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…
One of the benefits of maturity is growing to have a new perspective on things that I didn’t in the past. It’s not that I’ve become particularly mature – I chose a profession dedicated to manipulating really complicated imaginary friends – but life experience colors your perceptions of reality even if you do everything you can to stay detached from it. When you’re young you can have all the intelligence to understand complicated ideas but none of the time and experience necessary to see all the facets of a subject. But as you gain life experience and grow, your perspective on things grows with you and eventually you start to recognize just how big of an ass you were as a kid.
Hell, sometimes you recognize how big of a dick you were just last week.
Over the last couple of years, one of the things I’ve come to gain new perspective on is how often criticism can evolve into something different than it was originally intended. We’ve all been in that situation where we wonder if we might have been too harsh on something, but lately I’ve started to realize just how much it actually impacts us on both a personal and cultural level. In an age of social media, when it’s so easy to organize a group around any project, idea, or fandom, it’s even easier for the criticism evolve and harder for people to recognize when it has. Even if it were just between two people within the group, the act of being within the group can sometimes lead to the critic becoming emboldened by the association.
And, essentially, there’s a point where criticism starts to cross the line into… obstructionism.
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→
One of the most interesting facets of the greater writing community is just how much of it is actually subjective. Like all art-forms, your personal tastes as a writer or as part of the audience are never going to be a perfect match to anyone else and that means that there’s no real universally accepted “good” work. You can win over a great deal of people, but never all of them, and trying to please everyone is one of the few things universally accepted as a mistake. And, because of this, advice is generally subjective as well and often disagreed on. There are a few things that we can all agree on, fundamentals that we should all keep in mind, but once you get past those fundamentals it slips right back into the grey area. Even spelling and grammar, as solidly universal as you’d think it to be, is full of little debates that we tend to have with each other and sometimes even with ourselves. Hell, to find proof of this you need look no further than the Oxford Comma.
But, despite it being subjective, that doesn’t mean that the advice and the discussion has no purpose. The truth is that hearing how other people do things will inevitably lead us to finding something that works for us. Every debate, even if it’s not particularly productive in the moment, will show the different approaches available so that someone will be able to see which one best fits their style. And, while we’ll always disagree on what the best approaches are, we all know that one surefire path to shitty work is to stop learning and stop finding ways to improve. So it’s still worth sharing some insights into the way you do things, even if you know for a fact someone will think you’re completely wrong in the process.
One aspect of my approach that people who’ve followed me might recognize is that I’m very detail oriented in my world building. I like having a feel for the nuts and bolts of my world – the little quirks that make it different from our own real world. I like to ask silly questions like “what would leprechauns do with all that gold?” or “how would werewolves impact the silver market?” I’m amused by the question of how vampires could have gotten to the new world when some versions of the myth say they can’t cross moving water. They aren’t always important details, but every once in a while they can lead to an interesting train of thought that would have otherwise been overlooked. And, because of this philosophy, I’ve given two pieces of advice that I’ve debated more than any other – sometimes to dear personal friends who probably would like to strangle 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)→
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→
Though it can sometimes be a bit tricky to deal with, the driving force behind creative industries is the passion of their fans. No one could make a living off of their ideas simply by putting them out there unless there was someone willing to buy, and the biggest challenge for any creative person is to find that audience and reach them. And the more passionate that fan base gets, the better our chances are for survival as they will generally make their favorite creators part of their proverbial family in many instances, even part of one’s own identity. They put on costumes, they recommend to everyone they know, and they find ways to include your work into conversations. They are, by and large, the most powerful advertising tool a good product can have.
But sometimes, they aren’t quite enough.
Though we try to distance ourselves from the possibility, both as fans and as creators, there are times when the love of a fandom just isn’t enough to prevent an untimely end for an IP. As creators it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about because we don’t want to picture a time when we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. As fans, we can’t bear to think of the fact that there just wasn’t enough like us to keep something alive. And for television in particular, there’s even a season when we have to come to terms with this. Coming around May to June, the season for renewals and cancellations comes to pass and the same routine happens. Something that was beloved by an audience gets cancelled, other shows that seem to have gone well past their prime manage to survive, and inevitably the question is asked:
One of the things that unites speculative fiction genres is dealing with a world that’s different from our own in ways that seem impossible. With fantasy the line is easily drawn, we know that there aren’t actually wizards or dragons no matter how much we want to believe. But with science fiction there’s always this grey area where we’re not entirely sure just what is and isn’t really possible. It’s that grey area that gives the genre its unique flavor as we explore worlds that seem completely insane but still have that vague sense of truth to them. In essence, when you describe something in science fiction as not possible you can always feel that lingering sense of “yet”.
It’s because of this that I’ve always been a big fan of Clarke’s laws – particularly the third law. According to Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and futurist responsible for stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. It may sound like an easy excuse for writing impossible things and calling them scientific, but when you think about the real world you realize it’s surprisingly accurate. To this day there are people who believe everything that NASA does is an elaborate hoax because, to them, everything NASA does seems impossible. Even people who do trust in science will doubt some things are possible just because a theory sounds insane despite evidence.
And one of the most interesting aspects of this concept as a speculative fiction writer is that some of those theories may shape our future. We can’t be entirely sure which will actually happen, but we know that the world of the future will be drastically different from the world of today. In fact, in academic circles they say that we may one day hit a “technological singularity” – a point at which technology has advanced so far that society would be near unrecognizable to us. Some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that, but anyone who reads this right now is doing so through a device that would have been considered witchcraft a thousand years ago. So how is it that we can have experienced such dramatic changes and yet still feel like things can’t go further?