Review: The Last Jedi

This is my first review of a film instead of a book, but Star Wars merits an exception, doesn’t it?

Disclaimer: I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I don’t own a lightsaber or much in the way of memorabilia; I’ve never been to a Star Wars con; and I don’t spend any time on Star Wars-specific forums or subreddits. But I’m still a huge Star Wars fan.

I grew up on the original films, and my first roleplaying game was the second edition of the old West End Games Star Wars RPG. There’s a special place for Star Wars in my heart, and it’s probably fair to say that, as a young person, it and The Lord of the Rings had the greatest influence on my fascination with fantasy and science fiction. I’m not sure I’ve played all of the Star Wars video games ever produced, but I’m sure I’m close. When Disney “reset” the canon, I began to pick up the books as well, vowing that I’d try to keep up with the universe this time in a way I never did previously.

So, like most of us, I think I went into this film with great expectations. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but it followed too closely to the formula of A New Hope for my tastes. A few days before my trip to the theater, I heard a glowing review for the film on NPR–this only increased my anticipation.

The Last Jedi is, to date, my favorite Star Wars film. Before seeing it, I probably would have said that Rogue One was my favorite, as (predictably) I loved its grit and its willingness to take some narrative risks that the “main” films mostly shied away from.

The Last Jedi is currently my favorite Star Wars film because it does an excellent job of capturing the wonder of the original films while throwing in modern sensibilities. From the tactical gear worn by stormtroopers to the new variety of settings (like the casino-city of Canto Bight), the visuals of the film expanded on and brought the setting out of the late 70’s and early 80’s (while still sporting that retro style and incorporating the feel of McQuarrie’s art).

More important, the film moved away from pure Campbellian structure and adopted a depth and complexity that made everything feel that much more real. Both Rey and Kylo Ren have a depth to them that lacked in previous Star Wars films, and Skywalker himself added bore a combination of concealed hope, determination and burned-out jadedness that made us (me, at least) simultaneously love and hate him.

It’s quite possible that what’s going on here is that nuance is one of my very favorite things; The Last Jedi brings nuance to Star Wars in spades. One of the greatest things about the Star Wars universe is the ability to explore it–through the films, other media, roleplaying games, etc. The latest installment gives us permission to explore more than just the variety of the aliens and worlds in the setting, but a variety of moral questions and morally ambiguous characters–such as the rogue DJ.

In this, Star Wars has finally come into its adulthood. At forty years old, it’s certainly a late bloomer, but well worth the wait.

Additionally, this film follows some very interesting trends in the setting since its acquisition by Disney. The first of these is, as a friend put it, “the democratization of the Force.” We’ve seen that in the series Star Wars: Rebels, which adds several surviving Jedi other than Luke to the canon, and its certainly a driving force (pun intended, I have) in Luke during this film.

For me, this is very well taken. As much as I love Jedi as the samurai priest-knights of science-fiction bushido–Buddhism, I’ve long been of the opinion that, from the perspective of the common person in the Star Wars universe, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. From that perspective, they tend to be self-righteous, religiously fanatic, prudish and unwelcome intervenors with a tendency to bring at least as much (and possibly more) conflict than peace. Their obsession with balance in the Force makes them seemingly culpable of making peace with some injustices and the Jedi Code (to me, at least) reeks of insupportable philistinism–they are supposed to represent light and good, but are told that they should never love and should avoid attachments. Rather than embracing suffering and attempting to overcome it, they simply attempt to avoid it altogether. If the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, the Jedi Code is–again in my estimation–emblematic of the corrupting power of that meta-fear.

I realize my nerd is showing; but you knew what this was before you started reading.

As Luke says, it is time for the Jedi to die. They ought to be replaced by a new type of Jedi who eschews a rigid and unflexible Code in favor of striving for the greatest good–in favor of following the Light side of the Force with reckless abandon. But keep the lightsabers, because they’re cool. Before the film released, there was much speculation that there’d be movement toward the philosophy of the “Gray” Jedi (look it up). I think The Last Jedi has given us some indication of that.

Not to overly combine my interests in this blog, but the message of this film regarding the Force is quite apropos for the times. It is a call to move away from the uncompromising nature of fundamentalist religion and toward the truer (but more difficult) ambiguity of seeking after good and valuing Creation and relationships. It is a condemnation of the consequences of unquestioning religious fanaticism which, paradoxically, tends to ignore and reject the deeper and more important ideals on which the religion (whichever it may be) is based.

And maybe that’s what I liked so much about this film. Yes, it was a lot of fun. Yes, it was well-written (there are some arguments about this, but I stand by my statement). Yes, the characters were good. Yes, it’s Star Wars. But most important, it’s a deeper Star Wars that allows us to struggle with philosophical, moral and existential ideas rather than giving us a mythopoeic argument for a two-dimensional worldview. It’s Star Wars that is, at its core, theological.

 

Worldbuilding Example, Part V: Development of a Community

Having spent some time looking at high-level issues for the course of this sci-fi setting, I’m now going to shift gears in this post and “zoom in” to create one of the lower-tiered communities I’ve vaguely described before.

This community will be one that, because of its value systems, largely stands alone from the tiered system entirely, as those communities with extreme ideologies, experimental societies or strong adherence to values of self-sufficiency tend to do.

This community starts with a social movement that arose just as body augmentation began to become a regular part of society. While all augmentations—including cybernetics and bio-engineered prostheses—caused a deepening in the already-wide gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the pinnacle of this technologically-based fracturing occurred with high-level genetic manipulation.

Those who could afford to have themselves or their children genegineered, as the neologism went, created individuals who were smarter, more attractive, more physically capable, and less susceptible to disease and injury than “baseline” humans, perpetuating the regime of dominance they already enjoyed through social influence and wealth.

The community we’re concerned with developed as a backlash and form of social resistance to the so-called genobles. This began in traditional punk fashion: the incorporation of alternative political ideologies—anarchist, socialist and otherwise—with other value systems and a look that set them apart from “mainstream” society. The loose community of like-minded individuals challenged the “perfected human” ideal through their own forms of body modification and augmentation. Members of the community sought to outdo one another with extensive and grotesque physical forms that questioned the meaning of humanity and brought attention to their cause. They styled themselves Revoltists, both because of their revolt against mainstream values and because of their practice of adopting revolting physical forms.

As society evolved toward the tier system, so did the Revoltist movement. Anarchist ideology became dominant among members, and a system of meaning crept into the physical forms adopted by adherents. Eventually, the scientists involved with the Revoltist movement created genetic templates for different physiognomies, further standardizing the various “looks” of Revoltists. The technologies of body augmentation had become less expensive and more affordable as the decades passed, further enabling the consolidation of the movement.

During this time, the Revoltists co-opted parts of the Otherkin community (some of whom had used body augmentation to create bodies that matched the creatures they believed they really were; this nevertheless caused a schism in the Otherkin community) and decided that the use of faery mythology provided a symbolism readily-adaptable to their ideologies. Revoltists began to create themselves as elves, goblins, trolls, and all other manner of creature connected with the various faery mythologies of the world, with each different physiology representing certain sub-ideologies, arguments or schools of thought within the collective.

Following the faery paradigm, the Revoltists divided themselves into a Seelie Court and Unseelie Court, with the Seelie Court representing collectivist anarchists and the Unseelie Court representing individualist anarchists. Further subcategories—trouping faeries and solitary faeries, seasonal “courts” and other constructs borrowed from faery mythology—provided further categories for belief systems within the larger whole of Revoltist anarchy.

Eventually, the group began to refer to themselves as the Fae, dropping the Revoltist moniker altogether. As humanity established colonies on other worlds, the Fae participated by establishing their own communities, though the majority of the organization elected to make their home in a massive flotilla of ships, often referred to as the “Faery Fleet.”

The problem with genetic modification is that—without intervention—you pass to your children the traits you’ve chosen for yourself. The latest generation of the Fae have many members who are Fae in appearance only—they do not subscribe to the values and ideologies on which their community was founded, leading many of them to leave the Faery Fleet or other Faery colonies to find a place where they can feel that they belong. Some undergo the genetic modification to return to more human physiologies, but a great many take their look with them, a reminder of where they came from even if it is not a place they can remain. This new diaspora has resulted in a sort of “manufactured racism,” as members of the Fae who attempt to reincorporate into “mainstream” societies still represent the other, physically, socially and ideologically.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part IV: Warfare

To fully understand the politics of a setting, one must also understand warfare. For now, I’m not going to address space-based combat—though I’ll have to eventually. Here are some notes upon the general nature of modern warfare in this setting:

Large-scale battles are a rarity, but they do exist. Because of the privatization of military resources, warfare in the common sense of the term only occurs when there are broad-scale clashes between high-tier associations and/or powerful corporations that have not been resolved by diplomatic measures or arbitration. Most often, large-scale warfare occurs when one or more parties attempts to resist abiding by their contractual agreements and refuses to accept arbitration of differences.

Instead, asymmetric warfare is the order of the day. Mass communication networks and the prevalence of virtual reality interfaces mean that anyone with determination, time and access can learn combat skills individually—anyone can become a trained soldier or killer. Meanwhile, body augmentation allows for individuals to become capable of exceptional physical and mental feats without the dedication necessary for grueling athletic training.

Autonomous manufacturing resources allow the untraceable (or at least not-easily-traceable) production of weapons, armor and militarized devices. The tiered-system of communities makes the regulation of such items difficult at best. Even anti-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction seems almost a lost cause, with humans’ best solace the fact that the diaspora amongst the stars makes extinction of the entire human race through warfare or weaponry extremely unlikely.

This means that small, motivated groups have all the tools they need to become effective fighters on a small scale. This is true of regular citizens with above-board defensive interests, criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and communities built around militaristic principles.

Thus, skirmishes and small-scale actions between highly-trained and well equipped teams are far more common than wholesale warfare.

This style of combat lends itself to operations that would have fallen to “special operations soldiers” in the 20th and 21st centuries. The limited resources (all considered) of smaller teams of operators influence mission types, which are more often focused on strategic, infrastructure, economic or political targets over “take & hold” missions that require large groups of infantry and other personnel to maintain. Quick, surgical strikes and terrorist-style attacks are unfortunately common, as these allow even the smallest of communities to influence sociopolitics without having to secure the support of their higher-tier patrons.

Informatics and informational warfare are of course key. Ubiquitous connectivity incentivizes hacking attacks as much as more traditionally-combative ones—though it is increasingly the case that information warfare has become in inseparable part of tactical operations rather than an independent means of warfare.

As with all asymmetric warfare, identification of combatants and non-combatants is a constant issue. Despite the use of special tactics and technologies, innocent bystanders are common victims of the disputes—ideological, political, economic—between small and self-contained tactical teams composed of individuals armed-to-the-teeth.

Despite heightened awareness of the psychological maladies that stem from participation in combat and new treatment techniques, post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions remain a constant personal and social issue. Psychologists attribute this in part to empathic atrophy caused by the overuse of technological communication over interpersonal, face-to-face encounters, but also by the fact that many who learn their combative skills do so through games and simulations that allow for training in the physical methodologies of combat without preparing participants for the psychic stress of walking the edge between life and death and the taking of human lives.

Even though most military encounters are fought by small groups of people—often between four and thirty to a side—combined arms tactics and strategies remain at the forefront of the most effective warfare techniques. The use of semi-autonomous robots, such as drones, computerized artillery, and adaptive vehicles gives tactical teams opportunities to use combined-arms resources even on small scales with requiring the dedication to a large number of people to control those aspects of the fight. A single operator assigned toward informatics and hacking needs and a second set to supervise and coordinate the operation of drones and other automata is often enough to allow the rest of the team to focus on taking the fight directly to the enemy.

A Worldbuilding Example – Part II: Sci-Fi Technology

We’ve got a lot of high-level decisions to make before we get into the gritty details. Since this’ll be a sci-fi setting, deciding on the availability and prevalence of various technologies—particularly those staples of the genre—seems a good next step. What follows are the decisions I’ve made for the setting.

Consciousness Transfer/Mind Uploading: This is a popular topic lately, both in speculative science and fiction. Ray Kurzweil and his like assure us that we will soon be able to digitally transfer our minds into mechanical bodies and live forever. The ability to do this is an important facet of Altered Carbon and the Eclipse Phase RPG. I, however, don’t believe that this will ever be possible. Most important, we’ll never actually know if it works—I cannot with surety know that another person is actually conscious. Yes, this is somewhat solipsistic, but we simply don’t have an objective test to prove consciousness, just a set of tools that leads us to assume consciousness. This leads to some problems when a “transfer” of consciousness could result in a resemblance of transferred consciousness but with the actual result of killing the actual possessor of the consciousness.

The Kurzweil argument, while having a strangely spiritual component, is a materialist one. As I’ve discussed on the theological side of the blog, I don’t find materialist science to be very convincing when it comes to existential questions.

Add to this that we don’t really understand the origin or nature of consciousness (see the “hard problem” of qualia, for instance) and I have substantial doubts about the possibility of mind uploading.

Possible or not (and, in all candor, we don’t know whether it is or not and maybe advances in science will find some way to answer the question definitively), there is no denying that mind-transference makes for interesting stories. If digital immortality is included in your world, you have the potential to create some truly mythopoeic stories.

Nevertheless, I have decided that, in this setting, this technology has either been proved to be unsuccessful or that there is insufficient confidence in the effectiveness of the available technologies for anything to have been widely adopted. This preserves the dramatic power of death and the threat thereof and helps push us toward some grit in the setting.

DNI (Direct Neural Interface): Current science is making great strides in the interface between the brain and technology for multiple purposes—prosthetics, mental control of computers, even devices that—with training—can roughly predict what a person is looking at based on brainwaves.

Whatever the possibility of transferring consciousness from a meat-brain, there’s no question about the possibility of the brain interacting with computerized devices. Thus, this technology will be prevalent and in many forms—electronic “telepathy,” direct mental control of devices and machines, full-immersion virtual reality (almost indistinguishable from “real” reality), memory recording and transference (think Strange Days).

Ubiquitous Computing: We’re already starting to see more and more devices connected to the internet to gain even the slightest of advantages over offline versions. With inventions such as “smart dust” and more effective signals transmission, very few places would be out of the reach of the equivalent of the internet. Combined with “standard” augmentations, most people have the opportunity to be “online” to the extent that they wish to be and to mentally interface with most constructed objects (systems security aside, of course) in their immediate environment.

FTL Travel and Communication: I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I find the possibility of being unable to travel to the vast majority of the universe kind of depressing. While there are a few theoretical methods for beating Einstein’s speed limit (like the Alcubierre Drive), it seems that faster-than-light travel is not in our near future.

I don’t care. Faster-than-light travel is fun and I don’t want to get into the existential horror of relativistic time. I’m going to use the classic “hyperspace/slipspace” conceit—a spacecraft with the proper type of engine can shift into a physical dimension with a different geometry or rules of physics than our own that, with caveats and complications, allows for travel at much greater than speed of light.

Under the rationale for FTL travel, I could potentially see some ability to send data through the same medium for instantaneous communication. However, I want to complicate things somewhat—a delay in the receipt of an important message may have Shakespearean proportions of drama, and I’d like to capture some of that. So here’s what I’m going to say: FTL communication requires an open connection between two places in “normal” space through “hyperspace.” Data can’t simply be converted into data in hyperspace and transmitted, it must be “beamed through” a wormlike tunnel through hyperspace.

This means that ships will need to have the capability to send messages by opening up temporary connections to known communications hubs to send messages. This makes the manufacture and control of those communications hubs strategically valuable, provides for some time-delay for communications, requires spaceships to hold a position to receive reply messages and requires ships communicating through FTL to route through communications hubs. This nuance I think will give us some ready story hooks.

Human Augmentation: The types and qualities of human augmentation will be extensive. The cyberpunk genre has focused on “chrome” and mechanically-based augmentations or bio-engineered alternatives. Certainly there will be some of each, but current research seems to indicate that much human augmentation will be a hybrid of the biological and digital, with researchers working on making biological computer analogues (on a small-scale, of course) and the embedding of artificial substances in biological ones (like enhanced eye lenses or retinal structures).

I’m not sure that any sentient alien species in this setting will necessarily have much real communication and contact with humanity, so augmentation will provide for a broad array of differentiated “subspecies” of the Homo genus.

Human augmentation will also be responsible for a widened socio-economic gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Manufacturing techniques (see below) may be in the process of democratizing augmentation, but the sharp divide in wealth exacerbated by the earliest waves of limited-availability augmentations still has continuing effects.

In addition to having practical benefits, I expect human augmentation to have become an important means of self-expression—tattoos and piercings on the next level, so to speak.

Terraforming: Human colonization will have been heavily supported by the science of terraforming. Planets must have certain inherent characteristics (like being in the habitable zone of a star) to be eligible for such transformation, but the process itself (probably provided by AI) has been mostly successful.

When first set to thinking about this setting, I thought to avoid space opera “one-terrain” worlds—the jungle moon of Endor, the one-massive-desert of Tatooine that people still somehow decided was a good place to make a home, etc. However, when I decided that terraforming would be a distinct technology, I started to think about places with artificially-created and not-entirely-but-close homogenous biomes. This makes sense especially for small “luxury” worlds

Manufacturing: Nanofactories, or “nanofacs” are essentially highly-advanced 3-d printers. With the proper raw materials, a nanofac can construct anything that will fit within it and for which it has the schematics. Contemporary design (as is largely already the case) is computer-based rather than through the construction of physical prototypes.

This creates some subissues for economics and society that I’ll have to work through: How are schematics controlled? What is the current state of intellectual property law and how extensive is schematic piracy? Is the economy based almost solely on the provision of raw materials and services?

AI and Robotics: There is much fear about artificial intelligence in our modern society (and perhaps rightly so). Reference I, Robot or Terminator. However, I’m going to go a different direction from many sci-fiction settings:

The major qualm about “artificial intelligence” is that we can’t really know if the highest-level hardware/software programs are actually sentient or only very good Turing machines. Nevertheless, humans actually managed to achieve what AI they have in a responsible and precautionary manner. Only limited AI with strict programming protocols and protections from “emergent” features are allowed any autonomy or connectivity. Agent/Assistant programs and robots alike are significantly limited in their capacities—usually only able to perform a limited number of tasks with superhuman effectiveness and otherwise possessing capabilities below that of the average human.

“True AI” as humans think of it are built in self-contained units without any wireless or general connectivity to the world at large. Data is input either by hand or through portable storage devices rather than through the kinds of free data-exchanges used by most technological devices.

AI is used only for research—for the creation and analysis of large-scale simulations to improve scientific and technological understanding. Much of the work of AI research is “catching up” to an understanding of the data output by an AI to make something useful from the machine’s own conclusions.

Rather than approach things from the robot’s side, as Aasimov and others have done, I want to look more at how humans react to living in proximity to artificially created entities that probably aren’t really sentient but about which one cannot truly tell. Some recent sci-fi work has already started to explore this topic (Robot and Frank; Her).

Spaceships: Spacecraft capable of FTL travel will be too large and heavy to exit the gravity of most planets upon landing, so smaller “landers” and “lifters” are used to transport people and goods from a planet to a true starship.

I have identified a need to do some research into what current scientist think that ship-to-ship warfare between starships would look like. While I like the idea of age-of-sail-in-space type combats, I have a distinct feeling that actual starship battles would be far more like a big game of Battleship—trying to find the enemy at extreme range before he finds you.

Artificial Gravity: I have to admit being pretty torn about this one. There are really two things we’re talking about when we talk about artificial gravity. The first is essentially “anti-gravity,” the ability to provide lift significant-enough to allow hovering without the heat and energy of some sort of thruster. There are enough alternatives with actual scientific plausibility (ground effect vehicles and the like) to provide this without resorting to the scientifically implausible, and I appreciate that.

The rub comes about with “true” artificial gravity—the ability to simulate gravity in a spaceship and thus avoid the inconvenience and strangeness of weightlessness in space. While there are ways (rotating structures, for instance) to simulate gravity, current science predicts that—because gravity is a part of the shape of the cosmos and not particle-based force—artificial gravitic fields are essentially impossible.

I remain undecided whether to use artificial gravity anyway or resort to more real-world solutions.

Power Sources: I’m going to use antimatter as a source for large-scale power, fusion for smaller applications and very advanced batteries for most portable power solutions.

A Worldbuilding Example – Part I: Introduction and Influences

As I’m procrastinating from some of my other projects, I thought it might be fun to go through the worldbuilding process instead of only writing about doing so. This will be the first post in a series to do just that.

Initial disclaimer and caveats

There are many different ways to go about the process of worldbuilding, approaches and philosophies of creative work, foci and areas of interest in fleshing out a world, etc. I make no claim to be doing things the “right” or “best” way. I’m going to do this in the way that I’ve discovered works for me. I hope it helps you, even if how it helps is in causing you to do things a different way. Failing that, I hope it entertains.

A Starting Place: Purpose

We have a few high-level choices to make before we really get into it. The first is what we’re building a setting for. As I’ve mentioned many times, Avar Narn is the world I’ve been building for a long time and the main setting for much of my writing. Here, I’m going to try to do something different. To a great extent, I foresee that there will be some similar themes and ideas in both settings simply based upon the things that interest me. However, I’m going to try to keep this from being a rehash of the exact same ideas.

Those sidebar comments…aside…I’ve decided that I want to build this setting for a combination of creating a space to write in, a setting to use for roleplaying games should I so choose, and also simply for the enjoyment of the process. You might note that this hits on the main three reasons for worldbuildng I’ve discussed in other posts. The attempt to equally address these concerns I hope will make this series more helpful for others seeking to glean ideas from it.

Knowing my purpose, I’m going to now pick a loose genre. The emphasis is on “loose” here because I really like mixing genre conceits, as is already somewhat and will become more evident in my Avar Narn writings. As Avar Narn is loosely fantasy, this setting will be loosely sci-fi.

A Guide: Genre

A sci-fi setting for writing, gaming and art for its own sake. So far so good. There’re a lot of subgenres in sci-fi that are important to audiences, so I’m going to make some additional choices here to help allay what could become future obstacles.

I like my stories to be closer to the personal, the “realistic” (whatever that is) and the gritty. I’m not a scientist and, while I like theoretical physics and the like, I do not want to have to do any more math than is absolutely necessary. Consequential decisions: I will lean toward “hard” sci-fi but not slavishly so. I’ll try to avoid anything that blatantly violates the laws of the universe as we understand them, but I won’t avoid occasional handwavium if it serves the setting as a whole.

I’ve also decided that I’m going to use the shortcut here—so that the majority of my creative focus remains on Avar Narn—of using a future version of our world (and worlds beyond) rather than creating a sci-fi universe whole-cloth.

A Mission Statement: Theme

The setting needs a good core theme or set of themes to tie it together, much like an organization’s mission statement or the thesis of a scholarly work. We could just create bits of the world and see what themes float to the surface, but I find it far more efficient to decide what you want your world to do and then fill in the details to align with that.

Fortunately, I have a few themes to address with the setting:

  1. If humans have the technology to recreate themselves, what does that look like? How far will humans go and what are the reasons they’ll have for doing so.
  2. How does ideology (philosophic, religious, political, moral) drive history and individuals? What about vice versa? What makes us choose (or leave) an ideology? Do we choose our ideologies for emotional reasons, or practical ones, or something more complex? How strongly are we committed to ideology—what ideologies will we kill and die for, and why?
  3. Control—over culture, technology, relationships, even self. Do we really have it at all? If so, how do we take (or relinquish) control? What is the morality of control?
  4. The macro versus the micro—should humans prioritize large-scale constructs (governments, societies, institutions) or individuals? What do different prioritizations look like?

Four is plenty of high level themes, I think. This will give us a lot to play with but still have enough coherence for the setting to avoid the “kitchen sink” approach.

Assembling Building Blocks: Influences

And now I plan a heist. I’ve already spent a lot of time casing my targets, so it’s just a matter of infiltrating, stealing what I want, and getting back out. Here are some of the sources I’ll steal ideas from:

Novels

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) – billed as “hardboiled cyberpunk”, this fast-paced sci-fi noir story hits a lot of my sweet spots and (as far as I know) inspired the Eclipse Phase game mentioned below. As we’ll parse out later, I have some serious conflict about the idea of digital-brain transfers, but there’s much in this novel that inspires.

Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) – Both of these novels have influenced me—both as writer and a theological thinker, believe it or not—so I can’t imagine but that I’ll draw some inspiration from them, though I think my own preferences and approach vary significantly from Stephenson.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – I’m a big fan of almost all of Phillip K. Dick’s work (strange as some of it is), but this one seems to fit some of the themes and ideas I’m interested in for this setting well.

Old Man’s War (John Scalzi), Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card), Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – I love military sci-fi and, based on the themes above, there’s a significant role for military conflict to play in this setting.

World War Z (Max Brooks) – no, I don’t intend to have zombies. What I want to draw from this book is how it starts from a fictitious situation (here, zombies) and builds rational and believable sociopolitical events and histories on top. Please, for the love of God, ignore the movie.

Embedded (Dan Abnett) – I like Abnett’s writing for the Warhammer 40K universe, and this military sci-fi novel does a lot really well and has a feel and setting with a lot I’d like to use.

Non-Fiction Books

Future of the Mind, Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible (Michio Kaku) — Kaku has for some time been a popularizer of scientific ideas, particularly through his TV appearances. These books contain speculations from the well-researched to the wild and almost certainly unfounded—perfect for sci-fi.

Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems & the Economic World (Kevin Kelly) – a Wired magazine editor’s part celebration, part warning about future technologies.

Movies and TV

Alien Series – I love the industrial look of spaceships in these films, where (if I’m to think about it perhaps overmuch) the ship reminds us of the horrors of a soulless industrial society that places profits above people just as we’re faced with an alien threat.

Blade Runner and Minority Report – As I said, I’m a big fan of PKD and while the films often miss some of his more poignant inquiries, they perhaps make up for that in inspirational visuals.

Inception – as we come closer and closer to virtual reality—and virtual reality difficult to distinguish from real reality being soon to follow—this film has plenty of ideas in it that makes sense in almost any sci-fi setting (especially when combined with the sort of nasty tortures and interrogations that virtual spaces are used for in Altered Carbon).

Firefly and Serenity – while I want to steer clear of the “Western in Space” idea (despite it working so well for these stories), there’re are many ways in which FTL travel would create some Old-West-like frontiers, and stories one might not think of—like Revenant (in SPAAAACCCEEE!) could also abound. In fact, why are there so few “classic” wilderness survival stories in sci-fi? Plenty of spacefaring hard-sci-fi survival stories, but not so many in the wilderness (unless I just don’t know them).

Battlestar Galactica – I have to say that, despite greatly enjoying this series, there’s a lot from it I wouldn’t use in my own sci-fi stories. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’s something to glean from the dross, I’m sure.

Tabletop Games

Infinity – if you haven’t seen the 28mm skirmish game (and upcoming RPG) Infinity, take a look. I typically have a hard time getting into anime, but despite the anime influence on this setting, it’s fascinating and I love the art style.

Shadowrun – this game was really my introduction to the cyberpunk genre and there’re some cool ideas here. As I mentioned above, though, I don’t intend this setting to be strictly cyberpunk, despite some of the influences mentioned.

Video Games

I take a lot of my writing inspiration from visual experiences, so the art style and consequential “feel” of film and games often helps my creative juices flow. When I think of doing a sci-fi setting, I think of Mass Effect (how could one not), Dead Space and Titanfall.

Futurist Reports

To a great extent, I think calling oneself a futurist or futurologist is a way to indulge in sci-fi imagination while still retaining some scientific credibility. Regardless, there are a number of futurologists whose reports provide ready fodder for thinking about human society and technology in the near future. I’ll be drawing on futurist reports, articles, speculative timelines, etc. for inspiration.

Art

As I said above, I’m very visual in my imagination, so I spend a lot of time creating collections of inspirational art and photos, most often pulling them from DeviantArt.com. For this setting, the two artists there that immediately come to mind are Shimmering-Sword and StTheo. Careful going down the DeviantArt rabbithole—you can lose hours wandering through the works of all of the talented artists there (or sorting through the crap that gets posted alongside them).

Other

TED Talks will also play some role I’m sure, as I tend to enjoy listening to them and they do relate to technology, after all. To some extent, I may find other podcasts or programs with something to contribute.

NEXT TIME: Some high-level choices about the particulars of the setting.

Learning for Science! (Or Worldbuilding)

In one of my previous posts (“Worldbuilding – An Education”) I talked about the value of the worldbuilding hobby for expanding one’s educational goals and accomplishments. This time, I’m going to approach the same topic from the other side–how learning helps your worldbuilding. In particular, I want to share some resources that have been helpful to me in my own practice of the pursuit.

As you know, most of my worldbuilding is done for the purpose of creating settings for my speculative fiction (or, less frequently, for roleplaying games). I’d like to pause for a moment for a brief confession: learning for the purpose of gaining knowledge and tools for worldbuilding is something of a safety net for my productivity. Writing is almost always difficult (sometimes the words come easy, but making them say something worth saying in a way that holds attention is far from automatic) and often frustrating. As much as I enjoy it (and feel called to it), writing is often work.

There are many things that I like to do that are not work. Exercising (though it’s only slightly less difficult than writing–particularly running), reading, building things, watching TV, listening to music, pretending I can draw, and–especially–video games (even though Jane McGonigal would not entirely agree that video games are not work of a sort, and I agree). When writing becomes difficult, the seductive call of things that do not feel like work becomes ever more powerful, and discipline in writing is, for me at least, a difficult thing to maintain as it is. So, when I give in to temptation to mindlessly play video games, find some project around the house to help me procrastinate or otherwise avoid what I feel like I should really be doing, I play an audiobook. That way, I’m at least learning something that will be useful to me when I sit back down to write. A lot of what I have to offer in this post are things I’ve come across during that liminal state of wishing I was writing but lacking the motivation to actually be writing.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

I’ve mentioned Dan Carlin several times in various posts on the blog, but it can’t hurt to bring him up one more time. His Hardcore History series covers many topics throughout human history from the 20th century to the very early historical period. A worldbuilder must be a student of history. Fiction is, in some ways, simply created dramatic history. This is often on the personal level, but the fantasy genre also often thrusts its characters into world-shaking events of epic importance. To do that well, or to create a setting that supports any kind of fantasy story, you need to be able to have a general sense for the flow of history–that is how one event influences and shapes those that follow–and for communicating the feeling of history; that is, giving the reader a sense of what it is to be alive and in the culture and history of the setting.

Dan Carlin is an excellent historian in general I think (though he doesn’t describe himself as such). Where he really shines is in communicating the feeling of history. When you listen to one of Carlin’s series, he takes the time to ask the questions and give the descriptions that invite you to imaginatively and emotionally participate in the events discussed. So, I’d recommend him both for the substance of his histories and for his method of historiography. Carlin gives us an example of how to think about histories–real or fictitious–in ways that bring them to life.

Great Courses

I love the Great Courses series (www.thegreatcourses.com; also available through Audible.com and Amazon). This is partially just because I’d be a perpetual student if I could be. Nevertheless, the breadth and scope of courses offered by The Great Courses company allows you to target specific points in history or culture (or science or politics and many other subjects for that matter) and delve deeply into that subject–for tens of hours.

If you’re not familiar, the Great Courses are essentially recorded undergraduate classes comprised of 30-45 minute lectures prepared and given by some of the foremost professors in the higher education systems of the Western world.

Here are a few courses I’ve personally found useful (your mileage may vary, as they say):

“Buddhism” by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel

“Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” by Prof. Glenn S. Holland

“Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History” by Prof. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

“The Italian Renaissance” by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett

“The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations” by Prof. Andrew C. Fix

“The Late Middle Ages” by Prof. Philip Daileader

“The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity” by Prof. Kenneth W. Harl

“The Medieval World” by Prof. Dorsey Armstrong

“Medieval Heroines in History and Legend” by Prof. Bonnie Wheeler

“The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World” by Prof. Robert Garland

As a note: I have a master’s degree in medieval and renaissance literature and my B.A. in History also focused on that time span, and yet I always gain something new and fascinating in these courses. Knowledge is funny that way, I guess.

Curiosity Stream

Curiosity Stream is a subscription, on-demand service like Netflix except that it is only for documentaries. Feeling lazy and want to veg while watching TV? Here’s your excuse to do so and still like your making some progress on your worldbuilding.

The best part of Curiosity Stream is the source of many of its documentaries–BBC and Sky from the UK and various subtitled or dubbed documentaries from the rest of Europe. This gives you access to docs you won’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime (the selections on which I often find disappointing) and gives you a look at topics from other than an American worldview (this, also, is essential for good worldbuilding–your cultures must stand on their own, not as representations, modifications or critiques of your own culture).

Worldbuilding Books

To be honest, there are few worldbuilding books that seem worth the investment of time once I’ve gone through them. Some are just too generic and obvious to be helpful; others want you to dive so deeply into things like plate tectonics and the albedo of your planet that (unless you’re writing something where such details are important to setting or story–I’m looking at you, hard sci-fi) you’ll end up wasting hours making calculations that (if you’re like me) probably end up wrong and that you’ll forget and never use anyway. Still, you do need to be able to avoid (or, I suppose, willing to ignore) glaring mistakes in the creation of a world that will distract its visits from the willing suspension of disbelief.

One example–rivers tend to converge; they do not tend to (but on rare occasions do) split into multiple major waterways (with the occasional exception of the river delta, though that’s different, I’d say). Maps or geographic descriptions that do not follow real-world data (and that do not have some sort of in-setting explanation for the variance) will annoy those with the specialized knowledge to point out the error and may even unsettle others who have a sense that something doesn’t add up even if they can’t put their finger on it.

Most of us do not have the time to become intimately familiar and comfortable with such diverse fields as geography, geology, planetary physics, ecology and biology, etc. Having a worldbuilding book that helps manage some of these issues can be a great time-saver (and an interesting read).

I only have two recommendations in this category that I’m really comfortable making:

The Planet Construction Kit, by Mark Rosenfelder. This is a great book for negotiating some of the larger scientific issues if you need to create a whole planet or want your setting to be that detailed.

Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic. This book outlines many aspects of culture that a worldbuilder might want to define, along with some writing exercises to bring that information into narrative form. I won’t say that this book alone is going to inspire you to create a culture, but it is very good at asking the questions you ought to ask while building a culture.

Both Rosenfelder and Lisle have a number of other books on worldbuilding (and language construction, if you’re into that sort of thing) available, but the two above are the only ones I would say should definitely sit on a worldbuilder’s bookshelf (or in the memory of her Kindle or iPad or whatever).

PBS’s SpaceTime Series

This is a recent discovery for me. It’s a show viewable on YouTube (without any subscription) that tackles advanced physics questions in ways understandable to a lay audience. If you’re into hard-science settings (or at least high-plausibility in your sci-fi), there’s a wealth of information here on how to accurate depict artificial gravity (using centrifugal force at the proper radius and rotation speed to achieve 1G while minimizing the Coriolis effect), the feasibility of various sublight and FTL drives, etc.

Have you, dear readers, found some valuable fonts of knowledge and learning that have helped you in your own worldbuilding? Please share through a comment!

 

 

Review: Pawn

Pawn by Aimée Carter

Audible Narration by Lameece Issaq

We find ourselves at some time in the near future, after the fall of the United States led to the rise of the Hart family as the dictators over an America subject to economic collapse and resource shortages. As a result, all citizens take a test on the day that they turn seventeen. The results of the test determines their number—one through six, with sevens being reserved for the Hart family—which thus determine their futures. Fours occupy the middle class, with fives and sixes serving as the administrators of the government and management of production. Threes serve as skilled or semi-skilled labor in maintenance jobs and other services needed to keep the country operating. Twos live in poverty, working those jobs too dangerous or taxing to give to anyone of a higher number. The ones—well, let’s just say that no one wants to be a one. The availability of goods and services is restricted by a citizen’s number, and those who break the law or attempt to buck the system are sent “elsewhere.”

Into this situation comes “extra” (second child) seventeen-year-old Kitty Doe. She has just taken her test and had her result, a three, tattooed and scarified on the back of her neck as with all other citizens. She has orders to travel from Washington, D.C. to Denver, where she will serve in sewer maintenance for her entire life. She struggles to find a way to ignore her fate, hoping to hold out for at least a month so that her boyfriend Benji can take his test and they can figure out a way to stay together (it being expected that Benji will be a six).

By a strange twist of events, Kitty finds herself inducted into the circle of the Hart family, where she becomes a pawn in the interfamilial strife of the family’s members. As a result, she discovers that little of what government tells the citizenry to ensure their docility is true. She has a choice: fight for the people or go along with her puppetmasters to ensure her own safety—and the safety of those she loves.

Pawn is a young-adult (read: teenager) novel. As you’ve probably surmised, it bears a striking resemblance to The Hunger Games—post-apocalyptic America ruled by a dictatorship, a female protagonist with a feline-sounding name being forced to choose whether to become part of the system or struggle to end it and, of course, questions of romance and love with several potential suitors. I believe that this also coincides with much of the Divergent series, but I know too little about those works to be sure.

I would say that Pawn is slightly more adult in tone than The Hunger Games, as early in the story Kitty seeks to sell her virginity to the highest bidder at a brothel in a plan to make ends meet until she and Benji can find a more-permanent solution to her “three.”

I found Pawn to be an enjoyable read (or listen, as the case may be). Kitty and the members of the Hart family are well-developed, with complex and sometimes conflicting motivations sometimes driving them to do the unexpected. Over time, as Kitty discovers them, we learn the history and secrets of the Harts, seeing just how deep the deception, manipulation, and spite goes. The close proximity of the themes and general thrust of the plot to The Hunger Games series ultimately does not detract from the novel, as plenty of unexpected plot twists and a focus on character interactions gives Pawn a different place within the subgenre of (perhaps Feminist?) Teen Dystopian Drama that both works occupy.

The politics of the nation and the far-reaching consequences of the actions taken by Kitty and the Harts remain largely on the outskirts of the story, almost a MacGuffin to drive the more important familial politics upon which the story turns. By keeping things focused on the personal conflicts, the story manages to largely brush aside its lack of development of a believable setting.

My only other significant criticism is that Kitty’s male “love interests” (it should be mentioned that the romantic subplot of this novel provides an undercurrent rather than a central force) remain less developed than the other characters. Lennox Creed, who plays an essential role within the plot, never really gave me enough to understand him or believe his motivations. Benji proved even worse for me—Carter writes him such that he is uninteresting and of little consequence to the story except as someone who Kitty desperately wants to protect. The fact that Issaq voices him as an oafish dullard doesn’t help.

The characters of Lennox and Benji are forgivable if they are meant to serve as a critique of the writing of female characters by male authors in similar tropes of fiction (i.e., the need to save the girlfriend, who appears to be entirely helpless to take care of herself). I can’t be sure, however, that such a pointed critique was intended and that they are not simply sloppily written.

Pawn remains at least moderately interesting throughout its twists-and-turns, though I will not be spending any time on the rest of the series. For a teen audience, I think that this is a solid book that bridges the gap between the “classic” literature that most of us studied in high-school and the ultimately more interesting works of fiction we read in high school on our own time (instead of what we were supposed to be reading for class) or found in our adulthood.

Review: Under the Amoral Bridge

By Gary A. Ballard

Audible Narration by Joe Hempel

A cyberpunk backdrop of 2020’s Los Angeles sets the stage for Under the Amoral Bridge. This novella follows the exploits and misadventures of one Artemis Bridge, a former hacker-cum-fixer linking seekers with hard-to-find or not-so-legal goods and services, all the while trying to stay above any ethical quandary about his profession by never touching the goods or services directly. When a piece of information that could determine the results of the first election in Los Angeles since corporation Chronosoft purchased the right to govern the city, Bridge knows that he’s unwillingly been inserted into a game of life and death.

Bridge reminds me vaguely of Lenny Nero in the film Strange Days (one of my favorites and one of few arguably mainstream films in the cyberpunk genre). While Nero’s character gives you a man of some conviction struggling to survive an increasingly corrupt world—with a likeable personality to boot—Bridge simply is. He’s not sardonically witty enough to amuse the reader with his cynicism, too self-interested to hold our interest as an exemplum of the “man against the world” theme, and too petty for us to pay him much respect. After meeting him in the world of this novella, I find him an ultimately-forgettable example of the all-too-common lowlife hustler that appears in cyberpunk.

Had Under the Amoral Bridge been written and published in the 80’s, I would probably find it more difficult to be so hard on the story. But, the book first appeared in 2009. Coming so late to a genre so well-explored in print, film, anime, roleplaying games and video games, a modern cyberpunk book needs to bring something new to the table. I’m not saying that no one can write good cyberpunk anymore (Richard K. Morgan wrote Altered Carbon, a masterpiece of both cyberpunk and noir, in 2003), but we’re well past the point of using a plot arc known by wrote with a cardboard façade of corporate control, ubiquitous technology, topped with a healthy dose of paranoia, slapping it all together and throwing it out like it’s something special.

Looking at Amazon, the book enjoys pretty positive reviews, so I ought to defend my general lack of enthusiasm for the work. I discussed the flatness of the protagonist above, but it’s the rigid and predictable nature of the plot that really gave me fits.

Cyberpunk descends in many ways from noir: the gritty feel, the moral ambiguity, the selfish motivations of the bad guys, the protagonist who we cannot expect to succeed. This doesn’t mean that every cyberpunk story must be a mystery, although many are—again Altered Carbon comes to mind, as does Snowcrash. The best writing within a genre uses the conventions of the genre, but not rigidly, and not always expectedly.

Instead, Under the Amoral Bridge follows convention too closely, making everything feel caricatured. As I stated above, the cyberpunk background of the story feels too canned and too well-trod, coming across like an original Star Trek set piece that will topple if pushed too hard. To be fair, there are a few places where convention is toyed with: the role of the “femme fatale” (if this story really has one) is a relatively unattractive woman who only truly steps into the role when masked behind her net avatar—there’s interesting stuff about identity that could have been explored here, but the opportunity is lost. Then there’s Artemis’ bodyguard, affectionately referred to as Aristotle. He’s a large black man with a penchant for philosophizing and as much brains as brawns, both of which seem to be considerable. I can’t help but think of him being played by Ving Rhames as the story plays through my mind. Aristotle is by far my favorite character in the novella (perhaps the only one I actually liked), and his relationship with Artemis has enough nuance to break away from being a half-hearted twist on convention (as most of the other minor tweaks throughout the novella come across).

Ultimately, the story plays by the numbers, remains relatively predictable to the end, and contains plot “twists” that the characters themselves should have been able to see coming. This culminates in shameless exposition by the bad guy at the end to make sure that the reader gets what’s happened—even though it’s already painfully clear to everyone except Bridge himself.

The work leaves a bit to be desired stylistically as well. In particular, I found myself often distracted by the use of the passive voice where just a smidge of effort could have crafted a stronger sentence. That said, the craft of writing proves exceedingly difficult, and a less-skilled wordsmith can be forgiven if she tells a powerful and satisfying story. The author skilled in technique but without solid storytelling skills is not so lucky. I see a potential in Ballard to rise to the occasion, and it is quite possible that his later works prove that he has improved his technique and storytelling, but I have only read this small part of his corpus.

In full disclosure, I found that the narration of this book on Audible lacked as well, and that might have contributed to my rather harsh assessment of it. The narrator mispronounced a few words, and his accents and voices for characters failed to bring them to life, only adding to their cardboard cut-out feel.

Overall, this is not a bad book. But neither is it extraordinary in any way. With a world so full of amazing works of fiction (and more created every day) and lives so bereft of time in which to enjoy them, I have to recommend picking up something else before Under the Amoral Bridge, unless you want to continue in the Bridge Cycle (currently a four book series) in hopes that Ballard constructs something more grandiose upon this rather plain foundation.