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The Lived-In Universe

Couretsy LucasArts

For a long time, space travel in fiction was predominantly shiny. Long, slender, cigar-shaped rockets predominantly made of chrome blasted off towards the stars. More often than not, equally shiny flying saucers spun their way towards our suburban homes to shower our Sunday barbecues with death rays. I am exaggerating a bit, but what I’m driving at is there was an aesthetic that remained largely untapped until 1977.

Just before then, the shiny sci-fi aesthetic extended to both realistic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and episodic television such as Star Trek. Roddenberry, in particular, envisioned the future as a utopia, peaceful and squeaky-clean. Then along came a little movie called Star Wars. From the very beginning, it was something different. The Star Destroyer was enormous, imposing, and definitely not peaceful. The Tantive IV, said Star Destroyer’s prey, was battered and utilitarian. Mos Eisley was both visually and ethically dirty. And the Millenium Falcon? What a piece of junk!

The galaxy far, far away as envisioned by George Lucas is the result of literally thousands of years of history. The worlds and ships are used and lived-in. Even callbacks to earlier times, the tales set in the Old Republic, have worn edges and is painted with shades of gray morally and aesthetically. It was this, not the shiny utopian vision, that informed the immediate followers of Star Wars, such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Gene Roddenberry tried to resist this trend. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a big, bold utopian statement, to the point that Roddenberry himself said that there should be no interpersonal conflict on the gigantic new USS Enterprise. This lead to early seasons of the show often feeling pretentious and sterile. Thankfully, later seasons moved past this to have the crew behave more like real people than Federation pontificators, and Deep Space Nine pushed things even further. That show was concurrent with shows like Babylon 5 and FarScape, both of which introduced universes that were both brand new and familiar in their dynamics and feeling of history.

As fun as it is to envision a shiny, utopian future, the fact is that a more lived-in universe is more accessible to a wider audience. We picture ourselves more easily in a galaxy with some history, some mileage, and some rough edges, because it’s closer to the world we actually live in. We’ve walked down a street like the one we see in Mos Eisley. We’re familiar with being elbow-deep in our vehicle trying to get it to behave. We’ve had conversations with very stubborn, well-reasoned people, and tried to fight back against things that we feel are wrong, even if it’s an uphill battle. These are universal elements to good storytelling, no matter what the ‘verse in question might be – looking at you, Firefly.

What are some other instances of science fiction feeling lived-in and familiar, despite being set in galaxies far, far away?

Connect Your Characters

Courtesy Netflix

Good fiction, when you get down to it, is about people.

I don’t just mean the characters. It’s true that, no matter how original or fascinating your premise, you need to have three-dimensional characters. If your characters are flat or uninteresting, or exists solely as ciphers for your own expectations or those of the reader, or blank slates upon whom the reader can project, the story will fall apart. Characters with depth and personality keep your story going and, at times, can even help you write it. If you find yourself trying to write out of a corner, have your characters strike up a conversation. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. Just have them start talking to one another. Before you know it, you’re either out of the situation you were in, or you’ve started something new.

However, when I refer to good fiction being about people, I also mean the audience. A good novel thrives on the reader wanting to turn the next page – or, perhaps, not wanting to, for fear of what will happen next to the characters they’re following. To truly hook a reader in this way, there has to be a connection between them and the characters you’ve created. While you can’t necessarily make a reader give a damn about your characters, you can certainly encourage them to do so.

Compelling stories thrive on conflict, be it internal or external. I don’t just mean the gunfights and fisticuffs. What moral decisions must the characters grapple with? What complications arise due to relationships, be they familial or social? Is there a supervisor involved, and if so, is there tension or disagreement there? Are there incidents in the character’s past that embarrass them? If a character’s present form is different from one they had in the past, how do the people around them reconcile that change?

Even more questions can be asked based on the role the character is filling. If they’re a protagonist, what are their motives, and can an audience get behind them? When they make a decision that is against the law or contrary to prevailing morality, will the reader understand why and, more to the point, accept it? Can your antagonists justify their actions in a way that’s understood, or even forging a connection of their own to the audience? Doing these things will elevate your storytelling.

Ask yourself these questions. Find the ways to connect your characters to your readers. It’s a solid way to make a good story into a great one.

The Tower Hums Again

I just repaired my home PC. I had to swap out my power supply with a replacement. The whole affair cost me about $80, and took less than an hour to complete. I plan to resume my gaming as soon as I post this quick blog – the Curse of Naxxramas was just released in Hearthstone, so I have some work to do. And some writing, as well!

On the other hand, the MacBook that I promised to get repaired is going to cost me just under $500.

I would be in the same boat if my PS3 gave up the ghost. It would be less expensive than the MacBook, to be sure, but it would still be pricey by comparison. I don’t know the internal workings of a gaming console – I think they’re not unlike very slim PCs, but I don’t know for sure. My point is, there are a lot of advantages to using a PC for all sorts of things, including gaming, and this low repair price point is one of them.

Regular blogging should, I hope, resume at this point.

Kaput

ON FIRE.

ka·put
kəˈpoot,kä-/Submit
adjective, informal
broken and useless; no longer working or effective.

I used to get very, very angry when things broke on me. I still do, when I run into obstinance or ignorance. But inanimate objects? Not worth the rage. I get frustrated, sure, but I try to avoid untoward displays, and posts.

My main PC is bricked as I await a new power supply. It throws off my rhythm. I’m getting my feet back under me so I can sprint towards the oncoming finish line. I’m hopeful that I can pick up my old pace and get going in such a way that I won’t get so winded every again.

This is just one last hiccup.

I hope.

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have a soft spot in my heart for what I and others call ‘big idea’ science fiction. You see, sci-fi is not always whiz-bang laser fights and exotic, distant worlds. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of science fiction, as is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Without aliens, particle beams, faster than light starships or time travel, I think some folks would pass over something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the search for sci-fi. But trust me: this movie is science fiction, it’s ‘big idea’ science fiction, and it’s delivered blockbuster-style to a cinema near you.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Ten years after the so-called ‘simian flu’ engineered in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was unleashed on the world, humankind is all but wiped out. The apes that were granted intelligence by that same retrovirus, on the other hand, have flourished. The first to ‘awaken’, Caesar, has lead his fellow apes to a colony in which a code of conduct, a school, and an organized military have all been established. While hunting, those militaristic apes happen across a human. Tensions immediately flare, with one of the humans fascinated by the apes as the others gear up to defend themselves, and Caesar waiting to see if these humans are reasonable while his general, Koba, seethes with a desire to avenge himself upon his former captors.

So the big idea, here, is that not only humans have engineered their own end, but they have also uplifted their successors. In older movies set in the Planet of the Apes, it’s seemed that the apes are conquerors, brutally claiming territory once held by humans. However, Dawn smartly shows the apes simply moving in to occupy a role once held by humans: the top of the food chain, apex predators due to their intelligence. The natural world is clearly reclaiming itself from the ravages of mankind; we see it in the trees, the waters, and the streets of San Francisco. Mankind is already no longer the masters here; the planet belongs to the apes.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Two of a kind.

This is a world fully realized, one we can conceptualize and connect with even if it is unlike our own. Thankfully, the characters in that world are just as thought-provoking. Whereas some sci-fi lets the ideas take center stage while cardboard cutout characters act as ciphers for bigger themes, Rise gives us well-written ones that invite multiple perspectives on the world. As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is our main protagonist, realized in breathtaking work done by Andy Serkis and an expert team of motion capture artists, who expresses himself eloquently and is a pensive, dedicated, and driven leader. He commands respect, both from his apes and the audience. Koba, Caesar’s vengeful general, is also incredibly compelling, surprising in his pathos and clearly showing that Caesar’s cunning is no accident. On the human side, Jason Clarke’s Malcolm serves quite adequately as Caesar’s counterpart; he is curious and diplomatic, opting to talk before he fights. Gary Oldman as Dreyfus is far more protective of the human survivors huddled together in San Francisco’s ruins, but his cagey nature and desperation are completely understandable. It’s the mark of good storytelling when you can see things from the perspective of each player, be the results of their actions positive or negative. Everybody has a personal agenda, and while neither apes nor humans have anything to gain from fighting, the more the tensions rise, the more a fight seems inevitable.

With all of these big ideas floating around, realized through very human and well-written characters, you may think that Dawn opts away from any of the whiz-bang action stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph. But it’s smarter than that. It’s smart enough to know that in the midst of all of the philosophy and commentary on human nature, it’s still a summer blockbuster and still a fun time at the movies. When fighting breaks out, the combat is energetic and imaginative. Action scenes are cleanly shot and some of the things we see are quite inventive. When you can say that the movie you saw about the sociological battle between our better natures and our desires for survival and vengeance also features a bonobo dual-wielding machine guns while on horseback, it’s safe to say you’re on to a winner.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Not even kidding.

I walked out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes thinking about it in a way you wouldn’t think about Transformers: Age of Extinction. This movie is, as I’ve said, very smart. It never takes the audience for granted, delivering both satisfying action and thought-provoking characters and themes. It does not fall into the prequel trap of taking its outcomes for granted, either. I wasn’t sure how it was going to end. It kept me guessing and, by extension, on the edge of my seat. It has big fights and big set pieces to go with its big ideas, and it shows us just how powerful and exciting good science fiction can be when done right. It also makes its preceding entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, even better than it was by coherently continuing the story while expanding the world and deepening the ongoing themes. I am going to have to buy both of these films for repeat watching. They’re that good. You should definitely consider seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Even if you’re not on board at first with some of the over-arching ideas, I will repeat: Bonobo on horseback with a machine gun in each hand.