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!

Foundation and Empire

FYI: this is my 400th post, people! Woohoo! I hope Asimov is flattered… Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

Welcome back to my ongoing review of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Picking up where I left off last time, here we have book II in the series, known as Foundation and Empire. Much like Foundation, this book was originally published as separate novellas in 1952, and did not appear as a single volume until 1955.

As the second installment in the original trilogy, this book is where things invariably get dark. Though it begins with a sort of conclusion to the previous novel, showing the path of Seldon’s Plan and the decline of the Empire, things invariably go south with the introduction of a new and unforeseen threat. After detailing the nature of this new enemy and placing the existence of the Foundation in peril, things end with the mention of a Second Foundation, which sets the scene for the final installment in the series.

Plot Synopsis:
The book consists of two sections, the first of which picks up where the first book left off and acts as a sort of conclusion to everything contained within. Centuries after its establishment on Terminus, the Foundation seems well on its way to fulfilling its purpose, as foreseen by Seldon’s psychohistory. However, the Empire has not yet collapsed and the growing might of the Foundation is seen as a threat. Hence, a showdown between the two is in the works!

The second story is starkly different, throwing a curve ball into the storyline with the introduction of a new force that was unforeseen in Seldon’s Plan. This force, known as “The Mule” threatens to destroy the Foundation simply by being an aberration in the science known as “psychohistory”.

The General:
The first book, titled “The General” opens Bel Riose, a skilled and dedicated General of the Galactic Empire meeting with the old Siwennan noble, Ducem Barr, son of the man Hober Mallow visited in “The Merchant Princes from the first book.The reason for this meeting is that Barr is the closest thing the Empire has to a source on the Foundation, and his knowledge of their technology, assets and the science of psychohistory is sought.

In the course of their discussions, Barr warns that Riose that his plans are merely a symptom of the Empire’s impending collapse. Naturally, Riose rejects this and claims that the Empire is still healthy. He shares Emperor Cleon II’s feelings that the Foundation constitutes a threat which must be neutralized, though at the same time he to seize all traces of their knowledge and technology and incorporate it back into the Empire.

The focus then shifts Lathan Devers, an independent trader and agent of the Foundation who is sent to Riose’s armada to figure out how the Foundation can save itself. This, according to Ducem Barr, is a wholly unnecessary step, because the Seldon Plan has already foreseen this and everything will work out on its own. Nevertheless, he still feels something must be done and travels to Trantor in the hopes of convincing the Emperor that Riose has his own agenda. He fails, but still manages to escape and find his way back to Foundation space.

Once there, he discovers that things have worked out on their own. Apparently, Emperor Cleon II really was beginning to fear that Riose had his own agenda, and the closer he came to conquering the Foundation, the more fearful he became. Hence, Riose was recalled from service and arrested, thus saving the Foundation. As Bel Riose himself says in the story, it’s a dead hand versus a living will, and it turns out the living well never stood a chance.

The Mule:
The second story takes place roughly one hundred years later. The Empire has now fallen, Trantor has been sacked, and the Foundation has become the dominant power in the Galaxy. Meanwhile, the Foundation is experiencing decay and corruption, with several of its outer planets are planning a war of cessation.

In addition, a new threat has emerged which refers to itself as “The Mule”, an apparent mutant who possesses strange psychic powers. Already he has taken control of many star systems that border the Foundation and appears hell-bent on conquering it as well. Naturally, the Foundation leadership is not concerned, for they believe that this is just another “Seldon Crisis”, and that the Vault will open and tell them how to resolve it.

To their horror, during the scheduled speech by Seldon’s hologram, no mention is made of the Mule, which indicates that this threat is completely unforeseen. What’s worse, the Mule’s fleet shows up in orbit and begins attacking the planet. The main characters, Toran and Bayta Darell, flee to the border planets along with psychologist Ebling Mis and refugee clown named “Magnifico Giganticus”. There, they find temporary solace until the Mule’s forces show up again and conquer the sector with ease.

Faced with the fall of the Foundation, the group sets out to find the fables Second Foundation which they feel is their only hope at this point. In time, this journey takes them to Trantor, where the unearth the Great Library and begin searching for clues as to where the Second Foundation might be.Along the way, they are taken prisoner by agents of the Mule, but Magnifico manages to kill them using a trick involving his psychoactive music.

After days of tireless research on Trantor, which startles Toran and Bayta, Mis claims to have uncovered the location. However, Bayta has a revelation and kills Mis before he can tell them. She reveals this revelation to her husband: they’ve been in the presence of the Mule all along! She has noticed that wherever they’ve gone, people have been behaving mysteriously. The sense of defeat that was taking over the border worlds, the way their captor’s were killed, Ebling Mis’s extreme mental clarity… it was all for the sake of finding the Second Foundation! And the only person who was in their presence the entire time that they couldn’t account for was Magnifico .

When they confront him, he reveals that she is right. All along, he’s been infiltrating enemy worlds and using his psychic powers to bend people to his will. Initially, this served the purpose of making sure his forces met with minimal resistance, but when they began searching for the Second Foundation, his plans changed. He knows that this contingency group, which Seldon apparently kept a secret, still constitutes a threat to him. He declares that he will find it in time, and let’s them go as they are no threat to him or his plans.

Summary:
In many respects, this book built upon the strengths of the original. In the first story, it reestablished its roots in Gibbons seminal study The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In keeping with the series’ Romanesque theme, he also adapted the tale of Emperor Justinian I and General Belisarius through the characters of Cleon II and Riose. In addition, it extended it’s commitment to the concept of psychohistory, how all things were essentially foreseen by Seldon and prepared for. The way Devers runs about hoping to fulfill said plan, only to find that it unfolded naturally, was quite apt at demonstrating this. Much like Frank Herbert’s portrayal of the prescient trap, the pre-deterministic nature of the story is interesting, even if it is at a times a little convenient and contrived.

And the story provides a pretty fitting diversion with the introduction of the Mule. After a book and a half of being told that the Foundation is pretty much sacrosanct and unassailable, Asimov throws a wrench into the works that demonstrates that the vaunted science of psychohistory is not in fact perfect. The explanation given for this is also quite interesting, in that it  that it circumvents whatever pretense Asimov made earlier about the infallibility of psychohistory.

Essentially, Seldon’s psychohistory was based in part on the notion that humanity’s biological nature would remain fixed for the period his Plan accounted for. What he did not plan for was any spontaneous mutations or sudden divergence in human evolution which would allow for the emergence of individuals which psychic powers. Hence, the arrival of the Mule threw his Plan into disarray by creating a second power which could very well threaten to take over the Galaxy.

But of course, there is a slimmer of hope presented with the existence of a Second Foundation. Whereas the first was something that was out in the open that would openly abide by Sheldon’s Plan, the second was something that was meant to operate behind the scenes; their purpose was to see to the maintenance of the Plan if the worst should happen and the Foundation fell.

But just to play Devil’s Advocate here, these characteristics do open the story up to accusations of inconsistency. In one book, we are basically told that the Plan accounted for everything, didn’t account for everything, but did account for everything after all. Three twists in one book is a bit much. In fact, it would have been better if the first story had been included as part of the original Foundation since it felt like the real closing chapter to Act I.

And, to venture beyond the second book for just a second, this happens yet again in book III. There, as with here, the story is broken into two parts, with the first concluding the Mule thread and the second capping off the story. In both cases, I couldn’t help but feel that the story was cut and pasted in a way which seemed unnatural. But fixing that would have required a rewrite, not a simple case of restructuring. So in the end, this book is something you have to swallow as a whole, structure, twists and all. It’s a good read, a fitting sequel to the first book, and like all of Asimov’s work, accessible and entertaining.

10 Sci-Fi Novels People Pretend to Have Read

Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.

I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:

1. Cryptonomicon:
Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.

Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!

2. Dune:
Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.

Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.

3. Gravity Rainbow:
Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.

In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!

4. Foundation:
Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!

And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.

5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.

Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.

6. 1984:
Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.

Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker:
Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…

Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.

In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.

Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.

8. The Long Tomorrow:
This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.

Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.

9. Dhalgren:
Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.

More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.

Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!

10. Infinite Jest:
This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!

The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall  we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.

Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.

Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!

The Foundation Series

When it comes to science fiction, few authors have achieved the kind of notoriety and prolific ouput of Isaac Asimov. Amongst the greats of classic sci-fi, he considered one of the “Big Three”, along with arry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke. And when it comes to his many novels, short stories, articles and thoughtful essays, two series stand out above all else. The Robot series and, more importantly, the Foundation novels.

Not only did they get the ball rolling on many major sci-fi themes that would come up again and again over the years (such as the concept of a Galactic Empire), they once again brought commercial science fiction into the limelight by showing how hard science could be merged with real history to produce genuinely thought-provoking literature. This is a trend which seems to be necessary once every generation years or so, with Frank Herbert doing it again roughly a decade later. And in his case, much of the inspiration came from Asimov himself.

So in honor of that accomplishment, and to mark the occasion that I finally finished reading the original trilogy, I thought it was high time that I start reviewing the Foundation series, beginning with the book that started it all. So without further ado, here’s Foundation!

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens many thousands of years in the future, where humanity has spread to occupy the entire Galaxy and is governed by the Galactic Empire. For over 12,000 the Empire has stood, and appears to still be stable and powerful. However, a trend of decay has set in and some suspect that it’s only a matter of time before the Empire falls

One such man is Hari Seldon, a scientist who has perfected a form of psychology and mathematics known as psychohistory. Having calculated the exact date and sequence of events which will lead to the collapse of the Empire, he has also created an organization that will be dedicated to ensuring that the dark ages that naturally follow will be as brief as possible – one thousands years instead of the alternate 30,000.

Divided into five parts – each of which was published throughout the 1940’s and together in a single volume in 1951 – the story jumps forward in time from the starting point, 0 F.E. (Foundation Era), to several hundred years in the future. Several protagonists are employed, people who find themselves at the center of events in any given period. Each period involves the emergence of a “Seldon Crisis”, a calamity that was predicted by Seldon’s psychohistory in advance, and the requisite response by the Foundation to resolve it. The first story, which sets up the subsequent stories and crises, is aptly named:

The Psychohistorians: Told from the point of view of Gaal Dornick, a young mathematician who has travelled to the capitol world of Trantor to meet Seldon, the story moves from their introduction to Seldon’s arrest by the Committee of Public Safety. Named after the Revolutionary body that send countless French citizens to their death after the 1789 Revolution, this committee is made up of Imperial aristocrats who are angered by Seldon’s philosophy and want to see him silenced. However, not wanting to martyr him, they instead tell him and his Foundation to pack up and move to Terminus, a world on the edge of the Empire.

The story then concludes with Seldon telling Dornick that he knew this was coming, and that it was actually all part of the plan. By being able to set up the Foundation at the edge of the Empire, it will be in a perfect position to begin enacting its policies once the Empire begins its inevitable slide into decline and loses control of first the periphery, and then the core systems. Thus, the most important lesson about psychohistory is presented for the first time: like a prescient science, it predicts all things and all things happen in accordance with its laws.

The Encyclopedists: Fifty years later on Terminus, the Foundation scholars have begun work on the Encyclopedia Galactica, the complete compendium of scientific knowledge for when the Empire falls. Unfortunately, the Empire is surrounded by four independent kingdoms that are in danger of threatening Terminus. The mayor of the planet, Salvor Hardin, is the protagonist of this story, and believes that the only way to keep their neighbors at bay is to pit them against each other. He perceives an opportunity when the Kingdom of Anacreon, which hopes to place military bases on Terminus, reveals that the four kingdoms no longer have nuclear technology.

Later, Hardin’s own rivalry with the Board of Trustees (the people responsible for the Encyclopedia) come to a head when Seldon’s Vault – a mysterious chamber which opens whenever a “Seldon Crisis” is imminent – opens to deliver a message. According to Seldon’s hologram, the creation of the Encyclopedia was a ruse to hide Terminus’ real importance. The true goal of the Foundation is to further science in a galaxy as it becomes consumed by interplanetary strife. Realizing that they are no longer in control, the Board hands its political power to the Terminus City mayor who graciously accepts.

The Mayors: Beginning in 80 F.E., this story revolves around the Foundation’s efforts to bring technology to the Four Kindgoms. This has the effect of creating a priesthood of sorts in these states, reminiscent of early medieval Europe where Roman priests were dispatched to western European kingdoms to establish centers of learning. Salvor Hardin has been re-elected many times over the course of the decades but faces an impending problem as an “Action Party” threatens to overthrow him. Fearing that Anacreon is slowly overtaking them, they want power so the Foundation will fight back.

On Anacreon, it is also becoming clear that the young King Lepold I faces an internal threat from his uncle, Prince Regent Wienis. Before he can come of age, Wienis plans on seizing power for himself. Central to this plan is using a battleship the Foundation restored for Anacreon to attack and conquer the planet. On the night that Lepold is to be ordained, Wienis invited Hardin into his quarters and shares his plan with him. Hardin reveals that he too has a plan, a counter stroke which will neutralize the battleship and Wienis’ power.

After decades of seeing Foundation scientists as “holy men”, the public is incensed when they learn that Wienis is planning an attack on them. What’s more, all their technology, including the attacking battleship, becomes useless as the only people who know how to run them (the Foundation scientists) begin shutting them down. Wienis loses it and tries to kill Hardin, but his weapons cease working, and he takes his own life.

Upon his return to Terminus, Hardin is vindicated when Seldon’s vault opens to reveal that his plan was right. With this crisis behind them, the Action Party defers to the mayors and their authority is once again validated. In addition, the Four Kingdoms are now free to continue the advance of “Scientism”, which will extend their influence throughout the region and ensure the fulfillment of Seldon’s plan.

The Traders: Events in this section take place 135 F.E., at a time when the Foundation has begun sending out Trade representatives to distant worlds to share their technology with all neighboring planets in the quadrant. Master Trader Eskel Gorov, also an agent of the Foundation government, has traveled to the worlds of Askone to trade in nucleics. Gorov, however, is met with resistance by Askone’s governing Elders who abide by the taboo that certain technologies are morally proscribed.

Enter the protagonist, Trader and Foundation agent Linmar Ponyets, who is sent to Askone’s central planet to negotiate the release of Gorov, who has been arrested. After learning that the Elder’s Grand Master plans to have Gorov executed, Ponyets agrees to offer them a payoff in the form of a transmuter than can turn lead into gold. At the same time, Ponyets finds a willing ally in a young protegee named Councilor Pherl. While initially wary of Ponyets, he is convinced that the transmuter could help him to attain power and eventually become Grand Master himself.

Because of this, Gorov is released and travels back to Foundation space with Ponyets. Gorov is critical of Ponyets dealings, saying that it was unethical, but Ponyets counters with a quote by Hardin, wherein he said “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!”

The Merchant Princes: This last story, which takes place in 155 F.E., occurs against the backdrop of a powerful Foundation, which has subjugated the neighboring Four Kingdoms and expanded its commercial and technological empire throughout numerous stellar systems. However, it still faces challenges, this time around from a planet named Korell where three Foundation ships have disappeared. Fearing that a “Seldon Crisis” in coming, the Foundation assigns Master Trader Hober Mallow to investigate and determine the Korellian’s level of technology.

At the same time, the people who assign Mallow, Foreign Secretary Publius Manlio and the Mayor’s secretary, Jorane Sutt, foresee an opportunity to weaken the traders by creating an embarrassing diplomatic incident. To oversee their plan, they plant an agent aboard Mallow’s ship to spy on him. When they arrive on Korell, he invites a Foundation missionary on board their ship, a move which causes a mob to surround the ship. Since Foundation agents and technology are not allowed on Korell, this arouses Mallow’s suspicions.

Mallow hands the missionary over to the mob, in spite of the agents intervention, and the missionary dies. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem too disturbed by this and even earns the chance to meet with Korell’s authoritarian ruler, Commdor Asper Argo, because of it. He appears friendly and welcomes Foundation technological gifts, though he refuses to allow Scientism on Korell. In accordance, Mallow agrees to continue trading with them but agrees to abstain from encouraging missionary work within the Republic of Korell.

Later, Mallow is also given a tour of the planet’s facilities, during which time he notices the presence of atomic technology bearing the emblem of the Empire. He concludes that the Empire is expanding into the periphery again and journeys alone to the planet Siwenna, which he believes may be the capital of an Imperial province. There he finds nothing but a desolate world and an impoverished patrician named Onum Barr, a former provincial senator who tells him how an a local rebellion led the Empire to devastate the planet and kill all but one of his sons.

Convinced there is nothing there to see, Mallow returns to Terminus where he faces trial for murder because of how he turned the missionary over to the Korellian mob. However, he is able to convince the court that the “missionary” was in fact a Korellian secret policeman who played a part in the conspiracy against the Traders manufactured by Sutt and Manlio. Acquitted, Mallow is received with delight by the population of Terminus, which will almost undoubtedly select him as Mayor in the elections scheduled to take place in the following year.

To prepare for the election, Mallow engineers the arrest of Sutt and Manlio, and eventually takes office. However, he is soon faced with tensions between the Foundation and Korell, which declares war on the Foundation, using its powerful Imperial flotilla to attack Foundation ships. Instead of counterattacking, Mallow takes no action, knowing that Korell has become accustomed to trade with the Foundation and the lack of said trade will cause deprivation and anger towards the government. In time, this will cause Korell’s war efforts to grind to a halt and the end of hostilities.

Thus ends book I of the foundation series, with the Foundation ascendent in a Galaxy that is becoming increasingly permeated by chaos and Seldon’s plan in effect on well underway.

Good Points:
As I said, this novel (if you’ll excuse the pun) really wrote the book on Galactic Empires and historically/socially relevant sci-fi. Inspired largely by Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it advances the notion that all civilizations are basically organism, subject to the same laws as all living things. And like all organisms, they enjoy a period of growth, maturation, and then decline, culminating in their death. When that happens, their absence leaves a natural power vacuum characterized by chaos, strife, and a marked decline in all things “civilized” – aka. the arts, the sciences, learning, etc.

By taking a page from history, namely the attempts to preserve classical knowledge throughout the Middle Ages (which culminated in a rebirth of learning in the Renaissance) Asimov creates a fictional repeat of history in the distant future whereby the efforts of the preservers were enhanced with the help of foresight and a coordinated plan. Had such factors existed in the wake of Rome’s fall, it is entirely possible that the Dark Ages would have lasted for a significantly shorter amount of time.

On top of that, this book was is also very accessible and readable, in spite of the fact that it throws some rather deep scientific and intellectual content at the reader. And the way the stories are succinct, concise, and tie together so effectively makes for a read which is easy on top of it all. For an accomplished reader, it can be read in one sitting. I am hardly a speed reader, but even I found it a quick study.

Bad Points:
Conversely, some of the books selling points are also potential weaknesses. For one, its accessibility can be seen as a mark of simplicity. For example, the book is all about a science that deals with the masses, of how historical events are determined by the actions of billions, trillions and even quadrillions of people. And yet, in every story, everything seems to hinge on the actions of one person, the protagonist, and a few others.This seems a little contradictory, and intentional since it provides quick resolution to the plot.

Herein lies another weakness, which is that of contrivance. Many times throughout the novel, the way the characters tend to figure things out seems awfully convenient. In every story, you see the mayors, merchants and Foundationists pulling resolutions seemingly out of nowhere, knowing everything they need to in advance or just providing a perfect solution on the spot. Granted, it seems to make sense, but how they know to do this and how it always seems to work out does not seem wholly realistic.

And of course, the explanation is always there in the background, Hari Seldon predicted it using psychohistory and these people know that science so they are therefore prepared where others are not. This sort of advances a notion that the science itself is infallible, that human minds really can be reduced to mathematical formulae which is water-tight. If anything, I would say that predicting the behavior of billions gets more unpredictable the farther afield one looks, and that no science can ever be capable of predicting it with certainty. And we all know what became of those philosophies that tried – aka. Marxism, Hegelianism, and many other isms besides!

But of course, the concept of psychohistory is entirely fictitious and was really just a tentative argument that Asimov advanced, and for the sake of a fictional story no less. In order to make the story work, he had to create a universe in which a form of prescient foresight, made possible through the application of rigorous mathematics and psychology, was possible and accurate. In short, its just food for thought, not something to be taken seriously. And of course, Asimov did show that he was willing to break from this notion with the second book in the series, Foundation and Empire, where the “Plan” began to falter due to external, unaccounted factors.

So in the end, I have to recommend Foundation as required reading, not just for science fiction fans but for all people curious as to how many trends we’ve come to associate with speculative and satirical literature (including dystopian lit) got started. Granted, there were those who came before Asimov who made use of such themes and classical inspirations, but he was the one who brought such things into the public eye like few before him. And as a result, he would go on to have an immeasurable influence on those who followed in his wake.

Up next, Foundation and Empire, part two of the original trilogy, before fans and publishers practically forced him to write many, many more books in the series. Stay tuned!

Revenge of the Sith. The Last Hope!

I come to it at last, the third and final installment in the prequel series, and sixth in the overall Star Wars franchise! Hard to imagine I started this whole thing three weeks ago. Seems like a lifetime has passed, but that’s the way time works!

And what can I say about this last installment? Well, I can tell you that between movies two and three, Lucas seemed to be taking mounting criticisms of his movies seriously. I can also say without exaggeration that after two generally panned movies, we were all pulling for him! Many reviewers openly wondered if the third and final movie could save the franchise, cuz Lord knew the fans weren’t likely to endure a third disappointment.

Luckily, Lucas seemed to pull if off with this third and final one. After the release, critics and fans seemed united in hailing it as the best of the three. Of course, the competition wasn’t exactly fierce, and there were still loads of problems that would become more apparent as time went on. The initial gentleness and praise with which this movie was met seemed to be the result of wishful thinking, really. No one wanted to see Star Wars fail.

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens, as always, with the crawl. WAR! It says. It then goes on to explain… See, there’s the thing known as the Clone Wars. They’re bad. Lots of people dying, lots of systems being overrun. And now, the fight seems to have come to Coruscant.

We cut, as usual, to ships in space. And after a brief, silent flyby, we see that its in fact some mad space combat! Ships everywhere are engaged in close quarters combat, destroyers, cruisers, and tons of fighters between them. And it’s all happening over the capitol. And to top it off, Skywalker and Kenobi are there too, leading the assault in their fighters.

There mission is to reach General Grievous’ command vessel, where Palpatine, a hostage, is being kept. They fight there way through several droid fighters, pull some cool moves, board the ship, take out tons of droids – all rendered with state of the art CGI of course – and begin working their way to the room where he’s being kept. Once there, a room that is made to resemble the Emperor’s own throne room, they do the deed of fighting Dooku for the second time.

And this time, things go much the same. Obi-Wan is taken out early, and dismemberment ensues. But this time, it’s Anakin hewing off Dooku’s limbs. Defeated, Palpatine tells Anakin to kill him, and after a minimum of discussion, Anakin slices his head off.

He expresses some regret, but Palpatine tells him not to worry about it. Second time Anakin has committed cold blooded murder and the whole thing’s brushed off without a second thought. They even raise the issue of the last time he did this, appropriately…

He also tries to get him to leave Obi-Wan behind, but this Anakin proves immune to. Together, they begin the process of fleeing, only to get caught and brought to meet Grievous himself. Now this guy, though he’s hasn’t been introduced yet, is apparently important. He’s killed Jedi too, judging from his collection. However, Anakin and Obi-Wan have no trouble escaping and take control of the ship.

Anakin, in demonstrating his alleged flying skills, begins trying to land the ship on Coruscant itself. A spectacular crash ensues, in which we see a surprisingly callous attitude towards the potential loss of life. But then again, they never confirm that anyone was hurt, despite all the damage they do.

Anyhoo, a tender reunion soon follows. Anakin is reunited with Padme, admits he’s missed he, and learns she’s pregnant. This is a bad thing, for as we soon learn, Anakin’s been having bad dreams again. This time about Padme dying. He remembers what happened with his mother and doesn’t want a repeat.

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan and the Jedi are getting nervous about Palpatine. He’s had his emergency powers for some time and even expanded on them. Now that the war is nearing its end, they fear he won’t give up his powers. After years of benefiting from all the chaos and confusion, it seems they are finally sensing that he’s not on the level. They propose to devise a test. Once they’ve hunted down Grievous, they’ll confront him. If he doesn’t relinquish his powers, they’ll know he’s up to no good.

At the same time, Palpatine continues to use Anakin to further his own aims. He appoints Anakin as his personal representative to the Council, who do not trust him so they don’t promote him to Master. Anakin is incensed.

However, the Council still asks that Anakin spy on Palpatine for them. They also begin to express doubts about Anakin and the prophecy, whether or not it might be misread. Seems late to be bringing this up, but the die is kind of cast at this point…

Palpatine also seems to know more about Anakin than he’d prefer to know. That much is clear when he begins to address the possibility of how the Dark Side can save people from dying. Anakin is obviously intrigued, and begins to promise Padme in the most cryptic of ways that everything will be fine.

Once more, the Council decide to divide Anakin and Obi-Wan and send them on separate missions. While Anakin spies on Palpatine, Obi-Wan is dispatched to deal with Grievous. He flies to Atapau, where the Separatists base used to be, and engages Grievous in single combat. The Clones troops arrive shortly thereafter, and a big CGI fight ensues.

After a big chase involving a giant lizard, a ZOOM, and a cliffside fight, Anakin blows Grievous away with a blaster. In a shout out to remarks made in the first movie, he then mocks the weapon that saved his life. Seems kind of callous…

Back on Coruscant, Anakin gets wise to Palpatine after he practically spells it out for him. He draws his blade, but hesitates to take him down when Palpatine reminds him that he will never save Padme without his help. Instead, Anakin runs to Master Windu and tells him what he’s learned. Windu takes some backup and goes to arrest the Chancellor and another fight ensues. Palpatine quickly dispatches his backup, but Windu manages to subdue him before long.

Of course, Anakin shows up and pleads for Palpatine’s life. Windu seems set on killing him, which seems odd considering that he’s a Jedi Master and killing prisoners is not something they do. But this forces Anakin to intervene and Windu dies. Anakin is crippled by guilt, but out of a desire to save Padme declares his loyalty to Palpatine.

His first task, it seems, is to kill everyone in the Jedi Temple, which Anakin does, including all the kids. Once he’s done that, he’s sent to Mustafar to wipe out the Seperatist leadership, a move which will end the war and eliminate the last of Palpatine’s liabilities. He kills them too, and seems to enjoy it just a little too much!

Obi-Wan returns to learn what Anakin has done. He and Yoda arrive at the Temple to find the corpses of all the “Younglings” (guess they couldn’t say kids, might have sounded too… murdery). Obi-Wan then tells Padme, who for some reason seems surprised that Anakin has done this… again.

Once more, the Jedi choose to divide their forces. Yoda will go and take on Palpatine while Obi-Wan will fly all the way to Mustafar to deal with Anakin. Palpatine then declares the formation of the Galactic Republic, and outside of Padme and Bail Organa, no one seems to mind! She issues a line meant to capture the absurdity: “So this is how liberty ends… in thunderous applause.”

And so we get two fight-scenes, almost interspersed. Yoda fights with Palpatine in the Senate and gets several floating pods thrown at him. He loses, is picked up by Senator Organa (Leia’ adoptive father), and declares he’s failed and must go into hiding.

Padme and Obi-Wan confront Anakin, who seems to have gone a little Batty McPsycho now. After all he’s done to save her from death, he then turns on Padme with a choke move. And then of course Obi-Wan and him go at it like a bunch of Highlanders on crank!

After a VERY long, drawn out fight scene, Obi-Wan takes off Anakin’s legs and remaining arm. Anakin burns on the slopes above molten magma, and Obi-Wan just leaves him there. Palpatine picks him up and takes him a medical facility where they begin the process of turning him into Vader. Simultaneously, Amidala delivers her babies and dies in childbirth. No medical reason is given, it just seems that she’s lost hope… okay.

All remaining threads are tied up nicely. It is agreed that Luke will go to Tatooine, Leia will go to Alderaan, and Obi-Wan will also go to Tatooine to hide and commune with his old master. And then, the newly-created Vader has a ham moment by wailing when Palpatine tells him that he killed Padme accidentally. “Nooooo!” is his reply. And it seems that they are no in total cahoots. The movie ends with them witnessing the construction of the Death Star.

Last Word:
Well, like I said, this movie did better than the previous two. However, there were problems that few were prepared to admit so long as the Star Wars legacy seemed on the line. Most had to do with the plot, so I’ll save those for last. First, the movie shared some problems from the previous two which really became apparent by now.

They include the shooting, how Lucas shot all his scenes from the comfort of his chair using two cameras and simply had his actors walk slowly across the screen or sitting to deliver the lines. And then there was the bad dialogue. The romance factor was diminished in this movie, but there were still those painfully awkward scenes where Anakin and Padme are forced to say how much they love each other and it all comes out tasting of ham and wood!

And it wasn’t just the romance, it was every dramatic line in the movie. Padme’s line about “how liberty ends” was one. Mace Windu’s angry declaration, “The oppression of the Sith must not be allowed to return!” was another. Why didn’t anyone ever tell Lucas, “this is NOT how people talk!” Where is Harrison Ford when you need him? And of course, the way he kept showing characters from the first as if it were necessary to cram them all in. This time it was Chewbacca, Leia, Luke, and bit more of Bail Organa, which pretty much completes the original cast. In fact, the only person he didn’t preview was Han Solo! Wonder why…

And of course there was more of the same on the recycling front. Here too, the examples were many and close together. At the beginning, we’re meant to remember Jedi where we see Palpatine in that chair in front of that window. The battle at the end was meant to call to mind the final duel between Luke and Vader. The attack on the Wookie compound on Kashyyk also seemed like a not-too-subtle attempt to resurrect the Battle of Endor (which originally called for Wookies). And the scene at the end where they are all stowed aboard a Corellian blockade runner is supposed to remind us of the first movie when Leia’s ship (same make and model) was boarded.

But none of that compared to the fact that the majority of the war, the most important aspect of the prequel movies, all happens off screen. It begins at the tail end of the movie II, then ends at the beginning of movie III, with the vast bulk of events taking place between them. Like most fanboys, I went to theaters back in 1999 expecting the prequels to be ABOUT this, but instead the war served as a backdrop to the duty of showing how Anakin fell and all the rest.

In fact, beyond a few action shots and some talk of it, the war seems to have no real consequences whatsoever to the Republic. No shortages, no recruitment drives, no resistance to the war. Even Coruscant itself seems completely unmarred by the fact that it was attacked in the beginning. A few scenes after an invasion, people are going to the opera and acting like nothing’s happened. There’s not even a single indication of damage done to the city.

Okay, plot holes time! I’ve chosen to list them in sequential order to save time and prevent overlap. Here goes!

  1. Opening Battle: Much like in Clones, the fight between Anakin, Obi-Wan and Dooku suffered from an obvious contrivance. Once again, Obi-Wan had to go down and stay down so Anakin and Dooku could fight one on one. But this time around, there was the added necessity of making sure he unconscious while Anakin executed Dooku. Which brings me to point 2!
  2. Murder? No Biggie: Once more, Anakin has committed a severe violation of the Jedi Code and basic morality by killing a man in cold blood, and no one seems to notice or care. Palpatine tells him to do it, he issues mild protests, but then does so without much regret. What little guilt he expresses is assuaged when Palpatine brings up how he’s done it before. That seemed appropriate, since there were no consequences then either.
  3. The Jedi Council, Assholes!: In the first movie, the Jedi Council tell Anakin that he has to severe all ties with his mother in order to be one of them. Why? Because his fear of losing her is bad and a path to evil. Okay, seems pretty callous, but I guess they needed something to hint at his descent into evil. Now, in movie three, Anakin is told by Yoda that his fear of losing Padme is wrong. Basically, he tells her that these fears are selfish and he should be happy this person, whoever they are, is going to die. He uses better sounding words, but the reasoning is basically the same. What kind of gurus are these? Why do they insist on being so harsh in their rules? It’s like their begging people to rebel against them by making their code impossible to follow. No love, no attachment, no sadness over loss. If anything, it’s their fault Anakin turned bad. They made him leave his mother behind, she dies and he goes on a rampage. His wife is near death, once again they tell him to let her go, and he goes on rampage to save her. There’s a lesson here I’m thinking…
  4. The Jedi Council, Idiots!: It is astounding how many stupid calls the Jedi Council make by this time in the series. First up, they’ve been saying for all three now that there’s something not quite right, some dark force, some hidden danger, but they never act on it. In this movie, they finally seem to be catching on. Mace Windu says he senses the Dark Side around Palpatine, Yoda expresses doubt about the so-called prophecy, and Mace and Yoda both fear putting Anakin in his presence. And yet, they do! Not only that, they continually fail to act to stop Palpatine even thought it’s obvious that he’s at the center of all things. Really, where is the mystery? Granted, Lucas tried to explain this away by saying the Jedi’s were being blinded by the Dark Side. But you don’t need ESP to see what’s going on here! The simple question, que bono, would have solved their entire dilemma. Who’s been benefiting from the all crises, again and again? Palpatine! And if you can sense dark energy coming from him, I’d say mystery solved!
  5. Anakin’s Descent: Now to be fair, Anakin had already turned to the Dark Side long before this movie. The moment he murdered women and children, he was bad. That wasn’t no preview of how it happened, that was it happening! But still, the way he chooses evil in this movie seems just so stupid. He saved Palpatine, that I get. But immediately after, Palpatine tells him he doesn’t know how to save Padme. That should have been the end of it. Anakin should have gone into a rage and killed him for lying through his teeth. Instead, he agrees to join him based on the promise of helping him, and that’s enough to convince him to murder children. On top of that, did he also not realize after Palpatine said go to Mustafar and kill all the Separatists that Palpatine was the one leading them? He had ample clues, like how did he know they were there? Why were they expecting him when he arrived? Why did they keep pleading that they were all friends? Did he not know, or did he not care?
  6. “No, not Anakin!”: I’ve harped on about how Anakin killed kids and no one, particularly Padme seemed to care. But what really makes no sense was how Padme reacts when Obi-Wan tells her he’s murdered the “younglings”. “No, not Anakin! He couldn’t!” Whaaaaat? You know he could, because he told you he’s done it before! The real answer should have been “Oh, no! Not again!”.
  7. Constant Separations: Why was it necessary to send Obi-Wan alone to get Grievous? On the one hand, they said they wanted an experienced Jedi to go deal with him. Okay, but why does he have to go alone? They say it’s also because it might just be a wild goose chase. Still not making sense. If Anakin’s the one who’s constantly saving Obi-Wan’s bacon, then it only makes sense to keep them together. No, the real reason is so they can be apart while Anakin does all that evil shit. Second, Yoda and Obi-Wan break up to deal with Palpatine and Anakin seperately. Again… why? Why not kill Palpatine first since he’s on Coruscant, then fly to Mustafar to deal with Anakin together. In every other movie, even at the beginning of this one, they always worked in pairs. Now they suddenly they are deliberately isolating themselves to have one-on-one showdowns. Again, the only reason is plot necessity, making sure that Yoda fails while Obi-Wan has his big fight with Anakin.
  8. The Senate, Morons!: As if the Jedi’s missing the obviousness of Palpatine’s rise to power wasn’t enough, there’s the added idiocy of the Senate. For years, these guys, have been surrendering more and more power willingly to Palpatine. And then when he announces that the Jedi attacked him, they buy it. Really? They believed that the Jedi, the servants of peace and justice for 1000 generations, are trying to take power? Not the hideously scarred man who took power in the name of security, wiped out the Jedi, and is now declaring the government a military dictatorship? They don’t see this as the slightest bit suspicious? What’s more, the entire reason they gave Palpatine “Emergency Powers” was because of the war. Now that it’s over and all the threats eliminated, he claims that arrangements is to be made permanent. And how does the Senate respond? According to Padme, “with thunderous applause”! How stupid are these people?
  9. “Noooooo!”: Another perfect opportunity for Anakin to turn on Palpatine would have been when he told him Padme was dead. Saving her was the whole reason he turned to the Dark Side, betrayed the Jedi, killed the “younglings”, and murdered the Separatists leaders. Now he’s told she isn’t even alive, and what does he do? Cries and still agrees to be the Emperor’s lap dog. Again, I would have been like “Well then f*** you, pal! I got no reason to follow you, so I’m taking it all!” He already said how he could defeat Palpatine and run things with Padme. Why not do it now and run the whole thing himself? What kind of Sith is he, turning down obvious opportunities for personal power?
  10. Contradictions: As a last point, I’d like to highlight how there were even contradictions here between this last movie and the originals. Didn’t Leia say that she knew her mother, and that she died when she was very young? That she was beautiful, kind, but… sad? She sure did, and this hinted at the fact that her mother was lamenting the loss of her husband, Anakin. So Padme dying in child birth kind of contradicts that. And it was just plain silly! Are we to believe that in this day and age, women die in child birth because they’ve got broken hearts? Even if she were feeling dejected and in the mood to give up, they got defibrillators and adrenaline, don’t they? They can restart a heart! And why was it necessary to have the Death Star being built at the end? Was it so important to preview it as well? As I recall, the first one was built to combat the threat of the Rebellion. Since that’s a good twenty years away at this point, the Empire has no justification to build it yet. And the second one only take a few years to build and it was bigger and badder than the first. Why then would it take them twenty years to build the first one?

Wow, that’s a lot of complaints. But like I said, time has a way of making these things more apparent. And listening to geeks way bigger than myself grip about the prequels flaws has kind of helped. And in truth, I didn’t mind this movie too much. It was just that by this point, the flaws of all the others seemed to snowball into one. So it really didn’t matter that this one was “the best of the three” because in the end, the whole production suffered from the same immutable flaws.

One thing I remember Lucas saying before the movie premiered was that he had to force himself to sit down and bang out this script. Not a good admission to make, but that seemed true of the first and second as well. It seemed like, beginning in the mid nineties, he sat down with the intent of writing a prequel, and focused entirely on how he was going to bring it to life through visuals and special effects. The plot was only important in so far as it explained everything from the original movies.

And with no one willing to question Lucas and help him with his writing, the plots for all three movies felt like they were first drafts that didn’t make much sense and were really just forced explanations and connections. Sure they explained where everyone came from. Sure, the fight scenes and CGI were pretty damn cool. But there was no tension, no suspense. We knew where everything was going since we already saw the originals. So any attempt at recapturing the feel of the originals was lost.

Really, what was the point of these movies? We all wanted them back so badly, but why couldn’t they have been about the Clone Wars and the stuff we didn’t know about? The best prequels are the ones that explore the things you don’t know, not the things you’ve already been told but haven’t yet seen. And that was where these movies were the weakest. It’s easy to criticize, I know. Especially with the benefit of hindsight. But even I could think of better plot lines and outcomes when I was watching the movies for the first time!

Well, that about does it for these movies. My apologies for not being more positive, but that’s the effect these movies tend to have. As the documentary The People Versus George Lucas contended, it’s only because people loved the original Star Wars so much that they expressed such disappointment and feelings of betrayal over these ones. I can think of one other franchise that has this sort of polarizing effect on people, except for maybe Dune!

Personally, I would be wishing Lucas well, were it not for the fact that he seems to have learned nothing from this experience. After the third and final movie was released, he completely took over the Clone Wars animated series which he didn’t seem to care about until he realized it was profitable. Then, he decided to re-release all six movies in 3D. Once again, he seems to be re-releasing his movies for no other reason than because he wants to take advantage of the latest technology. That makes three releases for the origins and two for the prequels.

On top of that, he has stalwartly refused for years to release the original movies on DVD. This was in response to fans saying they would like them available alongside the Gold Editions that feature all the added CGI and new ending where Hayden Christensen’s ghost shows up at the end. Lucasarts claimed that it was because they no longer existed, but he also went on the offensive saying it was his movie so he had the right to choose which version history would remember and which would be forgotten.

This, more than anything, would seem to indicate that Lucas has surrendered to the lure of the Dark Side of the industry, where money and power rule. All this from the man who used to resent studio control and industry greed. How bitterly ironic! Sad that he can’t see it, but what can you do? Well, some fans are taking it upon themselves to make their own versions. Topher Grace is one. As already noted, his movie, Star Wars 3.5, is slated for release one of these days. All he needs is for Lucas to give him the green light. It could happen…

May The Fourth Be With You!

Yes, it is now May 4th, making it officially Star Wars Day! And in honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to dedicate the next few days to reviewing the classic movies which started it all. Yes, those movies, the ones that made Lucas filthy freaking rich and perverted his sense of creativity.

But I’ve already ranted enough about those… ahem, other movies. Today is all about honoring the good things about this franchise and pop culture phenomena. And it really was a phenomena wasn’t it? When it comes to setting trends, box office records, and inspiring an entire generation of movie makers and movie-goers, few things can measure up to Star Wars.

In fact, part of the reason the fanboys reacted so badly to the prequels was because they loved the originals so much. Were it not for the intense love inspired by the originals, the new ones would never have been able to inspire such hate. Funny how that works…

First up, and in honor of May the 4th, is the original Star Wars, or as its extended title reads:

Episode IV: A New Hope
Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with a crawl that divulges the bare bones of the movie’s premise. Basically, there’s  an evil Galactic Empire, a band of Rebels, and things are pretty tense ever since the latter won their first victory against the former. But in truth, the audience got all they needed from the opening visual sequence, a touch of cinematic genius if ever there was one!

For starters, we see a small ship running for its life, being pursued by a very large ship that is chasing it down. This tells us two key things: the Rebels are a small but committed band that are fighting for their existence against a very large, very powerful foe. The massive ship and the way it is making a slow, lengthy crawl over the camera lets us see the power and reach of the Empire, and establishes some dramatic tension which last well past the first few minutes.

Meanwhile, the ship is disabled and boarded. Imperial troopers, decked out in their white suits of armor, very clinical and faceless looking, board and kill all the defenders. Then in walks Darth Vader, who stands a head taller than the rest, is clad all in black, and very clearly means business! Cut to the droids odd-couple, C3P0 and R2D2, who’ve been scurrying around since the action started. Though we don’t know who she is at first, we see Princess Leia giving something to the latter, which under the circumstances, is of obvious importance. Shortly thereafter, they eject in an escape pod to the planet Tatooine, located below.

Leia gets her formal introduction after Vader kills the ship’s Captain and brings her forward to demand answers. She’s a member of the Imperial Senate, and apparently also a member of the Rebel Alliance. The reason their ship was boarded was because a certain set of plans, pertaining to the Death Star, were stolen and traced to their ship. After getting nothing from her, the Imperial officers deduce that the escape pod must have contained them and pursue it to Tatooine’s surface.

In time, C3P0 and R2D2 wind up becoming the property of a moisture farmer named Owen Lars. His nephew, a young man named Luke, quickly establishes himself as the movie’s protagonist. In addition to wanting to get off Tatooine, he also dreams of being a pilot and finding out more about his father, a man whom he knows virtually nothing about. Like all classical heroes, his will be a journey of self-discovery which will take him across the galaxy and fundamentally change him.

Naturally, his surrogate parents are afraid to let him go, alluding to the fact that his father’s legacy is not something they want him to be a part off. But in the meantime, Luke has a more immediate problem on his hands. After seeing a fragment of the recording of Princess Leia and learning that R2 was intended to meet a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi, a man whom Luke suspects is actually Ben Kenobi who lives in the deep desert. After hearing of this, R2 runs off, forcing Luke and C3P0 to run after him…

They find him, and Ben Kenobi, after a near-death encounter with some Sand People. After chasing them off and tending to Luke, Ben reveals that he is in fact Obi Wan, and takes Luke and the droids back to his pad to talk. Luke learns, much to his delight, that Obi-Wan knew his father and that he was in fact a war hero and a Jedi Knight. His lightsaber is still in Obi-Wan’s possession, which he gives to Luke to play with. This was audiences first glimpse of one of the coolest weapons in sci-fi history, and impressively, it was done on a rather meager budget!

In any case, Obi-Wan sees R2’s recording in full. Leia reveals that she has come into possession of the Death Star plans, intended to deliver them to her father on Alderaan, but was intercepted in transit. R2 now holds them, and they still must be delivered. The recording ends with her pleading with Obi-Wan to help the Rebels. He asks Luke to accompany him so he can learn more about The Force and his father, but Luke is naturally reluctant. He can’t leave so long as he has ties and family on Tatooine that need him… Ooh, foreshadowing!

Cut to the Death Star, the infamous Imperial weapon of terror. Its commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, makes his first appearance, as do the other senior commanders. After some exposition on just how freakishly powerful the Death Star is, it is also revealed that until the plans are found, there is a danger. On top of that, there’s also the consensus that the Death Star needs to be tested by blowing up its first planet. Also, with Leia aboard and not talking, Tarkin concludes that they can kill two birds with one stone.

Luke and Ben meanwhile find a wreck in the desert, a Jawa landcrawler which had been destroyed by Imperial troopers. Luke quickly realizes that the Imperial troops were searching for his droids. He rushes home to find his uncle and aunt dead and their home destroyed. He then returns to Obi-Wan to tell him that he will come with him after all. The two then travel to the planet’s spaceport, Mos Eisley, to find a spacer who will take them off planet.

After getting past Imperial guards, they are forced to contend with some tough barfolk. Obi-Wan quickly dispatches them with his own lightsaber, and they meet Han Solo shortly thereafter. After being treated to some not so idle boasts about his ship (the Millennium Falcon), Obi-Wan determines that Han’s the man to take them to Alderaan. We, the audience, also learn that he clearly has some debts, and an angry creditor named Jabba. Before he can leave to check on his ship, he’s forced to gun down one of the men Jabba sent to collect.

Getting into orbit and away from the planet prove a might bit difficult given the presence of Imperial troopers and Star Destroyers. But Han wasn’t bullshitting when he said his ship was fast. They dust off, jump into hyperspace (another cool visual experience) and elude their Imperial chasers.

Meanwhile, Takin has the Death Star parked in front of Alderaan, which he threatens to destroy if Leia won’t divulge the location of the Rebel base. She does, telling him their on Dantooine, but Tarkin orders Alderaan destroyed anyway. Seems Dantooine is too remote to provide an effective “demonstration”. But it’s okay, since she was lying through her teeth. When Tarkin learns of this, he’s naturally pissed and orders that Leia be executed.

However, this order coincides with the arrival of the Millennium Falcon. Since their destination has been blown to pieces, the crew fly into a complete and utter debris field, and soon find themselves face to face with the Death Star itself. After getting nabbed with a tractor beam and brought aboard, they are forced to stow away in the Falcon’s secret compartments, where Han usually puts his “special” cargo. After popping out and sneaking past more Imperial troopers, they learn that Leia is aboard the station. Obi-Wan heads off to disable the tractor beam, while Luke convinces Han to take part in a daring rescue. Hijinx ensue!

First, we have Han, Luke and Chewi’s rather clumsy attempt to get Leia out of her cell block. The first phase, getting in, goes off without much trouble (unless you count all the shooting). Unfortunately, phase two, getting out, proceeds less smoothly. After being cornered my reinforcements, Leia orders them to jump into the trash compactor to escape. Only the timely intervention of R2 and 3P0 prevent them from being mashed.

Second, Obi-Wan succeeds in shutting down the tractor beam, but comes face to face with his old apprentice, Darth Vader. A lightsaber duel ensues, crossed beams providing a metaphor for the internal struggle between the righteous teacher and the student who went bad. As they head for the ship, Luke sees Obi-Wan locked in this duel, and is forced to watch as Obi-Wan puts up his blade and lets Vader kill him. But of course, he warns Vader that this will only make him more powerful… something we will understand very soon.

Ultimately, the good guys get away, short on crew member, but it seems their escape was allowed to happen. Knowing that they will set course of the Rebel Base, Vader has a tracking device placed aboard the ship, and the Death Star follows them to a small moon called Yavin 4.

Once there, Leia meets with the Rebel command staff and shares the plans. Knowing that the Death Star is likely en route, they prepare a desperate plan to destroy the Death Star using the one weakness they can discern. An exhaust vent located along the station’s central axis, at the end of a long, well-defended trench! Some two dozen Rebel pilots suit up for the mission, Luke volunteering to help, and asking Han to do the same. But, having been given his reward and eager to pay off his debts, Han says good luck and leaves with Chewi.

After slipping past the Death Stars shields, the Rebel pilots begin fighting it out with the station’s defenses and defenders. However, the assault on the vent itself does not go well. One wing of pilots is shot down trying to make the run, and the one pilot to get off a shot misses and is killed shortly thereafter. It now falls to Luke and what’s left of the attack wing, which includes his old friend Biggs Darklighter. Biggs is killed covering Luke, and he himself appears about to be gunned down by Vader’s own fighter, until someone new shows up and saves his ass!

Seems Han had a change of heart, and after blowing up Luke’s tails and sending Vader’s ship into a tailspin through space, Luke fires off his ordinance and hits the vent dead on! They break off and get away just in time to avoid the massive shock wave that blowing up such a massive station produces! The Rebel Alliance is saved, and the Empire has been dealt a mighty blow. However, as we see, Vader is still alive and makes it away, letting us know that the war (and movie franchise) will go on…

What Worked So Well About It!:
Where to begin. You know, its always at this point that critics and fanboys say what was so good about the original movies by comparing them to the new ones. To avoid this needless cliche, and perhaps to be a good sport, I’ll keep comparisons to a minimum. Suffice it to say, part of the reason why the first movie was such a smashing hit was because it tapped in to a certain need which was becoming apparent in the movie-going community. In terms of science fiction, audiences were becoming just the slightest bit tired of dystopian stories and dark visions of the future.

After so much technophobia and misanthropy, the stage seemed set for something positive and heroic to come along and renew people’s faith in humanity and the future. So in a way, Lucas’ masterpiece benefited from good timing, arriving exactly when people needed it to. Such timing had not been seen since the arrival of the Beatles to America, an event which came after the assassination of JFK when young people were looking for something happy and joyful to focus them onto new and positive things.

Another thing which worked in its favor was the fact that Lucas had to contend with limited budgets, an largely inexperienced cast and crew, and just about every mishap imaginable. Being in the position of the underdog, having little expected of him, and having to contend with all kinds of difficulties, what came out of it all is best labelled “art from adversity”. There’s just something so purifying about a noble effort which succeeds despite difficulty, isn’t there? It was like Lucas’ movie was living out its own plot, the committed band of Rebels fighting an evil Empire being a metaphor for Lucas’ own fight with the studios and production companies.

The Weak Parts:
But of course, Lucas also benefited from a great deal of help, which came from the highly experienced and talented hands of John Williams, the cinematography of Gilbert Taylor, and a host of editors who helped clean up his movie once the raw footage was slapped together. Arriving just a few months shy of the films theatrical release, these people saved production of the film in many ways, and demonstrated to Lucas that when it came to shooting and dialogue-writing, he needed some help to make it all work (something he forgot in more recent years!)

In fact, it was because these individuals had arrived late to the production that many weaker elements of the movie survived and became part of the original movie. In several scenes, actors and extras made mistakes which Lucas didn’t notice because he was not accustomed to shooting films. Two prime examples are when a Storm Trooper walks head first into a sliding door on the Death Star, and Mark Hamil yells “Carrie!” to actress Carrie Fisher while they were shooting. These were never edited out, as was some of the lazier acting and poor dialogue.

In fact, Lucas gained a reputation for writing wooden dialogue as he was making this movie. During their initial readings, many of the actors complained that it was unrealistic, unnatural, and completely awkward. These sentiments were brilliantly captured by Harrison Ford when he confronted Lucas and told him, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”.

The Enduring Legacy:
Of course, I could get into all the cultural and cinematic influences that were apparent and helped make the movie such a box office hit. But let’s face it, that’s been done to death! I shall just say that in the end, Lucas knew where to borrow from and could make it all work together. Combining elements like westerns, samurai movies, and allusions to ancient and modern history with an epic story of good versus evil, Lucas’ creation tickled all the right bones and gave audiences what they wanted when they wanted it.

And really, it was one of those rare movies where people felt that there truly was something for everyone. It was not strictly a kids movie (despite what Lucas would later claim) because there was simply so much material and attention to detail which no child would have been able to appreciate. So while the kids (and kids of all ages!) were dazzled with shoot outs, dogfigths and lightsaber duels, the adults were able to appreciate aesthetics borrowed from such classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Seven Samurai, Metropolis, and costumes and themes alluding to WWII and Nazi Germany.

And of course, with its smashing performance at the box office, Lucas and his crew now had the freedom and the street cred to make some follow up movies and see his vision through to completion. And in no time at all, all the studios and production companies which had doubted him or told him no were lining up to imitate him and finance whatever Star Wars clone they could find. Lucas, I imagine, got a real kick out of that!

Anyhoo, having spilled so much metaphorical ink on this movie, let me just wrap things up by saying Happy Star Wars Day and be sure to check back soon. Next up, I will be covering the even more famous The Empire Strikes Back, one of the few movies in cinematic history to ever be credited as being “better than the first”. In the meantime, check out this shot from the blooper reel. Keep your eye to the right as the Stormtroopers walk in…

 

Of Galactic Empires

Galaxy1Hello again, fellow sci-fi fans! Today, I thought I’d write about something conceptual, something that is intrinsic to so much science fiction and keeps popping up in various forms. It’s something that has appeared in countless serials, novels, tv shows, movies, and RPG’s. I am referring, of course, to the concept of the Galactic Empire, a science fiction trope that has seen many incarnations, but revolves around a singular theme of a political entity that spans the known universe.

Whether it’s a loose federation of humans and aliens spanning many different star systems, or a despotism made up of millions of worlds, all populated by human beings, or something somewhere in the middle, this trope has proven to be one of the most enduring ideas of classic science fiction.

But where exactly did this idea come from? Who was the first to come up with a futuristic, galaxy-spanning polity where millions of star systems and quadrillions of sentient beings all found themselves living underneath one roof?

Asimov’s Foundation Series:

An artists rendering of Trantor

Isaac Asimov is arguably the first science fiction author to use the concept of a galaxy-spanning empire in his literature. Known simply as the Galactic Empire, this organization was the centerpiece of his Foundation series. As fans of the books know, the entire series was built around the idea of the imminent collapse of said empire and how a small band of scientists (led by Hari Seldon) were dedicated to ensuring that the collective knowledge of the universe would be preserved in its absence. The books were based heavily on Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a compendium which explored the various reasons for the collapse of Rome and the resulting Dark Ages.

The universe of the Galactic Empire centered on a planet named Trantor. Based on his descriptions, the planet was covered by a massive urban landscape, every habitable area having been built over in order to accommodate the planet’s huge population. In addition to being the capitol of the Empire, it was also its administrative head, cultural hub, and economic epicenter. Much like Rome of antiquity, it depended heavily on the surrounding territories for food and raw materials in order to sustain itself, and was terribly hit when the Empire began to decline.

However, beyond some passing descriptions of its size, centrality and the problems facing its encapsulated population, not much is said about Trantor or many other worlds of the Galactic Empire. In fact, not much is said about the Empire itself, other than the fact that it has endured for millennia and is on the verge of collapsing. Mainly, the focus in Asimov’s Foundation is on the events that precipitated its fall and the work of the Foundation once that was complete; how they went about the process of restoring civilization in the absence of a central authority. However, the subsequent Foundation novels, which included some prequels, helped to flesh out the Empire further, providing details on member worlds and the events which preceded the development of Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”.

Frank Herbert’s Dune:

Arrakis (aka. Dune), the main setting of the story

One of the greatest examples of a galactic empire in my opinion. In the first installment of the Dune series, we are made immediately aware that humanity now inhabits the entire galaxy and are ruled from a world called Kaitan by a sovereign known as the Padishah Emperor. However, it is also made clear that while the emperor is the supreme leader, power is shared in a quasi-feudal arrangement between the noble houses (the Landstraad), a corporate entity that controls all economic affairs (CHOAM), and the various guilds (of which the Spacing Guild is arguably the most powerful). In this universe, much attention is given to the breakdown of power, the history of how it came to be, and the various member worlds and houses.

For starters, there is House Corrino, the ruling dynasty of the empire that is centered on Kaitan. Their house once ruled from a planet known as Selusa Secundus, but which has since been reduced to ashes from a nuclear attack and now serves as the emperor’s prison planet (where his elite armies are trained). More important, and central to the story, is House Atreides, the family which rules from an ocean planet named Caladan, but come to inherit the desert planet Arrakis (aka. Dune). Passing attention is also given to Geidi Prime, the industrial world run by House Harkonnen, the nominal villains of the story.

Dune_MapBut by far, the most detailed and developed descriptions are that of the planet Arrakis, where most of the story takes place. Throughout the first novel, the planet’s ecology, native species, and inhabitants (the Fremen) are richly detailed. Given that it is the only world where the spice (an awareness drug the entire universe depends on) is mined, the world is understandably the focal point of the Dune universe. Clearly analogous to oil, the spice is a metaphor for human dependence on a single resource, and the consequences thereof. By taking control of the planet at story’s end and threatening to destroy the spice, Paul Atreides effectively becomes the universe’s new ruler. For as the sayings go: “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”, and “He who can destroy a thing controls that thing.”

Frank Herbert cited a number of influences for his galactic empire. Like Asimov, he relied a great deal on history, particularly that of the Middle East, the Crusades, and a number of feudal societies. At the same time, Herbert became fascinated with ecology, a result of his living in Florence, Oregon where the US Department of Agriculture was using poverty grasses to stabilize the expanding Oregon dunes. The article which he wrote about them, entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands”  was never completed and only appeared decades later in The Road to Dune. Nevertheless, it was from this combination of real history and ecology, how the living environment affects its inhabitants and shapes history, that the universe of Dune emerged.

Star Wars:

Coruscant, capitol of the Old Republic and Empire

Perhaps the best known example of a galactic empire, which in turn emerged from what Lucas called the Old Republic. When asked about his inspirations, George Lucas claimed that he wanted to create an empire that was as aesthetically and thematically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This is made abundantly clear when one looks into the back story of how the Empire emerged, how its malevolent dictator (Palpatine, a Sith Lord) rose to power and began launching campaigns to eliminate anyone who stood in his way. In addition, the use of Storm Troopers, the uniforms of the imperial officers, and the appearance of Darth Vader also add visual representation to this.

However, a great deal of antiquity works its way into the Star Wars universe as well. Much like Herbert and Asimov, there is a parallel between the past and the future. The incorporation of royalty, swordfights between Bushido-like warriors, gun-toting smugglers, cantinas, dangerous towns in the middle of the desert, and all the allusions to the “Republic” and “Galactic Senate”, fair and noble institutions which ruled the galaxy before the dark times – all of these are themes taken from ancient Greece, Rome, feudal Japan, medieval Europe, and the Wild West.

Urban sprawl on Coruscant
Urban sprawl on Coruscant

In any case, at the center of Lucas’ galactic empire lies Coruscant, a planet that was clearly inspired by Trantor. Whereas in the original series, the planet was not shown or even mentioned, it receives a great deal of attention in the Star Wars novelizations, comics, and prequel movies. Much like Trantor, it is a planet that is completely dominated by urban sprawl, literally every corner of it is covered by massive sky-scrapers and multi-leveled buildings.

According to the Star Wars Wiki (Wookiepedia), roughly a trillion humans and aliens live on its surface, which is another detail that is noteworthy about Lucas’ universe. Unlike Foundation or Dune, in Star Wars, the galactic empire includes countless sentient races, though humans do appear to be the dominant species. This racial aspect is something else that is akin to World War II and Nazi Germany.

Whereas the Rebellion is made up of humans and aliens who are struggling for freedom and tolerance, the Empire is composed entirely of humans who believe in their own racial superiority. However, in a tribute to Lucas’ more creative days, not much is said about this divide, the audience is instead left to infer it from the outward appearances and behavior of the characters on screen. However, the idea receives much development in the novelizations, particularly Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy.

Star Trek:

Star Fleet Command, in orbit above Earth

Yet another take on the concept of a galactic polity: Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Much like the Empire of Lucas’ own universe, the Federation is made up of hundreds of member worlds and any number of races. But unlike its peers in the Foundation, Dune or Star Wars universes, the Federation only encompasses a small portion of the galaxy – between ten and fifteen percent, depending on where you look in the storyline.

Beyond their range of influence lie several competing or cooperative empires – the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardasians, the Dominion, and the Borg. Each of these empires represent a threat to the Federation at one time or another in the story, largely because their ideologies are in direct conflict with the Federations policy of peace, multiculturalism and understanding.

This may sound a tad tongue-in-cheek, but it is the main vehicle for the story. In Star Trek, like many other sci-fi franchises, Gene Roddenberry uses alien races as mirrors for the human condition. Whereas in his vision of the future humanity has evolved to overcome the scourges of war, poverty, disease, intolerance and oppression, other races are either less advanced or openly embrace these things.

Negh'varThe Klingons, for example, were the enemies of the Federation because of their commitment to warrior politics. The Romulans are locked  in an ongoing cold war with them because of their belief in their own racial superiority. The Dominion seeks dominance over all “solid” life forms because, as shape shifters, they fear being controlled themselves. And the Borg are an extremely advanced cybernetic race that seeks to “perfect” organic life by merging it – by force, if necessary – with the synthetic. The metaphors are so thick, you could cut them with a knife!

Yes, subtlety was never Roddenberry’s greatest attribute, but the franchise was an open and inclusive one, borrowing freely from other franchises and sci-fi concepts, and incorporating a great deal of fan writing into the actual show itself. And whereas other franchises had firm back-stories and ongoing plots, Star Trek has always been an evolving, ad hoc thing by comparison.

Roddenberry and the producers and writers that took over after his death never did seem to plan that far ahead, and the back story was never hammered out with that much precision. This has allowed for a degree of flexibility, but also comes with the painstaking task of explaining how and why humanity became a utopian society in the first place. But for the most part, the franchise leaves that one vague, arguing that space travel, technology and contact with other sentient races allowed for all of this to happen over time.

Babylon 5:b5-eps3One of my favorite franchises of all time! And possibly one of the most detailed examples of a galactic empire, due largely to the fact that it took shape in the course of the show, instead of just being there in the background from the beginning. Here too, we see a trade off between other franchises, the most similar being Star Trek. In this universe, there is no single galactic empire, but rather a series races that exist is a web of alliances, rivalries and a loose framework of relations.

But as time goes on, many of them come together to form an alliance that is reminiscent of the Federation, though arguably more detailed and pluralistic in its composition. When the show opens, we see that humanity is merely one of many races in the cosmic arena, most of whom are more advanced and older than we are.

The Earth Alliance, as its called, controls only a few colonies, but commands a fair degree of influence thanks to the construction of an important space station in neutral territory. This station (namesake of the show) is known as Babylon 5, aptly named because it is a place of trade, commerce, and the intermixing of peoples and cultures. And much like its namesake, it can be a dangerous and chaotic place, but is nevertheless the focal point of the known universe.

B5_destroyerAccording to the back story, which is explored in depth in the prequel movie “In the Beginning”, the station began as a way of preventing wars based on cultural misunderstandings. Such a war took place between the human race and the Mimbari, a race that is central to the story, ten years prior to the show. After four abortive attempts, the station finally went online and was given the designation of five because it was the fifth incarnation of the project.

Once completed, all major races in the area sent representatives there in order to make sure their interests and concerns were being represented. Chief amongst them was Earth, the Mimbari, the Narns, the Centauri and the Vorlons, who together made up the stations executive council. Beyond them was the “League of Non-Aligned Worlds”, a group made up of fifteen sentient races who were all smaller powers, but together exercise a fair degree of influence over policy.

The Centauri, who were based on the late-period Roman Empire, are a declining power, the once proud rulers of most of the quadrant who have since regressed and are looking to reverse their fortunes. The Narns are their chief rival, a younger race that was previously occupied and brutalized by the Centauri, but who have emerged to become one of the most powerful forces in the quadrant.

B5_season2Based heavily on various revisionists powers of history, they are essentially a race that is familiar with suffering and freely conquers and subjugates others now to ensure that such a thing never happens to them again. The Mimbari, an older and somewhat reclusive race, is nominally committed to peace. But as the war demonstrated, they can easily become a force to be reckoned with given the right provocation. And then there are the Vorlons, a very old and very reclusive race that no one seems to know anything about, but who nevertheless are always there in the background, just watching and waiting…

As the show progresses, we come to see that B5 will actually serve a purpose that is far greater than anyone could have foreseen. It seems that an ancient race, known only as the Shadows, are returning to the known universe. Before they can to invade, however, they must recruit from the younger races and encourage them to make war on their rivals and neighbors. This will sow the seeds of chaos and ensure that their eventual advance will be met with less resistance.

The Vorlons and the Mimbari ambassadors (Kosh and Delenn) are aware of this threat, since their people have faced it before, and begin recruiting the station’s two human commanders (Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan) to help. This proves difficult, as the Shadows appear to have contacts on Earth as well and are backing the power play of Vice President Clarke, an ambitious man who wants to be a dictator. They are also ensuring that the Centauri and Narn go to war with each other as a way of keeping all the other member races preoccupied.

B5_shadow_warHowever, using the station as a rallying point, Sheridan, Sinclair, Delenn and Kosh eventually manage to organize the younger races into a cohesive fighting force to turn back the Shadows. Things become more complicated when they realize that the Vorlons are also the enemy, being involved in a power struggle with the Shadows that goes back eons. However, with the help of other First Ones (very old races) and a commitment to stand on their own, they manage to force both sides to leave the known universe.

In the wake of the war, a new spirit of cooperation and cohesion is formed amongst the younger races, which eventually gives rise to the Interstellar Alliance. This organization is essentially an expanded version of the League, but where members are fully aligned economically and politically and committed to defending each other. This comes in handy when the allies of the Shadows, younger races who are armed with all their old mentors’ gear, come out of hiding and begin to make trouble!

Naturally, the full story is much more complex and I’m not doing it justice, but this is the bare bones of it. Relying on historic examples and countless classic science fiction themes, J. Michael Straczynski establishes a detailed universe where multiple races and political entities eventually come together to form a government that rules the known universe and stands the test of time.

Battletech:

mechwarrior_1Here we have a franchise that had multiple inspirations, according to the creators. The focal point of the franchise is on massive war machines, known as battlemechs, which were apparently inspired by Macross and other anime. However, the creators also came to incorporate a back story that was very European in its outlook, which revolved around the concept of an ongoing war between feudal states.

One could make the case that the Shogunate period of Japan, a time of ongoing civil war, was also a source of inspiration for this story. However, upon familiarizing myself with the background of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had a predominantly Russian feel to it. In addition to the heroic characters being named Alexandr and Nicholas Kerensky, something about the constant feudal warfare and the morally ambiguous nature of humanity in the story seemed analogous to much of Russia’s troubled history.

To break it down succinctly, the story takes place in the 31st century, a time marked by incessant warfare between different clans and worlds, all of which are populated by humans.Terra (as Earth is now called) was once the center of a grand empire known as the Star League. After centuries of conflict, in what is known as the “Succession Wars”, Earth and many its immediate neighbors were rendered damaged or completely uninhabitable.

inner_sphere_wars_battletech_01As a result, the focal point of the universe resides within the Inner Sphere, a region that is 500 light years away from Earth and dominated by five Great Houses. The leader of each house claims to be the rightful successor of the Star League, and hence the houses are all known as the Successor States. Outside the Inner Sphere lies the Periphery, a large ring of independent star systems that predate the League and the Successor States, but are inferior to them in terms of technology. Though nominally independent, none of these regions have the ability to stand against the houses of the Inner Sphere, and thus avoid conflict with them whenever possible.

A key feature of the Battletech universe is the absence of sentient species outside of the human race. This serves to make the ongoing warfare more realistic, as well as establishing how the current state of war is a direct extension of earlier rivalries (some dating all the way back to the 20th century). Another interesting feature about this franchise is the fact that humanity has not evolved very far beyond its current state, in spite of the lengthy passage of time.

Again, the constant state of warfare has much to do with this, which has had a slowing and even reversing effect on the technological development of many worlds. In short, the franchise is gritty, realistic, and has a pretty dim view of humanity. In addition, there is a palatable sense that humanity’s best years are behind it, and that barring the appearance of some external threat, humanity will war itself into extinction.

Key Features:
A couple of things stand out about each of these examples of a galactic empire. And for anyone interesting in creating their own, they are considerations which have to be taken into account. All of the previous creators, from Isaac Asimov to Weisman and Babcock, either took a singular approach on these issues, or adopted a combined one. Here they are, as I see them:

Humans and Aliens: This is arguably the most important consideration when developing a sci-fi franchise, especially one where a galactic empire is concerned. The creator must decide, is this going to be a universe where humans and aliens coexist with one another, or is it going to be strictly human? Both options open up a range of possibilities; for example, are humans and aliens living together in harmony in this story, is one subjugated to another, or something else entirely? What’s more, what role will the aliens play? Are they to be the benign, enlightened aliens who teach us “flawed humans” how to be better, or will we be the the species that’s got things figured out and they be allegorical representations of our past, flawed selves? Inevitably, aliens serve as a sort of mirror for the human condition or as examples of past human societies, in any story. There’s simply no way around it, not if we want them to be familiar and relateable.

Utopian/Dystopian: Another very important decision to make when creating a universe is the hue its going to have. In short, is it going to be a bright place or a dark place? Would humanity advance as a result of technology and space exploration, or regress because improved weapons and tools merely meant we could do more harm? Both visions serve their purpose, the one eliciting hope for the future and offering potential solutions to contemporary problems, the other making the point that the human condition is permanent and certain behaviors will never be overcome. However, in my opinion, the most respectable approach is to take the middle road on this. Sci-fi franchises, like those of Straczynski and Alastair Reynolds (creator of the Revelation Space universe) did their best to present humanity as being morally ambiguous. We were neither perfect nor unsalvageable. We simply did our best and tried to make a difference, but would always have our share of flaws.

Space Travel: Almost all galactic empires are agreed on this one front. When it comes to creating a extra-solar empire, one that encompasses hundreds or even thousands of star systems, one needs to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. It might mean contravening the laws of physics (causing Einstein to roll over in his grave!) but you can’t really do it otherwise. Whether it’s by the Alcubierre drive, hyperspace, warp, jump gates, or folding space, all of the aforementioned franchises incorporated some kind of FTL. Without it, humanity would require thousands or even millions of years in order to expand to encompass the known universe, at which point, we’d probably have evolved to the point where we were no longer even human! In addition, the problems of subjective time and perspective would wreak havoc with story lines, continuity, and the like. Better and easier to just say “Here (zoom!) Now there!”

Technology: Following on the heels of FTL is the issue of how technology in general is treated within the universe in question. Will it be the source of man’s betterment and salvation, of their downfall, or something in between? Star Trek is a perfect example of the former approach, set in a future where all hunger, disease, poverty and inequality have been eliminated through the application of technology. Despite the obvious utopianism of this view, the franchise really isn’t that far off if you think about it. If we did have matter replicators, machines that could manufacture food, materials and consumer goods out of simple trace elements, then money, precious metals and other artificial means of measuring wealth would become obsolete. In addition, there’d be no more food shortages or distribution problems to speak of, not as long as everyone had access to this technology. And if fusion power and warp technology were available, then energy would be cheap and abundant and commerce would be rapid and efficient.

However, Roddenberry would often show the downside of this equation by portraying societies in which technology had been allowed to run amok. A good example is an episode in Star Trek TNG where the Enterprise comes upon a planet that is run by an advanced machine named Custodian. The people of the planet have grown entirely dependent on the machine and have long since forgotten how to run and maintain. As a result, they have become sterile due to radiation poisoning and are slowly dying off. Another perfect example is the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that are constantly expanding and assimilating anything in their path. In terms of aesthetics, they are dark, ugly and sterile, traveling around in ships that look like giant cubes that were slapped together out of toxin-spewing industrial junk. Is there a more perfect metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable march of technological progress, in all its darker aspects?

Asimov’s Foundation series also had a pretty benign view of technology. In his universe, the people of Terminus and other Foundation worlds distinguished themselves from their neighbors through their possession of superior technology and even used it to their advantage wherever possible. In the first novel, for instance, the Foundation’s scientists began to travel to neighboring worlds, places that had the use of nuclear power and began teaching them how to rebuild it. Over time, they became a sort of priestly caste who commanded reverential respect from the locals thanks to all the improvements their inventions brought to their daily lives. When in the first book a warlord from the neighboring planet of Anacreon tries to conquer them, they then respond by cutting off all power to the planet and their forces, and use their status as religious leaders to foment rebellion against him.

However, other franchises have a different take on technology and where it will take us. For example, Battletech tends to look at technology in a darker perspective. In this future, the focus of technological development is overwhelmingly on battlemechs and weapons of war. In addition, the ongoing war in the series has had a negative effect on the development of other forms of technology, particularly the kinds that are beneficial to society as a whole. In short, technology has not corrected for mankind’s flaws because it has failed to remove the greatest cause of war and suffering – i.e. ambition!

Frank Herbert, on the other hand, took what could be construed as a mixed view. Whereas in his universe, instantaneous space travel is possible, energy shields, laser guns and nuclear power are all in existence, the overall effect on humanity has not been progressive. In the first Dune novel, we learn that humanity fought a holy war against thinking machines and automation over ten thousands years prior to the main story (the Butlerian Jihad). The target of the jihad was apparently a machine mentality as much as the machines themselves, and the result was a sort of compact whereby future generations promised never to develop a machine that could take the place of a human being. That, in addition to the invention of energy shields, led to the development of a feudal society where nobles and merchant princes were once again responsible for controlling planetary resources, and where armies went to war using swords and daggers in addition to lasers, slug throwers and missiles.

In subsequent novels, this was developed even further to present a sort of twofold perspective on technology. On the one hand, it is shown as being potentially harmful, where a machine mentality and a society built on unrestricted production of material goods can lead to social chaos and anarchy. Not necessarily because it can be harmful in and of itself, but because it can lead to a situation where humans feel so alienated from themselves and each other that they are willing to regress to something simpler and less free. On the other hand, advanced technology is also shown to have a potentially retrogressive effect as well, forcing people to look backwards for solutions instead of forwards. One can see genuine parallels with history, like how industrial civilization, in spite of all its benefits, led to the rise of fascism and communism because of its atomizing and alienating effects on society. Or how the Japanese of the post-Shogunate period deliberately regressed by destroying their stores of muskets and cannons because they feared that the “coward weapons” were detrimental to the Bushido.

Personally, I thought Herbert’s perspective on things was by far the most brilliant and speculative, packed full of social commentary and irony. It was therefore a source of great disappointment that his successors (Brian Herbert and KJA) chose to present things in a far more myopic light. In the prequels to Dune, particularly the Legends of Dune series, the jihad is shown to be a struggle between advanced machines that have enslaved the human race and the few free human worlds that are locked in a life and death struggle to defeat them. However, in twist that is more contradiction than irony, they find the solution to their problem by using nukes to level every machine planet. The fact that the “free worlds” relied on slave labor to compensate for the loss of automation was somewhat interesting, but would have been far more effective if the enemy machines were not portrayed as purely evil and the protagonists as selfless heroes.

Final Thoughts:
The concept of a galactic empire is something that has a long history and many, many incarnations. But as always, the purpose of it seems to be to expand the focus of the commentary so that as many possible aspects of the human condition can be explored. By placing human beings on hundreds or thousands of planets, authors generally seek to show how different places can give rise to different cultures. This is as true of different parts on the globe as it is for different planets in the universe. In addition, the incorporation of aliens also gives us a chance to explore some of the deeper sociological questions, things that arise out of how we interact with different cultures around the world today. For in the end, all science fiction is really about history and the period in which it is conceived, regardless of it being set in the future. Like all other genres, the real aim is to serve as a vehicle for speculation and investigation, answering questions about who we are and what makes us us.

Whew! I think I got a little tongue and cheek there myself! In any case, I enjoy delving into this conceptual stuff, so I think I’m going to do it more often here. Next time, something a bit lighter and more specific. I was thinking about something along the lines of PLANETKILLERS! Stay tuned!