive were also crap, but Dragon In The Sea and Destination: Void wer very good.

        "Dragon In The Sea" is the only one of his books I've kept. Its also the one I really wish somebody would film. It would make a superb low budget, claustrophobic whodunnit along similar lines to some of Hitchcock's best.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Films - meh

          Santaroga Barrier and Hellstrom's Hive were also crap, but Dragon In The Sea and Destination: Void wer very good.

          Tastes differ, of course, but I found Destination: Void (and its sequel The Jesus Incident) no more than moderately interesting, while I quite liked the Cold War paranoia of The Santaroga Barrier.

    4. Daniel 18

      Re: Films - meh

      Star Wars may have started looking like science fiction, but it clearly descended into unconstrained fantasy as it went from film to film.

      In contrast 'Alien' started with a few reasonable SF premises, and remained rigorously consistent and logical.

      That may be why Star Wars makes more money while Alien is much better as science fiction.

      1. The First Dave

        Re: Films - meh

        Alien was logical throughout??? Even when they made a clone that somehow was already impregnated with an Alien?

        1. MJI Silver badge

          Re: Films - meh

          There were only 3 Alien films.

          First is best

          1. Davidmb

            Two films

            There have only ever been two Alien films. Agree that the first is the best, although they're almost different genres and both very good.

    5. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Films - meh

      "how bad Hollywood SF "visions" are"

      Four words: Ghost in The Shell

      I'm trying to think of a rebake, rehash, or reboot that wasn't watered down shit aimed at cashing in on playing to people with the attention span of a gnat. Screw the story, we have the best explosions! Screw the story, our characters are entirely CGI! And so on.

      1. MJI Silver badge

        Re: Films Ghost in the Shell

        Nothing wrong with my 2 series of Stand Alone Complex.

  7. ssharwood

    Seveneves bad, Anathem good

    Seveneves is a weird, weird, weird choice for a movie. It just sprawls so much and - spoiler alert - has a big, big pivot.

    Anathem might be filmable. I hope it is. Probably Stephenson's best work. And I say that as a drooling Stephenson fanboi.

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: Seveneves bad, Anathem good

      I don't recall there's being anything new in Anathem. (That's one for those of you who've read it.)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Seveneves bad, Anathem good

        I found Anathem to be very laboured and very very dull. Any Philosophy in it was what I have seen from enthusiastic 13 year olds who have read a single Platonic dialogue and fallen in love with the form.

    2. Alistair Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: Seveneves bad, Anathem good

      Anathem might be filmable. I hope it is.

      Certainly *I* hope someone decides to give it a shot. I found Anathem to be a wonderful read. It had a couple of "Dancing Wu Li Masters" moments in it.

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