The Ten Day Book Challenge: Day Two

The Ten Day Book Challenge: Day Two

Hello again, all. First, please forgive my tardiness in posting this. It’s been a busy weekend and an even busier year! I shall try to catch up over the next few days, though I can’t imagine life is going to get any less busy in the near future. Even so, I got plenty more books to talk about that have had a profound effect on me and influenced my decision to become a writer.

But first, here are the rules of this challenge again!

  • Thank whoever nominated you with big, bold print. If they have a blog, link to the post where you got tagged there.
  • Explain the rules.
  • Post the cover of a book that was influential on you or that you love dearly.
  • Explain why it was so influential to you.
  • Tag someone else to do the challenge, and let them know they’ve been tagged.

Again, I would like to thank RAMI UNGAR for the nomination, and you can find him at ramiungarthewriter.com. And for day two of the challenge, I would like to select the book that taught people to take science fiction seriously – Dune!

dune

Much like Lord of the Rings, this timeless classic was one I learned about growing up, but didn’t get around to reading until my 20s. And just like with LOTR, once I did read it, I could see why its influence has been so pervasive. While Frank Herbert wrote many science fiction novels during his lifetime, none have had the same impact as the first installment in his six-book Dune series. And while I myself read all six twice, the first book is arguably the best.

For starters, the story involved one of the richest, most-inspired and most-detailed universes ever created in the history science fiction. Based on the concept of a galactic empire where politics, the economy and all social norms are essentially combination of the futuristic and medieval, the setting of Dune would go on to inspire Lucas’ Star Wars universe, not to mention countless other franchises that combine sci-fi with fantasy. What’s more, many of the planets in the novel have been formally adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as place names for features on the Moon and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

But it was the complex interweaving of real history, religion, environmentalism, resource dependency, and cultural and social commentary that blew me away and has ensured that this book is likely to be included in any top ten lists of science fiction books that you can find – not to mention one of the top ten books people pretend to have read. And to round it all out, it has a very deep plot that examines the enduring mystery of prophets and messiahs in human history, and the paradox of prescience. As Frank Herbert himself wrote, “to know the future is to become trapped by it.”

I could go on and on, but I’ve already reviewed this book more than once and don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. And if you’re one of those people who haven’t, get on it!

And now it’s time for me to nominate someone new. And so I call upon Lady Muse herself, Khaalidah Mohammed Ali!

A Tribute to Hans Ruedi Giger

Hans_GigerLast month, the Swiss surrealists Hans Ruedi Giger – a painter, sculptor, set designer, and the Academy Award winning visual effects master who brought the world the Alien – died at the age of 74 in Zürich, Switzerland. After suffering injuries he sustained in a fall, the man who mined his own nightmares in creating phantasmagorical works finally passed away on Monday, May 12th, and leaves behind a robust legacy of inspiring people’s imaginations and striking fear into their hearts.

Describing his friend, American psychologist and psychedelic writer Timothy Leary was quoted as having praised the artist by saying:

Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.

And though he is well known within the artist community for his ability to turn nightmarish visions into works of art, some of which were oddly sexual, it is his contributions to the movie industry and science fiction franchise that are arguably the most well known. As the man who created the title character of the 1979 horror sci-fi classic Alien, he and the film’s visuel effects team won an Academy Award and spawned a genre that would have enduring influence.

SpaceJockeyIn addition to personally designing the Alien through all stages of its life – from egg to eight-foot tall monster – he was also responsible for the design of the Derelict (aka. the Space Jockey/Engineer spaceship) and the Space Jockey/Engineer itself. While some would describe these as “surrealist” or “Lovecraftian” in design, Giger preferred to call his art “biomechanics”, with its subjects often appearing to be hybrid creatures that had bodies that melded the organic with mechanical parts.

Nowhere was this more clear than with the design of the Alien itself. Combining elements of biology, technology, skewed sexuality and nightmarish visions into its design, it was this creation itself that the entire movie was built around. In fact, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon began crafting the script for the movie with neither a story idea nor a hero protagonist in mind. All he wanted was the sense of fear that came from more and more revealing glimpses of Giger’s creation.

Original alien concept, entitled Necronomicon IV
Original alien concept, entitled Necronomicon IV

And after seeing Giger’s first book, “Necronomicon” – a collection that was published in 1977 and named in honor of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire of the same name –   Director Ridley Scott immediately decided to hire Giger, who began producing artwork and conceptual designs that were essentially refinements of the work found in his dark collection. As Mr. Scott would later say of this fateful decision: “I’d never been so certain about anything in all my life.”

The end result was a huge and harrowing success, with the setting of the Derelict ship providing a sense of awe and wonder, not to mention foreshadowing the sense of terror and darkness that would follow. And combined with O’Bannon’s vision and Scott’s cinematography, the brief glimpses we get of this ancient and dark looking creature only help to augment the sense of terror and claustrophobia that would come from being trapped aboard a spaceship with it.

HR Giger's concept for a Sandworm of Dune
HR Giger’s concept for a Sandworm of Dune

He would also collaborate on many other films of the horror and sci-fi genre. These include designs for the unproduced Alejandro Jodorowsky adaptation of Dune, which would later be made by David Lynch. Other examples include Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Killer Condom, Species, Future-Kill, and Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis. Unfortunately, for all concerned, one movie he collaborated on  would ultiamtely reject his design – the updated Batmobile for the Batman Forever movie (picture below).

Beyond his work on the Alien franchise – which included designs for Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus – Mr. Giger published around 20 books of art, and his works were exhibited in Paris, Prague and New York. He also created many album covers, including one for the singer Debbie Harry’s 1981 album, “Koo Koo”, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 album, “Brain Salad Surgery,” and a poster titled “Penis Landscape” for inclusion in an album by the punk band Dead Kennedys.

Batmobile concept
Giger’s Batmobile. Tell me it’s not better than the one we saw in Batman Forever!

And over at deviantART, artist techgnotic has arranged a tribute to the artist that embraces the many personal tributes that this art community have made toward the late Giger. Describing Giger’s enduring legacy, techgnotic says that:

Giger was a touchstone artist for those in the 70s & 80s who sought to shake up the establishment with a walk on the wild side. Today he is thought of by many artists as being one of the exemplars of letting the mind go free—to explore either the light or the darkness—and be fearless in sharing what was found there in one’s art. His art might be considered “safe” today, but he was a real inspiration to many of today’s artists.

And as he puts it in the prologue: “He was an artist you might not know. But you’ve met his children…” Be sure to go and check it out, as it does a very good job summarizing his life’s work and influence, and contains some pretty interesting and inspired tribute pieces! And while we’re at it, I suggest we set aside some time to rewatch Alien or one of the many other movies he collaborated on to create the dark, nightmarish sets or costumes that would help establish the tone of the film.

Brain_Salad_SurgeryAnd while were at it, perhaps we should take a page from Giger’s book and keep a nightmare journal. Not only did this man record all the dark visions he would experience in his sleep, he would use them to create artistic and cinematic gold! But if you’d rather leave that to the dark souls of this world and just enjoy letting them scare you, so much the better. RIP Giger, you will be missed!

Sources: nytimes.com, io9.com, techgnotic.deviantart.com

Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.

2007-8-18_DuneAxlotlTank

Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.

foundation

The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

Summary:
These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

Repitching an Old Idea: The Council of Muraqaba

world_religionsHey folks! A lot of things have got me thinking about another old idea that I think needs to be updated and brought forward. This one comes from many years back, roughly 2007, when I was working on the series of short stories that make up my Legacies series. As one of several ideas I was working with back then, it kind of fell by the wayside as I busied myself with writing the others – Flight of the Icarus, Eyes in the Dark, Turncoats, Vega Rising.

Eventually, as with many ideas us indie writers come up with, it lost my interest after lingering so long in my Inbox. But after a few conversations with respected colleagues, I found myself thinking about it again and looking to update it, add a new spin, and just generally give it another try. The story, in its updated version, is called The Council of Muraqaba, and it concerns humanity’s efforts to create a universal religion in the future.

world_religions_distWhen I first came up with the idea for a universal faith as part of my Legacies universe, I was still in my Frank Herbert phase and borrowed many crumbs off his table. His own notes in Dune about the Orange Catholic Bible and the Commission of Ecumenical Translators that created it really inspired me, and it put me in mind of the World Religions class I took in high school, which just happened to be one of my favorite subjects.

In 2007, the short story that was to feature the attempts to create this religion was more of an original idea, at to me. I envisioned a world where the council behind the religion’s creation established a permanent seat where matters of interfaith exchanges could take place, and where research into what made them all tick could be done and universal principles uncovered.

world_religions_popThis seemed like a timely idea to me given just how controversial, central, and daunting the issue of faith continues to be in our world today. Between people who demand that others conform to their religion to those who condemn religion of any kind, and from those who use it justify violence and persecution to those who blame it for the problems of entire regions of the world (i.e. Africa, the Middle East and Islamophobia), it’s almost inescapable.

Because of this, and because of the way humanity has a hard time outgrowing old habits, I figured a story that dealt with humanity’s continued difficulties with religion and sectarian differences should be included in my Legacies bundle. But as I said, I’ve been updating the idea a bit thanks to some conversations with friends which raised some poignant issues about the future, and thanks to some research about what the future is likely to hold…

gliese-581.jpgWhat I am envisioning now is a world where a group of mystic settlers originally established a colony on Gliese 581 d – aka. Muraqaba – in the hopes of creating a community where traditional faiths could still be practiced, free from the fear of ongoing progress and how it was leading many to conclude that religion was obsolete. Named after the Sufi practice of meditation, they sought to live in peace and practice freely, and were on guard against what they saw as “needless augmentation”.

In time, this community expanded and became dedicated to finding a way to bring all faiths together and finding common ground not just between religions but between faith and science itself, something which still eluded people in this age. Eventually, this led to the creation of the Council of Muraqaba, a permanent institution where scholars and religious authorities could meet, discuss, and network with people in the universe at large to iron out matters of spirituality.

matrix_cyberspaceIronically, the Council became a hub for some of the most advanced interstellar learning and education since people who were light years away from each other could communicate using a quantum array that allowed FTL communications to take place. The experience of this is central to the story, as it provides a sort of mystic mental sharing that is akin to a spiritual connection, emotions and thoughts shared instantaneously between people.

And of course, there will be a twist as a regular day at the Council turns into something sinister. Just because the local inhabitants have succeeded in creating a dialogue with the universe at large doesn’t mean that everyone is interesting in what they have to say. And some people are concerned that all this “common ground” stuff is eroding the things that make their faith special and want it to end.

And some… some are interested in what the Council has to say for reasons that go far beyond matters of faith! Be sure to check it out, as I think this story just might be one of my more inspired pieces of writing. And my thanks once again for Khaalidah for turning on the light in my head. There’s a reason I call you “Lady Inspiration” you know 😉

The Kessel Run: The Fandom Obsession

hyperspaceIf you were to get into a discussion with a true Star Wars fan, it would only be a matter of time before the subject of the Kessel run came up. Long considered one of the biggest enigmas to come out of the franchise, Han’s boast in A New Hope about his ship’s capabilities – with the Kessel Run as a reference – still has some people scratching their noggins and scrambling for explanations today.

To refresh people’s memory, this is how the boast went down in the course of Han’s introduction to Luke and Obi-Wan at the Mos Eisley Cantina:

Han: “Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?”
Obi-Wan: “Should I have?”
Han: “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!”

See what I mean? A parsec is a unit of distance, not time, so from an astronomical perspective, it made no sense. How could Han have used it to explain how quickly his ship could travel? Well, as it happens, there are some possible and even oddball explanations that have been drafted as the franchise has expanded over the years.

kessle_mapAnother important point to make here is about the Kessel Run itself. As a smuggler, Han was deeply involved in running “glimmerstim spice” during his pre-Rebel days (a clear rip off from Dune, but whatever). This took him to and from Kessel, a remote planet located in the Outer Rim that is surrounded by a black hole cluster known as the Maw. As an unnavigable mess, it provided a measure of protection for smugglers running the Imperial blockade that guarded the space lanes near the planet.

All of this comes up in the Jedi Academy Trilogy, a series of novels written by Kevin J. Anderson that are part of the expanded Star Wars universe, and is the first case of the Run being detailed. From these an other sources, we are told that the Run is an 18-parsec route that led away from Kessel, around the Maw, and into the far more navigable area of space known as The Pit. Here, smugglers had to contend with asteroids, but any smuggler worth his salt could find their way through without too much difficulty, and didn’t have to worry about Imperial patrols from this point onward.

MFalconTo cut down on the distance traveled, pilots could dangerously skirt the edges of the black holes, a maneuver dangerous because it involves getting pulled in by their gravitational forces. If a ship were fast enough, it could risk cutting it closer than most, thus shaving more distance of the route while still being able to break free after it all to complete the run.

Hence we have the first possible explanation to Han’s ambiguous statement. Han’s boast was not about the time taken for him to complete the Run, but the fact that Millennium Falcon was so fast that he was able to cut a full third of the Run off and still make it out. The Falcon would have to be a pretty sweet ship to do that! And it would also fit in with all his other boasts, about how the ship could  “make 0.5 past light speed”, and was the “fastest ship in the fleet”.

However, there are other explanations as well. For starters, this expanded universe explanation does not jive with what Lucas himself said, what was presented in the novelization of the original movie, and of course what astronomers and megafans have to say. In the first instance, Lucas claimed in the commentary of the Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope DVD that the “parsecs” are due to the Millennium Falcon’s advanced navigational computer rather than its engines, so the navicomputer would calculate much faster routes than other ships could.

HanIn the A New Hope novelization, Han says “standard time units” in the course of his conversation with Luke and Ben, rather than “parsecs.” And in the revised fourth draft of A New Hope that was released in 1976, the description for “Kessel Run” is described as a bit of hapless misinformation that Obi-Wan doesn’t believe for a second. In short, Han erred when he said it and didn’t realize it.

And then there is the far more farfetched and mind-bending explanation as made by Kyle Hill in a recent article by Wired magazine. Here, he argues that the true intent of Han’s statement was that he was, in fact, a time traveler. By combining some basic laws of physics – namely that the speed of light (c) is unbreakable and 0.99 ad infinitum is as fast as anything can go – and the details of Han’s boast, a more clear picture of how this works emerges.

First, because the shortened Kessel Run spans 12 parsecs (39.6 light-years), a ship traveling nearly light-speed would take a little more than 39.6 years to get there. Factoring in time dilation, anyone watching the Kessel Run would see Solo speeding along for almost 40 years, but Solo himself would experience only a little more than half a day. So basically, in the time it takes Han to complete just one Kessel Run, the rest of the galaxy continues on its usual path for 40 years, which pushed the date of Han’s birth 40 years into the past.

time-slipConfused yet? Well, the idea is that Han would have been born long before events in A New Hope, and even The Phantom Menace took place. After completing his run, no doubt trying to avoid Republic authorities or some such equivalent, he came upon a universe that had gone through the ringer with a Sith coup d’etat, Imperial oppression, and a looming Civil War. What could he do but stick to smuggling and hope to make a living?

REALLY doesn’t make sense in terms of the storyline, does it? Ah, but what can you do? People like to find quirky explanations for things that don’t make sense. It can be fun! But of course, there’s a final and much, much simpler explanation that I haven’t even mentioned yet, and it’s one that’s far more believable given the so-called evidence.

george_lucas02Put simply, Lucas made a mistake. The parsecs line was a misfire, an oversight, and/or brain fart on his part. Nothing more, and all these attempts at explanation are just an obvious attempt to make something that doesn’t fit fit. It makes perfect sense when you think about it: since A New Hope was the first Star Wars movie, that meant Lucas was directing it all by himself. The assistance he sorely needed in terms of directing, writing, editing, etc. didn’t come until the movie was almost complete and he was looking bankruptcy and a nervous breakdown in the eye.

And remember, this is the same movie where a Storm Trooper walked head first into a door aboard the Death Star, Luke yells “Carrie” to Carrie Fisher while they are shooting, the cast and camera can be seen in numerous widescreen shots, and just about every technical problem that could go wrong did go wrong, some of which even made it into the final cut. As far as bloopers, outtakes and errors are concerned, the first Star Wars movie was a mess!


See? So really, is it hard to imagine a simple oversight like a typo could have made it on screen and no one caught it? Hell no! And frankly, I think fandom would be a lot happier if Lucas had remembered these early days of his career and not decided to make the prequels all by himself. Sure, there were plenty of people to catch these kinds of simple errors the second time around, but his many flaws as a movie maker found other ways to shine through – i.e. Jar Jar, lazy directing, too much special effects, wooden dialogue, confused storyline, continuity errors and plot holes galore!

star-wars-complete-cast-20042Ah, but that’s another topic entirely. Point is, Star Wars had simple beginnings and plenty of mistakes were made along the way. One can’t expect something so grand and significant in terms of popular culture to be consistent or error free. And Lucas was never really good at producing a seamless product. In the end, it was a fun ride until the new ones came out, and even then he was still making money hand over fist.

And with Disney at the helm now, chances are we’re in for a real treat with some high-budgets and high-production values. And I’m sure there will be plenty of things for the meganerds and uberfans to poke fun at and make compilation videos of. And I of course will be writing about all of it 😉

Hilarious Patrick Stewart Roles!

Patrick Stewart has to be one of the most awesome actors around, and not just because of his Shakespearean training. No, this is a guy who is equally at home being completely irreverent as he is serious, and I love him for it. So in honor of this guy, I thought I’d fish through the vast database known as the internet for some video of this man in action. Here’s a small smattering of the more hilarious stuff he’s done over the years!

Avery Bullock:
Personally, I can’t get enough of Stewart as Bullock, the borderline, cocaine addicted, and sexually masochistic director of the CIA. His antics are pure hilarity, insanity, and pure wackiness. I often wonder how Stewart feels about playing the role, and then think he must be a very silly man at heart.

 

 


Dune:
This is one of Stewart’s many movie roles, where he played the grizzled swordmaster of House Atreides known as Gurney Halleck. Although the movie was an unmitigated commercial and critical disaster, Stewart brought his usual talent and class to the role and carried more than a few scenes.


Extras:
I personally think this was the best case of Stewart parodying himself. That was what was so genius about the show, actors playing themselves but totally making fun of themselves in the process. And Stewart really went to town on this one, acting like a sexual deviant and spoofing on Star Trek all at once!


Family Guy:
Seth MacFarlane loves this guy, as attested to by the video known as “I Love Patrick Stewart” (look it up). And here is a smattering of Stewart’s many appearances on the show, either as himself or in the persona of Captain Picard.

 

 

The World of “A Song of Ice and Fire”

a_song_of_ice_and_fire_version_2_by_scrollsofaryavart-d4rabm1After reading four of the five of the books in the ongoing Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ve come to realize something. I really like the world George RR Martin has created! In fact, you might say I haven’t found myself becoming so engrossed with a fictional universe since Dune or Lord of the Rings. In those fictional universes, as with this one, one gets an incredible sense of depth, detail and characterization.

And in honor of this realization, or perhaps because I couldn’t keep track of the names, places and events alluded to in the texts, I began doing some serious research. For one, I found several lovely maps (like the one above) that speculate as to the complete geography of Martin’s world – the continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos.

And when I say complete geography, I mean just that, not the snippets that are given in the book that leave out the all important sections of Qarth, Slaver’s Bay, and the Free Cities. While these places are described in relation to the rest of the world, keeping track of them can be tricky, especially if you’re a visual learner like myself! And seeing as how much of the story involves a great deal of travel, it helps to know where characters were going, how far, and which direction they were headed.

House-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-29965891-1920-1080Even before I began reading the books, I could tell that Westeros was very much inspired by the British Isles, with its tough and grizzled Northerners resembling the Scots, Picts, and Celts of old while the Southerners were more akin to the aristocratic Normans. “The Wall” was also a clear allegory for Hadrian’s Wall, with the people on the other side being portrayed much as the Roman’s would have viewed the “Northern Tribes” that threatened their domain.

King’s Landing also seemed very much inspired by London, with its pomp, opulence, and extensive moral decay. Yes, just like London of the Middle Ages, it was a fine patchwork of royal finery, castles, fortifications, religious ceremony, brothels and public executions! And it even lies upon a large river, the Blackwater, which seems every bit like the Thames.

Essos also seemed very much inspired by Asia of ancient lore. Here we had the Dothraki Sea where the Dothraki horsemen roamed free and pillaged in all directions, exacting tribute and taking slaves. Can you say Mongols and/or Huns? In addition, their capital – Vaes Dothrak – seemed in every respect to be an adaptation of Karakorum, Ghengis Khan’s one time capitol that was little more than a collection of temporary houses and tents. And Master Ilyrio, as if his name wasn’t enough, seemed to be every bit a Mediterranean at heart, living in a lavish sea-side estate and growing fat of off trade in cheese, olives and wine.

Upon cracking the books, I found that the metaphors only went deeper. In fact, they were so thick, you could cut them with a knife! In terms of Westerosi geography and character, the different regions of the continent called to mind all kind’s of archetypes and real-world examples. The Reach sounds very much like Cornwall, fertile, populous, and in the south-east relative to the capitol. Casterly Rock and the domain of the Lannister’s, though it resides in the west away from the capitol, seems every bit like Kent, the wealthiest region of old where the most lucrative trade and shipping comes in. And their colors, gold and red, are nothing if not symbolic of the House of Lancaster – of which Henry V and the VIII were descended.

And last, but certainly not least, there were the all-important cities of Qarth, Mereen, Astapor, and Yunkai. All eastern cities that inspire images of ancient Babylon, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Antioch. With their stepped pyramids, ancient history, flamboyant sense of fashion, and lucrative slave trade, they all sounded like perfect examples of the ancient and “decadent” eastern civilizations that were described by Plato, Aristotle, and medieval scholars. The conquest of Westeros by the First Men, the Children of the Forest, the Andal and Valyrian Conquest; these too call to mind real history and how waves of conquerors and settlers from the east came to populate the Old World and the New, with genocide and assimilation following in their wake and giving rise to the world that we know today.

Middle-earthFans of Tolkien will no doubt be reminded of the map of Middle Earth, and for good reason. Martin’s knack for writing about space and place and how it plays a central role in the character of its inhabitants was comparable to that of Tolkien’s. And what’s more, the places have a very strong allegorical relationship to real places in real history.

In Tokien’s world, the Shire of the Hobbits seemed very much the metaphor for pre-industrial rural England. The inhabitants are these small, quirky people who are proud of their ways, lavish in their customs, and don’t care much for the affairs of the outside world. However, when challenged, they are capable of great things and can move heaven and earth.

In that respect, Gondor to the south could be seen as London in the early 20th century – the seat of a once proud empire that is now in decline. Given it’s aesthetics and location relative to the dark, hostile forces coming from the East and South, it’s also comparable to Athens and Rome of Antiquity.

And it was no mistake that the battle to decide the fate of Middle Earth happened here. In many ways it resembles the Barbarian Invasions of the late Roman Empire, the Persian Wars of Classical Greece, the Mongol Invasions or the Byzatine Empire’s war with the Turks in the High Middle Ages. In all cases, classical powers and the home of Western civilization are being threatened from Eastern Empires that are strange and exotic to them.

Dune_MapAnd let’s not forget Arrakis (aka. Dune) by Frank Herbert. Here too, we have a case where space and place are determining factors on their residents. And whereas several planets are described and even mapped out in the series, none were as detailed or as central as Arrakis itself. From its Deep Desert to its Shield Walls, from Arrakeen and Seitch Tabr; the planet was a highly detailed place, and the divide between Imperials and Fremen were played out in the ways both sides lived.

Whereas the Fremen were hardy folk who lived in the deep desert, took nothing for granted, and were a harsh folk sustained by prophecies and long-term goals, the Imperials were lavish people, pompous and arrogant, and used to doing things in accordance with the Great Convention. But far from being preachy or one-sided, Herbert showed the balance in this equation when it became clear that whereas the Imperials were governed by convention and thereby complacent, the Fremen were extremely dangerous and capable of terrible brutality when unleashed.

But as I said, other planets are also detailed and the influence their environments have on their people are made clear. Caladan was the ancestral home of the Atreides, covered in oceans, fertile continents, and a mild climate that many consider to be a paradise. As a result, according to Paul,  the Atreides grew soft, and it was for this reason that they fell prey to the Emperor’s betrayal and the machinations of their Harkonnen enemies.

And speaking of the Harkonnens, the world of Geidi Prime is described on a few occasions in the series as being an industrial wasteland, a world plundered for its resources and its people reduced to a status of punitive serfdom. What better metaphor is there for a people guided by sick pleasures, exploitation, and exceptional greed? Whereas the Atreides grew soft from their pleasures, the Harkonnens grew fat, and were therefore easily slaughtered by Paul and his Fremen once their rebellion was underway.

And of course, there is Selusa Secundus, a radioactive wasteland where the Emperor’s elite Sardukar armies are trained. On this prison planet, life is hard, bleak, and those who survive do so by being ruthless, cunning and without remorse. As a result, they are perfect recruits for the Emperor’s dreaded army, which keeps the peace through shear force of terror.

*                       *                        *

There’s something to be said for imaginative people creating dense, richly detailed worlds isn’t there? Not only can it be engrossing and entertaining; but sooner or later, you find yourself looking back at all that you’ve surveyed, you do a little added research to get a greater sense of all that’s there, and you realize just how freaking expansive the world really is. And of course, you begin to see the inspiration at the heart of it all.

Yes, this is the definitely the third time I’ve experienced this feeling in relation to a series. I count myself as lucky, and really hope to do the same someday. I thought I had with the whole Legacies concept, but I’m still tinkering with that one and I consider my research into what makes for a great sci-fi universe to be incomplete. Soon enough though, I shall make my greatest and final attempt, and there will be no prisoners on that day! A universe shall be borne of my pen, or not… Either way, I plan to blab endlessly about it 😉