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!

Attack of the Clones. Here we go again…

Hello again! Here we are picking things up again with the Star Wars saga. Today, it’s the second installment in the prequel series, the ridiculously named Attack of the Clones. As I’m sure we all remember, Clones was the stuff of mixed reviews, some critics hailing its special effects and visual style, while others emphasized its flat dialogue and wooden romance.

But even more interesting was the fact that critics were torn over whether it was better or worse than the Phantom Menace. Not a good sign, and the butt of a LOT of jokes and debate. Hard to imagine that fanboys who were united in bashing the PM would find themselves fighting each other over which they thought sucked more!

But to be fair, there were some good points in this movie. So without further preamble, let’s get into it:

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the crawl once again saying that there is a crisis. This time around, it’s the threat of Separatists – led by former Jedi Count Dooku – that’s making things problematic. And once again there is deadlock in the Senate over it. In any case, now-Senator Amidala comes to Coruscant to speak her peace on behalf of those who oppose taking strong measures, and an assassination plot gets underway.

This prompts the Jedi order to send two old friends, Obi-Wan and Anakin, to provide her with added protection. Their introduction is rather painful to behold, as the hormonally raging Anakin begins relating how he hasn’t stopped dreaming of her and tries to make awkward conversation with her. He also picks a fight with his mentor, Obi-Wan, over what their mandate truly is. In the midst of all this, Jar Jar breaks the fourth wall by looking into the camera and smiling at the audience – a sort of, “I’m still here, bitches” for all the fanboys to see!

In another bit of “things to come”, we also learn that Anakin has been having dreams of another woman – his mother. He dreams that something terrible is going to happen, but in the meantime, they must focus on Padme, who’s assassin is still out there. For some reason, they decide to “use her as bait”, which consists of letting her sleep in a window-filled room with nothing but R2 as protection. Didn’t Obi-Wan say they weren’t supposed to be investigating, just protecting? Oh well…

In any case, her would-be assassin sends a probe with some poisonous slugs to attack her. Obi-Wan and Anakin kill said slugs, and Obi-Wan jumps through the window to grab the probe and ride it. Wait, didn’t he say they weren’t supposed to be investigating? Why’s he so determined to follow this probe then? Anakin grabs a speeder, they fly like mad, and chase the attacker through the city. Anakin reveals that this woman is a shape-shifter, a fact which seems superfluous, but whatever. They also performs some stunts that defy the laws of physics, but that’s also unimportant.

After reaching a bar, Obi-Wan and Anakin chase her inside and begin combing the crowd. After a quick re-enactment of the scene from A New Hope (where Obi-Wan sliced off another thugs hand), they drag the shape-shifter outside and learn she’s subcontracting. But of course, her contractor kills her before she can say her name. Obi-Wan, who for some reason was willing to chase the shapeshifter across the planet, just lets him go…

The Jedi Council decides its time to send Padme home, and that Anakin is to go with her. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is to track down the assassin by himself, a quest which takes him to the world of Kamino. This decision to split them, far from making logical sense, seems more like an excuse to get Anakin and Padme alone. Why send a Padawan off on his own, especially when his master has such misgivings about his attitude and powers?

But anyhoo, things get kind of cool when Obi-Wan arrives on Kamino and learns that former Master Sifo Dyas ordered the creation of a clone army. This, combined with the fact that the location of the planet was removed from the Republic archives memory would seem to indicate that there is a conspiracy afoot. Obi-Wan then meets with the clone template, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett, and is convinced he’s found Padme’s would-be assassin. They fight, Jango escapes, and Obi-Wan pursues him to Geonosis.

Meanwhile, we get a string of scenes that are meant to elicit a romantic response. After following Padme around, complaining bitterly about Obi-Wan and professing his love in a series of ever creepier and wooden dialogue, Padme tells Anakin there’s no way. Why? She’s a Senator… Uh, what? Are Senators not allowed to date? Of course, Anakin can’t because he’s a Jedi, but the very fact that they’re talking about this would seem to indicate the feeling is now mutual. Seems sudden, but neither here nor there…

Arriving at Geonosis, where there’s a massive a droid-building colony, Obi-Wan gets into it with Jango and the Slave I. After thinking he’s killed him (Obi-Wan eludes death by copying Han’s hiding move from Empire), Jango proceeds to planet and Obi-Wan follows shortly behind. After wintessing a meeting between Dooku and the Separatists in which they plan their attack (using their droid and clone armies), Obi-Wan broadcasts his position and is then captured. He meets Dooku, who proceeds to tell him the truth, after a fashion…

He tells Obi-Wan there is a Sith in charge of the Senate, and that his plans are motivated to bring him down. He asks for Obi-Wan’s help, who in a move taken from Empire and Jedi, tells him he “will never join you”. Back on Naboo, Anakin continues to have bad dreams about his mom and decides he must go to Tatooine. He retraces her path, only to discover that she was taken in by some people from the movie – the Lars family, which includes the future Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

He learns she was taken by Sandpeople, and catches up with them just in time to watch his mother die, at which point, he and loses it! And I mean REALLY LOSES IT! In a scene we don’t get to see, Anakin takes out his lightsaber and kills the entire community of Sandpeople who kidnapped and tortured his mom, including the women and children. He returns to the Lars family dwelling and tells Padme of his mass murder, to which she replies that it’s no big deal.

I’m sorry, NO BIG DEAL?! Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, this man just confessed to murdering women and children and all Padme can say is that “to be angry is to be human”? What kind of sociopathic, enabling bullshit is that? Is she so into bad boys that she’s willing to overlook this first-time offense? Or are they in such a hurry to get to the next scene that she’s just got to forgive and move on? And why the hell didn’t the Jedi Order even mention this on his return? We all saw Yoda sensing it? C’mon people!

Alright, moving on… Back on Coruscant, the news of a Separatist army explodes like a bombshell, with Palpatine once again exploiting it for personal gain. Thinking he’s doing the smart and noble thing, Jar Jar moves that Palpatine get emergency powers – a la Octavian – and his first act is to create an army for the Republic. Why they don’t have one already is beyond me, but who cares? Point is, Palpatine has got his way, and Yoda and Mace Windu decide its time to get involved.

Anakin and Padme also get the distress signal from Obi-Wan and decide they will go save him. They arrive on Geonosis too and after a needless scene where they are almost killed in a robot factory, they too are captured. A scene ripped off from Gladiator follows, as they are reunited in a massive Colosseum-type arena to die in a public display. They escape and begin to wreak havoc, and are rescued just in time by the arrival of Mace and the Jedi Order. They fight to a standstill and are surrounded, when Yoda arrives with the Clone army and begins kicking some ass.

A big fight scene ensues on the open plains of Geonosis between droids and Clones, while Obi-Wan and Anakin chase Dooku down. He beats them both in a rather implausible scenario, first managing to cripple Obi-Wan without actually killing him or severing any of his limbs, and then cutting off Anakin’s arm (an obvious preview of the scene from Jedi). Yoda once again shows up to save the day, and in another scene from Jedi, Dooku does his lightning trick.

The fight ends with a stalemate, Dooku runs with Padme shooting at his ship. Once more, a scene from the originals is at work here, this time from Empire when Leia was shooting at the Slave I. But Dooku escapes, makes it back to Coruscant and tells Sideous (Palpatine) that the war is happening, as anticipated. He meanwhile sends the first batch of clones on their new Star Destroyer look-alikes, and Yoda laments that the Dark Side has fallen and “The Clones Wars” have begun.

The movie ends with Padme and Anakin back on Naboo, where they’ve decided to get married after all. But since it’s a secret wedding, the droids are the only parties in attendance. THE END!

What didn’t work:
Well, where to begin? I shan’t dwell on the wooden dialogue or the horrid lack of romantic tension, since those are the popular whipping posts of most critics when it comes to this movie. Instead, I’d like to stick to some of the more obvious weaknesses, those that become more clear with hindsight.

  1. The Set-Up: Things get rolling when we learn that an assassin is trying to kill Padme, presumably because she’s the voice of moderation between the Republic and the Separatists. However, things get really implausible, really fast. For one, why the hell did Jango Fett subcontract anyway. Why not simply kill her himself? And why did this lady use poisonous bugs when a simple bomb would have killed Padme instantly? We saw how easily that probe flew to her window, so why the slow, stupid and easily thwarted approach? Then came how Jango’s involvement led Obi-Wan on his wild goose chase. The only reason he knew to find him on Kamino was because he used a dart which was manufactured there. The only reason he know to fly to Geonosis was because Jango mentioned it to him. And why was Jango pulling double duty with the whole assassination thing anyway? If the Kaminos are such good cloners, anybody’s DNA would do and they could just enhance it. Having him do that and eliminate Padme was just a way to tie the two plots together really and make sure Obi-Wan could find out all that was going on.
  2. Love-Story Contrivances: I know, I said I wouldn’t mock the terrible dialogue, which I won’t. To me, the real weakness here was just how contrived and unnatural the whole love story seemed. Aside from a brief, age-inappropriate meeting ten years before, Anakin and Padme are practically strangers. Having Anakin say that he’s loved her ever since they met was completely forced. On top of that, the way they are sent to Naboo together and all the scenes of them doing lovers things: boating, playing in open fields, eating and retiring to the hearth – are all obvious attempts to try and force a sense of romance. That’s the key word here: force (no pun intended). Between Anakin constantly announcing his feeling for her and all the idyllic scenery they take in, it’s like Lucas was behind us constantly saying “Look, they’re in love!” In the original movie, Lucas took his time to build up the romance between Han and Leia. In the beginning, they couldn’t stand each other, but this concealed some genuine tension. In time, this flourished as they got to know each other and began to start acknowledging each others strengths. In the end, it was clear that their different backgrounds and personalities is what led to their attraction. Throw in some genuine crisis, and they realized they were in love. See? That’s a love story, not this!
  3. Unsubtle Dialogue: Again, said I would avoid talking about the wooden dialogue. Which I am, sort of! My gripe here is just how unsubtle and (again) forced it all was, which is something the critics really didn’t get into. Examples: in the beginning, Anakin announces that he loves Padme when talking with Obi-Wan and Jar Jar. When talking to Padme, Anakin announces that Obi-Wan is an unfair master who’s too hard on him. When sitting around the fire, Anakin announces how much he loves her. Finally, she announces her feelings back. And in this, they are hardly alone. All throughout the movie, actors announce what’s going on as a means to convey what’s happening and to make the audience feel the requisite emotions. Never is time taken to convey feelings, mood, or establish tension the old fashioned way. And this just makes for a bad movie! As Robot Satan said in Futurama: “You can’t have characters just announce their feelings! That makes me SO ANGRY!”
  4. Way Too Much: In the documentary of the making of Phantom Menace, there is a lovely scene where Lucas and his people are watching the screening and there’s this moment of “uh-oh” at the end. They then discuss how Lucas did too much and how that brought down the ending. You’d think between movie one and two, he would have learned from this, but no! In this movie, he tried to do way more. On top of showing how romance developed between Padme and Anakin, he’s also shoved in a big ol’ preview of Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side, how the Clones Wars started, and Palpatine’s evil rise to power. A lot of critics jumped on this, saying that the movie was too long and suffered from a sense of duty. And in that, they were profoundly right! Duty is another key word when describing this movie. Having spent movie one showing where Anakin came from, they now had to preview his fall, where the twins came from, and how the Clone Wars started all at once. And it made for a sloppy feel, with too much happening and things bouncing around from one thing to the next without any of it getting enough development.
  5. Recycling: But alas, all of these faults could have been mediated had it not been for the fact that there really didn’t seem anything new about these movies. All throughout, there is material which seems to serve no purpose than to satisfy origin stories or recapture elements of the first three movies. In Clones, Boba Fett, Luke’s surrogate parents, the Death Star and Vader’s robotic arm are all previewed, and that’s on top of the Clone Wars and the romance plot. Once more it’s like Lucas is behind us saying “Look! That’s how it happened!” But like everything else, it just feels forced. Why not let new characters have their time in the spotlight? Why is it necessary to use every character from the first three movies? And another thing, this movie, more than in the first, uses scenes from the originals like never before. I mean, its one thing to rip off other movies, like the arena scene from Gladiator, but Lucas was even ripping off himself! The scene in the bar where Obi-Wan cuts off the hunters arm, the scene where Obi-Wan hides his ship on the back of an asteroid, the scene where he tells Dooku he won’t turn, the scene with the lighting bolts, the scene at the end where Padma is shooting at Dooku’s ship. All of these are clearly meant to recapture the feeling of the original Star Wars, but they fell short for the simple reason that audiences wasn’t nearly as emotionally involved. There’s paying homage to an original, and then there’s recycling, and this was the latter!
  6. Lazy Shooting: Something else which became apparent by this movie was the lazy way in which it was shot. After Phantom, It was already obvious that Lucas loved to cram as much CGI into every frame as possible. Hell, that much was obvious with the Star Wars Gold Editions! But if you watch the movies again, pay close attention to how EVERY SINGLE scene is shot. In these, you have the actors either walking slowly across the stage or sitting down. Always. Two cameras capture all of their dialogue and exchanges, Camera one, camera two. Always. If they are walking and talking, they will always stop, turn, and go back and forth between camera one and two. Meanwhile, all visual effects and background are provided by a green screen and all CGI characters are represented by colored lights. There are virtually no props, no stand ins, and a minimum of real actors. This, I have learned, reflects Lucas’ preferred way of directing. He sits in his chair at the edge of the green screen and drinks his coffee while the actors interact with each other or lights which tell them where to look. They walk through, stop, turn, or stay seated, do their lines, and his two cameras capture everything. Action shots are handled in much the same way, with only the occasional close-up or distance shot. Unless of course the entire sequence is animated by CGI, which they usually are!
  7. Strengths? Not so much: The strong points about this movie, the ones that critics hailed, mainly had to do with vision and special effects. But here’s the thing: Lucas’ vision in this movie consisted of CGI environments that all seemed to be taken from other movies or real locations. That doesn’t seem very bold or original. And what’s more, even the special effects weren’t so innovative. Clones was launched during the summer of 2002, right about the time that Spider Man, Minority Report and Men in Black 2 were released, all of which made impressive use of CGI. So really, what was so stunning and unique about this movie’s visual effects? And if action was something else about this movie that people liked, consider that it came out at the same time as The Bourne Identity and XXX as well.  So really, this movie was not a stand-out, smash-hit, summer blockbuster. If anything, it was one hit in a summer full of them.

Well, that about covers the weaknesses of this movie. I did my best to avoid the cliched, beaten-to-death talking points, and yet I still feel I hit on them quite a bit. And I really went long there too didn’t I? And yet, I haven’t even mentioned what bothered me personally about this movie. But to do so means ditching all the civilized critique stuff and going all the way back to summer of 2000.

In was back then, between the first two movies movies, that Lucas seemed to be pulling an about face. A year after the Phantom Menace debuted, reassuring rumors began to circulate that Lucas claimed its sequel would be more dark, more realistic and more gritty, kind of like the way Empire was to the first movie. However, these hopes were shot when Lucas announced that the second movie would be a romance story at that Jar Jar would remain in the picture.

When asked about the fans hopes for something more adult and dark, he casually dismissed these and other criticisms by saying that Star Wars had always been a “Saturday morning serial for kids”. This above all else seemed to annoy me, and countless other fans, since it now seemed apparent that Lucas really didn’t care what his age old fans and was going to continue to do the things that was making the new movies incompatible with the old.

However, after movie two he seemed to sit up and take notice of just how annoyed the fans and critics were getting. With one movie left in the franchise, he seemed determined to give these objections some due before the sun set on the prequel trilogy. Of that, more next time. Stay tuned!

 

Of Prequels And Why They Suck…

Of Prequels And Why They Suck…

Looking back, I’ve noticed a sort of thread running through some of the posts I’ve made. And in truth, this thing was quite influential when it came to what inspired me to write science fiction in the first place. It began with the infamous Star Wars prequels, the movies which ruined what used to be a very influential and nostalgic franchise. It was then reinforced by the odious Dune prequels, which tarnished the legacy that inspired me to write science fiction in the first place. Since then, I’ve noticed these same elements at work in any prequel I’ve chanced upon and the lessons only seem to get more concrete.

While I’m no expert on the fine art of writing, be it science fiction or anything other genre, by the time I started doing it I was pretty clear on what I wanted to create. Basically, I wanted to write something I would enjoy, something that emulated the greats I had come to know and admire. But when it came to what I DIDN’T want to do, I found prequels summed up a lot of it succinctly (especially the aforementioned examples). I’m sure I mentioned as much in previous posts, but today, I thought I might speak to these things specifically; outline why prequels can – and often do – suck!

1. No Surprises:
Whether it was the Star Wars prequels, X Men Origins: Wolverine, the Legends of Dune series, or anything else prequel-oriented, there was one undeniable problem they all had in common: we already knew what was going to happen. By stories end, we know that the characters are going to become whatever it is they were in the original story, and we know who’s going to live and who’s going to die. In some cases, we even know how, so there really are no surprises. The only real purpose of a prequel is to fill in the background, explain HOW things happened and how the characters and story we are familiar with came to be.

For example, in Star Wars, we know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, that Palpatine is the villain and will take over the Republic, and that Amidala will give birth to Luke and Leia before dying. There are a host of other details which the more nerdy among us were familiar with as well, and we were all drawn to theaters back in 1999 hoping to see how they played out. But in the end, when all was said and done, I don’t think any of us came away satisfied. Seeing how things happened when you already know what will happen just seems to make for a disappointing experience.

2. Sense of Duty:
Another thing that brings down a prequel is the fact that things MUST be explained. In short, the writer, director, author, etc. has a list of things which need to be covered before the end. These things have to fall within an established framework – i.e. what has already been established by the original story – and cannot contradict or be inconsistent with them. So really, in addition to having a story where there really are no surprises, you also get a story where things have to proceed in an established fashion and often seem heavily contrived. The end result is not what would feel natural based on the story so far but based on what needs to happen for the sake of the original story.

X-Men Origins will suffice as an example here. In this movie, the story had to show where Wolverine came from, how he and his brother (Sabretooth) had their falling out, and how his memory got erased. The result was actually pretty weak, in my opinion. Basically, Colonel Striker shot him in the head with Adamantium bullets, which he knew wouldn’t kill him but would erase his memory. Now, how did he know ahead of time that that would be the effect it would have? Second, why do that instead of lobbing a rocket-propelled grenade at him? Simple, because the story required it. Wolverine is supposed to be an amnesiac in the first movie, so this movie had to show how.

And while were on the subject, why didn’t Wolverine’s girlfriend kill Striker at the end when she had the chance? The woman had suggestive powers and had the man in her grasp, so why not tell him to march off a cliff? Again, because the story demanded it. Striker needed to live to see movie two, so instead she said some fluff about how she’d be no better than him and just told him to take a walk until his feet bled and he fell from exhaustion. I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, I was disappointed.

3. Less Is More
A lot of people insist that when it comes to back stories and background, the less we know, the better. After all, wasn’t Darth Vader scarier before we knew that he was once portrayed by Hayden Christensen? Wasn’t he a lot more menacing before he cried over the loss of Padme? I know for a fact that I’m not alone when I say that the whole “NOOOOOOO!” scene at the end of Revenge of the Sith brought him down in my eyes. What was once a titanic force of badassery was transformed into a whiney, bitchy child through the simple act of fashioning an origins story.

To use a non-prequel example, consider the Batman franchise. In the Tim Burton version, we got to see the Joker’s origin story, but in the Christopher Nolan version, we got nothing. And frankly, wasn’t Ledger’s updated take on the Joker much more scary than Nicholson’s because of it? Sure, his dialogue and acting were spot on at capturing the insanity and terror of the laughing psychotic killer, but wasn’t part of that assured by the fact that we had NO IDEA who he was or where he came from? The origins stories that he told – “wanna know how I got these scars?” – and how they kept changing was part of what made him so effective. As the audience, we wanted to know, how DID he get those scars? Why IS he so crazy? But by denying us this, I think we were kept wanting and we respected the movie more for it.

The same is true of Batman himself. In Burton’s, we got an exact reversal of what happened with the Joker. Aside from the fact that his parents were murdered, apparently by a young Jack Napier (who would go on to become the Joker), we knew nothing about him. Where he got his skills from, his equipment, and how he got started. This served to make him a much more mysterious character which in turn made him more interesting. In Burton’s Batman, he was the focal point whereas the Joker was his nemesis. But in Nolan’s updated version of The Dark Knight, the Joker was undoubtedly the focus while Batman was just the hero trying to stop him. I’d say what he knew – or in this case, didn’t know – about them was central to that.

4. The Audience’s Imagination Is The Writer’s Greatest Weapon:
I believe it was the famous photographer Duane Michals who said “I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” Okay, I Googled that, sue me! But the man had a point, and it applies doubly to movies since they too are a visual medium. What the readers and/or an audience can imagine based on snippets of a story is infinitely more powerful than what they can be shown with a few hundred pages of text or a two hour movie. This is why less is more. By giving the audience less to work with, they have more freedom to imagine and create. If you tell them what happened, detail for detail, then they have nothing except for what you’ve given them.

This, I think, is precisely why prequels are so often a disappointment, at least in my estimation. I’ve always considered myself to be an imaginative person. Given a blank canvas, or one with just a few details, I can create just about anything. And I’m hardly alone in that fact. Imagination is something everyone has – to varying degrees, sure – but it’s part of what makes us human and gives our lives meaning. Being able to express our inner life makes us happy, and there are few things more hurtful and insulting than having someone mock or dismiss that creativity. It’s also one of the cornerstones of a free society, the freedom to create and not be persecuted for it.

So it’s little wonder then why people are drawn to movies where books they’ve read are being adapted to film, or to prequels, where things that have been previously alluded to are acted out. People go to see them because they want to know if it will bear any resemblance to what they themselves imagined. Or, they go because they just want to see what the director’s own vision was. Either way, when you get around to seeing it for yourself, is it not a letdown no matter what? Isn’t that the real reason why people who’ve read the book constantly insist that the movie isn’t as good? That certainly seemed to be the consensus amongst LOTR geeks. And I should know; by The Two Towers, I was one of them! And isn’t that the real reason why the Star Wars prequels sucked as much as they did? We, the fans and audiences are active participants and create out of what we are given. Being told point blank what happened removes half the fun of it!

Some Tips For Writing:
Well, that’s all I got for now. Except to say that if someone is hoping to do a prequel, there are certain tips that I’ve come up with that can help. These are by no means established rules, just the result of my own amateur experience and observations. For one, a writer should take care not to give too much away when writing background. As always, less is more. It’s enough to let the background stay in the background and focus on the story. The more the reader/audience has to work with, the better. That way, when you are writing out the back story, you have much more freedom to work with, and don’t have to worry about staying within boundaries.

Second, a good idea is to write things out ahead of time. When I was thinking up Legacies, I began by writing out an outline for the entire background of the story. I didn’t do this because I was one day planning on writing a whole franchise worth of books, prequels included, but because I just wanted the story to be tight and know where everything fit. But because of that, I was able to pen several short stories that took place before the first novel. Rarely were the main characters and plot lines from that novel the focus of these stories, but they did serve as a solid backdrop which helped to advance things.

But don’t take my word on that, consider Lucas himself. He thought up the entire plot for Star Wars trilogy before making the first movie in the franchise, thus he knew exactly what he wanted to do ahead of time. Sure, he made changes and was forced to adapt along the way, but the end result benefited from this foresight. However, when it came to the prequels, he had only the bare bones to work with, and began writing each movie independently of shooting it. And it certainly showed, didn’t it? Rather than feeling like an ongoing story, each movie was a self-contained tale that was full of duty and contrivances. Nuff said? Plan ahead!

Last, but not least, remember that a story, ANY story, needs to tell its own tale. It cannot be written for the sake of filling in another. Its a bit of a vague point, I know, but a writer’s mentality is important when it comes to the creative process. At no point can you be thinking, “this needs to be explained, that needs to be explained”. It needs to be, “this is a story that needs to be told”. Every character has an interesting back story, and stories are living, organic things. They change over time, grow, and eventually die. Showing how they got to where they were going needs to be interesting and told with sincerity. So forget the duty, focus on the events and what made them interesting. If in the end its not a story that you yourself would enjoy, then don’t tell it! Simple as that…

New Ideas, New cover art, and Happy Birthday Pop!

So it’s been a pretty interesting month, and kind of productive (after a fashion). It seems that I can never maintain productivity in just one area, its always a few at a time and never quite consistently! I’ve described this before as literary ADHD, but I think OCD might also fit in there somewhere. One project gets all my attention for awhile, then I get bored and jump to another, or invent another entirely. I wonder if there’s a form of riddlin specially made for writers.

But before I go on, let me take this opportunity to say Happy Birthday to my Pops! How’s it feel to be… 40-ish? You’re only as old as you feel, right? In addition, hope you’re having fun in Tofino, sorry we couldn’t make it out.

As for news from my end of the island, my running projects are coming along, slowly: Genome, Akuma, and Dataminers. I was really hoping to be done those at this point, especially consider I have been hit by a new idea which has been occupying more than its fair share of my attention of late. With all the talk of debt crises and the possibility of defaulting in the US and the EU, I got to thinking about what the long term consequences of that might be. As usual, convergence takes place! Something in the news combines with something you’ve been reading, and – boom! – you’ve got an idea about the near-future where a second Great Depression hits, politics get radicalized, and quasi-fascists take over! The working title for this one is Republic, and I’ve even managed to write out a tentative outline and most of Part I (not to mention the manifesto that is the centerpiece of the novel). While I still need to create an original cover for it, the working one I have says it all. Check out it and the new covers I’ve devised for my latest works below.

I’ve also gone back to writing articles for Universe Today, as always on the subject of particle physics, astronomy, and everything in between. And, along with the good folks over at authonomy.com (i.e. other newby writers), I’ve begun re-promoting both Source and Liability. And of course, I’ve spent much time training and gearing up for my TaeKwon-Do test which is tentatively scheduled for the end November. If all goes well, I will have instructor certification in not one, but two TKD federations. With that under my belt (no pun!) I will finally be able to open my own school! Oh, and that reminds me, congratulations Ryan on getting your personal trainer certificate! With luck, we could open a full-on fitness school together!

Data Miners (Opte cover)
Republic (working cover)
Genome cover
Akuma cover