When Spoof isn’t Enough

From the title page Out of the Soylent Planet is utterly unrepentant about what it is. Robert Kroese has written a pretty fast moving and incredibly silly book about an intergalactic conman named Rex Nihilo and his long-suffering robot sidekick Sasha. It has lasguns. It has spaceships. It has lots and lots and lots of robots who are all forbidden from having any kind of original thoughts (Sasha included.) What it didn’t manage that well was laughs, at least not in my book.

Right off the bat I should note that humor is an extremely subjective topic and the fact that I didn’t find Kroese’s work funny doesn’t mean you’ll be equally unimpressed. I’ve heard several people say they thought it was hilarious. From a totally dispassionate point of view Kroese builds a number of jokes in very workmanlike fashion and executes on them well. That’s fine, but workmanlike humor kind of misses the point, at least in my opinion. Again, humor is hard to quantify.

All that said, I don’t intend to critique the humor in this review. I recommend reading a sample of one of the Rex Nihilo books and seeing if you laugh at it, since Kroese’s humor doesn’t change much in nature or tone over the course of the book. What you see is what you will get. You’ll probably get a better grasp of how much you’ll like his sense of humor firsthand rather than trying to see it through the lens of this review.

Instead, I’m going to recommend you avoid this book because the story and characters are very lackluster. I’m not a fan of negative reviews overall, mainly because poor quality media tends to fall into the same pitfalls over and over again. However, while I didn’t like Kroese’s humor and I thought his story had a lot of flaws, I can say it was original! In a way. Which is to say, I found its failures unique and refreshing in their own way.

As I said at the beginning, from the title onward Soylent Planet wears its idea on its sleeve. It is all about making fun of well known scifi ideas and properties. It begins with a chapter long sendup of Star Wars. The issue I have with it is that the Star Wars parody plays out along side the introduction of our characters rather than serving as the introduction to our characters. Rex and Sasha play no direct part in that parody they just watch it play out. It’s parody for the sake of parody, rather than a parody that also tells a story of its own. It’s more a distraction from the story than an enhancement for it and it had the side effect of making our protagonists less than the most interesting thing in the room.

If nothing else, this isn’t a running issue in the story. After this strange introductory chapter Rex and Sasha step up into center stage and their decisions do drive the story and are the major focus of the narrative, rather than being a sort of side show to a parody Kroese is running in parallel. However once Rex and Sasha are in the limelight we run into another problem. Rex is a character that borders on total incompetence who manages to stumble through things on luck. Again, this can work in a humorous story. The Pink Panther films comes to mind. The effectiveness of that is down to the quality of the humor in the story, which again is going to vary from reader to reader. I’ve already said all I have to say about that.

Sasha, on the other hand, is a robot who is forbidden to have original thoughts of her own. If she approaches such a thought, a safety mechanism reboots her. That’s an interesting idea, reminiscent of the narcoleptic character in the movie Rat Race, and seems like it should be the center of numerous gags. It’s not. Instead, it’s a plot device that allows Rex to escape the final danger he faces which is fine, in and of itself. I’m not saying that Kroese should have cut this plot device from the climax of the story, I think the two things could easily coexist. I just felt like neither character really had a central element that really held the story together.

Instead, Rex seems to bounce around from one scenario to another, spoofing on famous scifi ideas, and Sasha is dragged along in his wake. Both characters feel dragged by the plot, reacting rather than acting. Now, character agency is a tricky thing and I do think that passive or reactive characters are just as good as active ones, contrary to popular belief. But I like my reactive characters to have strong, well define core motivations that define their reactions. While Sasha is programmed to serve, that’s as close as either character gets to such a central motivation. I would’ve liked to see a stronger core to both characters to balance their passivity in this book.

What I can praise Kroese for is a good setup and payoff for the plot. He does a reasonable job of putting all the pieces in place for his climax before he gets there and he clearly enjoyed writing it. While many of the transitions in the story are clunky, the core idea is pretty polished. I want to enjoy this book. It’s just crammed full of things that make it hard for me. I wanted this story to have a point, to do something of its own with its characters and world. Kroese built it to spoof on scifi ideas and tropes instead. He executed on that idea pretty well in Soylent Planet. Whether you’ll enjoy that or not is a matter of taste.



I’ve written about my problems with the storytelling of Rian Johnson in the past. However after observing his career for some time, I’m beginning to believe that there’s a deeper thread running through his work that bears addressing. In the past, Johnson has stated he’d rather have half his audience love a film and half hate it than have a large majority simply like it. In fairness, he has succeeded in becoming quite the controversial director.

This position is merited. But I think the reason underlying that merited controversy is Johnson’s simple, undiluted laziness. On his own, I don’t think Johnson being a lazy director who somehow finds an audience is bad. Art and effort don’t have an entirely linear relationship and, once a certain degree of competence is achieved, even lazy creators can still create work of surprising artistic merit. This is true in every area of life and I don’t think art is an exception.

If Johnson was the only lazy director out there it might not be that big of an issue for movies as a whole although it would be disappointing. However we’re starting to see it with other creators as well. James Gunn and Taiko Waititi are also directors with a great deal of talent, in particular with a gift for striking visuals and excellent editing. As writers they have very little ambition.

Let me make my case using some examples from Johnson’s writing – and be warned there will be spoilers in here. In the movie Knives Out, Johnson builds his entire plot around a character, Marta Cabrera, who’s most notable characteristic is an is her inability to lie. Any time she lies she winds up vomiting. Marta is the caretaker for the aged Harlan Thrombey who winds up dying (indirectly) of an inappropriately administered medication. As his caretaker, Marta is implicated.

By the end of the story the genius detective Blanc has deduced the real killer and corners him into confessing using a gambit that hinges on… Marta lying. This is revealed when Marta barfs all over the killer after he confesses. All this happens in direct contradiction to all the previous instances where we see Marta vomit when she even tries to lie.

Now, I wouldn’t object to this as much if we’d seen Marta practice to overcome her difficulty. However there’s no set up like this at all, in fact it raises the possibility that Marta can lie and everything we’ve heard from her is actually a lie. We were supposed to be able to be confident in Marta’s integrity and the climax completely undercuts it to the point where I’m not sure her entire untruth allergy is a ploy on her part. It destroys Johnson’s narrative.

This happens again in Glass Onion, Johnson’s latest mystery film. A major central character, Andi, is revealed to be dead and the character who’s been called Andi up until the middle of the story turns out to be her twin sister Helen. This doesn’t add new dimension to any of the characters. It doesn’t cast any of their conversations in new lights, it doesn’t create tension since we don’t know Andi is an impostor and it doesn’t give rise to any clever gambits. A little more effort could have made this a twist that improved the story but instead it just undercuts our investment in what we thought we knew.

Finally, in The Last Jedi Johnson sets up the infamous hyperdrive kamikaze scene, where one ship rams another at near lightspeed in spite of the ways that contradicts everything else we’ve seen about the hyperdrive in the past including the previous installment in the franchise, Rogue One, where we see a ship at near lightspeed collide with another and get smashed to rubble without harming the other one. Give the hypderdrive kamikaze it’s due. It’s an impressive visual. It also shows a lack of care for the previous story and a lack of imagination for how he will get to his desired visual. There are may ways he could have achieved this. In fact in said previous film we see ships using ramming in ways suited to the Star Wars universe.

Johnson is supposed to be a genius artiste, setting up common tropes and then subverting them with his clever movie making. However, when he subverts he does it in the laziest way possible. You thought Marta couldn’t lie? Surprise! She can! You thought Andi was one person? Surprise! She was someone else! In fact, in Glass Onion the story is so bad that the characters themselves insult it as moronic. However, hanging a lampshade on your story’s lazily used tropes doesn’t make them okay. It just points out your laziness.

Waititi and Gunn are likewise both artists with their own visions that they seem intent on forcing into any narrative they produce and not making the least concessions to it. Gunn relies on character tropes to replace much of his character development. Waititi shoves jokes into his movies without trying to smooth the transition from narrative to joke or make the joke organically arise from the situation. It’s deeply frustrating, especially as these directors show so much talent in many other areas of their movie making.

Most of all it’s frustrating that people are so content with cheap entertainment. It is great to see people creating at their highest levels but when they only put their passion and effort into a very narrow band of what they make it shows incredible contempt for their creations and their audience. Hopefully one day we’ll all have more care for what we create and consume.

The Gospel According to Earth – Afterwords

Well, it’s done.

Early in writing The Gospel According to Earth I had to confront the fact that there wasn’t really an ending to the story about Earth putting an end to evil government. The unfortunate reality is, mankind isn’t inherently good. I know that’s not an evaluation that’s particularly popular today but it’s a foundational part of my way of thinking and I don’t really believe we’ve ever completely pulled away from being a savage society where the powerful abuse the weak however they wish. We got further from that than ever before in the United States, I think. Even in this day and age it’s still a global problem, though, and as I worked to game it out in my head I realized that the future Earth at the heart of the Triad World novels would reform itself to an extent only to boomerang right back to depravity once again. Trying to sketch out a path for the Triad Worlds to build a new, utopian Earth was, therefore, foolish.

So I decided not to. That really wasn’t what I wanted to do when I started The Gospel According to Earth anyway. My purpose was to show the mindset that led UNIGOV to try rewriting the entirety of human history and why, totalitarian impulses or no, it is fundamentally wrong. Hopefully in the pages of the story you have just read I have succeeded. Since the Triad World novels are intended to be grounded in reality, rather than an exercise in the kind of unbridled idealism that some of the major scifi franchises they draw inspiration from, I chose not to close the loop on all the characters the story introduces.

In particular, I never gave the ‘great men of history’ the story introduces specific arcs or defined ending points. While I got to know and like Admiral Carrington and Captain Gyle I never intended to leave them on a specific note. They were just ships passing us in the night. I was far more interested in the lowly characters in the Fleet when writing and I particularly wanted to bring a solid ending point to Corpral Langley by the end of this story.

This was a bit of a challenge, since I felt I left him in a good place at the end of Schrodinger’s Book. In fact, that was a major part of why I chose not to reuse him or Aubrey as viewpoint characters in Martian Scriptures, along with my desire to see another part of the fleet. By the same token, this is also why I didn’t reintroduce Volk Fyodorovich in The Gospel According to Earth. Lang had to be the story’s touchstone character and I think he managed it well. I hope you’ve found following him as interesting as I have.

With a number of new viewpoint characters and an entirely new thematic through-line to keep track of, The Gospel According to Earth was a challenge to outline and write. The necessity of finding a good place to leave the story was also difficult. I don’t think I’d be a great intrigue writer so I chose not to go too deep into the wrangling needed to drag a peace treaty out of UNIGOV. Instead I ultimately chose to stop on the cusp of that new challenge and leave the rest of the details to your imaginations.

In the end I wanted the Triad World novels to concern themselves with questions of how we will govern ourselves, what we will trust in and how we can know if that trust is misplaced. I’m sure I’ve only marginally achieved those goals. Still, I had an enjoyable time writing these stories and I hope you’ve equally enjoyed reading them.

Now my typical structure at this juncture would be taking a week off. But, as you may have noticed, I just took my usual Christmas break and tacked an extra week on there before posting this! Therefore my next series of essays on writing will begin next week. I have a lot to say on any number of subjects, so strap in! This will be different.

Happy New Year!

Hello everyone! We’ve reached the end of The Gospel According to Earth and the end of the year, so in accordance with tradition around here I’ll be taking a week off. In this case, there’s two weeks off stacked up so I’ll return in two weeks, on January 14th. Hope you had a merry Christmas and enjoy ringing in the New Year!