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If Dying is Easy, What’s More Difficult Than Comedy?

23 Feb

The most difficult thing about building a galactic empire of your very own doesn’t lie in populating it, or organising it, nor is it in writing the history, predicting the future or understanding how it works. The real difficulty is in finding names for things; people and places that don’t make you cringe when you try to use them.

Obviously writers of fantasy have much the same problem and JRR Tolkien had a major advantage in as much as he was familiar to some degree with a wide variety of languages classical, modern and medieval. (Something more than 20, I think).

Doubtless this facility with languages was a major asset in creating his own languages which, in turn, allowed him to produce all manner of names for places and people which not only sounded plausible, but also had a certain coherence to them. As a matter of fact, he was very often able to produce a number of different names for any one thing. So a particular place might have a name in the Common Tongue, and another in Elvish, a third in Dwarvish and maybe another in one or other of the tongues of men.

This is an enviable ability. (Not to mention deeply exasperating for those of us who struggle with such things).

For my part I’m only really fluent in English. I can vaguely recall a bit of High School French, but not much and I know a few (a very few) words in German, mostly technical and esoteric terms. I also know a little Ancient Greek and Latin (who doesn’t) and I can be quite rude in Russian. I even know one or two words of Japanese. (None of this is desperately impressive, if you think about it, most of us know a fair number of words and phrases taken from different languages depending on the vagaries of education, interests, employment and hobbies).

Needless to say, this is not altogether sufficient to produce a series of plausible names as and when required.

Sometimes, when you can’t rely on your wide-ranging knowledge of foreign languages ancient and modern, you can fall back on typos, misreadings and other gifts of accident and error. But many of these will not only be gibberish, they will also read and sound like gibberish and therefore be pretty much useless.

Of course the problem was much less acute for a writer like Charles Dickens.

For one thing most of the places he was writing about were quite real and even where they weren’t they were, at least, in Britain. (More specifically England). There was the odd exception, but where Dickens needed a name for a place in Africa he could quite happily concoct a nonsense word like ‘Borrioboola-Gha’ because the name didn’t have to be plausible. It just had to sound exotic and comedic in a, sort-of, African kind of way, to people who would mostly know very little about Africa or African languages.

In any case Borrioboola-Gha doesn’t play a huge role in Bleak House, it’s a piece of throwaway humour used by Dickens to take a satirical swipe at what he called ‘telescopic philanthropy’. (If you want to know what he meant by that, read the book. You might find the length intimidating but it’s a pretty easy read. Once you get started you’ll fly through it, but watch out for the pathos, it’s Dickens’ biggest weakness).

But even where Dickens wanted a name for a character who was going to play a significant role in his story, he still had a great degree of latitude.

That’s because, while he often dealt with serious themes, he did so through humour which meant that, to a degree, realism was often an optional extra. That’s not to say that Dickens ever wrote pure fantasy, his work was always rooted in real life even if he chose to show it in a heightened, distorted, sometimes fabulous and often grotesque way. So he could have characters like Gradgrind, Lady Deadlock, Fezziwig and, of course, Bob Cratchit.

Typically, for Dickens a character’s name was an extension and reflection of their personality or situation. Hence Ebenezer Scrooge. The surname may well be derived from an obscure English verb ‘scrouge’, meaning ‘squeeze’ or ‘press’, but the reader doesn’t need to know that to get the point. With a name like Scrooge, you pretty well have to be a tight fisted, grasping sort of character. (At least until the end of the book).

Similarly, the relentlessly cheerful co narrator of Bleak House is called Esther Summerson. Once you know the name, you know something about the character as well.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will doubtless be aware that JK Rowling did much the same thing in naming many of her characters as did Mervyn Peake. (If you haven’t read the Gormenghast books, then maybe that’s something else to stick on your ‘to do’ list).

This is not really an option if you’re trying to write something with a bit less humour. (I was tempted to say ‘something a bit more serious’ but sometimes Dickens was quite serious, and doubtless fans of Harry Potter would make much the same claim about JK Rowling. I’m reluctant to offer a definitive opinion, however, because while I’ve seen the films, as and when they’ve been on TV, I haven’t read the books).

Of course writers of ‘serious’ science fiction ( and some may doubt there even is such a thing) do sometimes apply names that have some degree of significance to characters, places and races. The most obvious example being Gene Roddenberry using names like ‘Romulan’ or ‘Vulcan’.

These names are obviously drawn from existing human cultures. I’m not quite sure why Roddenberry chose the name ‘Vulcan’ for a race who tend to be Saturnine in appearance, although I suspect it was probably just because he thought it sounded right. (I’m sure someone will know, but I just watched the series, I’ve no claim to the esteemed title of ‘Trekker’). Having said that the significance of the name ‘Romulan’ for a race with a largely militaristic and authoritarian culture seems pretty obvious.

The term ‘Klingon’, while it’s given rise to a certain amount of scatalogical wordplay, particularly in the West of Scotland, is a little more obscure. But it kind of sounds right anyway and that’s all that really matters in the end. (Having said this, maybe the reason ‘Klingon’ seems to work so well has something to do with the fact that we’ve been hearing it for decades now. Familiarity, at least for made up names, tends to breed credibility, not contempt).

Of course this kind of thing can go horribly wrong.

Consider The Chronicles of Riddick, for example.

Here you have Riddick’s people the ‘Furyons’. Is that a reference to ‘the Furies’ from Greek mythology, perhaps? After all, Riddick does turn out to be the avenger of his race. Or maybe it’s supposed to suggest anger or violence. (Having said this Riddick seldom seems to be angry as such, although he’s frequently violent).

And then there’s the prison planet where it gets very, very hot in the daytime, ‘Crematoria’. Bit obvious, don’t you think?

Maybe a little more work was required here.

Although the truly abysmal example of this kind of thing comes from James Cameron’s Avatar.

I mean, ‘Unobtanium’?

Really?

It’s not even as though the term is used ironically.

What on earth was he thinking about?

Obviously there are plenty of people who really enjoyed Avatar (although, personally I found the plot predictable and the characters pretty unpleasant so I gave up part way through), but I think my point still stands. Giving a made up substance a name like ‘unobtanium’ is just liable to jar anyone out of their suspended disbelief.

So that brings me back to borrowings from what little I know of foreign languages, typos, misreadings and other happy(ish) accidents. Because I do need quite a few place names and nothing screws up your narrative flow quite like having to stop to make one up.

The only solution I’ve found is to take some time in advance of writing the story in order to make up a stock of names I can apply as and when I need them. Needless to say, some of them make me cringe when I try to use them, but when that happens, I can only hope that I have enough spare made up names in stock to fill the gap.

Maybe I should just write a comedy or something. Edmund Keane (or was it Donald Wolfit) said ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’. (Which may well be true, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t died yet.) But if comedy is hard, making up sensible sounding names derived from languages that don’t exist, for places and people who don’t exist, is much harder.

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Stuck in the Middle with Who?

19 Oct

A story appeared in the media some time ago about what was reported to have been a near riot between rival groups of fans when two conventions, one of Dr Who fans, the other of Star Trek fans, were booked into adjoining facilities.

On closer examination it seems that, while there may well have been some tensions between some of the attendees at the conventions, the whole thing was actually something of a non-story. (Concocted, one assumes, by some tedious media hack who wouldn’t have known an Andorian from an android or a Sontaran from a Silurian.

Having said that both Whovians and Trekkers can certainly be quite intense, and those who get their jollies from soaps and ‘reality’ TV programmes are not very likely to understand them or to sympathise. (Although some of them can be equally intense about their favourite TV programmes).

To a degree I do understand both Whovians and Trekkers, I like both shows and I have no interest in running down either in order to praise the other. So I sympathise with both, although I wouldn’t identify myself as either and I suppose that, kind of, leaves me stuck in the middle.

Which, pursuant to my persistent tendency towards heresy, leads me to make a confession.

You see, the sad and shameful fact is that I really like Babylon 5.

As I’ve already said, I have no interest in running down anyone else’s favourite show, so all I really want to do is to say a little bit about why I like Babylon 5. If that encourages someone else to take a look at it, then that’s fine. If you’re still not interested, then that’s also fine. I don’t proselytise.

I’d have to admit that my initial reaction to Babylon 5 wasn’t necessarily one of immediate, rapturous immersion. I seem to recall making some comment along the lines of ‘first episodes are always tricky’. (It was a quirk of Channel 4 scheduling that they started off with Episode 1 ‘Midnight on the Firing Line’ as opposed to the feature length pilot ‘The Gathering’ – and in a way I’m glad they did, there were some pretty serious changes made between the pilot and the first season).

With hindsight I’m not sure why I was quite so lukewarm about this first episode, because having watched it again (more than once) I now find that I like it quite a lot. I suppose it does have a lot of characters and a relatively complicated setting to introduce in it’s 50 minute running time and that takes time that can’t be used for other things. On the other hand it’s well written and well acted, with interesting characters doing interesting things for reasons that pretty much make sense. It also look pretty good, although I have read comments from viewers who were distinctly unimpressed by the special effects. (My years spent watching classic Who and Trek were not wasted, I’ve learned to be tolerant of iffy special effects if only the ideas, the story and the characters are interesting).

So maybe I was just being a bit over cautious.

But I suppose it doesn’t matter, because I decided to stick with the show and over the next few years I did a pretty good job of catching each episode as it was broadcast, in spite of Channel 4s increasingly erratic scheduling decisions. I suppose Channel 4 never really valued Babylon 5. Initially it had a discreet slot on Monday evenings just before the news at 7.00 pm. (This was quite convenient for me, because it gave me time to get home from work, make something the eat and sit in front of the TV munching away as I caught up with the latest from the last of the Babylon stations). Later on B5 was moved to the wee small hours of Sunday night, which is when my VCR came into it’s own. (Yes, this was pre DVD or iPlayer and its equivalents). And this is how I came to miss the only half episode that I didn’t manage to see during this one and only complete run of all five seasons on terrestrial TV.

Essentially there was a spot of confusion as the scheduling of one of the episodes which resulted in the loss of about twenty minutes of the programme. Irritating.

By the time the last season was being broadcast, regular viewers (and I assume I wasn’t the only one) were having to play ‘hunt the schedule’ to find the next episode.

When Crusade (the short lived spin off) was shown, I suspect only a handful of us managed to see any of it because it appeared in the early hours of the morning with exactly no fanfare or publicity at all. I suspect Channel 4 bought it as part of a job lot or something and had no interest in promoting it at all.

Since this original showing on Channel 4, there has been a brief rerun of some of season 1 in the early morning over the Christmas period one year and since then nothing at all on terrestrial TV. I believe it was shown on one of the digital channels a few years ago, but if you live in the UK and you’re interested, you’d probably better watch it on DVD or maybe you can download it.

So Babylon 5 is a bit of a minority interest. And this extends even to one of the BBC’s Sci Fi nights where a good deal of time was spent (quite rightly) on Star Trek and Dr Who and time was also devoted to Sapphire and Steel and Lost in Space, but Babylon 5 was never even mentioned. (The irony here is that they had an interview with Bill Mumy – who was a regular as a child actor in Lost in Space, but who also featured in Babylon 5). Bit odd that.

But anyway, rather than griping about all this, maybe it would make more sense to suggest why the uninitiated might care to take an interest in the series.

To start with Babylon 5 depended very heavily on CGI and this gave the series a very distinctive look. A look that I always liked, but I suppose not everyone would.

There was also a decision made at a very early stage to avoid having aliens with ‘crinkly foreheads’. (Possibly a reference to Michael Westmore’s work on Star Trek Next Generation). This is a decision that may well have been regretted later on, given the amount of work involved in creating the aliens for B5, but I think it paid off.

There were some attempts, notably in the pilot and season 1 to use CGI and animatronic aliens. These attempts were largely abandoned as the series developed because humans in prosthetics gave better performances. (This is where it’s worth giving an honourable mention to Wayne Alexander who seemed to build a whole career out of playing a variety of aliens on B5 and consistently delivering nuanced and complex performances generally from under thick layers of latex).

It’s also worth giving an honourable mention to Christopher Franke (of Tangerine Dream fame) who scored all 5 seasons after Stuart Copeland (notable for his contribution to Police and the sound track of Rumblefish) was unavailable after providing the score for the feature length pilot.

Basically what Christopher Franke provided was effectively a separate score for each episode. (He did re-use some themes etc so that amounted to an average of 25 minutes of original music per episode. A lot of this work was based on his own keyboards but he was also innovative in his use of digital technology in order to incorporate the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra as and when the budget allowed).

But that’s all just technical stuff and it doesn’t address the question of why Babylon 5 is the TV Sci Fi series that I keep going back to again and again.

Well, the reason for that I suppose, is because in my view J. Michael Sraczynski and his

collaborators created a remarkably complete and complex universe.

(Doubtless Trekkers and Whovians will make the same claim for Star Trek and Dr Who and I do recognise that this is all very nebulous and subjective). But the point remains that Babylon 5 somehow created a sense of a universe that you could live in and in which you could hop onto a space ship and fly off somewhere and see some really amazing and unexpected things.

This B5 universe is not necessarily as optimistic as the one created by Gene Roddenberry. It’s a universe where humans aren’t much more enlightened (if at all) than they are now, and it’s a universe where humans aren’t by any means dominant.

In B5, humans rank somewhere in the same ballpark with the Narn and Centauri, at least in military and economic terms. That puts them somewhere about two thirds of the way up the totem pole, which is somewhere above most of the non-aligned worlds, somewhere below the Minbari and well below the Vorlons, who start off scary and get distinctly scarier as the series progresses. (And that’s before we even start on the Shadows but we’re not getting into spoilers here).

This is in marked contrast to Star Trek where there are certainly older and more advanced civilisations, notably the Vulcans, but somehow humans tend to be dominant. (This isn’t a criticism, just a comparison).

Another of the key differences between B5 and Star Trek can be summed up in the question asked by Galen of Mathew Gideon in the spin off Crusade.

“Who do you serve and who do you trust?”

Gideon has no answer to this question (it’s partly this lack of an easy answer that persuades Galen to join him). Obviously the exchange does not come from B5 itself, but there are times when many of the key characters in Babylon 5 would be equally hard pressed to answer these questions.

By contrast, these are doubts that you seldom find in any Star Fleet officer (Ro Laren being a rare exception).

Essentially Gene Roddenberry had faith in Star Fleet as a benign institution. Fair enough, he created it and he created it to be a ‘good thing’.It seems that Gene Roddenberry had faith in institutions, or perhaps he simply wanted to and this was reflected in his writing.

Straczynski’s, on the other hand, seems to be much more ambivalent about institutions. He, and most of his characters tend to put their faith in individuals.

A further contrast is that Roddenberry very largely excluded religion, politics and economics from Star Fleet and from the Federation. (This may have been because he believed that humanity would just have to transcend all that stuff if we were going to make it in the longer

term, but I suspect that he just wasn’t very interested in those subjects and didn’t want to write about them).

Starczynski, by contrast, is much more interested in politics and economics and especially religion.

In fact, one of the key themes of B5 can be summed up in Ambassador Delenn’s dictum ‘faith manages’.

Having said that, B5 story lines condemned religious bigotry and intolerance just as consistently and vehemently as anything you’d find in Star Trek. It’s just that the overall ethic of the show accepts that some kind of faith can sometimes be a good thing and that religion will not necessarily whither and die as cultures develop an scientific progress is made.

And this is a bit of an oddity. As an atheist I don’t especially like heavy duty religious allegory mixed in with my Sci Fi. In fact I tend to find it irritating. But I have to say that the religious, not to mention mystical, aspect of B5 does add a certain depth to many of the story lines.

Another of the other key characteristics of B5 is its huge story arc. (Arguably much of this story arc was resolved by the end of season 4 and, in spite of still having much to enjoy in it, season 5 does tend to seem a bit like an add on).

This long story arc allows a degree of character development which would be difficult and probably impossible in a potentially open ended series like Star Trek. (Trekkers will doubtless have examples they can cite of character development within the series, but I stick to my thesis. The job of regular characters in a series like Star trek is very largely to be consistent, the job of many key characters in B5 is to change).

The most obvious examples of character development in B5 would be G’kar who starts as an angry, ruthless and sometimes dangerous character (albeit still capable of generosity at times) who becomes a far wiser and gentler character as he progresses. (One of the more perceptive points made in B5 is that G’kar grows in stature, he attracts more and more adulation from his people and becomes more and more frustrated by their persistent drive to force his message into a form that they’re already familiar with.

The other obvious example is Londo Mollari, who starts as a somewhat cynical and dissolute character with no real power, whose ambitions are largely drowned in booze, gambling and womanising. He makes something of a Faustian deal, which grants him everything he ever thought he wanted and costs him everything he had. Mollari’s story is made that much more poignant by the fact that, by the time he has to pay the price for his deal, he has grown enough to understand exactly what it’s going to cost him.

I could go on, but why bother?

It’s not a perfect show, some episodes were stronger then others, and there are moments (usually attempts at humour) that I’d rather fast forward over. Humour, as Emperor Cartagia would tell you, “is such a subjective thing”.

On the other hand, it was a highly intelligent and complex series that’s probably worth a bit more attention that it often seems to get.

If you’re interested, watch the show, if you’re not then do something else.

Either way, Straczynski and his team did a far better job of telling the story than I could.