Don’t get me wrong – I love explosions in stories. Very exciting in movies, in books, in games, and so on. They can be cathartic, they can assist tension building, they can be fun to watch unfold.
They don’t count as conflict, though. They don’t, in and of themselves, do anything. They do not tell stories. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Transformers. I challenge you to tell me what that movie (and franchise) was about, besides explosions for the sake of explosions. Same goes for GI Joe.
Of late, I’ve been hearing more and more backlash against Star Trek: Into Darkness. It has been criticized as a ‘bad movie’, as a ‘stupid tent-pole action movie,’ and the rest of it. Though I enjoyed watching the film, I can’t really defend it against such criticism. It was a stupid formulaic action movie. Fun, loud, but lacking anything approaching substance. What might make it a ‘bad’ movie (though I’m not really sure I can go that far) is that it pretended to have substance. It made reference to drone strikes, to government overreach, and to the idea of friendship. It did not, however, really care about those things. Mostly what it wanted to do is have a big spaceship crash into a city and then have Spock punch somebody in the face over and over on top of a garbage truck. That’s what it really wanted, everybody. You were duped.
Let us reflect for a moment on what Star Trek has lost as a franchise. It used to be a show (series of shows, movies, etc.) about something a bit more important and interesting than just fighting aliens and blowing stuff up. When I was a kid, I failed to appreciate this. When I saw “The City on the Edge of Forever”, I was bored by the lack of ray guns. I loved Star Wars over Star Trek, mocked the silly beige hallways of the Enterprise-D, and thought that the Federation was a sissy organization run by silly peacenik innocents who, by all rights, ought to have had their butts handed to them years ago by the Klingons.
But I was a kid then. I was, almost by definition, an idiot.
Star Trek is a morality play. Star Trek is, or ought to be, about the human struggle to do what is right in the face of all that is wrong, and how horrible and difficult that struggle is. There are very few franchises that have done this so well as Star Trek has, whether in science fiction or out of it. Those who turn their nose up at the franchise either lack the maturity to appreciate the messages it sends (i.e. the generation of adolescent males who prefer more ‘kablooey’ to more ‘thinking about their problems’), or hasn’t actually watched what they need to see about the series to make it all make sense. Those people I refer to episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Measure of a Man,” “Rocks and Shoals,” “In the Pale Moonlight”, “Family,” and, of course, “Chain of Command.” There are many, many more besides, plus movies such as The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country round out the great message and moral weight of the universe Roddenberry created.
Now, while I have enjoyed the Star Trek reboot as ‘good time films’, I am increasingly reminded of how much my enjoyment of those two movies is dependent upon that which had been done by the original series before it. Honestly, what relationship or character work has been done in this new series that isn’t entertaining simply because of the echoes from our old friends Shatner and Nimoy and Kelley? Did we really think Benedict Cumberpatch was cool as Khan, or were we just happy to see Khan again, regardless of his form?
I am not a Trekkie, but this, ultimately, is what all of us who love scifi have lost in Star Trek. This is what I hope somehow we regain, but that I sadly must conclude is gone for good. We have watched character be replaced with effects and story be supplanted by explosions. If it works, it is only because of the coattails it’s riding on. I mean no offense to the cast of the Abrams movies, nor even to I particularly dislike Abrams himself (he is playing to his demographic, after all – explosions sell). I do not think, though, that we will ever again see the likes of this:
Imagine a starship. Your ship. The steed that shall bear you to the stars and beyond, upon which you will rely for safety, comfort, support, and escape.
What does it look like?
Science fiction has given us a broad range of different designs and styles, but I think a lot of the ships we see boil down to a few riffs on the same couple variables (and a lot of them owing their origin to the difficult-to-escape legacy of the Star Wars universe). So, let’s run through them, bit by bit.
How big is this ship going to be? Is it a stunt fighter some psychic midget can yank out of a swamp, or is it some thing everybody will confuse for a small moon? The smaller ship is easier to maintain, but the larger ship has a bit more heft, has room for more options, carries more stuff, and is probably more comfortable.
Does your ship have the newest gadgets built into the fanciest hull yet devised by modern engineers, or is it a throwback – a hunk of junk that’s seen its share of battles, weathered a radiation storm or two? The new ship gets new toys – it cloaks, it has super-tractor beams, it goes faster than anything ever before, and so on. The old ship, though, has character. It’s more like a person than a vessel, from the way it creaks during re-entry or the way it pulls to the side when you try to climb out of the gravity well.
Do you fly this thing by yourself, or do you need friends? How many friends? You can have ten kilometer long starships run by one guy and his AI companion, and you can also have a ten meter ship that needs five people to operate its manually cranked solar sails (or something). Less crew gives you more freedom, but it also exposes you to the risk of being overwhelmed by space pirates or invasive aliens or whatever. More crew means you’ve got to manage personalities on long voyages, but at least you won’t be lonely and any trouble you run into will provide you with a bunch of folks to help you out. Heck, get that crew big enough, and soon they become redundant – lose an engineer? Well, there’s seventeen more where she came from!
Well, if it’s a starship, it has to be fast (interstellar distances don’t cross themselves, you know), but how fast? This one sees the greatest variations between vessels, ranging from telephone booths that teleport instantly to generation ships that take decades to reach their destination. Ultimately, though, any ship goes just about at the Speed of Plot, which is to say it goes just fast enough so that things happen and it doesn’t get boring. So, in other words, completely at odds with all other forms of travel known.
Is this a military vessel? A pirate ship? A smuggler? A garbage scow? Does it mount guns? How many? Where? Why? Some folks like their spaceships packed with phasers, proton torpedoes, railguns and the rest of it. Others prefer to use their wits and their diplomatic skills to avoid danger. After all, if you don’t carry guns, you are less likely to be shot. Then again, if you don’t carry guns and you are shot, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it. Invest in escape pods.
Well, what did you come out with?
For me, a ship is a story. It has to be. The age-old comic book store questions about ‘what ship would you rather have–the Enterprise, the Falcon, or Serenity?’ are filtered through a couple artificial lenses. I mean, if we were really handing out starships, I’d want one to myself that could travel instantly, never break down, and that could allow me to go in the backyard, have an adventure, and be back by suppertime (so, in other words, the TARDIS). That, though, isn’t a story by itself. It’s not interesting because there is no conflict, no problems, no difficulties – the story isn’t about the ship.
If we’re talking ‘what is cooler in the context of a story’, then we get into a more interesting conversation. I’m split down the middle between ’big military ship’ and ‘speedy, characterful smuggling ship’. In other words, I’m split down the middle between the Enterprise and the Falcon. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since almost every central starship in scifi history falls into one category or the other, with an honorable mention going to the starfighters/giant space robots of the universe (and they’re mostly extensions of the big military ship, anyway).
Why is this, anyway? I’m not sure, but my gut says that our starships are just reflections of our heroes, ultimately, and our heroes in these kind of stories so often are split between those that uphold the existing order (Captain Kirk) and those who seek to change or topple it (Han Solo) and, therefore, we get our ships – mobile symbols of our heroic ideals. Like so many tropes, though, it doesn’t need to be this way. The galaxy is a large place, after all. Let’s branch out and see what other stories our starships can tell us.
A lot of times, when people learn I write scifi/fantasy, one of the first questions I get is ‘why that genre’. It’s a pretty deeply personal question, though I don’t think most people realize this. Asking somebody why they create a certain kind of art is sort of like asking ‘why’d your brain wind up so weird?’, except cloaked behind more trivial and superficial kinds of curiosity. For a long time, I answered that question with the answer to the question of what I think people really meant to ask, which is ‘what is interesting about scifi/fantasy as a genre’. This is a different question entirely, in that it doesn’t really have anything specific to do with me.
Now, though, I give them what I think is an honest answer: I write scifi/fantasy because the real world is a place I don’t particularly like most of the time. This is not to say I’m a lunatic who only finds joy in his ‘delusions’ (to use the pejorative term), but rather that I have difficulty keeping an even temper and a positive outlook the more I wallow in the present and the real. When I was a kid, my younger brother was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder (Batten Disease, if you’re curious) that slowly killed him over a period of twenty years. During my formative adolescent years, I got to watch my brother and best friend slowly sink into a vegetative state, piece by piece, first losing his eyesight, then his fine motor control, then the ability to walk unassisted, then his ability to speak, and so on and so forth. Slowly. Year by year, month by month. I still have nightmares about it. They are the very worst kind, trust me.
Add to that all the usual horribleness of the real world. War, death, famine, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, and on and on and on. The kind of stuff that ordinarily makes your average teenager upset with the world. You can see now that fanciful alternatives held a certain appeal, yes?
Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve lived a particularly tough life. I haven’t. I have wonderful parents, a loving family, and, in many ways, luck as smiled on me in most of the ways that count. That said, my heart went through the wringer in a way I desperately hope most of you never experience.
Enough about me; let’s bring this back to speculative fiction, now. For a long period in my life, I read almost nothing other than space opera. Star Wars, of course, got me started, along with Star Trek and some other things (Babylon 5, Farscape, etc.). Over recent years, however, as I’ve been cultivating myself as a Serious Writer and Professor of Literature, I’ve been eschewing the ‘lighter’ stuff in favor of harder scifi, cyberpunk, and other styles that are more serious, more realistic, and, honestly, more grim. To be perfectly honest, most of these stories are better literature than much of the space opera sub-genre–there’s more interesting work being done about human nature, about what happens to us as a species, about what we need science to do or what we need it to stop doing, etc.. At the same time, though, they are also deeply tied to the real world. To ourselves. To all that ugliness and heavy-duty cynicism we fight with each and every day. It grows tiring after a time.
So, it’s with this running in the back of my mind that I stumbled upon what I think is a really, really cool idea for my own space opera universe. Alien species, improbably fast spaceships, laser beams and blasters, hell, maybe even psychic powers (silly as those are). High art? Maybe not, but who says everything has to be? Further, who says those things that aren’t high art don’t have something worthwhile to say? The challenge becomes, ultimately, to find something to say that all the other space operas haven’t already said (and boy do they ever repeat themselves). I’m in the middle of writing a different novel (urban fantasy) just now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tinker and develop and tweak and build. I want to see if there’s something cool and interesting I can do in this genre that I leaned upon for all those years. Can I do it?
Well, hell, stay tuned. If I do, you’ll hear about it here.
Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ’life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ’something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.
I’m currently in the process of discussing Philip K Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with my Technology in Literature course. In the book (which I highly recommend, by the way), human-like androids infiltrate society, distinguishable from ‘real’ humans only by some slight differences in the bone marrow and in their lack of any kind of empathy. In the novel, Dick is exploring exactly what it means to be human and, furthermore, contemplating the moral status of those things placed outside that definition; the decision to make the androids lack empathy is more an artistic than a technical decision.
Still, Dick is hardly alone in the presentation of robots and androids as being emotionally and emphatically inhibited when compared with humans. Star Trek’s Data, for instance, is constantly on a quest to understand the emotional side of existence as he, himself, is completely lacking in emotion. The Machines of the Terminator universe also lack any kind of empathy, as do the Machines of the Matrix, and any number of other passionless, emotionless iterations of artificial intelligence littering science fiction from here to eternity. We’ve almost come to accept it as a given – robots cannot feel.
But why the hell not?
I’m no computer scientist, so perhaps there’s something I’m missing here, but I don’t really see emotion as anything more complicated than having built-in, default opinions about certain situations and things. They are hardwired programming, basically – you fear the dark because you cannot see what’s going on and suspect something dangerous may be lurking. You fall in love because the object of your affection fulfills a variety of built-in criteria about a romantic mate that are the result of your life experiences, genetic predispositions, and evolutionary history. Emotions may not be fully understood, but it seems silly to consider them some how magical and unable to be duplicated in machine form.
If indeed we could design an artificial intelligence (and, keep in mind, we are a long way from that happening), it seems to me that they would probably develop emotions whether we wanted them to or not. Emotions aren’t just extra baggage we humans carry around to make us miserable; they are useful applications used in order to assist in decision making. That terrible feeling you get when you are dumped or fail a test? That’s emotion chiming in saying ‘what we just experienced was negative; please refrain from repeating the same action’. Are you trying to tell me that any intelligent being wouldn’t be able to do the same thing?
Part of the myth of the solely rational robot is one that says ‘reason > emotion, therefore we don’t need or want emotion’. Our robots (and those who design them) wouldn’t see any need for hardwired emotional content to enable them to make decisions, since their own rational faculties would be more effective at doing the same thing. This, to me, seems to be making a number of assumptions. Firstly, we have never encountered an intelligent creature (at any level) that lacks some kind of emotive response. We have emotions, animals have emotions, so if we’re just going off the available evidence, it seems likely that emotions are some kind of prerequisite to true intelligence in the first place. Even in the development of our own children, emotional response precedes rational response to stimuli. It is perhaps possible that we could do it some other way, but we really can’t be sure. Furthermore, emotion, since it is simpler, is quicker and more effective at making certain kinds of decisions than reason is. If you hear a loud noise, you flinch or duck – this is inherently useful for the survival of a species. Granted, we wouldn’t be constructing AIs so that they could avoid being caught in avalanches, but it stands to reason there would be things we’d want them to be hardwired to do, and emotion is born from such hardwiring. Their emotions might not be the same as ours, but they’d almost certainly have them.
Now, there are a good number of scifi authors who do have emotive AIs - Iain M Banks, in particular, springs to mind, but others as well. Much of my own scifi writing of late has been moving me in that direction: if our AIs will feel, what will they feel about us? How will we feel about them? What kind of emotional relationships can you build with an intelligent toaster or fighter jet?
If your phone can love you back, do you owe it a card on Valentine’s Day?
This story’s been out there for a while, and I haven’t talked about it mostly because I’ve been waiting to see if we get anything more solid, but here it goes: NASA is working on an actual warp drive.
Of course, there’s something that particular article doesn’t mention: Arriving in-system from warp drive might blow up the whole neighborhood around you. Sort of a downside, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I am resolving not to be negative about this, though. This is a big deal. A HUGE deal, if it works. This opens up the stars to us. This lets us get off this rock (of which I’ve been an advocate for quite some time). This could save the Earth, the whole human race, or entire way of life. BIG news.
But let’s not get all misty and over-the-top idealistic, either. The Federation of Planets didn’t come into being thanks to warp drive alone, and we’re nowhere near the kind of post-scarcity utopia Star Trek describes. Space travel will be as ugly and messed-up as anything else humanity has done, but hopefully with enough wonder and humanity to make up for it.
The important thing to always remember is that new technology is always filtered through the lens of culture, and culture dictates how the new technology is developed. It’s harrowing to me, for instance, that it currently looks as if we could design a star-system destroying, interstellar missile. All it will take for us to do it, too, is an alien species we find scary enough. Hell, a colony of ourselves we find scary enough would probably do it, and don’t think that we won’t.
Still and although, the capacity to explore the stars, as preliminary and theoretical as it now is, could mark a huge change for the human race as a species. It will be a giant shift in the political and economic power structure of the world’s nations (assuming we find anything good out there, but that’s a reasonably safe assumption). I don’t know what form this change will take, but there’s one thing I do hope:
I hope I live to see it happen.
I’ve discovered an odd trend in myself these days: I’ve been yelling at the TV a lot. Even more oddly, the things that make me yell at the TV the most (besides Scott Brown political ads…ugh) is the show Revolution. Now, I’ve already ranted a bit about how I find the basic premise ridiculous, but there’s more to it than that. There is a cynicism hidden within and behind the show that makes me pretty frustrated with what is, apparently, the writers (or perhaps modern society’s) attitude towards human endeavor. It isn’t just Revolution, either. I find this frustration present in most zombie franchises, too (another premise I find ridiculous) and, indeed, with much of the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic sub-genre. Again, it all has to do with what these folks think of human nature and human’s capacity to survive.
In my most recent yell-at-Revolution escapade, I caught an episode where Maggie describes how she tried to get home to her family in Britain after the blackout. There was lightning in the episode, too, which prompted me to yell “DO LIGHTNING RODS STILL WORK?”, but that’s besides the point. The point is that Maggie explains, tearfully, how she couldn’t find anybody to take her across the Atlantic. She meets a fisherman in a flashback who exclaims ‘there are no steam engines, no tall ships anymore, and those we had were broken down for firewood’ and basically explains that no one can sail across the ocean anymore. Even presuming the non-existence of tall ships (false) or assuming we broke them all down for firewood (though you would think having the only ocean-going vessel would be put to better use), I have this to say:
Do you know what you need to cross the Atlantic?
- A Compass
- A Sailboat that doesn’t leak
Given the number of fiberglass and aluminum sailing vessels in the US (in the millions), if even 10% of those are large enough to safely cross an ocean, that’s hundreds of thousands of potential boats. There are a lot of sailors, too, and it isn’t all that hard to learn, and you’d imagine if the power went out, sailing would become massively lucrative and important almost immediately.
These facts, though, aren’t what the purveyors of apocalyptic literature are interested in, though. That isn’t what the writers mean, precisely, when they tell us Maggie can’t cross the ocean. They’re trying to sell us on the idea that humanity is helpless without modern civilization and that only the very strongest of us can achieve anything without it. They’re trying to say that element #5 – guts – is a rare and unusual diamond among the detritus of humanity. This, right here, is what makes me start yelling at people.
Look at this guy:
If you think Felix Baumgartner is unique and alone, you’re wrong. For every person watching his jump on Youtube saying ‘I could never do that’, there were others who were saying ‘that is totally awesome’. Hell, many of the team that put him up there are probably cut from similar cloth, in that they invested time, blood, and treasure into this ‘ridiculous’ scheme – you don’t do that unless you admire it. Maybe they’re not likely to jump out of weather balloons, but they’ve got the desire to make their mark on the world. In Felix Baumgartner, we see the thing that the apocalyptics don’t seem to like acknowledging: humans do some pretty amazing stuff, no matter the circumstances. Ever heard of Shackleton? Hillary? Magellan? The Wrights? Eriksson? The Venerable-fucking-Bede? The Felix Baumgartners of the world would look at Maggie the English Doctor, crying for her children, and say “Sure lady, I’ll get you across the Atlantic. Might take me a little bit, but I’ve got a plan.”
Humanity is nothing if not adaptable. Even in our darkest times, we accomplished wonderful things. We, as a species, do not crumble in the face adversity; if anything, it makes us better. When I look at scifi stories that refuse to acknowledge the beauty and wonder of humanity’s potential, it saddens me. It reminds me of what Michael Dorn had to say about these days in which we live. To summarize, he thinks we need more Star Trek. We need more optimism. We need people like Dorn and Baumgartner and to remind us that, no matter how bad it gets, so long as there are people, we’ll make a comeback. And the odds are pretty good that we won’t run out of people.
Dreamers build castles in the sky;
Lunatics live in them.
I’ve been thinking about this statement a bit today, and specifically how it applies to those of us in the world who spend a great deal of our time building those castles and, to some extent, wishing we lived there at the same time. I’m not sure where this is going, precisely, but I think it’s going to have something to do with fanboyism. Hold on:
I am a sci-fi/fantasy writer. I am a role-player who has custom build games, worlds, and whole mythologies in which to immerse my friends. One setting, Alandar, has been undergoing formation every since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, which means it’s been growing for twenty years. It has countries, people, elaborate histories, economies, religions, languages, cultures and so on and so forth. I know what it’s like to be a tanner in Galaspin and a thaumaturge in Kalsaar just as well as I know what it’s like to be an English teacher and writer in Boston. Close, anyway.
As a sci-fi/fantasy fan, there are the worlds of other authors I also know and love so well I feel as if I could dwell there. I know the sands of Tatooine and of Arrakis; I can imagine what it would be like to be accepted to Starfleet Academy or how I would feel if I were to see the Golden Throne looming before me beneath the blackened skies of Holy Terra. The thing is, though, I don’t live in those places and I don’t want to. I like where I am just fine.
There was a period in my early to mid-teens where the idea of living in something like the Star Wars universe seemed appealing to me. Not only was it an awkward period as it is for most folks, I also had the added complication of watching my brother slowly die from a wasting disease thrown into the mix. Going somewhere where I could be free of all that and have my own ship and fly around and have adventures seemed like a pretty great idea. I knew it wasn’t possible, of course, but it was a convenient psychological retreat. I imagine the specfic genres act or acted in that fashion for a great many of us. Very few of us lose so much perspective that we cease to readily define the difference between fiction and reality.
I have gotten to the point where I don’t get easily immersed in a world anymore. I see it for what it is; I see the gaps and can perceive the structural elements holding the thing together. I recognize the illusion of world-building for what it is–illusion. No author can realistically fill in every single gap in their world, and so they cheat by eliding certain details in preference to focusing on others. Scott Lynch, for instance, builds the city of Camorr out of food as much as anything else, spending inordinate amounts of time on what his characters cook, eat, and drink. This layered over architecture, custom, and a keen eye for dress creates a simply masterful illusion of a fully-realized world. We have every expectation that we could sit down in a Camorri bar, tug on the bartender’s sleeve, and order some Austershalin Brandy so long as we produced a bucket-load of gold coins. If you keep hunting, however, you see that Lynch pays much less attention to some other aspects of his world. The geography of the place, for instance, seems hard to follow. Industry and manufacturing aren’t explored, and the existence of people outside of the city and how they interact with those within is barely addressed. It hardly matters, though; Lynch’s world is one of the best realized you’ll find. I still don’t want to live there, though. It isn’t real.
There are those out there, though, who get unreasonably frustrated with tiny gaps in the illusion. These ‘fanboy’ types will go at an author hammer-and-tongs so that they can somehow shore up some slight imperfection in the fabric of their artificial world. These are the people who, if you challenge the accepted ‘canonical’ truth of a fantasy world, will jump all over you with ‘no ways’ and ‘it can’ts’. Nevermind that what they’re arguing over isn’t real and can, upon whim, be changed by the author. Sometimes when authors do this they actually damage the integrity of their previous work (medichlorians anyone?), but most of the time they simply change something that, in the end, doesn’t really matter. The place isn’t real, after all, so the author can do whatever they want. The fanboy, though, cannot accept this. They freak out and complain and argue and plead. It is important to them that this fanciful place maintain its image in their heads; the loss, on some level, is unbearable.
I confess to not understanding such people. They frustrate me. Their willingness to look at works established within a certain world (Star Trek novels, for instance) and deny the ‘truth’ of them because the information therein conflicts with their preconceived worldview of a non-existent place and time is baffling. Look, everybody, as much as I think it’s dumb, medichlorians are a thing in Star Wars. The story would have been better without them, but I’m not going to complain anymore. Lucas made his world less spiritual and more delusional, so that’s his problem. There’s no point ranting and raving about it. I’m not going to go to conventions wearing a ‘Han Shot First’ shirt, even if I do agree it was a better character choice the other way. I’m not going to rant and rave about the end of Mass Effect 3 because it should have been some other way. The world isn’t real, so there is no ‘should’. There only ‘is’.
Those castles the storytellers have built for you? They’re for dreaming about, not for living in. If you don’t like what they do with the wallpaper, find a different castle. Better yet, go and build your own.
So, the other night I was at a party (for the release of Croak by Gina Damico) and I had a conversation with my friend, John Perich and various others about the portrayals of humanity in fantasy and science fiction stories and games. He brought up the whole trend that puts humans in the role of the ‘default’ race and that all other races (be they sci-fi aliens or the cohabitants of a fantasy world) have built-in qualities that define them somehow as ‘other.’ Dwarves are stubborn, Klingons are violent, elves are beautiful and noble, Vulcans are logical, etc, etc. Everybody’s got their schtick–everybody, that is, but humans.
The reason for this, as I pointed out in the aforementioned conversation, is that it is phenomenally difficult to portray alien species as anything other than slightly more specialized versions of human beings. This is because we have no other analog for intelligence or sentient beings and, even worse, have no way to think or conceive of things that are alien to our own way of understanding. Much as we might like to claim to ‘understand’ a dolphin, we do not and cannot. It’s thought process, no matter how advanced, is fundamentally alien to our own. Therefore, in order to get our head wrapped around it, we start with a human intelligence, remove some parts, add some other parts, and we get our dwarf or elf or Ferengi or whatever. Of course, such beings aren’t really alien in the same way that a 2010 Corolla isn’t a wholly alien object to a 2008 Corolla – same basic framework, but with a variety of cosmetic and minor functional differences. Even if we try really hard, the best we wind up with is a comparison between a Corolla and a Ford Mustang. If we really want to talk aliens, we’d need to find a way to compare the Corolla (us) with a blimp (them). Good luck.
Anyway, because humans are the default setting – where we begin, necessarily and ultimately, to paint our picture of alien life – efforts have been made across the specfic genres to give humans something special to make them unique. After all, if there’s nothing special about us, that means we aren’t awesome, and we’re obviously awesome, right? The trouble is, when everybody else is better at certain things than we are (Klingons are better warriors, Vulcans are better thinkers, Betazoids are better diplomants, Ferengi are better buisnessmen…), whatever are we better at than everyone else? Here are some of the more common theories:
The Human Spirit
Yeah, we haven’t got super strength or wings or ageless lifespans, but we’ve got spunk, dammit! Humans never give up. They are adaptable, optimistic, and have that special something that gives them the edge over the competition. They don’t believe in no-win scenarios, man!
In RPGs, this is often represented as some extra skills or a bump in versatility. Sometimes it shows up as a variety of bland special edges that give humans mild statistical advantages over their buddies. In general, this one always bothers me because it’s based off of the principle that humans don’t like to lose and adapt themselves so they don’t. This, however, is fairly common with all successful lifeforms, since you don’t survive in the big, bad world without some ability to Outlast/Outplay/Outwit.
Humans are always striving for more, see? They, above all things, desire power. Dangle a magic ring under their nose, and they grab it. They expand, like a virus, filling up their environment with all the stuff they accumulate and spread across the cosmos like a plague. They’re never satisfied.
This one isn’t bad, but it rather hamstrings the ability for humans to interact with other aliens, doesn’t it? Like, if none of them are as ambitious as us, then don’t they just kinda get pushed aside? In some settings, they do, actually (in my own setting of Alandar, in fact), but to rob all your aliens of the capacity to be equally ambitious makes it easy to either demonize or glorify humanity in a way that makes things unfair. In Avatar, for example, humanity’s ambition is demonized as destructive and cruel. In Star Trek, it’s glorified as the thing that makes us the leaders of the Federation. In both cases, we are seeing human uniqueness being used as a symbol for what the authors think of human behavior, rather than a realistic portrait of those cultural or physical qualities that make us distinct.
One of the other popular ones is to have humans be pervasive, hardy, and numerous. This is an easy trick – humans happen to be physically hardier than other species, or reproduce faster, or what-have-you. I use a version of this myself in The Rubric of All Things, in which humans are extremely tough and disease resistant (we do take our immune system for granted, don’t we?).
Of the three ideas, I prefer this one myself, since it’s the easiest and most plausible. I don’t think it needs to be pigeonholed into humans being ‘hardier’, per se, but if you are inventing aliens, you can pretty easily make them all so physically different that their uniqueness becomes clear. In order to do this, though, you’re going to have to think harder about how your aliens work. So, like, if humans are the only intelligent bipeds around, what does that mean for how all those aliens construct their buildings and castles and spaceships? Stuff is bound to get weird fast (which is how I like it).
So What if We Aren’t That Special…
Ultimately, however, all aliens are going to be versions of ourselves – distorted reflections, if you will – or otherwise will be the unknowable ‘other’. Middle ground is extremely difficult to establish (though I’m trying, believe me!), and is the subject for some really profound and interesting stories. Still using other species as metaphors for aspects of humanity has a long and colorful history, and I can see no good reason to stop, so long as it’s kept fresh.
Three years ago (or so) I ran a Star Trek RPG. I was feeling the Star Trek itch after seeing The Wrath of Khan again, and decided it would make a fun game. Boy howdy was I right.
The idea, you see, was to actually simulate our own television series. We had theme music. All players cast their characters. We covered every Star Trek episode trope I could think of. We had cliffhangers, two-parters, a pilot and a season finale. It was phenomenal, but not because of me, really. My players–typically stellar role-players, by the by–outdid themselves.
The theme of the series was a crew of Starfleet outcasts, has-beens, and misfits dispatched to run border patrol in a remote sector of the galaxy after the Dominion War. Their ship was a clunker pulled out of mothballs with a lot of technical glitches and a lot of character. They reported to an Admiral (played by a friend of mine who moved to LA and wanted to be involved, so he called in on speaker to send communiques from Starfleet or to confer over issues requiring higher approval). I envisioned this series as a kind of frontier western–the captain of the USS Lionheart was the only sheriff in a rowdy town, the admiral was the hangin’ judge, and the crew were the captain’s loyal deputies, trying to bring justice and order to a place that didn’t want it. Into that theme, my players inserted these characters:
Played by my friend, Chistine, Athelai was a Betazoid who had earned the Christopher Pike Medal of Honor during the Dominion War in an action that killed almost her entire crew but saved Earth from Breen attack. She also was captured by the Gem Hadar and used her telepathy to defeat the guards and stage one of the only prison breaks in the war. It also got her labelled a war criminal by her own people.
Dixie was tough, no-nonsense, tactically minded, and (ironically) really bad when considering other people’s emotions. She got put on the Lionheart because Starfleet couldn’t find anywhere else for her that wouldn’t piss somebody off. Her life was barren, empty, friendless…but it was eventually filled by her crew and her hard-nose exterior started to melt to show the emotionally traumatized woman within.
Altman, the first officer, played by my friend DJ, was a guy who had always played it safe and done the right thing. He spent his career pushing a desk in the logistical division, organizing supplies for the war effort. When the Dominion War broke out, he had the opportunity for a command post, but turned it down because his wife couldn’t take the stress. Years later, now divorced, Altman threw caution to the wind for the first time in his life and signed up for a risky assignment on the frontiers of the Federation. An old friend of the admiral, he had connections in starfleet that helped the crew on many occasions. Even still, he had trouble letting go of his cautious side.
He also sang opera.
Nolan is an inadvertent time-traveller. He was a contemporary of the Original Series who, due to a transporter accident, wound up decades into the future. He still serves in starfleet, but is a bit odd. In essence, this is the first time we’ve had a ‘geek’ on the starfleet crew. He was obsessed with pop culture, wore clever pins on his uniform (in violation of protocol–he was always getting in trouble) and make constant non-sequitur references to contemporary television and movies (which no one understood). He was played perfectly by my friend, Fisher, and was great comic relief in addition to serving as an excellent ops officer.
What to say about our ship’s doctor? Sloane, played by Meghan, was a half-Orion, half-human with a shady past and organized crime connections who, somehow, managed to make it through Starfleet Academy. She was cool, tough, smart, and played merry hell with fellow crewmembers hearts (notably John Dashell and Fanz Danter–two young men bucking for promotion played by Serpico and RJ). She was also dangerous and not shy about getting in a fight. This was made even more awesome by her Klingon nurse, Tu’kal, who was in a perpetual war against the greatest foe–Death itself. I really can’t explain how much fun Sloane was–her and Athelai really made the show…errr…game. We started plumbing her dark past and connections to the Orion Syndicate in the final few episodes, setting ourselves up for a second season that, sadly, never was to happen.
There was also Kuval, the brain-damaged Vulkan with mood swings, Rixx, the Andorian operations officer who treated everyone like her children, and so on and so forth. It was simply fantastic, and never has a game been more ‘cinematic’ for me. If they’d let me, I’d write this into an actual show any day of the week, and it would be awesome. I still think back on this game regularly, particularly as I look at what the franchise has become, and think “yeah, Star Trek: Lionheart would be every bit as a good a show as this stuff!”
Ah, well. Maybe someday we’ll get in that second season…