Tag Archives: science fiction

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.

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.

The Aliens are Coming (Or Not)

1 Apr

Some time ago I had a conversation with someone that inspired a train of thought.
He had just seen Independence Day and he seemed to think he’d had some kind of revelation. It had occurred to him that science fiction films about alien invaders always had the same basic structure i.e. Aliens arrive, aliens turn out to be nasty. Humans fight back and suffer a massive defeat, humans have a period of despondency, giving us a chance to survey all the damage caused by the nasty aliens. Then the humans come up with a cunning plan. The cunning plan is then implemented, in spite of a few set backs, and the aliens finally get their comeuppance and everyone’s happy. (Except the aliens, but they don’t really count).

I wouldn’t say that this insight ranks alongside Vladimir Propp’s work on the morphology of folktales, or Joseph Campbell’s various tomes on narrative structure.

(Unfortunately these works have given rise to the theory that there are only six, eight, ten, or maybe even a dozen basic stories and that all the films, novels, plays etc that you will ever come across fit into one or another of the categories identified in whichever version of the theory you happen to have come across. Personally I think this theory is baloney, but a fair number of people have made quite a lot of money out of aspiring authors on it and who am I to argue against commercial success?)

Having said that, I do think it’s sometimes worth thinking in terms of the different permutations that can arise from any given story premise.

So on this basis we start with the notion of aliens arriving and look at the different scenarios that can follow on from it.

1/ Aliens don’t come.
There might seem to be no potential in this, but think of the panic caused by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of War of the Worlds and you’ll see that you can actually make a story out of this. You could also go down the route of someone mounting a deliberate hoax in order to divert attention from something else. (I’m sure this happened in at least one of the Scooby Do cartoons).

2/ Aliens arrive and nobody notices.
Think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even This Island Earth. Or you could simply tell the story from the point of view of the aliens and present their perception of humanity.

3/ Aliens arrive. They’re very nice. We’re nice to them. Everyone has a good time.
It might not seem to have much potential, but it could make a charming little story for very young children.

4/ Aliens arrive. They’re nice. We’re not so nice.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Abyss, ET (Which I hate) or, to a degree, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Some critics have over stated the benevolence of the aliens in the original version of this film. Michael Rennie is very personable, but his message isn’t as benevolent as the lazier commentators have suggested. He isn’t trying to save humanity, he’s telling us that we can do as we please on our own planet, but that his people and their allies won’t tolerate it if we try to bring our nasty habits with us when we venture into space. (The remake is very pretty to watch, but I found it a bit confused and I’m not even going to try to comment on it).
5/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back, aliens get creamed.
This would make for a rather short story, but maybe you could make something of it. Who knows?

6/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back and get creamed.
Rather a depressing story but you could make it work if there was something you wanted to say about living under an oppressive government.

7/ Aliens arrive, they’re not very nice, but they seem to be nice for a while.
This was the basic premise behind the original TV series V. (I haven’t seen the remake so I don’t want to comment on it).
This was a deeply frustrating series for me because it touched on a number of interesting themes and then immediately veered off into the banality of TV narrative conventions. For example, it touched on issues about when suspicions about the alien are well founded and when they might simply be prejudice, also questions about how far you can ‘just follow orders’ and when you have to rebel. There were also hints of the moral issues that arise from trying to resist occupation, such as who are legitimate targets and who are innocent victims, and questions about collaboration and collaborators and what to do about them. There were also issues about the extent to which our own leaders will sell us out to oppression and exploitation in order to secure their own positions of power.

8/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back and initially lose, but later fight back etc and we’re back to where we started with the basic structure of Independence Day. (And also HG Well’s War of the Worlds, albeit with a bit of a twist, the Earthlings who nail the alien invaders aren’t human, they’re microbes).

This last permutation clearly isn’t the only one with real potential, nor is it even necessarily the best permutation. All you can really say is that it’s probably the best permutation for a Hollywood blockbuster. After all, it’ll give you plenty of scope for action and special effects, lots of dramatic tension and a nice ‘feel good’ climax to round things off.

You may well feel that the approach to narrative structure outlined above is a bit too mechanistic and that it will produce mechanistic and stereotyped stories. And if you do, well, all I can really say is that I agree, and it’s not an approach I would use in developing my own stories. That’s not really what it’s for. All it’s really for is looking at the different choices available from a basic story premise in the hope of finding a starting point.

Once you have a point to start from I think it’s better to let the characters drive the plot, rather than forcing the characters into a predetermined plot. If you go down that route you’re liable to wind up losing credibility as your characters to behave in inconsistent and improbable ways.

I would also add that I would not analyse films or novels that I really like along these lines. (As a matter of fact, I don’t tend to analyse the stories that I really like to any great extent. I’m always worried that if I try to analyse them too much I’ll lose the magic).

As a matter of fact I only tend to analyse the stories that don’t quite work for me. (Crap films, TV programmes and novels can be amazingly productive as a source of ideas for stories. All you have to do is work out what you don’t like about them and then look for a way to ‘fix’ them).

I don’t think I’m alone in looking at alternative permutations on existing plot lines.
For example, I think it’s fairly well known that High Plains Drifter started off with a thought about what would have happened if you take the premise of High Noon and then think about what would have happened if Will Kane had been killed.

(There’s another story in there about what would have happened if Frank Miller turns out to be a reformed character who tries to go straight, and another one if Will Kane bows to pressure and tries to avoid the confrontation. Yet another permutation, and one that appeals to me, is a story where Will Kane is tempted into forming an alliance with someone just as bad as Frank Miller in order to have a fighting chance against Miller and his gang).

In a similar vein, there was a lot of talk about Quentin Tarantino ripping off a Hong Kong film called City on Fire for his debut film Reservoir Dogs. Having seen both films I think I can see the connection, but I also think it was greatly exaggerated in the anti-Tarantino backlash.
As far as I can see, the real connection between these films is that they’re both heist films, where the robbery goes wrong and the robbers believe that one of their number is an undercover cop. This leads to a stand off where a number of characters are pointing guns at each other. In City on Fire the confrontation goes one way and, assuming Tarantino was influenced by the film at all, he simply seems to have thought about what would have happened if that confrontation had gone the other way.

Personally, I wouldn’t see this as any kind of rip off or plagiarism. To me it’s nothing more than the licence that any storyteller has to explore the different permutations that can arise from any given story premise.

(There is also a brief homage where Harvey Keitel’s character shoots at a police car with a pistol in either hand, but this image of a central character blasting away with a gun in each hand was a staple of Hong Kong action films in general. It was used to great effect by John Woo, amongst others and the fact that Tarantino’s detractors associated it with City on Fire in particular just shows that they weren’t as familiar with Hong Kong action films as they might have been trying to pretend).

Every jazz musician knows that he, or she, has an inalienable right to take any tune that appeals to him, or her, and do whatever they like with it. And as far as I’m concerned every storyteller has the same rights with regard to any story that appeals to them.

After all, there’s some evidence that this is exactly what Homer did when he, or she (we really don’t know who Homer really was) wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey.

This is why I was able to enjoy Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy, in spite of the fact that I’ve lived with the Homeric epics for long enough to see the main characters as neighbours, if not family.

So while I’d hate to see Achilles or Odysseus being cheapened or maligned, (I’ve never forgiven Virgil for his portrayal of them in the Aenead), I’m really not too precious about how people adapt or update the Homeric epics. What I care about is how well the stories are told and how well the characters are developed. And what I really care about is that the stories are still told and the characters still live.

So if you have a new take on Achilles or Odysseus then go for it. Just do it well and I’m with you.

All you have do is do it right.

Grunts in Space

18 Mar

At the moment I’m busy designing a space ship.

This is a slightly eccentric thing for me to be doing, particularly given my total lack of competence in engineering, physics or anything else remotely practical, but the good thing is that the spaceship will never really be constructed, let alone fly anywhere.

Basically the whole exercise is about building a credible background for a story.

I more or less gave up writing science fiction some years ago, having reread a science fiction story I’d written and having come to the conclusion that, while it wasn’t necessarily badly written, it was very, very old-fashioned. (What I mean by that is that it might have been reasonably acceptable about 50 years ago).

I think a large part of my problem is that I grew up watching Star Trek on TV (I’m talking about the original series, not Star Trek The Next Generation) and that’s probably shaped my thinking about science fiction to an extent that I find it difficult to escape.

That’s not to say that I think Star Trek is the last word in science fiction. I enjoyed watching it, but in some ways I found it frustrating. As a matter of fact I really wanted to take the whole thing apart and redo it in order to edit out some of the silliness. (Many of the issues that bothered me were addressed when the series was rebooted for Star Trek The Next Generation and its spin-offs, but the price they seemed to pay for making the series more sensible was that they seemed to lose a lot of the warmth. I should also mention that if I hear Commander Riker mention Honour and Duty one more time, I’m just liable to puke).

Some of the more obvious problems with the original series were Captain Kirk’s tendency to solve interplanetary disputes with a right hook, and his habit of snogging aliens at the drop of a hat. (Only female aliens however. They just about managed an inter-racial kiss in those days, but we were still some decades too early for a same-sex snog).

There was also Captain Kirk’s practice of gallivanting off on every planetary expedition that cropped up, however hazardous, generally taking his Chief Science Officer, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Engineer with him, (pretty much the entire Command Staff of his ship in fact). I don’t suppose I need to point out that if things went badly on one of these expeditions, Enterprise would be left with virtually no senior officers left to take command.

Obviously this problem arose because Gene Roddenberry wanted to make Kirk his central character, and that meant sending him off to deal with things personally, rather than delegating to a subordinate, even if it did undermine the plausibility of the series. (This issue was addressed in Star Trek The Next Generation).

Other problems with the series resulted, I suspect, from Gene Roddenberry’s worldview and the particular issues that attracted or repelled him.

Star Trek has often been hailed by the humanist movement because, in general, it had little place for religion. Perhaps Roddenberry felt (much like Karl Marx) that religion is going to wither and die as people grow more civilised, and the need for faith as a palliative declines.

He may also have felt that there would be less scope for religion as science progressed and answered many of the questions currently addressed by religion. Although he may also have felt that religion, like racism and sexism was part of the package of nasty habits we were going to have to grow out of if we were going to survive long enough to build star ships and explore space.

In any event, while I do recall one episode where Kirk had a rather cringe-making episode of faith, (it was the one where they came across an updated version of the Roman Empire complete with televised gladiatorial contests) there seemed to be a general assumption that Star Fleet doesn’t do faith.

Other themes that were notably absent from Star Trek were politics and economics. My guess is that these subjects didn’t interest Roddenberry very much so he simply left them out with some blithe assumptions about material needs no longer being a problem. (Maybe this was just another symptom of his apparently all-pervasive optimism).

As an atheist myself I might well be expected to believe that religion will fade away some day, but as a matter of fact I don’t think this is going to happen in any big hurry (if at all) and as a matter of fact I think that as long as people are recognizably human, some will have religious faith of one sort or another. (I don’t even think this would necessarily be a bad thing).

I also doubt that we will ever be free of the need to work for a living or to cope with limited resources, which means that politics and economics will probably also be with us for as long as we are recognizably human.

It’s fairly well known that Gene Roddenberry was a marine, who became a police officer, and as far as I know, a fairly liberal and decent police officer. I think this shaped his ideas of what government and other institutions should be like in his universe, hence Star Fleet is a remarkably benign organisation. (Did he really find the USMC and LAPD that benign, or was this a reaction against things he didn’t like? Maybe Star Trek was an escape for Roddenberry as well).

Call me a cynic, but I tend to the opinion that there is a certain irreducible quantum of brutality inherent in any institution and, although it can be kept to a minimum when everyone involved tries really hard, it will always be there somewhere. I really don’t think any organisation can be totally benign, least of all a government.

As a storyteller Gene Roddenberry obviously had every right to create his universe in any way he wanted and he was equally entitled to exploit or ignore whichever themes he wanted to, but I do think he cut himself off from a lot of material that could have enriched his creation.

In particular, I think that religion, politics, economics and the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the institution can provide huge scope for story lines and Roddenberry pretty much ignored all of these areas. That was his prerogative, but it’s not the way I would want to do things.

What I’ve said so far is obviously just my personal opinion, but what follows is even more a matter of my personal tastes and perspective.

One of the things I find a little irritating about Star Trek and its spin-offs is the determination on the part of the programme makers to concentrate on the best of the best of the best. As a result, it seems that everyone involved in Star Fleet was the top of his, or her, class at the Academy, and the premise seems to be that if you aren’t in Star Fleet you’re rubbish.

This tendency is accentuated by the series being set on a flagship (which would admittedly have an élite crew) which tends to leave me wondering how everyone can be the best ie who’s left for them to be better than?)

In my experience most organisations seem to be composed of a pretty mixed bag of talents and personalities, and I also think it’s more interesting when at least some of the people involved in a story are less than brilliant. (I think this is another area where Roddenberry cut himself off from potential story lines).

All of the above tends to shape the decisions that I would be inclined to make if I ever get around to writing another science fiction story. (It would almost certainly be more of a Space Western than an epoch-making TV series that ends up having a major impact on popular culture, but then again, what’s wrong with that? We can’t all be brilliant, oe even especially original. All I’m trying to do is have some fun).

In short, I have thought for some years that it would be interesting to set a science fiction story aboard a smaller, less prestigious vessel than the USS Enterprise. Preferably one that was engaged in routine, unglamorous, but necessary work patrolling out in the back of beyond where no one really cares what happens as long as the paperwork stays clean.

It might also be interesting if the ship’s captain, far from being an outstanding officer who enjoys the respect and admiration of all and sundry, is perhaps someone who is not altogether in good odour with his superiors. (This being the reason why he, or she, has been posted to the back of beyond). I think the central character still has to be good at what they do, unless you’re doing comedy, but that doesn’t necessarily make them anyone’s poster boy, or girl. Sometimes gifted people are a pain in the ass to their superiors, and sometimes good people are not recognised simply because someone in authority simply doesn’t like them.

I wouldn’t want to veer off into the well-worn cliché of the brilliant maverick. (And in any case fictional brilliant mavericks never seem to suffer too much damage to their career prospects, regardless of how insubordinate or undisciplined they might be). I was thinking more of someone who is competent and dedicated, who has perhaps talked out of turn or committed some other indiscretion and now has to be content with a career of useful service rather than spectacular success.

(You could argue that Joss Whedon might have been thinking along similar lines when he created Firefly, his ship clearly wasn’t a naval ship, it was a distinctly unglamorous vessel crewed by misfits, crooks and malcontents).

It’s fairly well documented that Gene Roddenberry was a great admirer of CS Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower novels and that character of James T. Kirk was strongly influenced by Hornblower. I can see why Roddenberry was attracted to Hornblower’s world it provided a great deal of autonomy and hence a huge scope for stories.

Personally, I tend to read more history than literature and I would tend to go a little further back for inspiration, maybe 1690 – 1725. This was a rather more lawless period where the legal status of armed vessels ranged from the regular navy, through privateers (licensed pirates) and buccaneers who might or might not carry letters of marque, to out-and-out pirates.

I was also very taken by the universe created by J. Michael Straczynsky for Babylon 5 where humans came somewhere a bit further down the pecking order than they do in Star Trek and where the central characters can’t always trust the institutions they work for.

So I suppose this is why I’m taking the trouble to work out the organisational structure of a fictional navy along with the dimensions and specifications of a space faring frigate.

I’ve pilfered Wikipedia for the vital statistics of various naval vessels and I’ve worked out that I want a ship that would correspond in status to a frigate, and have a similar sized crew. I’ve derived the physical dimensions from a nuclear submarine. (Scaled up slightly to reflect the slightly larger ship’s complement). The reason for choosing a submarine is that it provides the crew with an enclosed artificial working environment to protect them from a hostile external environment. (I may have to rethink this because there are constraints on the size of a submarine that wouldn’t necessarily apply to a space ship, but in any case at least I have a prototype that would allow enough room for the crew to survive in reasonable comfort for an extended period).

I think I would also want a contingent of marines (or some equivalent group) on board in order to carry out missions where someone has to leave the ship. (Star Trek Next Generation dealt with this issue with ad hoc ‘Away Teams’, which seldom included Captain Picard, but still often seemed to include a number of senior officers).

My feeling is that it would make more sense to send a paramedic than the chief medical officer, or a technician rather than the chief engineer. Hence you would shift the focus of  some story lines away from the senior officers over to those members of the crew who specialise in ‘away missions’. (This might complicate matters by increasing the number of major characters involved, but I think this could be kept within manageable limits and it would have the advantage of including a greater range of characters ie grunts as well as senior officers).

I don’t know if I’m actually going to write this story, (I’m in the middle of writing a first draft of yet another vampire story at the moment), but even if I do, most of this information will probably never be mentioned explicitly. Having said that, I find that I need to know a lot of background detail about what things are called, where they fit into the grand scheme of things and what they can do, (if not necessarily how they do it), if I’m going to put a story together.

‘Write what you know’, is such a cliché. It also be very depressing if you take it to mean ‘write about the boring everyday stuff that makes up most of real life’, which is what I think a lot of teachers have in mind when they trot this piece of advice out to aspiring young writers. But what you know doesn’t have to be the real life stuff you have to wade through and that most of us read in order to escape from. It can be the stuff you make up. Personally I think that made up stuff works better is it has some basis in reality, but all it really has to do is hang together in a coherent way and provide a consistent, detailed environment for your characters to operate in.

Which is probably why I’m obsessing over the details of how my frigate is going to be organised.

And anyway, it’s kind of fun to think about these things.

Once I’ve got this stuff sorted out, I’ll have to start thinking about politics, economics, diplomatic relations, sociology, not to mention the physical characteristics of various aliens.

Once I’ve got all that sorted out I can start to populate the environment with characters and after that I suppose I’d better start thinking about what they’re actually going to do.

If you think this story might be interesting to read, then I suppose I should point out that it might be a while before it’s finished.