scale“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke.

Scale and scope.

When did the scale and scope of speculative fiction become so obsessed with the unimaginable?  This question came to mind the other night when I was watching Star Trek Into Darkness, after having just seen a re-run of Doctor Who‘s “The Eleventh Hour” (s05e01) the day before.  Both shows, so completely different in theme, character, and setting, do have something in common: The stakes are so high that the action — both physical and dramatic — has to be quasi-supernatural in order to … in order to … in order to what?

Keep our attention?

  • Is it really necessary to have a fist fight with a genetically engineered god on top of an air-car traveling at 100 miles per hour?
  • Is it really necessary to have Mr. Spock from two different universes?
  • Is it really necessary to climb through an unimaginably large warp core that’s eerily reminiscent of a famous British police box on the inside?

Speaking of which …

  • Is it really necessary to hack into a global video teleconference?
  • Is it really necessary to have an villain who can shape-shift (clothes, and dog collar, and all) into anything, anything at all?
  • Is it really necessary to program a planet-wide computer virus?

Maybe it is.  I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, because both of these shows charge me with that sense of wonder that’s enchanted me since I was old enough to know what genre is.

Vast scales and scopes are nothing new to the mythos of speculative fiction; not when you had shows like The Twilight Zone telling you that there was a fifth dimension “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity” right there in the corner of your eye; not when you had The Outer Limits telling you that “we will control all you see and hear”; not when you had spaceships traveling to Jupiter so humanity could become star children.  And all of that was a generation ago.

But if we take away today’s themes of the universe-is-going-to-implode-and-all-of-spacetime-is-going-to-get-flushed-down-a-Planck-scale-toilet, then what are we really left with?  We’re left with questions.  And those are the hardest things of all.  Do we seek justice, or do we demand revenge when we see crimes of utter devastation?  Do we trust the man in the bow-tie when he was really only figment of our childhood?   Do we believe there is absolute good and absolute evil?  Or do we believe there’s a spectrum in between?

The struggle to save humanity — the galaxy, the universe, the mutli-verse itself — really pales when compared to the questions that these shows ask.  The visual candy is there — oh, yes — and I will gladly pay the price of admission time and time again to consume it.  But I want to ask these questions.  I want us all to ask questions.  In my opinion, that’s the only way we can grow.  I want to know if there’s moral absolutism or moral relativism … or both.  I want to know what we do when morality changes, if indeed it can.  I want to know how to ask these questions.  I don’t look for answers much anymore, but I don’t think that’s the point anyway.  I think we, as humans, have to ask them.

By the way, a Star Trek fan gave me two hand-made Tribbles.  They’re sitting on the mantle next to a Waterford crystal wine decanter, in stark contrast to one another: The sublime and the ridiculous.  The trouble is, I don’t know which is sublime and which is ridiculous.  That’s another question I’ll have to ask.

Until next time, years truly,


Copyright © 2013, Keith Parker, except as noted below:

Doctor Who is copyright © 2013 by the BBC. No infringement upon the rights of the BBC is intended.

The Time Traveler’s Life (Part II)

Lea 2The second part of this series on writing time travel fiction is precautionary. Hopefully it will help you avoid stuff that’s just weird.  A good example of weirdness is not Lea Thompson playing Lorraine Baines.  No, a good example of weirdness is that family photograph that Marty carried around in Back to the Future.  People loved that movie, so much so that it’s become a trope (very Back-to-the-Future), and its quotes have entered daily dialogue (“You’re my density!” and “1.61 gigawatts of electricity,” and “Great Scott!”).  But as much as people loved the movie they hated that damn photograph, and the way Marty’s family faded in and out depending how he was messing up the timeline.

With that in mind, here are a few other cliches you’ll want to avoid if you’re writing about time travel:

  • If the hero’s past and future selves encounter each other it’ll destroy the universe.  This one is just plain stupid.  And who’s to decide what’s stupid and what’s not?  I am.  It’s my blog.
  • The Butterfly Effect.  This one is just too worn-out or, as Doctor Who put it, “Just don’t step on butterflies, then.”
  • Overuse of Daylight Savings Time, the International Date Line, and clocks that run backward, and any other type of artificial construct.
  • Avoid having the hero travel back in time to give the time machine to himself.  This is actually my favorite paradox, but it doesn’t make for a good story.  You know what does make for a good story?  Characters.
  • Avoid the mysterious stranger who is revealed to be the hero’s past or future self.  Readers will spot this one immediately.  It’s much better to start with this as a premise and see how it goes from there, e.g., John the Younger has just discovered that spooky ol’ John the Older, who lives right next door, is actually his future self.  Have the story, novel, screenplay, etc, start there.
  • Going back in time 65 million years to be chased by a dinosaur.  If you want to get chased by a T-Rex just fly down to Isla Nublar. It’s much closer.jurassic-park
  • Repeating the same eras as destinations: I touched on this in Part I of this blog entry.  There are certain time periods that have captured our imagination.  Among them are prehistoric times, the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Wild West, World War II, the (not-so) good ol’ days of the 50s, and the Kennedy Assassination.  But if you just quickly browse any good bookstore you’ll realize that history is much more than this.  In fact, it’s been around for a long time.
  • Having the main character change sex as a result of time travel.  Robert Heinlein did this in “All You Zombies.”  It worked for him, but chances are you’re not going to ooh-aah anybody with that zinger these days.
  • Don’t make the future a dystopia.  A nuclear ash-heap of post-apocalyptic, angst-ridden, one-armed assholes carrying assault rifles fighting off hords of zombies and a virtual reality “Big Brother” is … tiring as hell.  I just made all that up, by the way.  So, if I can make up a cliche in thirty seconds there’s a damn good chance it’s overused.

This is just a snapshot of the cliches.   And also remember that if you’ve seen it once in a movie (e.g., Groundhog Day) it’s been done dozens of times in fiction.

A word of encouragement before I sign off … If you want your character to travel back to the Kennedy assassination  it’s perfectly fine to do so.  But what you need to do is find a fresh angle.  I’ll give you an example as a sort of writing prompt: Instead of writing about the events in Dealey Plaza why not write about the interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald by the Dallas Police and the FBI?  Make your time traveler one of the FBI agents.  He could’ve “just flown in” from Washington.  And not only does he have to deal with the stress of the situation he also has to deal with a culture that is hostile to Federal agents.  Food for thought.  Or, as they say in the UK, food for thought.



Copyright © 2013

The Time Traveler’s Life (Part I)

Still-of-Lea-Thompson-in-Back-to-the-Future-24BJGVYFS3-moviereviewfeeds-comIt seemed apropos that, on Groundhog Day, I’d post a picture of the first actress I had a crush on  … oh, wait!  What I mean to say is that I’d be asked to post an article on G+ about the challenges of writing time travel fiction.  If you want to delve into this weird but amazingly fun genre (where you may indeed have a protagonist who looks like Lea Thompson) you need to know what you’re up against.  What I’ve tried to do below is compile a list of issues the time travel writer needs to be aware of.

As with everything else in fiction, of course, the way to attract readers is through character.  But this article doesn’t address character development; there are ample resources for that.  Right now, we’ll stick to time-travel obstacles.

• Paradox Lost – You’ve got to come to grips with the notion of paradox.  That means wrapping your mind around two conflicting ideas.  My favorite time travel paradox, for example, is the one where the time traveler goes back in time and gives the blueprints for the time machine to his younger self.  Thinking about cause and effect here requires some serious mental gymnastics, not to mention a tall glass of scotch.  However, you really should avoid using this particular paradox in your story; it’s an overused cliche.

• Who’s Out to Get Your Hero? – You need to realize the villain of your story may well turn out to be the hero’s younger or older self.

• Timeline – Stephen King wrote a phenomenal time travel novel in 11/22/63.  In order to do that yourself, you’re going to have to map out the timeline chronologically (ahem).  So if you had a present-day time traveler going back to witness the events in Dealey Plaza, you’d need a timeline from 1963 till now.  Otherwise things are going to be a tangled mess.  Index cards work well for storyboarding such a plot, with each card representing a major aspect of the plot.11-22-63

• Travel Agent Required – How does the hero travel?  Via H.G. Wells steampunk machine?  A spaceship?  Gateway?  Phone booth?  Sports car?  Magic? You need to decide.  And once you decide you need to stick with it.  Time travel is part of your setting.  You wouldn’t have a creek flow uphill, so why would you have a time machine that worked inconsistently?

• The Left Behind – When your hero travels he’ll abandon friends and loved-ones.  How does he feel about that?  That’s nontrivial and potentially traumatic.

• Culture Shock – When Doctor Who’s Martha Jones (a woman of African descent) arrives in Shakespearean London she’s worried about getting sold into slavery.  Think about that.  Takes some of the romance out of the “good ol’ days,” doesn’t it?

• Cause and Effect – If the hero buys a ton of Apple Computer stock in 1999 will he really get rich?  Or does his stock purchase affect Apple’s success?

• Think Out of the Box – Suppose the time machine is a simple door.  What happens if the hero steps through using his cell phone?  Does he still have coverage?  That’s not as weird as it sounds.  If he can see through the door (visible light) then cell phone signals (radio waves) can travel through it, too.

• Grandfather Paradox – Is the hero going to do something that keeps himself from being born?  Suppose it involves murder.  How does the hero cope with that?  Murder is murder, in 2013 BC and 2013 CE.

• History Mystery – The hero wants to witness the Kennedy assassination.  Great subject, but you better damn well know your subject.  As the writer, can you tell us who the Babushka Lady was?  Or what was on Dallas TV right before the news broke?  Which motorcycle cop had his two-way radio on?   What was the weather like?  What’s the distance from the Book Depository to Kennedy’s car?  What did the “Treason” leaflets say?  What did the Manhattan businessman say about JFK’s killer? Zapruder-Film-Frame-366

• Action or Reaction –  How does the hero react to witnessing a really brutal murder?  The President, after all, had his brains blown out, literally.  If you’ve ever seen the Zapruder film you know it was a grisly, ugly, and sickening sight.  Now imagine being there, with the sights, the screams, the smells …

Time travel is not for the feint of heart.

In the next installment of “The Time Traveler’s Life” I’ll explore some of the pitfalls you need to avoid.  And in a later chapter, I’ll recommend some books and movies.  Stay tuned, same Chiroptera time, same Chiroptera channel!

Pax vobiscum,


Copyright © 2013

She’s Just So Darn Cute

Inspector Duggan: What’s Scarlioni’s angle?

The Doctor: Scarlioni’s angle? I’ve never heard –.  [To Romana] Have you ever heard of Scarlioni’s angle?

Romana: No, I was never any good at geometry.

The Doctor: [to Duggan] Who’s Scarlinoi?

RomanaShe’s just so darned cute.  Lalla Ward is an English actress, writer and artist who played the Companion Romana [sic] in a classic series of Doctor Who episodes with Tom Baker.  And she has got to be one of the primary reasons the episode “City of Death” has rocketed to the all-time best list of a show that’s been on the air since 1963.  I fell in love with the episode when I first saw that hat pinned to her blond hair.  I’m a guy; it happens.

But I have to say, I’m really glad I started watching the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who before I saw this classic.   If I’d started with “City of Death” (its 1979 airdate tells you a lot), the teaser would’ve had me saying, “Ewwww” – and not in a good way.   The show starts with an alien who looks like a bowl of split-pea soup garnished with a dollop of eyeball.  The alien is sitting inside a spaceship that’s about to explode.  That’d have been enough right there to send me groping for a football game.  The scene is so damn cheesy the writers of Lost in Space would’ve been embarrassed.  Well, maybe that’s going a little far for a group of people who invented Carrot People, but you get my drift.

But after the title sequence we shift gears to Paris, where the Doctor and Romana (who’s just so darn cute … have I mentioned that?) are sitting around discussing what they’re going to do on their vacation in the city of lights.  And their one-liners are classic.  The one above, including the Investigator Duggan, is a good example.  Here’s another:

Romana: Where’re we going?

The Doctor: Are you talking philosophically or geographically?

Romana: Philosophically.

The Doctor: Then we’re going to lunch. I know a little place that does wonderful bouillabaisse.

 Romana: Mmm, bouillabaisse.


In fact, I could devote an entire blog to the dialog alone, in large part because it was co-written by the famous Douglas Adams.  As usual, Adams’ humor crackles, and it reminded me – as strange as it may sound – of the classic American comedy His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.  Grant and RussellLike the movie, this episode resonates with the audience because of its nonstop one-liners and because of the sizzling chemistry between two charismatic actors.

Mona_LisaBeing Doctor Who, of course, means time travel, and there’s plenty of that to move the plot along.  The alien – the one who looks like split-pea soup – has been “broken apart” due to an accident.  He’s been scattered through time … a little bit of him here, a little bit there.  That alone is crazy enough to keep me interested.  But in order to “reunite himself” he has to use 20th century time travel technology, which inconveniently hasn’t been invented yet.  So, he’s funding a mad scientist using cash made from sales on the antiquities black market.  Specifically, he’s selling several original versions of the Mona Lisa that the 16th-Century version of himself got Leonardo to paint.  With cash in hand – or claw – he’s bankrolling a time travel gizmo that’ll propel him back to a point before the accident occurred.  This, by the way, will have a side effect of wiping out humanity; so it goes.  The whole concept is preposterous and hilarious.  It kept me watching.

And it’s that outrageousness – coupled with “believable” plot points – that makes Doctor Who gripping.  Well, that and really cute companions like Romana.

The Doctor: Are you suggesting those men were in my employ?

Inspector Duggan: Yes.

The Doctor: I don’t know if you noticed but he was pointing a gun at me. Anyone in my employ who behaved like that, I’d sack him on the spot.

As you look at science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery and romance, keep an eye open for this kind of chemistry among characters.  You’ll see it in the best novels, film and TV.  The plot is going to evolve out of characters’ drama and actions.  Sure, the fingerprints of Douglas Adams’ humor are all over this script, much like the fingerprints of Cary Grant are all over Rosiland Russell, but Adams had to have characters to write dialog for.  That makes all the difference.

In closing here’s one last exchange between the Doctor and Romana, the kind of woman you really want to hold hands and run through Paris with.

Romana: That bouquet.

The Doctor: What Paris has, it has an ethos. A life.  It has –.

Romana: A bouquet?

The Doctor: A spirit all its own. Like a wine, it has –.

Romana: A bouquet.

The Doctor: It has a bouquet. Like a good wine, you have to choose one of the vintage years, of course.

 Romana: What year’s this?

The Doctor: Ah, well… well, it’s 1979, actually. More of a table wine, shall we say?

Until next time,

Peace, from Keith

The commentary of this blog post are Copyright © 2013 Alan Keith Parker.  Quotes from Dcotor Who are Copyright © 1979 British Broadcasting Corporation.  Embedded pictures of the Mona Lisa, His Girl Friday, and Lalla Ward, were taken from  If the latter violate any copyrights I will remove the images.

One Flu over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Immortality.  Everybody seems to crave it, whether through religion, science, mysticism or denial of death.  And so this begs a question about time travel. If I travel back in time one day and wake up yesterday morning at the same time I usually get up, and I have a chance to do my day all over again (see Murray, Bill; Day, Groundhog) and then I live through yesterday and in to today, throw on my white, time travel t-shirt (from last week’s blog) and jaunt back again, does that mean that the cells in my body, which have just aged 24 hours, will suddenly be 24 hours younger than they were when I put on the t-shirt?  Yes?

If that’s true, then can I repeat the process ad infinitum?  Can I make my body live indefinitely through time travel?  Back and forth, day in and day out, as it were.  I could certainly get a lot of writing done.

But maybe I should’ve asked whether I can do this ad nauseam?

Because … speaking of “nauseam” … my son started vomiting in the wee hours of the morning today, while we were in a hotel room, out of town. After his tummy finally settled down, the mess cleaned up, and he was snuggled under a comforter to stave off the chills, I told him something that seemed perfectly logical to me.

“I’ve never owned one million dollars in gold,” I said.

He looked at me sideways, probably wondering if his fever was making him delirious.

“Not many people have, Dad,” he said. His eyes looked drawn, dark bags, the glassy gaze of the sick.

“I’d like to.”

“Get in line, Dad.  Get in line.”

He sighed, rolled over, and slept another two hours before we hit the road and headed home.

During that two-hour drive from Birmingham to Huntsville my son lamented our not owning a helicopter or private jet.  And like any parent on a superhighway going 70 mph, I began to daydream about such possibilities myself.

If I travelled back in time 24 hours could I prevent him from getting sick?  Most likely not, since I have no idea how he came down with this virus in the first place.  But I could find a way to scrounge up a dollar.  And if I did this 24-hour t-shirt time hop one million times (even it was plain cash and not shiny gold) could I have made us millionaires while not aging a day in the process?

  • Million bucks?
  • Lear Jet?
  • T-shirt time machine?
  • No laugh lines?

There are worse ways to spend a Sunday.

But would that be worth it?  If I did that one million times, my son would suffer fever, chills and nausea one million times. And what sort of father would that make me?

In Groundhog Day Bill Murray’s character broke the cycle by realizing something greater than him.  Perhaps another way to grow is to never start the start the cycle in the first place.

And if you’re creating a character, critiquing a character, or just enjoying a movie with a big bowl of popcorn, try to put yourself in the character’s shoes.  That’s why good stories work, in my humble opinion.

Now, if your head’s hurting you may be trying to figure out what the hell I’m talking about today.  And, frankly, I wonder the same thing, especially since this is my first blog entry since winning a Freshly Pressed Award, and I’m a tad worried about disappointing you.  Or maybe your head’s hurting because you’re coming down with a touch of flu.  If the latter, I hope someone takes care of you, just this once.

Until next time,

Peace, from


Copyright © 2012, Alan Keith Parker.  All Rights Reserved.  I wrote this blog entry on my cell phone, which is like typing on a postage stamp.  Out of respect  for my pending carpel tunnel syndrome please don’t steal this!

A time to sow, a time to reap …

Time travel has a seductive hold over us for many obvious reasons: Who doesn’t have regrets they want to correct?  Who doesn’t want to right a wrong?  Or see that old flame … one … more … time?  Who doesn’t want to win last year’s multi-state lottery, or un-sow what you reaped?  Bwa ha ha …
 The science of time travel is, of course, weird as hell.  If you physically traveled in time, you’d travel through space as well.  And the solar system is zipping through the galaxy at 490,000 miles per hour.  So, if you travel back in time just one silly-ol’ hour, then you’d better have a space suit with you.  Otherwise you’ll be chewing some hard vacuum because when you get to one hour ago (check your watch), Mother Earth will be some half-million miles away, and fading fast.  But, we could devote our lives talking that crap.
Instead, why don’t I dive right in and take a look at some of the best time travel Hollywood has given me over the years.  And since it’s college football season, a poll seemed like a fitting approach to the problem.  Also note that this is my top 5, i.e., these are the movies that are my personal favorites.  This is not meant to be a list to match the critical thinking of film aficionados like Peter Travers, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, or Gene Shalit.  Those folks are in a league of their own.  This list simply reflects what I’ve enjoyed most.  So without further ado, my top 5 time travel movies are:
  1. Back to the Future
  2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  3. Groundhog Day
  4. Star Trek: First Contact
  5. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Back to the Future, of course, is considered a classic by any measure.  And the while the science may not be explained, there was a 1950s-ish quaintness about an eccentric scientist who needs a lightning blast to drive his Delorean back to the good ole days (that weren’t always so good).  The love story was human without being sappy, the humor often understated, and the cliffhanger brilliant.  And for guys my age, Lea Thompson certainly wasn’t hard on the eyes.  My only real complaint was the “fading photograph” device, but it was a decent enough egg-timer to move the plot along.  All in all, the movie was … heavy.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Potter movie for two reasons.  First, I think it’s the best adaptation of Rowling’s novels. Second, it addresses one of the neatest notions in time travel: Traveling back and forth over the course of a few hours.  The movie has a coming-of-age angle that I find particularly alluring, probably because I never grew up myself.  I loved watching how Harry, Ron, and (most especially) Hermione develop over the story’s arc.  How many of us, in school, needed a necklace like that.  Or a girlfriend like Hermione?
Groundhog Day is a favorite for many of the same reasons as Azkaban, and would own a higher place on my list if it hadn’t been so … repetitive.  But despite not having its final mystery explained in detail, the story still works.  I actually thought the fact that Bill Murray’s character broke out of his cycle by “growing up” was the perfect ending to a very solid work of fiction.
Star Trek: First Contact, of course, takes the crew of the Enterprise-E back to post-WW-III earth, and allows us to see what the real Zephram Cochran was like.  Entertaining on many levels, including its tie-in to the Borg plot-line, the movie has a great paradox ending, action, drama, and a helluva lot of good humor.  Maybe the best Trek movie of all, its only drawback is the fact that it is Trek, and that makes me wonder whether it could stand on its own.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is the kind of time travel satire that Kurt Vonnegut would’ve written if he’d been born to a different generation. How can you not love a story about a pair of near-high-school-dropouts who’ve wrapped themselves in enough time paradoxes to change the course of physics, and just don’t care? All for the purpose of finishing a class paper.  Priceless!
So, for what it’s worth, those are my favorite time travel movies.  The two lists that follow will give you an idea of some other movies that I enjoyed but didn’t make it to the top 5 for various reasons.  And below that is a bucket list of time travel movies that I have not seen.  If only I had more time …
  • Twelve Monkeys
  • Primer
  • Star Trek IV (the one about the whales)
  • Peggy Sue Got Married
  • Back to the Future, Part II
  • Back to the Future, Part III
  • Time Bandits
  • The Time Machine
  • Terminator
  • Terminator 2: Judgement Day
  • Hot Tub Time Machine
  • Somewhere in Time
  • The Final Countdown
  • Timecop
And here’s my Bucket List, movies that will find their way to me one way or the other …
  • The Butterfly Effect
  • The Lake House
  • Donnie Darko
  • Run Lola Run
Until next time, or last time,
from Keith
Copyright © 2012 Alan Keith Parker.  Steal my stuff now, steal my stuff later, I’ll come after you … I know how to generate 1.61 GW, after all.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, oh, my, too!

Did you really think I’d write a Halloween blog and not have a sequel? How could I possibly be true to Hollywood’s model of movie-making if I muffed that one? Since today is actually Halloween, I thought you’d like to read about the the movies that have scared the living piss out of me over the years. I actually don’t like scary stuff all that much, which is a partial lie because some of my favorite stories from science fiction and fantasy hang close to that crumbling cemetery wall known as the horror genre.


(The freakishly odd “mask” art was done by my daughter on our iPad. She didn’t mean for it to be a scary image, but when I saw it I immediately thought, “Hannibal Lecter.”)

A caveat about lying: I’m a fiction writer; I fib out of habit.

Now, on to the movies that have scared the holy mackerel out of me, even though I prefer swordfish, with field peas and a nice … never mind.

  • The freakin’ previews for The Exorcist back in the mid-70s … Jesus! Do you realize I’ve never seen that movie because of the previews?
  • The Silence of the Lambs – Well, what can you say? The movie is an Oscar-winning masterpiece, with freakishly superb acting by Anthony Hopkins and Jodi Foster … “quid pro quo
  • Psycho – Kids these days! Geesh, they’ll tell you that old movies aren’t scary. Next time they say this put them in a dark room and watch them shiver as Hitchcock’s black-and-white creepiness unfolds before them.
  • Seven – Okay, this flick is just downright “ewwww,” but I also can’t help thinking about it on days like this … or whenever a package comes in the mail.
  • The Green Mile – I don’t like executions. Hopefully there aren’t many people who do, but the electric chair puts me into a deer-in-headlights trance of abject terror quicker than most anything else (aside from disco).
  • Angel Heart – Yeah, this is the scariest thing I have ever seen. It’s gruesome, sickening, and hammers me over the head with the single worst fear I’ve ever had: Finding out I did something horrific that I cannot remember at all. And it doesn’t help that the ending implies that Harry Angel/Johnny Favourite is going to be riding the lightning soon (see above).

They tell you to write what you love. Makes me wonder: Should you also write what you hate?

If you’re out and about tonight, then please be safe. Keep your pets inside. Keep your kids safe.

Peace, from Keith

Copyright ©2012 Alan Keith Parker. This brilliant piece of writing is mine. All mine! Some countries give you the death penalty for stealing. Don’t do it!