This is obviously a list of terms which have special meaning. If I were still a professional, I’d probably call these terms of art, but that’s hardly appropriate for what amounts to amateur criticism of films, so we’ll just say that this is my take on some of the words I use in the blog.
—– A —–
Adam West: The television Batman from the cheesy, if almost universally beloved, 1966 series with the one-word theme song. It came on after school where I lived and I almost never missed it. The cartoon violence really appealed to me as a kid and I’m not sure I understood just how silly it actually was. At any rate, the actor now does substantial amounts of voice work, including Mayor Adam West in Family Guy.
Age of Enlightenment: One of the great cultural movements of the 18th Century, it is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment and (often in reference to British literature) the Age of Reason. Though centered in France, the movement was influential throughout Europe, and featured a conscious attempt to use logic and reason to reform societies and advance human knowledge. Locke, Spinoza, Voltaire and Montesquieu were all Enlightenment philosophers, and their thinking dramatically influenced that of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—making the United States Constitution, particularly as amended by the Bill of Rights, one of the consequences of the movement. The inevitable backlash against the Enlightenment emphasized emotion and was called the Romantic Period.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955): The archetypal genius, Einstein was a German-born physicist who happened to be visiting the United States in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Einstein elected to stay in the United States, and became a U.S. citizen. His contributions to physics are literally phenomenal: the theories of special and general relativity, for starters, as well as work on the photoelectric effect which gave rise to quantum mechanics. Einstein himself did not accept quantum mechanics, famously saying that “God does not play dice.”
Altair: The twelfth brightest star in the night sky, Altair is a rapidly rotating main sequence star which has about 1.8 solar masses and shines eleven times more brightly than our sun. It rotates so quickly that it is flattened at the poles and bulges at its equator. It is located about seventeen light years from Earth.
Anne McCaffrey (1926-present): One of the giant (in terms of her contributions, not her size) women in the field of written SF, active from the mid-sixties onward. McCaffrey’s fiction is a bit softer than most, and concentrates on conflicts involving emotions and threats from natural processes instead of people or sentient aliens. She was the first woman to win a Hugo Award, the first to win a Nebula Award, the first woman to put a science fiction novel on the NY Times Bestseller List, and was awarded the 22nd Grand Master of Science Fiction title. So she’s fairly hot stuff. I don’t know if the stories about her singing with Isaac Asimov at the World Science Fiction Conventions are apocryphal or not…
Aristotle (384-322 BC): Greek philosopher and third of the great Athenian thinkers (after Socrates and Plato; he was himself a student of Plato, as Plato had been a student of Socrates). He was and is a towering figure in the evolution of Western thought, with a significant influence in the fields of morality, aesthetics, logic, science, philosophy and politics. His metaphysical theories still influence both Jewish and Catholic thought. Of his original writings, perhaps only a third survive. He was a great, great thinker. On the other hand, his very greatness may have delayed the development of the modern scientific method: his scientific method depended greatly on very simple observation (that is, without any instruments whatsoever) and on logic without experimentation. In his defense—something which may surprise people who have heard me talk about him as the worst thing that ever happened to science—it’s hard to conduct modern scientific experiments without basic experimental devices like clocks, scales and thermometers. It may be irresponsible as well, but that’s a question for another day, and probably for someone who hasn’t somehow developed a fairly unreasoning prejudice against the man.
—– B —–
B Movie (or B-movie): A lower-cost commercial movie which is not an arthouse or pornographic film. Originally the “B movie” was the bottom half of a double feature, but since double features went the way of the dodo sometime back in the fifties, we’ve retained the connotation without the denotation…
Bard, The: Shakesepeare, of course. Born 1564 or thereabouts, died 1616, Shakespeare is often considered the greatest writer (of both plays and poetry) in the English language. Survived by some 38 plays and something in excess of 150 poems, Shakespeare’s works are performed more often than those of any other playwright and have been translated into every major language.
Batman: Oh come on, really? You know who Batman is unless you’re from a foreign country. Okay, okay…the caped crusader is the alter ego of millionare industrialist Bruce Wayne, who saw his parents murdered in a mugging gone wrong when he was a child. As an adult, he dresses up in costume and strikes terror into villains of all stripes as the masked vigilante Batman. While highly trained, and with some legitimate claim to being a genius (of the tactical, strategic, detective and problem-solving varieties), Batman has no superpowers (unless you count being obscenely wealthy as a superpower).
Bellerophon: A figure in Greek myth who was later replaced by Perseus in the classical era, which replacement was cemented during the Middle Ages. Bellerophon, or Bellerophontes, was a Greek hero who killed the chimera, battled the Amazons, and captured and tamed the winged horse Pegasus.
Black-and-white-world: Hypothetical single world or dimension in which there is no color, and in which every black and white movie ever made takes place. I suspect it’s a very confusing place. So far, what we’ve learned is that in black-and-white-world, women scream convincingly; the common man likes art and stuff, but doesn’t think highly of science and may even reject progress; aliens are usually evil; aliens have a singular weakness to dogs; radiation does really odd things to people and animals; freezing things doesn’t kill them, it just puts them to sleep.
Black hole: Without a doubt, one of the niftiest concepts in all of science, and in its own way, a huge problem for physicists. Steven Hawking became famous thanks in part to these exotic little beasties, which are the cores of massive stars in which the power of gravity overcame everything else, compressing the core down to a point of infinite density. The key here isn’t mass so much as density; black holes don’t have to weigh a lot if they’re sufficiently compact (though the natural formation of these things in the universe as we understand it, today at least, pretty much requires a big, big mass). Their gravity is so ferocious that not even light can escape (or to put it another way, the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light), hence the term “black hole” (coined by John Wheeler). One of the fundamental things about black holes is that we don’t really understand them or what they’re made of (though we do understand their effect on the universe around them); the math breaks down completely and gives nonsense or no answers. There’s an awful lot more you can say about these guys, but since most of you won’t be all that interested in anything other than the basic idea, I’ll just stop now.
Bridezilla: This is a fantastic word, and I really wish I’d invented it, only I stay away from people like this and don’t actually know any. You know what a Bridezilla is, of course; it’s a woman who is getting married, and transforms into a monster where the ceremony is concerned. There are overtones of conspicuous consumption built into the word, if you ask me, sort of like the excessive Sweet Sixteen parties on that MTV show. The origins of the word are obvious: it’s Godzilla in a wedding dress, wreaking havoc in Tokyo. Now that’s something I’d pay to see…
Bright line rule: Borrowed from legal terminology, a bright line rule or test is one which is easy to apply and leaves little room for interpretation. The other end of the spectrum is a balancing test, which balances a number of factors against one another. The bright line rule is easy to predict, while the balancing test is not. The balancing test has the advantage of being flexible and responsive to the individual demands of a particular situation, while bright line rules provide sure and certain guidance to those who need to rely on them.
—– C —–
Carrie: Both a novel by Stephen King and a film starring Sissy Spacek, this thing occupies a much, much larger place in our cultural landscape than it should. From it we learn that high school is a terrible, terrible place for the unlucky folks who don’t fit in (surprise!), that religious fanaticism doesn’t do anyone any good (or alternatively that Carrie’s mother was tragically correct about Carrie), and that we should never, ever piss off a woman with paranormal powers because she might do something really nasty.
Cassandra: When I realized that I’d referenced her twice, I decided it was enough for me to put her in the glossary, mostly because I like doing the glossary entries. But I also like the Cassandra figure, a character from Greek myth with a prominent role in the events surrounding and following the fall of Troy. Daughter of King Priam, lover of the god Apollo, she’s definitely a tragic figure. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, but the relationship didn’t work out so well. Apollo couldn’t take the gift back (Greek gods apparently had limitations, even if they couldn’t die), so instead he fixed it so no one would ever believe what she prophesied. Personally, I think Apollo was a bastard who knew exactly what he was doing and got a little revenge in exchange for Cassandra’s rejection. After the sack of Troy, Cassandra is raped by Ajax the Lesser (while in the temple of Athena, which is important to the events of the Odyssey), then given to Agamemnon as a concubine, and finally killed when Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra (Helen’s sister) and her lover Aegisthus (Agamemnon’s nephew and also his cousin—it’s complicated but it involves incest) killed Agamemnon. As symbols go, Cassandra’s got it going on, representing the idea that you shouldn’t mess with powerful forces (like the gods), as well as the state of having knowledge but lacking power.
Cat: Look, I realize that there are a lot of people out there who like them. I know some of those people, and genuinely enjoy their company and seldom have serious reason to question their judgment. Except on the issue of cats, of course. Seems to me that cats are basically snakes with fur and legs. And no poison, that science knows of anyway. They probably do have poison but are just too smart to use it where humans can detect it. They’re solitary hunters, completely unlike the social organization of dogs and wolves, which probably explains why I don’t like them very much.
Catalyst: This is a chemical term, and it has nothing to do with cats. It basically refers to a material or substance that starts a chemical reaction but doesn’t participate in it. It’s sort of like when your mother-in-law needles your wife about how you’re treating her, then sits back and watches the fireworks.
CERN: The European Organization for Nuclear Research, located in Geneva, Switzerland, is a physics research facility jointly operated by twenty member states. There are six nation states with observer status, including the United States. The facility operates six accelerators (two are linear, while the remaining four are synchrotrons, with a circular configuration), a decelerator, and a number of collision tunnels. CERN was also the birthplace of the World-Wide Web; you can see a copy of the first WWW document here.
Closed Timelike Curve: Physicists can get pretty funny about terminology, and this is another place where they do. A closed timelike curve is a special kind of worldline in which an object returns to its starting point. There are actually a lot of solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity which imply that closed timelike curves are possible, but many of them require an object to, say, enter a black hole (which is probably impossible without being torn apart), or use things like cosmic strings (which no one has ever seen).
Cosmic string: This is a tough one to explain. Back in the early universe, when inflation was taking place (no, that’s not economics, it’s a period of time in which the universe is thought to have expanded faster than the speed of light—which wouldn’t violate relativity since it was spacetime itself doing the expanding), there could have been phase transitions with a symmetry breaking feature. The end result could have been cosmic strings, hypothetical one dimensional topological defects in the fabric of spacetime. Similar defects with no dimensions (monopoles) and two dimensions (domain walls) are also hypothesized. There is some evidence for them, but it’s moderately inconclusive right now. They are predicted in both quantum field and relativity theories which attempt to model conditions in the early universe.
Criterion Collection: In 1984, three visionaries founded a film distribution company which was supposed to issue special editions of culturally important films. Their first release was Citizen Kane, followed up the following year by King Kong. The Collection is important because it pioneered many features we now consider standard on DVDs: letterboxing (they actually helped to standardize the ratio), commentary, and bonus features. Criterion prides itself on producing the cleanest and best possible prints of their films.
Cult status: When applied to movies, this generally seems to mean a movie which wasn’t really appreciated when initially released, but which has gained considerably in popularity since release. Or to put it another way, this means a film that bombed when it first came out, but subsequently developed a strong critical or popular following.
—– D —–
Damon Knight (1922-2002): A science fiction critic who also wrote quite good short stories, and something of the field’s enfant terrible (at least until Harlan Ellison came along and took over the role in a big way). He is best remembered for his short story To Serve Man which became one of the more celebrated Twilight Zone episodes. But he was also prickly and a little on the direct side, coining the phrase “second order idiot plot” to refer to plots that only work because all the characters are idiots. He also famously said of A. E. Van Vogt that rather than being a giant, the writer was “only a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter.” But he must have been dearly loved, as well, because the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers’ Association) renamed their Grand Master Award to the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, given for lifetime achievement in the field of science fiction writing.
Daniel DeFoe (1659?-1731): Englishman, born Daniel Foe (apparently the English didn’t hate the French quite so much back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), noted as one of the Fathers of the English novel. Presumably other cultures had invented the novel independantly. He’s most widely noted as the author of Robinson Crusoe, but he also wrote over five hundred books and pamphlets on a variety of subjects, making him one of those towering figures of our past whose like we simply don’t see in the present. To add insult to injury, as if his literary work was not enough, he went to jail for his political writings and was released in exchange for doing intelligence work for the English government. So apparently he was James Bond and William Shakespeare in one package.
Deconstruction: A post-modern philosophical movement or theory which states that “there is nothing outside the text.” Deconstruction has been enormously influential as a philosophy and as a method of literary criticism. It seems to be a realization that every attempt to describe or analyze any product of human thought is itself a product of human thought. Any attempt to analyze writing, for example, must use language (the analysis) to attack language (the written text). One prominent deconstructionist said “deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock, but thin air.” It’s a rather slippery concept, but in effect its practioners often wind up taking texts apart and demonstrating that they either do not mean what they appear to mean, or worse still, that they don’t mean anything at all. That said, as a philosophy it has contributed greatly to the intellectual tools of many fields of human endeavor.
Deus ex machina: Latin for “god in the machine,” this is a reference to Greek tragedy, in which a god would either descend (using a crane) or ascend (using a trap door) onto the stage and provide a magical solution. In modern critical thought, it just means that the big problem is solved by a new and contrived (and often completely unexpected) character or event. It is generally considered to be a weakness in a narrative. If you’ve ever looked at the clock and wondered how the writers were going to resolve the plot in <insert short period of time here>, then you may have seen a deus ex machina at work. This “miracle ending” is an element of what I call the ST: TNG Factor.
Disaster film: A specific genre in American cinema, these films are all about a human reaction to some kind of bad, bad thing—like a cruise ship that gets turned upside down, or a terrible high-rise building fire, or an asteroid approaching the planet, or the Mayans having been right about the world ending in 2012. These films usually feature an ensemble cast, great special effects, and a celebration of the human spirit.
Dogs: Dog spelled backwards is God. Also, I really like dogs. “Outside of a dog, books are man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Seriously, though, of all our domesticated animals, dogs really are the bomb. Loyal, intelligent, usually friendly, if there’s a better pet I don’t want to know about it. Oh yeah, and did you notice that Rusty the First Dog in Mars Attacks! was antogonistic to the Martians right from the start? He knew what was up from the get-go.
Dystopia: A repressive and overly-controlled society, generally a literary device. The word “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More for his novel of the same name, discussing a perfect society, and the term dystopia was apparently first used by the renowned political thinker John Stuart Mill. 1984 and Brave New World represent the best of the dystopian novels.
—– E —–
Exotic matter: This is something of a catchall term for wierd states of matter we can’t get our hands on easily. There are four categories of this stuff, in ascending order of availability: (1) matter with properties that violate the known laws of physics, i.e. negative mass or negative energy (not antimatter, which merely has reversed charges, but something similar in spirit) or speed faster than that of light (tachyons, assuming that they are matter, and also assuming that you accept the somewhat discredited theoretical work which predicts them); (2) matter which, while it does not violate the known laws of physics, has never been observed and may not exist (arguably dark matter would fall into this category); (3) matter which does not violate the laws of physics, but probably does (or did) exist in nature in spite of the fact that we’ve never seen it and can’t make it in a laboratory (quagma, or a quark plasma in which quarks are not bound to one another but instead exist in free form); and (4) matter which does not violate the known laws of physics, but has never been observed in nature in spite of being observed in the laboratory, usually under extreme conditions (e.g. a Bose-Einstein condensate). Needless to say, you don’t just run down to the corner store to buy this stuff, or even ask the good folks at CERN or FermiLab to make it for you. Antimatter isn’t in this group, since we can make it just fine in a good particle accelerator, so that should tell you something: we’re talking about really wierd stuff here.
—– F —–
Fanboy: A derisive term for a particular kind of obsessive fan which originated in comic book circles. The prototypical fanboy knows a lot about their chosen hobby, and the details matter to them. A comic fanboy might fully understand and know the details of years of history of, say, the Teen Titans comic books, and will probably have very strong opinions about everything. They’ll also know the continuity of the series up one side and down the other, and violently resist, at least in writing (often in internet forums), changes to the continuity. You could easily make the argument than the fanboy response to Enterprise, for example, doomed the series. Instead of a trekkie embrace of the new series, viewers who could tell you what happened to each Enterprise because they knew the movies and series so well reacted negatively to a series that changed the history they treasured. The female version of this is the fangirl. I’m guessing that you only see fangirls for things like Sailor Moon and Twilight.
Fear: An unpleasant emotional state caused by the awareness of impending danger. The physiological state of fear is characterized by increased heart rate, dialated bronchii, and changes in awareness or focus, all of which (obviously) help to prepare the body to flee—or to fight. What’s interesting about that is that physiologically extreme anger and extreme fear are the same thing, which goes a long way to explaining why humans have a tendency to destroy anything we fear.
Flash Gordon: Originally a comic strip drawn by Alex Raymond beginning in 1934, Flash was intended to compete with, or take advantage of, the market created by Buck Rogers. Set primarily on the planet Mongo, ruled by the evil Ming the Merciless, Flash is as much a part of our cultural heritage as Buck. Flash has spawned three serial films starring Buster Crabbe, a 1980 movie, and six (!) television series, and two radio serials. The original Flash is a polo player who graduated from Yale, and he and his girlfriend Dale Arden are kidnapped by Dr. Hans Zarkov in an attempt to eliminate the source of the meteorites bombarding the Earth—weapons of Ming.
Fuel: Any substance which stores energy which can be released in a chemical or nuclear reaction. It’s not much of a definition, since it’s functionally accurate as far as it goes but does not identify specific characteristics. For example, biologically, sugar is a fuel, but to your car it’s an absolute no-no.
—– G —–
Glitter: I’m not sure why, but suddenly glitter seems to be all over the pop culture landscape. I don’t know, maybe some fairy godmothers crashed into it or something. It shows up in song lyrics (Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night, and Ke$ha’s Take It Off and We R Who We R come to mind immediately), and in the concepts of bedazzling and (shudder) vajazzling.
Global Warming: Boy, I probably shouldn’t have put this one in here. It’s basically a scientific term for a process in which so-called greenhouse gases trap heat in an atmosphere. Thanks to the trapped heat, a planet is warmer than it would be otherwise. Our solar system boasts four bodies with greenhouse gases, and which might therefore be subject to some global warming effect: Earth, Mars, Venus and the largest moon of Saturn, Titan. All politics aside, the effect is pretty conclusive with respect to its fundamental nature, and it is why Venus is so hot (hotter at the surface than Mercury, which is quite a bit closer to the Sun). Now, if you want, you can debate the politics and science of man-made global warming, but as for me, I’m getting back to the science fiction. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion or don’t care, but this is one of those places where science has been regrettably politicized and I just don’t know you well enough to talk politics or religion with you.
Green screen: Before the age of CGI and weather satellites with TV-ready pictures, television (including weather reports) and film used the green or blue screen technique, also known as chroma keying. The subject is filmed in front of a blue or green screen, and then that background is removed and the film is combined with a new background. Green and blue are used because they are furthest from human skin tones. Blue requires more illumination and may match some aspects of the subject such as clothing or eyes. Green screens, which predominate now, require less illumination and, at least in the digital era, produces less noise in the video channel and therefore produce a better effect.
—– H —–
H. G. Wells (1866-1946): One of the fathers of science fiction, Wells is a tremendous figure in literature. He wrote books on contemporary science, history, politics and textbooks as well as science fiction. And yet it is his science fiction we remember, and why not? He gave us The Invisible Man, First Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Any way you look at it, that’s an impressive run. He also wrote Tono-Bungay, a novel about patent medicines and a satire of advertising, which is sometimes taught in Victorian Lit classes (I myself read this novel in college). He was an outspoken socialist, something of a pacifist or peacenik, and an agnostic.
Halloween: A 1978 film directed and independently produced by John Carpenter, Halloween gave birth to the slasher film. It’s always amazing to me that such a subtle, sinister piece of film-making can be classified as a slasher film: barring the opening murder, the violent events of the film are confined to the last thirty minutes or so, and there’s very little gore or blood. Instead, the film builds in suspense (just check out how often Michael is in the frame, watching his sister or her friends…) until it reaches the flashpoint and ignites. Carpenter made the film for about $300,000, but obviously put a lot of attention and care into the project. It also launched the career of Jamie Lee Curtis, and boasts one of the most haunting soundtracks of all time.
Hangul: The official and native Korean alphabet, which consists of 24 consonants and vowels. The letters are usually written in blocks of two to five letters, and the blocks are then arranged either left to right or top to bottom—which makes them look like ideograms even though they are letters.
Helium three: Normal helium has two protons and two neutrons in the nucleus. Helium three is an isotope which has only one neutron instead of two. It is quite rare on Earth, but can be found in greater (albeit still low) amounts on the surface of the moon and in the atmosphere of the gas giants.
Higgs boson: This one’s pretty esoteric, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully understand it. First postulated as a carrier particle for the Higgs field, these wonderful little subatomic particles are what give mass to, depending on who you ask, the W and Z particles (the carriers of the weak nuclear force) all the way up to every subatomic particle in the book. That’s pretty intense. This is the thing that the Superconducting Supercollider—unfortunately now just a hole in the ground in Waxahatchie, Texas—was supposed to find; now it depends on Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, which might not have the power for it, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.
Horror: Horror can be intense fear or dread, or it can mean intense aversion or repugnance. Horror fiction is generally a work which attempts to create feelings of horror, of either type, in the reader or viewer. Modern-day horror films are usually all about shock and disgust—the repugnance end of the spectrum. Though not officially a part of the definition, modern usage of the word “horror” generally seems to imply something other than simply fear.
Hugo Award: Annual award given by the World Science Fiction Society (at the annual World Science Fiction Convention, naturally) to the best literature in the field, and named after Hugo Gernsback (see below). Probably the most prestigious award for written science fiction, the awards have been given annually since 1955.
Hugo Gernsback (1844-1967): A prominent editor who, along with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, is widely considered to be one of the three Fathers of Science Fiction (wouldn’t that make a great band name?). The written end of the field calls its annual achievement awards “Hugos” after him. He was that important. He founded one of the first SF magazine, Amazing Stories, and was noted as a sharp business man (H. P. Lovecraft referred to him as “Hugo the Rat”). The stuff he published is now called pulp (after the low quality paper used in the magazines), but without him, the genre of SF might not exist at all.
—– I —–
IKEA: IKEA is apparently the hottest thing going in the furniture business. Now, I hail from North Carolina, where we used to make furniture before we shifted to a service economy—that’s an observation, and not a judgment—and I’m not sure why a Swedish furniture chain should be such a big deal, but there you have it. If you go to there website, you can “Ask Anna” if you have questions. I didn’t know Anna was a Swedish name…
I Know It When I See It: A statement, slightly paraphrased, by Potter Stewart, Justice of the Supreme Court, in reference to pornography. Students of legal history are likely to point out that the (perhaps in-) famous statement was in a concurrence rather than a majority opinion, meaning that it never had the force of law and was instead mere obiter dictum, and that Stewart implicitly disavowed the statement in a majority ruling for a subsequent pornography case testing the limits of the First Amendment which did conclusively establish the legal test for pornographic materials not protected by the First Amendment. To you people I say, “Yeah, but he said it and that’s the whole point! Quit worrying about the details and get with the program!”
Iliad: Homer’s Iliad, or Song of Ilium, is one of the oldest known works of Western literature (probably composed in the eighth century BC). Think about that for a moment—it’s a poem composed seven centuries before the birth of Christ! In form, the Iliad is an epic poem of dactylic hexameters (the heroic form of Greek poetry) written in Ionic Greek (along with some other dialects) which is set in the final days of the Trojan War. In it, the author—who may or may not really have been Homer—portrays a terrible conflict between two of the great Greek warriors and heroes, King Agamemnon of the House of Atreus and Achilles (the guy with the heel), which ends with the intervention of the Greek gods themselves (on both sides of the conflict, of course: the original casus belli, the abduction of Agamemnon’s queen, Helen, by Paris, first-born prince of Troy, divided the gods as well as men).
Independence Day: A 1996 alien invasion film which included aspects of the ever-popular disaster film, like a big ensemble cast. I saw this movie on opening weekend with a wonderful young woman named Christy and thoroughly enjoyed the film almost as much as her reaction to it (she’s not a science fiction fan but loved the film for its gorgeous effects and stirring, if somewhat predictable, story), but I have slowly come to hate it for reasons completely unrelated to the objections of Mark (of the Wretched Excess Crew): Roland Emmerich may put off his planned adaptation of Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy in order to direct two sequels. I don’t care how good the original was (or wasn’t), or even how good the sequels might turn out to be. Any delay in adapting one of Asimov’s finest works can only be considered criminal. Well, unless the Foundation novels get The Bicentennial Man treatment. Maybe old Isaac was on to something when he never let anyone make his books into movies after all…
Industrial Revolution: Quite simply one of the greatest single turning points in human history, the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain with some rather innocuous attempts to mechanize textile production; it ended with the creation of the modern world. Before the Industrial Revolution, nearly everything mankind did was powered by humans or animals. By the time the Industrial Revolution was in full flower, its effects had touched nearly all aspects of agriculture, manufacturing and technology. Before the Industrial Revolution, human population levels and income were “broadly stable,” but since then have increased six and ten fold, respectively.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992): One of the masters of hard science fiction, Asimov is credited (by the Science Fiction Writers of America) with writing the best science fiction story of all time, “Nightfall.” Born an Orthodox Jew in the Soviet Union, he grew up from the age of three in the United States and became a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. The man was incredibly prolific, writing science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and non-fiction (which included a textbook on biochemistry). When I say prolific, I really mean it: he wrote over five hundred books in his lifetime, and managed to publish in nine out of the ten categories of the Dewey Decimal system. On the science fiction front, Asimov birthed the Foundation series of novels, gave us the laws of robotics, and managed to write the first science fiction murder mystery. At one point he was regarded as one of the “Big Three” authors (along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke) of science fiction.
—– J —–
Jules Verne (1828-1905): French author, one of the three Fathers of Science Fiction, who wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, Around the World in Eighty Days, and A Journey to the Center of the Earth. He is the second-most translated author of all time. Many of his works feature speculation about methods of travel then unknown. While a lot of his novels are pro-technology, he himself was somewhat more pessimistic about the growth and expansion of western-style technology, and this sense of optimism was recommended by his primary editor and publisher (said optimism being notably lacking before the editor’s association with Verne and after the editor’s death). Verne’s influence on the field is undeniable, since along with H. G. Wells he basically invented it.
John W. Campbell (1910-1971): A very important editor (of Astounding—really Astounding Stories and then Astounding Science Fiction—an influential SF magazine) who is sometimes credited with shaping “the Golden Age of Science Fiction.” Campbell was a giant in the field, and every writer who produced short stories from 1938 to the 1950s felt his touch. He published giants like Lester Del Ray, Isaac Asimov, A. E. Van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon. He famously insisted that his writers understand both science and people and that their stories reflect that understanding, a movement away from the pulp era. He also wrote, at least up until the time he assumed control of Astounding, and gave us the very fine short story Who Goes There? This story later became The Thing From Another World and still later The Thing when it was filmed.
—– K —–
Kaiju film: “Kaiju” is Japanese for “strange beast,” but it is usually translated as “monster.” The kaiju films are a genre where the monster, usually a really really big one, rampages around and often fights other really really big monsters. Technically these films may be “daikaiju” films, or ones featuring “giant strange beasts.” If you watched the old Godzilla movies, you know what I”m talking about; Mothra and Rodan are other well-recognized kaiju (maybe dwelling in the same universe, depending on the film). Gamera, the giant atomic turtle who is friend to children, also qualifies.
Kaon: A meson—that’s a subatomic particle made up of a quark paired with an anti-quark—consisting of (1) a strange quark and an up antiquark; (2) a strange antiquark and an up quark; (3) a strange quark and a down antiquark; or (4) a strange antiquark and a down quark. They don’t last long; the most stable rarely see out 5 x 10-8 seconds. Thanks to the strange quark or antiquark, they exhibit a quality physicists call “strangeness,” which is important because of a parity violation with respect to the weak force. What does all that mean? They’re weird little things, and they exhibit behavior which might explain why there’s lots of matter in the universe but no antimatter.
Ke$ha: Modern pop music icon who seems to really like glitter. Two of her songs mention it: Take It Off (“There’s a place I know if you’re looking for a show where they go hardcore and there’s glitter on the floor“) and We R Who We R (“I’ve got that glitter on my eyes, stockings ripped all up the side, looking sick and sexy-fied”). I never said her lyrics were deep, just that they featured glitter, so you can’t complain about this. Her entire image seems to revolve around partying (her web page is http://www.keshasparty.com/us/home), though to be fair there may be some truth to that. Among other bits of internet information about her, she threw up in Paris Hilton’s closet and broke into Prince’s house in order to meet him and maybe get a recording contract. To her credit, she’s written a number of songs for other artists, and says that the dollar sign in her name is an ironic reference to how poor she was growing up and even while in the music business; she has stated that “I was so happy being broke. And I was so happy not being broke.” Her breakout song Tik Tok pretty much exemplifies my party boy lifestyle (or it used to until Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night came along, but you get the idea).
—– L —–
Larry Niven (1938-present): American science fiction author justly famous for his “hard” science fiction incorporating the latest in theoretical physics and unique astrophysical ideas. Niven’s work is highly imaginative and varied: he has written fantasy (magic as a non-renewable natural resource in The Magic Goes Away, for example), social commentary (the Gil the ARM stories look at the social consequences of improved transplant technology, which Niven himself has said missed out on the possibility of artificial replacements but are nevertheless highly entertaining, as well as wonderful examples of the science fiction mystery), pie-in-the-sky speculation and space opera about intelligent aliens (pretty much all of the Known Space works, a series of loosely-connected novels and stories set in the same future, and exemplified by Ringworld), and hard science (like The Hole Man, Neutron Star, and Inconstant Moon, the last of which was adapted for an Outer Limits episode). He’s got a great sense of humor as well—his speculations on the sex life of Superman are absolutely hysterical.
Lobotomy: A now-disregarded psychiatric procedure in which the connections to the prefrontal lobe of the brain are severed. The procedure was invented in 1935 and used for about twenty years for a wide range of psychiatric conditions which did not respond to other treatments, in spite of the recognized serious side effects. In fact, the 1949 Nobel Prize was awarded, in part, to the inventor of the procedure.
Louise Fletcher: Are there any actors you always recognize and always like, and aren’t sure why? Louise Fletcher does that for me. Turns out, though, that she’s done some pretty memorable work over the years. She was Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She also appeared in Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (as Kai Winn), and the movies The Exorcist II (a doctor), Firestarter (a kindly farmer’s wife who takes in little Charlie), Brainstorm (one of the two principal researchers), Flowers in the Attic (the mean grandmother), Cruel Intentions (Sebastian’s kindly though somewhat dumb Aunt Helen), Thieves Like Us, and guest appearances in virtually every television series ever filmed. Okay, that last is a bit of hyperbole. She’s a native of Alabama who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
—– M —–
Many Worlds Interpretation: Basically, this is a philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics that says that every time two events could happen on a quantum scale, they do happen—just in alternate histories in universes inaccessible to us. It has something to do with the wavefunction, which is probably the central wierdness in quantum mechanics. The more commonly taught Copenhagen Interpretation is that when an observer looks at a wavefunction, he or she or it causes it to collapse into randomly-determined physical parameters. What does all this mean? Not a darn thing, really, since no one can figure out any way to test either proposition.
Mars: The Red Planet is literally and technically the fourth planet from the sun in our solar system. Named after the Roman God of War, Mars has come to mean quite a bit more, at least in modern Western culture. The vast majority of the solar system is an inhospitable place, and of the other candidates to sustain life, Mars—at least to all initial appearances—is definitely the top choice (Venus, our so-called “sister planet,” is a case study in global warming gone haywire, and the surface temperature of the planet is hot enough to melt lead, so it’s not really a player in the life game). Look at it for a minute: though quite a bit smaller than Earth, it has polar ice caps, an atmosphere which doesn’t look all poison and cloudy and nasty, dark and light areas that resemble seas, and apparant canals carrying water. In 1965, Mariner 4 did a flyby of the planet and pretty conclusively established that there was no water on the surface of the planet, and in the process demolished a lot of science fiction which had gone with the appearances and postulated life on Mars (everything from H. G. Wells to Larry Niven to Ray Bradbury to Edgar Rice Burroughs).
Martians: Name for hypothetical inhabitants of the fourth planet from the Sun, Mars. I’m making an effort not to capitalize the word “martian” since I wouldn’t capitalize “human” either. Martians are very nearly always portrayed as enemies to humanity (probably because any good SF film or novel needs conflict). Thanks to the whole habitable zone thing and that little misunderstanding about free water on the surface of Mars and the canals, martians were a staple of science fiction until Mariner made it clear that the surface of the planet did not have liquid water on it.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Actress born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and raised near Salt Lake City, Utah. She’s a “genre babe” with roles in Sky High, Death Proof (the Tarentino half of Grindhouse), the series Wolf Lake, Final Destination 3, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World and The Ring 2. Strangely enough, she’s worked with Kurt Russell in Sky High and in Death Proof, which makes her part in The Thing prequel more than a little odd: she’s taking on the Kurt Russell role.
—– N —–
Nancy Reagan (1921-present): Former wife of President Ronald Reagan, and First Lady of the United States of America from 1981 to 1989. I am specifically not expressing an opinion here, other than to say that she is a lady who loved her husband and her country and sought at all times to protect both. That said, she was criticized for restoring a sense of formality to the White House, for her interest in high-end fashion, for her decision to replace the White House china, for the White House renovations she undertook, and even for the “Just Say No” anti drug campaign. A former actress who competed with actresses like Janet Leigh and Debbie Reynolds for roles, Nancy said that her life began when she met “Ronnie.” Regarding the White House renovations and the White House china, the First Lady paid for the changes with private donations. The White House was reportedly due for renovations, particularly in the living areas, and Reagan also rescued many antiques and placed them throughout the White House. She reportedly said that the White House belonged to all Americans, and she wanted it to be a house they could all be proud of.
Neologism: Either the act of creating a new word, or the new word itself. In psychiatry, it means words that have a meaning all their own to the person who uses them (usually a child or someone with a psychosis). At the risk of handing a reader more ammunition about my childishness or insanity, this is something I do a lot when I’m looking for a word to describe something and my vocabulary doesn’t have what I want. For me to use a neologism, it’s going to have to be pretty clear what I mean; a good example is “prevenge” which means taking revenge on someone before they do something which might make revenge desirable. Prevenge rolls off the tongue nicely, and its meaning is relatively obvious, so it’s an effective tool for communication. By the way, prevenge, though I used it without conscious knowledge of its prior existence, and therefore claim it as my invention, has actually been around a while, appearing in music lyrics and now present in the Urban Dictionary.
Neutron star: Another one of those science concepts that seem to have caught popular imagination, a neutron star is one in which the power of gravity has overcome the star’s electron degeneracy and forced the electrons to combine with protons (inverse or reverse beta decay), resulting in a star that’s composed mostly of neutrons. The resulting neutronium is very dense, and would weigh in at astounding masses. Neutronium is one of those terms that sounds like it comes from science but doesn’t really have a formal definition, because there’s a lot we don’t know about neutron stars and neutronium, including what the stuff is actually made of (Are there protons and electrons in there too? How many?). If it helps, you can think of a neutron star as a sort of failed black hole which isn’t made of normal matter, but is made of matter nonetheless.
—– O —–
Obiter dictum: Latin for “said in passing.” It’s a legal term of art, sometimes also known as professional jargon, and in legal terms it refers to something that’s part of an opinion, but isn’t necessary to the holding (the important part that tells the rest of the legal community what to do) of the opinion. We could talk more about the doctrine of stare decicisis but frankly that would probably obscure the point instead of clearing it up. So what is the point, exactly? Sometimes judges say and write things that don’t have the force of law, for one half of the point. Also, lawyers, just like members of any other restrictive group, can use language to keep other people out of their group and protect the group’s function, for the second half of the point. That second part might be a little bit cynical, by the way.
Ox: Domestic cow trained for pulling things (or draught). Really, that’s all there is to it. Of course, the prevalence of oxen, and the associated paraphenalia like yokes, all over the world has led to some wonderful turns of phrase, one of which got you here: “It all depends on whose ox is being gored.” It’s apparently a reference to the fact that cows have horns and sometimes use them on each other, and contains a nice bit of folk wisdom in that people generally don’t care about something until their own interests are involved. I just love the English language and old sayings, don’t you?
Oxidant: This is another one of those definitions that probably doesn’t help. An oxidant is any agent that, in a chemical reaction, gains electrons. Since its net electric charge goes down with each negative electron gained, it is reduced while the other participants in the chemical reaction, which lose electrons but gain in terms of electric charge, are oxidized. “Oxidized” and “oxidant,” by the way, because the most common oxidant or reducing agent we know of is oxygen. It can also mean any agent that transfers oxygen, but that’s mostly because there are so many kinds of oxidation reactions that the definitions get muddy. At any rate, common oxidants include oxygen, ozone, peroxides, fluorine, sulfuric acid, perchorate and associated halogen compounds, hypochlorite, hexavalent chromium compounds…and the list goes on. One of the things these compounds have in common, aside from being bad for your skin, is being poisonous to humans. Yes, even oxygen, if you get too much of it, as any scuba diver knows.
—– P —–
Pion: A meson—that’s a combination of a quark and an antiquark—made up of an up quark and a down antiquark, or an up antiquark and a down quark, or a down quark and a down antiquark, or an up quark and an up antiquark. They’re the lightest of the mesons. They decay rather quickly, none lasting longer than 2 x 10-8 seconds.
Plot hole: A serious flaw in a narrative; usually a character acting outside of previously established character, or the sudden revelation of information or abilities which the viewer should have been aware of from the start, or a logical inconsistency in the flow of the plot. For example, in the movie Snakes on a Plane, the snakes are in the unpressurized cargo hold, and get into the pressurized passenger cabin through a door someone left open. Of course, if the door had been open, the unpressurized passenger cabin might have represented a far more immediate threat to the passengers than the snakes, who would probably be dying anyway. For a great (and comical) look at plot holes, check out “8 Classic Movies That Got Away With Gaping Plot Holes” on Cracked.com.
Pneumonia: An evil, evil curse which affects a victim’s lungs. You may have heard it’s a simple disease process with myriad sources, characterized by inflamation of the bronchioles and alveoli of the lungs, causing shortness of breath. There are a number of causes of pneumonia, including but not limited to viruses and bacteria (pneumococcus being one of the first identified). Well, unfortunately for science and the medical establishment, this is simply not true. Pneumonia is some kind of black magic hex, or possibly a minor part of the wrath of God, which afflicts its victims with severe shortness of breath, fever, chills, chest congestion, fatigue and other indicia of sickness. You can’t exercise when you have it, and it makes even little things like going up the stairs unpleasant to say the least. It’s pretty damn scary, so there’s no way it’s just an illness.
Psychopath: Before the DSM-IV-TR changed the way psychiatrists and psychologists diagnosed mental disorders, a psychopath was a person with shallow emotional states, a lack of empathy, and impulsive behavior patterns. Psychopathy is often associated with criminal behavior in popular imagination. Nowadays, mental health professionals talk about a “subset” of “antisocial personality disorder.”
Psychosis: A generic term referring to a mental state in which an individual loses touch with reality. It’s not a disease or a diagnosis in and of itself, and so many mental health professionals prefer not to use the term. A psychotic break is the moment or period when an individual actually enteres the state of psychosis.
Purple prose: Over-stylized language. It is a term from literary criticism which refers to language so ornate or flowery that it detracts from the story or subject and draws attention to the writing style itself. It was first used by the Roman poet and critic Horace.
–—- Q —–
Quantum Electrodynamics: A relativistic quantum field theory of electrodynamics—in other words, the merging of quantum field theory with relativity in the arena of the electromagnetic force. The theory is the first successful such merger, although at this time relativity and quantum mechanics don’t always get along, particularly when gravity is put into the mix. Abbreviated QED, the theory is a precise mathematical formulation of how light and matter interact. Its accuracy is astonishing, and it has been called “the jewel of physics.”
Quantum Mechanics: A rather specialized (but very fundamental) branch of physics dealing with the fact that matter and energy can sometimes be described as particles and sometimes as waves. Quantum mechanics is some wierd stuff—Einstein, who helped to lay the foundations of quantum mechanics, always rejected it as a viable theory (“God does not play dice.”). On the other hand, the theory has had remarkable success, all of its predictions being confirmed. Fortunately for us, quantum mechanics doesn’t affect the world as we perceive it—which is a good thing, since it turns all of our expectations upside down.
—– R —–
Radiation: Either a physical process by which energy or matter travel from a source in straight lines in all directions, or the quanta or particles of energy or matter, respectively, which do the traveling. Radiation can be either non-ionizing or ionizing. Examples of the former include light, radio waves, and microwaves, all manifestations of the electromagnetic force. Ionizing radiation is the dangerous stuff, since it has enough energy to strip an electron off an atom, leaving it positively charged—an ion, in fact. Examples of ionizing radiation include alpha particles (basically helium nuclei, two protons and two neutrons), beta particles (our old friend the electron), gamma particles (quanta of energy with high frequencies, i.e. high energy photons, also called gamma rays), x-rays (just a lower energy form of gamma particles), and neutrons. Neutron radiation is the only known process by which non-radioactive materials can be made radioactive, and the process, called neutron activation, is at the heart of modern radiactive source production and a significant issue in nuclear reactors (it is the source of a lot of the radioactive waste) and modern nuclear weapons. Contrary to every bit of pop culture in existence, radiation will not make animals big or people small, nor will it cause mutations like extra limbs, psionic powers, or animal parts. All that ionizing radiation will do is screw up your DNA and make you sick, possibly killing you. Also, microwaves are non-ionizing radiation, at least at the level that a kitchen appliance can produce, and cannot irradiate your food and make it radioactive or wierd. All the microwave can do is make your food hot.
Ray Bradbury: A god among men, a writer’s writer, one of the greatest talents the United States has ever produced…Bradbury is often considered to be a science fiction writer, but he himself classifies his work as fantasy, with the notable exception of Fahrenheit 451 because the events of that novel “could happen.” He claims his other works are modern-day myths. All of this, however, ignores his true gift for lyricism; whether it’s a novel or one of his many short stories, Bradbury’s use of the English language is sheer and unadulterated magic, or perhaps to be more prosaic, lyric poetry.
Red herring: In fiction, a red herring is a device intended to mislead the reader or the viewer. In a mystery, for example, there may be an “obvious” killer who of course turns out not to be the killer. Strangely, the history of the term is perhaps more interesting than its use. First of all, there is no such animal as a red herring; the term refers to a fish which has been soaked in brine, which typically increases the odor of the fish, and, if the brine is strong enough, turns the fish red. It has been said that the term originates from a training technique for teaching hounds to follow the correct scent, or a practice of fleeing criminals to escape police. There is no historical support, however, for either meaning, and it is hard to see how a criminal carrying a stinking fish could be any easier to detect (at least until he drops the fish). The term actually originates with the radical journalist William Cobbett. In 1807, Cobbett claimed that he had once used a herring to deflect pursuing hounds from a hare.
Relativistic: This means really, really fast (some significant fraction of the speed of light), so fast in fact that the ordinary physics that we all know and love and experience every day don’t quite work any more. In other words…relativity’s strange, strange effects, like things gaining mass and experiencing time more slowly, occur at significant fractions of the speed of light, which scientists and people who talk like scientists call “relativistic velocities.”
Richard Matheson (1926-present): An American writer who first saw print in 1950, and who has given us five novels made into iconic films: Dreams to Come (filmed as Dreams to Come and starring Robin Williams), I Am Legend (made into three films: The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend starring Will Smith), The Incredible Shrinking Man (the film starred Grant Williams), Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour), and Duel (Spielberg’s first directorial effort, a TV movie starring Dennis Weaver). He also wrote fourteen Twilight Zone episodes, including the unforgettable 1963 Nightmare at 20,000 Feet with a young William Shatner.
—– S —–
Science-y: My own word for the state of looking like science is involved, with overtones of an archaic view of what science looks like. You often see this in dated science fiction material which attempted, generally wrongly, to predict what computers or rocket ships or particle accelerators might look like. I think it’s implied in the word that the actual pace and outcome of scientific development is seldom anticipated in toto, so that a film might get it right about video phones, but wrong about them being, say, wrist watches.
Science-fictiony: Another neologism I’m loath to claim, it basically means that something has the trappings of science fiction, often without the substance. We really don’t want to get into the issue of what constitutes science fiction, though, since that’s worse than an argument between fanboys about whether the Empire from Star Wars or the Federation from Star Trek would win in a war between them (actually, you can tell a lot about a science fiction fan from which side they take in that argument…).
Scream queen: A demeaning term applied to actresses associated with horror movies. Everyone seems to agree that a scream queen must be sexy and attractive in the damsel-in-distress role, while being attainable for the average guy (without being too attainable). Many critics state that such an actress has to do considerably more than scream convincingly, however: attributes associated with scream queen roles (especially in later times) include intelligence and courage. Fay Wray (of King Kong fame, as well as Dr. Frankenfurter’s idol) is usually cited as the first scream queen.
Seawolf: The “Seawolf” moniker has been used four times in American history, though only the fourth Seawolf was the lead vessel of her class. The latest Seawolf, launched in 1989, is a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine intended to replace the Los Angeles class. It is significantly quieter than the Los Angeles submarines due to a revolutionary pump-jet drive system. Some reports claim that the Seawolf, cruising at 20 knots while submerged, is quieter than a Los Angeles tied up at dock. The Seawolf is also larger, faster and more maneuverable than a Los Angeles, and carries fifty torpedoes and twice the Los Angeles’ torpedo tubes as well as an advanced sonar system allowing it to target multiple vessels at one time. If that weren’t enough, they also carry Tomahawk cruise missles which can be launched from underwater at land or sea targets. This is one of those things that is, in a scary sort of way, simply awe-inspiring. On the other hand, they’re really expensive, costing about $2.8 billion, and only three were built before the Navy decided to use the new Virginia class instead (they’re smaller but keep many of the unique features of the Seawolf, thereby reducing cost).
Silicon: You probably think you know everything there is to know about silicon, but there’s a bit more to it than breast implants, which, by the way, weren’t even on the horizon at the time of The Monolith Monsters, which is the film that gave rise to this very entry, and at any rate as I understand it these days breast implants just use saline, which is also an important component of The Monolith Monsters, so there. At any rate…silicon…second most common element in the earth’s crust, atomic number 14 (which means 14 protons and 14 electrons), and an atomic structure that makes it act rather like a heavier version of carbon, at least chemically speaking. Thanks to that little piece of information, of course, we get folks thinking about what a silicon-based biology might be like, which of course leads us to things like the Horta in Star Trek and The Monolith Monsters. Silicon is absolutely vital to modern society: it is used in concrete, glass, cement, computer chips (the base “wafers” that integrated circuits and computer chips rest on is made of silicon), and aluminum alloys (what your car is made of). Silly putty originally came from adding boric acid to silica oil.
Soap opera: Traditionally, a soap opera is a daytime television series which has an ensemble cast, continuing storylines, and a focus on usually two major families, often from very different backgrounds. In the United States, romance is a major element of the storylines, but the stories also tend to develop into intricate and convoluted dramas over the course of time, with multiple plot twists and unexpected developments. They were named “soap operas” because of the “operatic” quality of the storylines, as well as the fact that detergent commercials were often the major advertising. Soap operas eventually developed their own highly stylized acting, as well as directorial, techniques, and eventually spawned the nighttime soap opera.
Sociopath: This is one of those terms that we all think has a specific meaning within a particular branch of knowledge—in this case psychology and psychiatry—when in fact the term isn’t used with specific meaning within the field any more. In the older usage, a sociopath is a person without a conscience, and now the DSM-IV-TR would classify sociopathy as a subset of antisocial personality disorder.
Space opera: There’s no simple definition for this term, and it’s loaded with a lot of emotional baggage because it was originally used as a pejorative term by Wilson Tucker in a fanzine article, referring to it as a “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.” Later on Brian Aldiss, a noted science fiction editor, said that space opera was the “good old stuff.” These days the term seems to mean a big adventure story set in space, often with an operatic scale.
ST:TNG: An abbreviation for Star Trek: The Next Generation. And yes, that does mean that the 1967 series starring William Shatner is sometimes abbreviated ST:TOS. You’ll also see ST:DS9 for Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Fortunately or unfortunately, people just call Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise Voyager and Enterprise, respectively.
Standard Model: Look, I know I’ve mentioned a lot of science in this blog, but I’m about to do it again, and for starters, it is science fiction and for enders, this thing is important. The Standard Model is the current state of knowledge on the physics front, a table that gives us the fundamental particles and at least some of the forces that between them make up the universe as we know it. Depending on how you interpret the Standard Model, it may even incorporate spacetime into itself with the addition of string theory, which at least has the advantage of explaining why there are so many fundamental particles, grouped in three redundant families with increasing masses. The Standard Model isn’t perfect, however; it doesn’t fully incorporate relativity or gravity, and there are a few puzzles (like neutrino oscillation) which it simply can’t explain. A lot of people are hoping that we can find the Higgs boson and get the trouble spots worked out.
Suspense: Literally, mental uncertainty or anxiety. When used it relation to narratives of various sorts, it generally means the feeling of anxiety generated by not knowing what’s going to happen next—or sometimes, in certain genres, being afraid you know exactly what’s going to happen next. In the hands of a skillful writer or director, suspense can also be created by knowing what will happen, but not when or how.
—– T —–
Technobabble: This is a fanboy kind of term that I first heard in reference to ST:TNG. Basically, it’s completely made-up science speak which is usually there to advance the plot, create obstacles for our protagonists, or otherwise contribute to drama. The nice thing about technobabble is that it sometimes leads you to discover that the writer actually did know what they were talking about, and you can learn something. On the other hand, a lot of science fiction writers are full of crap and just invent stuff with science-y sounding names because they’re too lazy to either research, if they’re trying to deal with the real Universe, or figure out, if they’re dealing with their own made-up Universe, how the Universe actually works. As you might imagine, this is a derisive term.
The ST:TNG Factor: Nobody has ever called it that but me, but I guarantee you that many ST:TNG fans will know exactly what I’m talking about: the miracle ending. One of the key defects in TNG episodes was the way that conflicts and plots were magically wrapped up and resolved in the last five minutes. Yes, I understand that it makes for a nice dramatic finish and it also lets the writers work in character development as the Bad Thing of the Week develops, and that not every episode of television can use techniques like in medias res or flashbacks. But there were a hell of a lot of episodes with this particular structure during TNG’s run.
Time Bandits: Terry Gilliam’s first feature film, Time Bandits brings together a little boy, seven dwarves, the devil, John Cleese, and Sean Connery for a ride which simply has to be seen to be understood. It’s not science fiction, but it’s amazing. Go out and watch it, right now.
Typhoon-class: The NATO reporting name for a particular kind of Russian ballistic missile submarine, i.e., a boomer. The Russians themselves call the class the Akula or Shark class. They are something of a triumph of engineering, being the largest submarines ever deployed as well as being among the quietest and most maneuverable in the Russian fleet, and featured multiple pressure hulls. They also carry formidable weaponry in the form of up to twenty missiles tipped with as many as ten MIRVs each, as well as six torpedo tubes. Soviet doctrine called for them to launch from beneath the arctic ice in the event of a war.
—– U —–
Underwater Meat Nanners: My friend Krista had a bizarre dream, as related by Mark, in which she survived on what she called “underwater meat nanners.” None of us had any clue that this was a product of anything other than Krista’s admittedly fecund imagination until the first one appeared on screen, at which point Mark exclamed “underwater meat nanners!” We hypothesize that Krista saw the film at some point, forgot about it (which is just as well since monkeys scare her), and then her subconscious dredged the imagery back up in a dream. It’s sort of like the time I referred to something as having happened “back in the dim misty” without realizing that I was actually quoting a phrase used by Roger Zelazny in his Amber series of books. It just goes to show you that the human mind is a funny, funny place with a lot of odd things going on in it. Oh, and by the way, Krista, congratulations on your impending marriage!
Unobtainium: This is a generic term which closely resembles the IUPAC naming conventions for synthetic elements above atomic number 113 or so—called synthetic because they don’t occur in nature, at least as far as we know (though their halflives are quite short, and they could have existed and decayed and we would never know it; all of this is rather interesting once you get into the terrible fight over who produced elements 104, 105 and 106 first, and therefore got to name them, and which fight eventually expanded to include a third lab and the elements 107, 108 and 109). At any rate, the name “unobtainium” has nothing to do with that and instead came out of 1950s engineering slang for material which would be perfect (in terms of their physical properties, such as strength, ductility, conductivity, weight, etc) for an intended use—except that the material doesn’t exist. In my book that’s called wishful thinking, but some engineers have a sense of humor and coined unobtainium instead. The term later saw use for materials which actually do exist but were impossible or difficult to get—famously applied to titanium by Lockheed Martin engineers regarding the SR71 Blackbird, a spy plane (yes, it’s a real plane, and not just something you see in X-Men comic books), during a period when the Soviet Union controlled the world’s titanium supply. In the last few years the term has made its way out of engineering circles and into the mainstream. In 2010 the website Metal Suppliers Online defined unobtainium as “any metal that is specified by Engineering and unavailable to Purchasing.”
—– V —–
Videotape: A primitive method of recording video which used a strip of flexible material with magnetic properties, the tape. Seriously, though, videotape has been through a number of incarnations, formats, and housings, but in nearly all cases the recording elements (or “heads”) must be able to move in two dimensions. Videotape is necessarily linear, and therefore being replaced by digital recording methods which can be accessed at any point.
Vincent Price (1911-1993): Vincent Price was an American actor well known for his performance in a series of low-budget horror movies, and possessed a distinctive voice and mannerisms. He began his career in the late 1930s, and was most notable in villain roles in film noir. However, Price, far more talented than he is often credited with being, also did comedy, as well as Simon Templar in the radio program The Saint. By the 1950s, however, he had moved into horror in a big way—which did not prevent him from showcasing a broader talent than most people remember: he also played Egghead in the television series Batman, did a semi-regular turn on Hollywood Squares, and did voice-over work in children’s television. Yet it is probably his association with Edgar Allen Poe that most remember, as he appeared in a number of Edgar Allen Poe film adaptations, and recorded dramatic readings of a number of Poe’s work. Always stylish and menacing, Price was also adaptable and talented. I can’t close without mentioning Michael Jackson’s Thriller, in which Price delivers a wonderfully silly voice-rap.
—– W —–
Willing suspension of disbelief: The term was originally coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet, who wanted to revive the use of the fantastic in poetry in despite of the Age of Reason. Basically, it means that if the writer can give sufficient human interest, the reader or viewer will willingly suspend disbelief and accept the fantastic element (“poetic faith”). Similar notions had been advanced by both William Shakespeare and the Roman critic and poet Horace. In modern critical theory, there is at least the implication that the plot or storyline must flow logically from the introduction of a fantastic or fictional element—in other words, just because you have magic in your story doesn’t mean you can ignore issues like plot holes or continuity.
Woolly Monkey: One of four species of New World monkeys native to South America (obviously, since there are no New World monkeys in North America), with prehensile tails strong enough to support their body weight. They average about 17 pounds, with males generally outweighing females.
Worldline: A physics concept which refers to the trajectory of an object as it travels through spacetime. In other words, it’s the location of a particular object at every point in its existence in four dimensions (the fourth dimension being time). It’s a very specific concept in physics and has a lot to do with relativity, especially dealing with the equations of Minkowski and Lorentz. In a lot of science fiction, though, worldlines are sort of alternate “would have beens” or parallel but different versions of our own world.
Wormhole: A hypothetical, and perhaps even plausible, “tunnel” which joins two points in space (or spacetime) even though they are not contiguous. It’s a shortcut from point A to point C which doesn’t pass through point B. Frighteningly enough, some physicists think these things are possible since they emerge from some of the more complicated math surrounding Einstein’s theories of relativity, though it’s difficult to stablize them unless you have matter with negative energy density lying around. First proposed in 1921, they’re now a staple in science fiction.
Wretched excess: A term we sometimes use to refer to the feeding frenzy that accompanies our movie screenings. Yes, the folks at Wings Over Greenville remember my house, because when we order from them we really, really overdo it. In our defense, all of us enjoy leftovers and often order with a view toward having something to eat later in the weekend. In a recent development, we’ve begun to attempt to match a night’s Wretched excess to the film we’re watching….
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Yellow peril: A phrase common in William Randolph Hearst newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the phrase denoted fear of Chinese immigrants, and later the Japanese military expansion leading up to World War II. Fu Manchu, a villain in early 20th century pulp fiction, is a representation of the Yellow Peril, as are a number of science fiction races and villains—most notably the Han in the original Buck Rogers novels.