Writing: Three Elements

  • by Gitabushi

Here are three elements of writing I haven’t seen discussed much before, but are currently at the forefront of my mind.

  1. Tropes. You are writing within a genre. As Daddy Warpig said, genre can be defined by a collection of tropes. You don’t need (or want!) all of them, but you need enough of them to set some parameters for your reader. Your task is then to balance your use of tropes (formulas) against innovation.  Too many tropes, and your work will seem hackneyed, derivative, and boring, and your reader will no longer be willing to Suspend Disbelief.  Too much innovation, and your reader will feel jarred, cheated, and will no longer be wiling to suspend disbelief. I’m still trying to work on how to know if you’ve over- or under-used tropes.
  2. Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Get it from your readers. With it, and you can have plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc. But plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc., destroy your readers’ willingness to Suspend Disbelief.  Make it easier for them to Suspend and stay Suspended: perfect your craft.
  3. Provide a satisfying ending to everything you write. Make every work be self-contained. Even if you plan on writing a trilogy, make each book have its own arc that resolves most of the issues.  See “Chuck” or “The Man in the High Castle” (not until the end of the 2nd season, but we’ll grant them this one) for excellent examples of how to do this.

Discuss

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MUST WATCH SFF Television Show: Chuck

  • by Gitabushi

chuck

tl;dr: “Chuck” is quite simply the best television show in recent history. Maybe in television history, but that is a little more subjective.

Okay, let’s get into it: I hate incomplete stories. Hate hate hate hate.

I know stories are fiction.  But once I suspend my disbelief to start to enjoy a story, I want it to end.  In the interest of extending this introduction, let me point out that I hated the ending of Wayne’s World, because giving multiple possible endings left me feeling like it didn’t actually end at all.  And I hated reading The Princess Bride, too, because of the book ending subverting the typical fairy tale storybook tropes.  Bah.  Bah, I say!

But I understand that the television business is a rough world.  You have a great premise, but you can’t pay writers until you have a contract.  So you often don’t know for sure how closely the actual filming will stay with the originally-planned storyline, even during the first season. And since subsequent seasons aren’t a sure thing unless the series gets renewed, future storylines aren’t even planned out, and maybe not even considered.

One way to keep your television series on the air is to, just like in writing, raise the stakes.

You already have the premise. People are hooked. Now start complicating things. They are invested in the characters, so put the characters through hell. Set up cliffhangers, particularly about the most popular characters. Leave your audience begging for resolution.

But don’t make it so complicated your audience gives up and ratings plummet.

You can add more and more spinning plates. Kick the resolution down the road.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.

The problem with this short-term thinking?  Sometimes stories never get finished. When things get too complicated, there is no satisfying way to wrap up all the issues, the audience leaves, and the show gets cancelled.  It happened with the X-Files (I’m *so* happy I never started with that). It happened, to an extent, with Lost. It is happening with Game of Thrones, although George R. R. Martin has apparently given an outline to the showrunners so they can finish the story that he can’t seem to.

These sorts of things leave me unsatisfied.

The way to resolve it is to have story arcs. Each episode should be self-contained, for the most part, with an arc that completes at the end of the episode. The season should also have a story arc that wraps up the issues introduced at the beginning of the season and were developed throughout that year.  And then you have an overall series arc, bookended with a resolution.

“Chuck” did those things.  It might have been by accident; I certainly don’t think “Chuck” was able to hire writers significantly better than anyone else in Hollywood. It might have been because they were always hovering at the brink of cancellation, so they felt less at liberty to introduce elements that couldn’t be resolved within one season.

In any case, “Chuck” is a true rarity in American television: a story-based show with nested arcs that actually wraps things up tightly.

The show starts with Chuck having failed at life, having been thrown out of Stanford, dumped by his girl, working at a Big Box store that is beneath his abilities, and lonely. It ends with him accomplished, having developed his many different talents and abilities, retained his humanity despite difficult circumstances, and with the love of his life by his side.

It even bookends locations, (sorta). It doesn’t end at the same location it begins, but the final scene of the last show is at the same location as the final scene of the first show, and for similar reasons.  It was actually masterfully done.

The fact that “Chuck” completes the story is reason enough to watch it.  Writers should study it for structure, characterization, foreshadowing, etc.

But that isn’t all “Chuck” is.

It is a science fiction story: a guy has a supercomputer downloaded into his brain. It’s a comedy: there are some great laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a love story. It’s one of the better assembly-cast works out there: the side characters add so much depth and interest to the story, to include Casey, Morgan, Jeffster, Captain Awesome, and others. It’s a character-growth story: all the characters grow and develop throughout the series.

Another reason to watch is just all the little Easter Eggs and references to past works. There are references to Dune, Spies Like Us, The Terminator, Die Hard, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Charade, and more.

And the Guest Stars! Scott Bakula, Linda Hamilton, Brandon Routh, Summer Glau, Kristin Kreuk, Dolph Lundgren, Richard Chamberlain, Tony Hale, Chevy Chase, Robert Englund, Carrie-Anne Moss, Reginald VelJohnson (in a Die-Hard-ish episode), Bruce Boxleitner, Christopher Lloyd, Morgan Fairchild, Robin Givens, Rachel Bilson, Gary Cole, Nicole Richie, Armand Assante, John Larroquette, Steve Austin, James Hong, “Louis Litt” from “Suits”, Robert Patrick, Fred Willard, Craig Kilborn, Cheryl Ladd, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Richter, Mark Hamill…

Okay, now even I’m getting bored of the list.

I was also impressed by how the show surprised me at times. Chuck was a bumbling dork in the first few episodes, but even very early on, the writers were actually able to have some surprisingly good problem resolutions, where Chuck did something intelligent and innovative to solve a problem that didn’t involve his Intersect ability, but merely his native cleverness.  The resolution in the circumstances I’m thinking of were foreshadowed earlier in the episode, but perfectly set up: they seemed like throwaway humor points, yet Chuck was able to apply them perfectly to win the day.  Little moments of skillful writing like that go a long way to earning my Willful Suspension of Disbelief at other moments.

And it does need your Willful Suspension of Disbelief.  It isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a perfect series.  It’s merely the best one humanity has ever produced to date.  But that still isn’t perfect.

Still, I urge you to stream it, or better yet, purchase the entire collection from Amazon.  It’s worth it. It’s a great show.

Don’t believe me? Read this review:

Chuck is the most entertaining show on TV. It’s shot well and the writing is smart and quick. The acting is superb from the extras to the main characters.The story is dramatic and visionary where the character dynamics can be turned on a dime. Love and romance, an agent searching for a good fight, an average guy tossed into the world of espionage; this show has it all.

You will laugh and cry, rejoice and be frustrated because of character depth and great acting. All the characters are lovable and relatable.

NBC has found a hero in Chuck, who as a typical guy, inspires us to be better. The creed of the show is to take care of your family and friends. Simply Chuck calls to do right even in tough times.

It’s certainly a show that will keep you on your toes throughout. Without a doubt this is the best show I’ve ever seen.

At first I was skeptical but after two or three episodes I was hooked because its funny and exciting with a great story to it. I implore you to take a chance on Chuck, trust me its worth it. Regardless of anything else there is nothing else on TV like it.

And no, that wasn’t me that wrote it.  But it captures the show perfectly.

Hard SF v Soft SF

  • by Gitabushi

So apparently there exists some heartburn within Speculative Fiction circles about Hard SF versus Soft SF.

Perhaps Hard SF writers and fans are a little too smug about the scientific aspect of their designated works.

Perhaps Soft SF writers and fans are a little sensitive about having to live with the connotation of being “soft”.

Some, like the esteemed PCBushi (The Couch: “…esteemed by who?” Me: “Whom.” The Couch: “Fine.  …esteemed by whom?”  Me: “Dunno, but there’s gotta be someone who esteems him. It just stands to reason.” The Couch: [shrug] “It’s your fantasy conversation sequence. Also, you probably owe Jonah Goldberg royalties.”) say that labels are unimportant, and only confuse the issue.  He has somewhat of a point, in that there is no reason to entrench ourselves into hostile, opposing camps. We all love Speculative Fiction, and the categories shouldn’t be limits.

For instance, I really enjoy Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, who are some of the best Hard SF writers in the business.  But my favorite author is CJ Cherryh, who writes Soft SF.

Still, I think the category is helpful.

Let’s say you want to watch a Rom-Com on Netflix.  I’d say you need to review the life choices that brought you to that point, but wouldn’t you want movies grouped into some sort of category to help you find what you want?

But, you say (and,  yes, please say this out loud.  Google is listening through your mic, and it will eventually get back to me), why would it matter? Is anyone ever really in the mood for Hard SF rather than Soft SF, or vice versa?

Okay, that’s a good argument, too.  Yes, I’m padding the length of this blogpost.

So let’s look at a deeper argument.

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This is a picture of a robot, so that: 1) PCBushi won’t bitch at me about my lack of pictures, and 2) so I can use the robots category tag

We have grown accustomed to certain aspects of Western Fiction (Aside: if you think these things are universal, try reading Asian fiction).  One aspect is that the story should signal what type of story it is from the beginning, by setting up the problem.

In a character story, the story begins when it becomes obvious the main character needs to make a change, and ends when that change finally occurs.  In a milieu story, it begins when the main character is transported to the new world. A milieu story can end in different ways (by fully exploring the world, by the character returning to the “normal” world, by covering the issues the author wanted to cover in their compare/contrast effort), but if the character never goes anywhere, never explores the new world, and works on changing their character, you’d feel disappointed.  An Event story begins by establishing the normal life of characters, then introducing the Event, then showing the impact of the Event on everyone’s life (like a Stephen King novel or Niven/Pournell’s “Lucifer’s Hammer”). An Idea story starts when the idea is introduced, and then ends when the idea is fully explored.

You can tell what kind of story you are reading from the first few pages.  If you can’t, you probably won’t keep reading.  And if the book doesn’t fulfill the expectations you have when reading, you’ll be dissatisfied with the book and either stop reading, or never recommend it and perhaps never purchase the author’s book again.

For all that I don’t really like ERB, I admit he has top-notch milieu skills. The story of a Princess of Mars certainly brings John Carter through a wide span of territory, encountering different societies and people.

And this is the reason I find Jack Vance disappointing.  In Cugil’s Saga, he clearly intends to write a milieu story, but I can’t see why he chose what he did.  It doesn’t seem to have much application to our human, earthly lives, and it almost seems like the only point is to show off Vance’s imagination.

But I digress. Again.

Larry Niven likes milieu stories.  He’s pretty good at them.  He doesn’t do much character development, really.  He also combines Milieu stories with Idea stories.  One of his most common Ideas is that when given an opportunity, sub-groups of people will seize the opportunity to make themselves Elite and exploit their monopoly over a scarce vital resource to enforce their status.  And a Milieu story is a great way to explore the entire society of all the various ways an Elite Caste can come about and maintain itself.

In Larry Niven’s “Destiny’s Road,” he posits a partially terraformed world that restricts mobility due to geography and native flora/fauna threats.  Add to that a dearth of natural appearance of a vital nutrient, without which you are permanently brain damaged.  The Elite manage to control the harvesting and dissemination of that nutrient.  The Hero goes on an unintended journey, and, well, I don’t want to ruin the story with spoilers.  The point is, there are scientific elements behind many of the world’s aspects.  The plot is driven by the scarcity of the nutrient and the main character’s dilemma, as well as the Elite control of technology spread.  A writer could have written the same story as a Soft SF novel, but it wouldn’t have been the same…and quite probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.  Niven makes a scientific assumption, and then *rigorously* applies it. That means that certain choices are closed, but other choices are open.  It helps the reader suspend disbelief…this is a story that *could* happen, based on our current understanding of science.

Or perhaps a better example is the Ringworld Series.  He posited an artificial world, made by technology much greater than we have, but still feasible, that actually uses planetary material volumes more efficiently, giving the inhabitants the right amount of heat, day/night cycles, but nearly endless room to expand.  It was written during the era of real fear of overcrowding and insufficient resources on the earth, before we proved that human ingenuity provides enough resources that we can pack several billion more people on the planet. It was also in response to a scientist’s theoretical exploration of constructing more efficient land space, called a Dyson Sphere.

But I digress. Again.

The point is that Niven thought of every possible thing he could, and then wrote the novel, and many aspects of the novel were dictated by the science and math behind his imagined world.  Then readers wrote in with complaints, questions, and scientific holes.

Niven’s response?

He wrote another book answering some of the objections and challenges.  This spurred more challenges, complaints (and some readers suggestions on how to resolve issues).  Result: another novel.

All Hard SF.

What about Soft SF?

Two of my favorite series are CJ Cherryh’s Merchanter Alliance books and Lois McMasters-Bujold Miles Vorkosigan books.

There is little verifiable science behind either of their series.

However, once they posit things (like Cherryh’s method FTL travel, or Bujold’s high-tech handweapons), they rigorously apply the rules to add to the drama.  I can’t consider them Hard SF, but once they built their world, they applied the rules of Hard SF to add verisimilitude.  Their books would certainly be the poorer for having an “anything goes” attitude.

Since the focus of Cherryh’s and Bujold’s books isn’t the exploration of technology, the resolution to the problems usually don’t involve their non-scientific technology.  The tech can provide limits and add tension (as in Cherryh’s FTL travel depends on destructible ship attributes, and imposes costs), but they are never the crux the way they are in a Hard SF story.

Or another comparison:

Terminator is Hard SF. With the exception of Time Travel, everything described is within the realm of plausible future technology.  The focus is on how the technology itself is advanced enough that it is a threat to the protagonist and, eventually, the entire human race. And in the end, the Terminator is defeated by current technology. Compare that with Predator, which is Soft SF.  No attempt is ever made to explain the technology we see. No attempt is made to fill any plot holes possibly created by the technology we see.  The focus isn’t on the technology at all, it is on the struggle between two beings.  Aliens is also Soft SF, because while there is high technology present, it is all incidental. The focus is on the interaction between the people, and the impact of alien rapaciousness.

I think most would agree that the stories use the Hardness and Softness of their science fiction effectively and appropriately, and the stories are better because of it.

I think we need both kinds of stories.  I think Hard SF already borrows from Soft SF in that sometimes the Hard SF writer fudges over scientific details.  I’ve seen some compelling explanations that a lack of the rare nutrient wouldn’t impact humans the way Niven described in “Destiny’s Road.”  And that’s okay.  And I already showed how two writers borrow from Hard SF’s discipline after they created their Soft SF Universes.

So all this is to say that I don’t think there should be this opposition between Hard SF and Soft SF camps.  I’d like to write Hard SF, because I like the way they come up with fascinating worlds, more compelling in their application of science than something just made up from imagination. But I don’t have the education to do it.  So I will write Soft SF, but I wont’ feel inferior for that.  It just means I’ll develop my stories more like Cherryh and Bujold than Niven.

I still think we need the separation and designation of sub-genres, however. Just as I think there is a need for the separation of Science Fiction from Fantasy.  One is not better than the other.  A few more of my favorite writers are Steven Brust, Emma Bull, and Fred Saberhagen, who are all known mainly for their Fantasy stories.  Brust included some science fiction explanatory hand-waves  in the backstory of his world (the races are all genetic experiments by a race of super-high-tech aliens), but I think that may be more just playing with the trope of “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, because there are too many non-scientific aspects of Brust in the form of Gods, souls, reincarnation, etc.  Cherryh and Bujold have also written some excellent Fantasy.

Still, Fantasy is developed differently than Science Fiction.  It has different tropes, and different payoffs.

We need the designation of genres and sub-genres to help us, both as writers and readers.

We should stop fighting and learn to appreciate the differences.

 

“No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

  • by gitabushi

Spoiler: Okay, that was too strong, and I withdraw the charge.  Sort of.

Don’t you love it when a writer starts off the story in the middle of the action, so you are immediately caught up in laser blasts and flying hand-axes?

So here’s the background.

There is a Pulp Resurgence going on.  As a hopeful writer who is hopefully on the verge of being able to complete my first novel, I noticed the trend and thought it might be something worth paying attention to. As in, maybe I might want to write a pulp story.

So I tried to re-read some pulp SFF I liked when I was in my teens.  And didn’t like it anymore.

The stereotype of pulp is that it is simplistic, juvenile, and immature.  Its fans disagree. And they have a point: the writings of Dashiell Hammett are considered by some to be literature worth studying.

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Dashiell Hammett

I personally enjoy reading Louis L’Amour, and while he is definitely a pulp Western writer, he has some interesting characters, occasional fascinating character growth, and some fairly intricate plotting at times.

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…and boy, did L’Amour milk this brand!

But when it comes to SFF, I have to agree with the stereotype: it is immature writing that has been so surpassed by the state of the art that it doesn’t seem worth reading anymore.

So, of course, I had to say this on twitter, because that’s the Proper Location for Virtue Signalling.

Full disclosure: Twitter has changed me. It has helped me to mature and not be bothered by responses and attitudes that would have infuriated me not long ago.  On the other hand, I’ve gotten to enjoy mild trolling, so I’m not always as careful with precise critiques as I would have been in the past.

And PC Bushi and I have a long-running mild disagreement…we both love SFF, but our tastes seem to be diametrically opposed. What he loves, I dislike.  The only thing I love that I know he’s read is the Chronicles of Amber, but that’s enough to know that the reverse isn’t necessarily true. More data is needed.

Anyway, some people had been ripping on some authors PC Bushi liked, and we had a twitter conversation about it, as PC Bushi details here.

That led to me getting called out by a commenter here:

I am sorry but it just reads like nathan hasn’t read anything and is just using other people’s talking points. Couldn’t you describe Brust’s Taltos series as a guy just wandering around killing black elves?

(He later corrects himself note “black elves” is Cherryh’s construction, not Brust’s, but the Dragaereans are called elves, so his point is not undermined by the mistake)

Here is my response, in full:

Okay, I spent a little time thinking about plot, so your challenge actually did some good.

Maybe “no plot” is the wrong way to put it.
What is plot?
According to wikipedia, Plot is: the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.

So from that point of view, yes, everything REH and ERB wrote have plots.

But I still don’t think they are very good ones.

Let’s take the first story in “The Coming of Conan”. (I have read most of the original REH Conan novels, but 30 years ago, so we’ll just look at this short story).

What is the plot? A man wants to be king, so plots against the king, who is Conan. He arranges for an assassination squad. Conan has a dream where a God gives him a magic weapon. Conan defeats the assassination squad, except the last one is read to kill him before a demon appears, then Conan kills it with the magic weapon.

So, yeah, there’s a plot, but it’s not a very good one.

Why do we care about Conan? Is he a good king? We don’t know.
Where is the conflict?
Does anything bad happen if Conan is replaced as king? Sure, he’d be killed, but we know nothing about the country, or the people. Why should we care?
Does he do anything difficult to stop the assassination? No, a demon appears.
Does he do anything difficult or special to stop the demon? No, a god gave him a magic sword.

There was *one* bit of interesting development: Conan is nearly killed because he was shocked at the minstrel’s betrayal, and human emotion keeps him from striking the minstrel down immediately.

If anything, the most interesting person, the person who chooses and changes the most, is Thoth-Amon. He had power, lost it when a thief took his ring. He had to flee or be killed from the enemies he made when he had power. In disguise, he’s nearly killed by bandits, but his life is spared when he pledges to serve as a slave. Then his ring comes within his reach again…how does he react to the loss of power vs restoration of his power? That could be a fascinating glimpse into human nature. But he’s the bad guy, so we can’t care about him.

Now compare to Brust’s Jhereg (spoilers!):

Jhereg
An assassin is seduced by greed and ego to take a difficult job. He finds out the job isn’t as straightforward as he thought. If he doesn’t do the job, he’ll be killed. Then he finds out there’s a reason to hurry. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll be killed. But if he hurries, he might be unprepared, and killed by the target. Then he discovers the target wants to die, but only a certain way. He finds out that if he does his job, his friend will be dishonored. Now, you may not care about the friend and his prized honor, but you can understand and sympathize with the assassin not wanting to force his friend to lose something important to him. Then we find out that the target is trying to destroy 3 of the 17 Houses of the Draegaera. Which the assassin would LOVE to have happen. Now isn’t that some some intriguing, major conflict to be resolved? The assassin has multiple reasons to want to stop the target’s plot, but also has multiple reasons to want the target’s plot to succeed. So he develops a plan, the one thing that could resolve all these conflicts safely. Then the plan goes wrong.

There is escalation of stakes throughout, which makes it a good plot.

Brust lets us get to know the characters, gives us some reason to care about the characters and what they want, makes even the target somewhat sympathetic, and then lets the struggles play out.

Now, to be fair, we’ve compared a short story to a novel. A novel will naturally be more complex, having more length.

So let’s bring in ERB’s The Land That Time Forgot.

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What’s the plot? A man is going to war. His boat is sank, he captures the submarine that did it. No way to run a submarine, unless you just happen to have experience piloting one…He just happens to make submarines for a living! He tries to get home, but gets lost. There is some conflict because there is a hidden traitor. He finds an unknown continent. No way to get in, unless you have a submarine. He just happens to have one! He gets inside, and there are dinosaurs inside. They are dangerous, and randomly grab someone. It just happens to not be the hero! Now they have food and water, but no fuel for the sub. Hey, they just happen to find oil! They still haven’t resolved the issue with the Germans, oh, hey, the Germans run off with the sub!

Oh, I forgot, there’s a girl. He loves her because she is beautiful. How do we know she’s beautiful? The author told us. She loves the hero, he loves her. He doesn’t trust her for a while. Oh, wait, he was wrong. She forgives him.

To be sure, there are some minor conflicts: the hidden traitor, the problem about the trust between the girl and the hero, how to deal with hostile prisoners.

But at no point is there much doubt about the outcome of any conflict. The hero is the leader because of course he is. He can command the sub because of course he can. When he needs to kill a dinosaur, of course he can. He can overcome the German commander one on one because of course he can.

Back to wikipedia:
A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story. It is often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with dramatic technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-developed reasons. An example of a plot device would be when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle. In contrast, an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself and saves the day due to a change of heart would be considered dramatic technique.

If I had to characterize The Land that Time Forgot, it would be that it is just a series of plot devices, rather than a plot. Or to the extent that it has a plot, it isn’t very good.

And it doesn’t get any better in the sequel, The People That Time Forgot. I set the book down when I got busy, and had zero desire to pick it back up again.

In its favor, there is a great What If aspect to the trilogy: What if there were a lost continent that had dinosaurs and primitive humans? Then what if the inhabitants recapitulated evolution as a personal development process?
Okay, the 2nd is way out there, and I don’t really see the reason for it, but at least there is a What If to explore.
These are milieu books: set up a world, then let the character explore the world, letting us see it through his eyes. The interest is in seeing how this world compares to ours, how the changes in the world cause changes in the humans, or in human society.

Except it really doesn’t. ERB gives us a series of snapshots, but the world never really becomes 3D.

Compare to Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, where the question is “What if a bunch of young adults were stranded on a strange planet and had to create their own civilization?” Definitely a milieu story, but not *just* a milieu story. There is character growth and exploration of human nature and the nature of civilization.
Or compare to Larry Niven’s milieu stories, Destiny’s Road (what if people lived on a planet that lacked any natural source of a vital mineral?), the Smoke Ring duology (what if a society evolved in a weightless environment?). He tells a story with a plot, character that have goals and issues we care about, while *still* exploring a strange world. One of the interesting things about Niven is he wrote several novels about societies based on an Elite enslaving the Common People via monopoly over a scarce vital resource. He explores that theme over and over, in the two stories above, plus The Gift From Earth (human organs), World Out of Time (immortality), and probably more I can’t think of yet.

the-smoke-ring
Woah. Doesn’t this look like a world you want to see a writer explain, describe, and explore?  Hard SF for the win, baby.

Both you and I cited Cherryh.

To be fair, Cherryh has some books without any real plot. Her Fortress series is just a self-licking ice cream cone. As is the Rusalka series. Both do provide some insight into human nature, the nature of fear and love, and how those are exploited…but after finishing each of those, I felt like I do reading ERB and REH: why did I just read that? What was the *point* of the story? In REH and ERB, it’s because I don’t care much about the outcome because there wasn’t much escalation of stakes, too many plot devices, and the characters don’t earn my care. In those two Cherryh series, it’s because after all those words describing so much action, nothing really changes in the world. I guess you could say that in Rusalka there was finally a restoration of normality, but I just didn’t care that much.

In contrast, Cyteen drags you into the lives of a brilliant-but-evil woman who is cloned, and how her clone reacts to the attempts to recreate the evil woman’s brilliant skills by pushing her personality towards evil, in connection with interactions with the young, sympathetic man the evil old woman deliberately abused…this is conflict, in that the man wants nothing to do with the clone because of his memories of the old women, but the clone is fascinated by the young man and has the power to force his proximity. Lots of personal conflict, tough decisions, changing character, people under pressure, sacrificial decisions, etc. A fascinating exploration how conflict, struggle, and pain are the challenges that stimulate growth, and the ethics of using those tools deliberately to try to bring about that growth in others.

Let’s make this even more complex, and bring in ERB’s John Carter. It’s been a while since I’ve read any. I enjoyed them okay when I was 15. I tried re-reading Princess of Mars 5 years ago, and got bored before I finished.

I won’t run through all the things I consider plot inadequacies, but I’ll hit a few points:
– Yes, there’s loyalty, in that Carter saves Tarkas’ life, and Tarkas returns the favor…but to me, that pales in comparison to Vlad Taltos’ considering it better to let himself be killed rather than force his friend to go back on his promise that guests are safe. Of course, Vlad figures out how to resolve that conflict, but Vlad’s loyalty is more poignant to me than the “You save my life, so I save yours” exchange.
– Yes, there’s romance, but just like in the Land that Time Forgot, we are told that Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful woman ever, so John Carter loves her and is blessed to earn her love. Yay. I don’t find it convincing or compelling.

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…for all we know, Dejah Thoris could look exactly like this.

There are some things in the Barsoom series favor:
– It is based somewhat on the science available at the time (canals!)
– If you want a hero with superhuman strength, it makes sense that it would be an alien that grew up on another planet with 3x the gravity. This is good What If science fiction.

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

That one change would deeply alter the Barsoom series, making it a truly sublime exploration of the nature of love, and purpose, and dealing with loss.

 

4 (Inter) Stellar Robots

I finally saw Interstellar last night, with my girlfriend. I’d been meaning to see it since JC Wright gave it a big thumbs up on his blog. It seemed to me pretty typical Nolan (non-Batman) fare – entertaining and well put together, but also a bit long and requiring of mental energy to watch.

This surprised me, and it was kind of a minor element of the movie as a whole, but I really enjoyed the robots. That got me thinking about other fictional robots I’ve been partial to, and I decided to share with you, dear readers, the ones that most quickly came to mind. These are laid out in no particular order. Be warned that there are a number of spoilers, so if you’re concerned about that, feel free to skip past a section, or skip this list entirely!

1. TARS (Interstellar)

tars

We may as well start with the inspiration for this post – TARS, from Interstellar. I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of this guy when he was first introduced. Actually, I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing! The beginning of the movie (pre-NASA) seemed to lay out a future Earth quite technologically similar to our own. Then all of a sudden this guy popped out of the woodwork – a rectangular rubik-looking metal thing with the voice and inflection of a normal dudebro. As the movie progressed, I was a little suspicious of him and his ilk at times – were they perhaps given some special instructions by Brand that would cause them to step in and mess with Cooper? Their loyalty and charm eventually won me over, however. TARS possessed a dry sense of humor and was a pretty “cool” and capable machine. Adjustable “humor” and “honesty” settings are big pluses.

At the end of the movie, when he was “sitting” on the porch, shooting the shit with Coop, I reflected that I would enjoy hanging out with TARS.

2.  Bishop (Aliens)

bishop

Before getting started on this list, I did a few “best robots from scifi” searches. Somewhat surprisingly, my #4 pick was the only one I saw repeated quite frequently. I saw a lot of cutesy robots, like WALL-E, and badass destructors like Gort and the Terminator. Those types can be pretty cool, but I think I have a thing for loyalty and altruism in a robot. Bishop is another example of a “good” robot who proves himself over the course of the movie Aliens. At first Ripley didn’t trust him at all, thanks to her experience with the “bad” synthetic, Ash, in the first film of the series. That Ash was indeed a d-bag. Bishop, however, professed that he was bound by the first law of robotics and could do no harm to humans (through action or inaction). Not only did he display a sense of humor and an apparent desire to be accepted by his human companions, but he made good on his earlier claim when he assisted Ripley in saving Newt from the Queen Bitch alien. He even directly saved Newt again from being blown out of the airlock, despite himself having been ripped in half.

3. R. Daneel Olivaw (Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series)

daneel

Daneel is one of the works of Isaac Asimov, arguably one of scifi’s greatest writers and the father of the three laws of robotics (four, if you count the zeroth law). I haven’t gotten to all of the works Daneel has appeared in, but I read the Robot novels, minus Robots and Empire – the initial stories concerning Daneel. Like #1 and #2 of my list, there are points in the books where Daneel’s intentions are unclear, and I was not always sure he was one of the good guys. There’s something truly off-putting about a powerful character whose motivations and mind (positronic or organic) are shrouded in mystery. He always turned out to have his partner Elijah Baley’s and humanity’s best interests at “heart,” though. Watching Daneel evolve in Baley’s mind as another of those damned robots to a dear friend was a great arc throughout the stories, and it appears that Daneel went on to live for thousands of years and influence the development of the Empire and the Foundation, all for the ultimate good of humanity.

4. Data (Star Trek TNG)

data

Along with Warf, Data was always one of my favorite TNG characters. A futuristic Pinocchio of sorts, one of Data’s desires throughout the show was to achieve a higher degree of humanity. Separating him from the wooden boy, however, was Data’s kind and unselfish nature. Some of the best moments of character development on the show were his, in my opinion. Watching him attempt to master humor, learn about intimate relationships, father a child, and develop and maintain friendships and familial bonds were among the highlights of his part in TNG. And of course it was always fun to see him kick some bad guy’s ass with his robot super strength.

 

-Bushi

bushi