It is one of the oldest plots in speculative fiction: our protagonist, through some fantastic means, has come into contact with an alien race for the very first time and is faced with the knowledge that we are not alone in the universe. Either the aliens we meet are so far beyond us that we have a difficult time adapting to their very presence, we come to meet them as equals, or (more rarely) we’re the advanced species who’s happened upon more primitive life. And while the details within these three categories are usually pretty diverse, there’s usually a flow chart within each of them that will show the general direction our story is going in. After all, while the specifics will always be different, there’s only a handful of outcomes to really be had: we’ll be friends, indifferent to each other, or…
And one of the common elements within all of these possible stories is that, if we are aware that contacting aliens is a possibility, there will be some sort of “first contact protocol” or a general order about how we’re to treat other cultures. These orders are very rarely complicated and will usually be a simple set of rules that everyone’s to follow with little room for interpretation (though our protagonists will generally ignore that part).
One of the most well known and duplicated of these orders is Star Trek’s Prime Directive, General Order 1, or “non-interference directive”. The Prime Directive is simple: Star Fleet (or whatever organization exists in your universe) is not to interfere with the “natural development” of an alien civilization. This has a lot of far reaching ramifications and moral quandaries in it (all of which make for good stories), but one thing always bothered a little about it. There have always been debates on the morality of the Prime Directive, which was kind of the point of it from a writing standpoint, but usually those debates have to do with the morality of action vs inaction. But one of my problems, one that isn’t talked about quite as often, has always been about the general timing – and a TV show recently got me thinking about it again…
If you read or watch enough science fiction over time, there are certain tropes that tend to appear almost everywhere. Most of them are centered around external forces that provide a mirror to look back on ourselves. This alien world happens to be populated by a race that has an extreme philosophy that mirrors one of our own. This other creature we thought wasn’t intelligent has made us question our prejudices. These seemingly natural phenomenon are trying to communicate with us, making us question the nature of life itself. Sometimes these tropes will fall into cliche if done improperly, while they tend to say something of value if done correctly. But not all of these mirroring tropes happen to be external forces – sometimes they’re man-made.
Our own creations, or things that we do to ourselves, are often good reflections on what kind of people we are and what’s important to us. When we’re writing stories of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, or science run amok, we tend to show not only our general motivations as a species but also our fears of our own ability to screw it up. However, there are other tropes about things that we create that are much more mundane in concept but still give us just as much of an insight into what we hold important. And, lately, one of those fantastic but strangely mundane technologies has been catching my attention more often -virtual reality.
When I say virtual reality I don’t just mean VR headsets but just about any technology that happens to simulate a different world for us. From the VR gear in Ready Player One to the holodecks on Star Trek, there’s a wide variety of approaches in sci-fi that reflect our efforts in the real world. And, despite how fantastic it may sometimes appear, we’ve been making great strides in this technology in the last couple decades to the point that a lot of graphics cards and game consoles now have VR support built right in. But while our real world vision of how to use VR can be a tad stunted from time to time, generally reserved for gaming, the world of sci-fi has shown us a variety of other uses that we only briefly touch on here in the day to day.
And, it’s strange, because when I look at the potential of fully immersing in fictional worlds, I actually think traditional video games are the least likely to take the lead…
A couple holiday seasons ago, I wrote a post on this blog that felt like it was too trivial to really matter to people. It was just a thought that occurred to me after talking to a friend about how made for TV holiday movies were usually poorly written. Specifically, we’d been talking about Hallmark, as one of the leaders in the genre and probably one that had really defined the genre in several ways since they got into TV production back in the early 90s. Though they aren’t the only ones in the field, it feels like there’s a certain style to their movies that other networks and production companies have tried to recreate.
There have always been movies of this kind, and made for TV movies have always had some issues to them, but Hallmark drew my attention because it’s never felt like budget was ever the reason why Hallmark movies felt a little off. When you watch the made for TV movies made by others you can usually point out the places where budget became a concern. But for Hallmark? The reason why their movies have always been love ’em or hate ’em is because of something in their formulaand not in their budget. And, at the time, I figured it was a cute observation to make that would pass by without much notice.
I was incredibly wrong because that post is the #2 most viewed post on my site and it’s still getting hits daily.
The thing about it is that two very distinct groups read that post and comment regularly. The first group to comment regularly are those who agree with the premise that the genre’s formula relies too heavily on artificial moments to the point that the rest of the movie feels wrong. The second group, on the other hand, are actually the die-hard Hallmark fans, who seem to be about as passionate as my fellow Trekkies (who I’ve also pissed off in the past). And, I’ll admit, I was needlessly dismissive of them in the original post for the sake of a quick chuckle when I said that the people who loved it were either heavily scouted or had possibly been drinking. Because, the truth of the matter is that there was something far more fundamental that I left out of the equation at the time.
The reason why those moments, while artificial, still happen to work is because they’re almost universal – so much so that both sides of that argument can probably agree on some of the themes. Continue reading Universal Themes→
Years ago, when I first started writing this blog, I wasn’t quite sure what exactly belonged on the blog of an aspiring author. I knew that I needed to show people the inner workings of my mind and let them get to know me, but the specifics of that eluded me for a while. Before long, I came to the conclusion that a lot of writers come to for blogs like these. I eventually settled into a routine of posting one of three categories – content, opinion, and “the process”.
When I say “the process”, I don’t specifically mean what I’m doing on any given day. The actual day-to-day process of writing is often full of mundane annoyances, minor detours, inside jokes that won’t make sense until someone can see the whole product, and a shocking amount of time spent playing casual games like minesweeper or Bejeweled while trying to figure out how exactly that last scene went completely off the rails. Instead, topics related to the process are usually the broader aspects of putting words to the page that apply to equally broad strokes of the community. These sorts of topics are things like the stresses of the occupation, the general direction of the industry or specific genres, and – of course – writing tips.
I’ve always done my best to not make those tips into steadfast rules (though I may sometimes call them that). I always keep it in mind that I’m approaching things from a certain perspective and that I may miss things. A tip can be expanded on or adapted to fit situations outside my viewpoint, but a hard rule doesn’t change to fit you – it’s either followed, bent or broken. Tips also tend to make things easier while rules tend to make things harder. Every rule is another thing to add to an already existing pile of stress while tips are generally just helpful advice along the way. But, recently, I saw a much more successful and influential author put out a series of rules and realized another good reason why I shouldn’t treat my advice like rules.
As I woke up this morning, I had a goal in mind. There has been a laundry list of things to do that I’ve been trying to tackle for several weeks now, ever since I finally finished a big project I had been working on for what felt like an eternity. A lot of things had fallen to the wayside and they needed addressing, and one of them was to get back on the horse and try to start updating this blog regularly again. So, sitting at my desk, getting my thoughts together, I started to come up with an idea of something to post. There were several topics on my mind at the time, including a few I’m probably going to use later this week.
But then I heard Stan Lee died, and those topics became moot.
For long time readers of this blog you know that I don’t actually post a lot about celebrity deaths – in fact, only twice that I can remember. It’s not apathy to what’s happened, I do feel sad about the passing of many of my favorite figures, but I try to reserve it for when I have something I feel I could actually add. As I also said when Leonard Nimoy passed, I am not the man to give this eulogy and there are people far more suited to do it than I. So, while I can’t really talk about Stan Lee as a person, I can talk about what he meant to me and people like me.
As of this writing, it’s early November and the “National Novel Writing Month” has begun again – and if you’re reading this after that’s over, you know how well you did. It’s a time that many people take the opportunity to try their hands as authors – either as a hobby, as their first real attempt, or just an excuse to get back on the saddle again. And, I know from experience it’s also a time when a lot of people decide to try their hand at being a professional too – even if they don’t broadcast that publicly. Hell, I started my first novel in a November (and didn’t finish it for some time later).
It’s an exciting time for some but kind of dreadful for others and generally for similar reasons. There’s an anticipation for the end result that can be both exciting and scary for newcomers and seasoned writers alike. Because, regardless of which side of that spectrum you happen to fall on, the end result will be the time when you can finally put it in front of people and see how they like it. It’s like our own little roller coaster as we experience excitement, fear, and sometimes a little nausea all at once. But, because no one is perfect and tastes aren’t universal, you’re going to run into criticisms.
And that part is going to hurt a little.
It’s unavoidable, but part of the process, and how you deal with it is usually more important than the criticism itself. Someone who can take criticism well and adapt to it will prove to have a long career if they want it. In a field where almost everything you do is up for public debate, you need to be able to hear it out and not let what’s being said consume you. But one of the problems that I often see with creative types, sometimes even within myself, is a tendency to take one of our easy outs – a view that the criticism is something that’s beyond our ability to fix, and thus something we can’t do anything about. It makes things a lot easier if it feels like it’s out of our hands, like a weight has been lifted from our shoulders and we don’t have to worry about it anymore.
It’s funny when you think about it, but the most productive times for some forms of writing are generally the ones that look the most idle from the outside. You know that you wrote 2,000 words in a day and edited a couple chapters from your last project, but the outside world isn’t going to know the difference until you’re ready to publish. And in a stroke of irony, the people who look the most productive to the outside world, broadcasting their progress and talking about their process, are the same people who had to step away from the work to do it. It’s a balancing act, how much of your mental bandwidth are you going to dedicate to the actual tasks at hand and how much are you going to dedicate to making sure others recognize what you’re doing. But some people are masters at doing this and come across making it look effortless, weaving between productivity and self-promotion with grace and charm.
I am not one of those people.
I’ll make a confession today that I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who’s actually spoken to me: social media is exhausting. I’m an introvert and spend a lot of time in my own head, so the notion of spending time specifically trying to appear social is actually more tiring than just doing the work. It’s not that I hate people either, just that I kind of like to daydream and if I am going to talk it’s going to be a long form ramble about some silly idea I just came up with which is far too long for a 280 character limit. To put it simply: I am an opinionated blowhard and twitter can’t contain me.
But recently, after finally getting caught up on a couple projects, I discovered something amusing: apparently my recent twitter activity made some people (and “people”) think I was a bot. Continue reading I Am Not A Robot (I Think)→
Over the years, talking publicly about creative industries and the patterns I tend to see, there have been a few instances where I make predictions based on the things that I’m seeing. Obviously, that’s not unique to me, everyone tends to do it. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, and generally people just shrug and move on with their lives after it’s all said and done. But from time to time we may say something stupid that gets us stuck with the prediction we’ve made. If we’re lucky, the thing we said didn’t involve the words “I’ll bet you $1000 that I’m right.” Fortunately, in this instance, I wasn’t stupid enough to say it. Unfortunately, though no one’s actually held me to this, I did happen to say that I would admit that I was wrong in public. So here we go:
I was wrong about Disney’s live-action adaptations, and specifically, I was wrong about Dumbo and the writer behind it.
There’s a saying that has always stuck with me over the years: “everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story.” And it’s true, no one does an action thinking they are the absolute villain. They had reasons, they felt motivations, they were doing what they thought was right. Yes, they may later regret their actions, but in the moment of doing them they felt correct even if everyone in the world may think otherwise. No one commits crime because they want to be the bad guy – either they’ve convinced themselves that they are in the right or they have a mental condition that detaches them from a sense of right and wrong. Even the greatest monsters in human history were convinced of the righteousness of their own cause, no matter how abhorrent their actions seemed to the rest of the world.
So then applying that sort of thinking to your fictional characters can make your villains feel all the more real. If you make it so that you can see where the villain is coming from, it feels more natural to us by default because we can understand, on some level, why they would act that way. Do we have to agree with their actions? Not at all. But if we can understand why the villain thinks they’re right then we can at the very least feel like that villain was realistic, even if their methods and actions are far outside of the realms of reality. For instance, while none of us would have the opportunity to assemble a gauntlet of god-like power, a lot of us could understand the motivations for wanting to do so.
But one of the problems with writing villains in those grey areas is that sometimes people mistake moral objection with a plot hole. We all do it on some level, seeing mistakes made by characters – whether they be due to a lack of planning or lack of moral fiber – as a mistake by the creators and not simply a failure of the character. Sometimes, this results in people demanding answers to questions that were actually answered within the material. And our balancer of the universe, Thanos, is no exception to this. Faced with the uncomfortable ramifications of Thanos’ ruthless “solution” to a problem he saw as a threat to the universe, a lot of people online cried foul and some even said it was a failing of the movie. Then, in almost every case where someone pointed at this “failing”, they inevitably recommended a solution of their own – almost always the same solution.
Ironically, the solution those critics recommended kind of prove that Thanos’ mistake wasn’t a plot hole. Because, when you step back to actually consider it, the solution everyone recommended would actually kill more people than Thanos did… Continue reading Thanos And Objectionable Choices→
There are a few quirks of my personality that I can’t quite blame on outside influences. Though I could probably find a root cause somewhere in my past, probably when I was a toddler and can’t remember anything, there is generally no rational explanation I can think of. One of them is a tendency to hold myself to oddly strict rules that no one else will generally recognize or care about. In fact, even when I outright announce some of these rules I hold myself to, most people tend to forget them if given enough time – but I never do. And one of those is that every blog entry that I post to this site has to fit a certain variety of topics for specific days. It’s not iron clad, there’s always some wiggle room involved, but from time to time I’ll have a blog idea that I want to write or have already written and think, “man, that feels more like a Monday or Wednesday topic.”
It’s a little silly, but I’m often a silly man.
One of the topics I’ve allowed myself to post on Fridays is anything having to do with the future or sci-fi. At first it was because I momentarily considered calling it “Futuristic Fridays”, but then a few eyes were rolled and I realized it was a bridge too far. Still, it’s one of the approved topics for the day, and it’s ironic because a few things I’ve seen on twitter over the last few weeks and a few personal experiences have had me thinking about the future, specifically how much we as a species get freaked out about it. I’ve touched the topic before with talks about technophobia and the like, but all of the individual fears of future times really kind of root back to the same essential fear when it comes right down to it.